This is another entry in my series on difficult passages in the Bible. This time I want to address a passage that mentions baptism for the dead. As before I will present the passage, professional commentary, and then at the end I will weigh in with my own thoughts.
Wow! What the heck is that? Does that mean we are supposed to baptize for people who have already died? Why would we do that? Is everyone getting this wrong and missing out?
“Having been carried forward by his argument of the consequences of Christ’s resurrection to a triumphant burst of victory, the apostle now returns to his general proposition, his object being to show here the futility of all Christian devotion in case death is the final end. Referring to a rite which was then in use in some Christian communities, either that people were baptized on behalf of, instead of, dead persons, in the foolish belief that the benefits of the Sacrament would be credited to the dead, or that some Christians chose to be baptized over the graves of the sainted dead, as a confession of their belief that the blessings of Christ’s resurrection are transmitted in Baptism, and that the baptized believers will rise to eternal life with Christ, Paul states that this custom would be without sense and reason if there is no resurrection of the body. For that was the slogan of the unbelievers: The idea of a bodily resurrection is absolutely false! Referring to his own case, Paul asks: And why do we run hazards every hour? What object would there be in his braving death from day to day if there were no hope of reward for the apostles, for the pains of their self-denial, in the state of resurrection ? Take away a Christian’s hope of a future life with Christ, and you render the misery and tribulation of this present life unbearable. Paul emphasizes this point with the greatest vehemence: Daily I am dying; on account of the many dangers besetting me I am always on the brink of death. There was not a day, not an hour of the day, in which he might not expect to be seized and led forth to his execution. And to arouse the Corinthians to a realization of the meaning he wishes to convey, he adds the solemn oath: By your glorying, brethren, which I have in Christ Jesus, our Lord. The Corinthian believers themselves were the glory of Paul which, as their apostle, he had in Christ Jesus, chap. 9, 1. 2, which he had laid up as a precious possession in the hands of his Savior.” – Kretzmann Commentaries
“In verses 1-19, the fact of Christ’s resurrection is detailed by Paul. Beginning in verse 20 and going through verse 23, Paul speaks about the order of the resurrection. Christ was the first one raised – in a glorified body – and next will be those who are His at His return. Verses 24 – 29 then mention Christ’s reign and the abolition of death. This is when this controversial verse occurs: “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?”
Just north of Corinth was a city named Eleusis. This was the location of a pagan religion where baptism in the sea was practiced to guarantee a good afterlife. This religion was mentioned by Homer in Hymn to Demeter 478-79.1 The Corinthians were known to be heavily influenced by other customs. After all, they were in a large economic area where a great many different people frequented. It is probable that the Corinthians were being influenced by the religious practices found at Eleusis where baptism for the dead was practiced.” – CARM
What does it mean?
I like how the commentaries above bring in some historic perspective on this. The overall teaching of the passage is about the truth of the Bodily Resurrection of believers that we all have to look forward to. Paul seems to use this anecdote of baptism of the dead to support his case. But it is not entirely clear from the text what he meant by that.
If you’re only looking at the above passage, and not bringing in anything else you cannot tell for certain any of the following:
- How do you baptize for the dead?
- Is it a good thing?
- Is it a bad thing?
- What is it’s purpose?
- Were Christians doing it?
The answer to each one of those questions has to be assumed if you are purely exegeting the text. The historic evidence is interesting but without it this is a dead end. Because of that I do not believe this is a clear text. And without anything else to compare it to we should very resolutely not draw any conclusions or practices from it.
You may ask, why did I write a whole post on how we should do nothing? Well the answer is that it is important in and of itself to know when you should intentionally not draw any conclusions from a Biblical text. When it is not clear and cannot be cross referenced simply leave it alone. This is a very good Biblical principle that protects us from error.