This article was originally published in the August 2013 issue of Hometown Journey Magazine.
What does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 15:29, where he writes about being baptized on behalf of the dead?
This is one of the most confusing and difficult-to-interpret verses in the whole Bible. One journal article from several years ago cataloged over 200 interpretations of this verse.
We do know what this verse does not mean. This does not mean that people alive today can be baptized on behalf of those who died as unbelievers so that in some way the ritual on behalf of the dead has some saving effect. The Bible makes it clear that “it is appointed for a man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Paul’s urgency for his hearers to believe during this life is based on the truth that one must place personal faith in Jesus to be saved prior to death, and after death it is too late. “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Also, this is the only passage in all of Scripture that speaks of “being baptized on behalf of the dead.” Building a whole doctrine of post-mortem vicarious baptism based upon one-half of one verse is—to put it lightly—unwise, especially when that doctrine would seem to contradict what is clearly and abundantly taught in the rest of Scripture and by the Church Fathers in the centuries immediately after the founding of the Church.
So what does Paul mean here? Well, the first and most important rule in Bible interpretation is this: context is king. What’s the context of this verse?
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is doing the work of apologetics, defending the truth of the bodily resurrection of Christ three days after the crucifixion (15:1-11) and the truth of the future bodily resurrection of all believers (15:12-58). In the early decades of the Christian Church, some denied that Jesus was physically resurrected and that believers would share in that resurrection when Christ comes again. These people held the erroneous belief that the physical material world is bad and that goodness can only be spiritual. Paul is directly challenging these people.
Paul makes his argument with a series of “if/then” statements: If the resurrection is a myth, then Christ was not raised (15:13). If Christ was not raised, then the gospel message is a vain lie (15:14-16). If Christ was not raised and the gospel is untrue, we are still in our sins and believers who have already died were still in their sins (15:18-19). And (my personal favorite) if we only have this present life in which we can hope in Christ because there is no resurrection, then we should be pitied as fools for the way we live our lives for him (15:19).
Paul’s statement about baptism for the dead occurs just a few verses later, where he again uses an “if/then” argument to make his point. The whole verse reads literally from the Greek: “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?”
Paul clearly means for this to be another argument in favor of the truth of the resurrection. Of the more than 200 different explanations that have been given for this verse, I lean toward one of the following two.
One view is that the Corinthians believers were being baptized on behalf of fellow Christians who had died before having an opportunity to be baptized. This baptism on behalf of dead believers would have been a statement of the faith of their dearly departed and would likely have been symbolic and not understood as having any salvific effect. It is important to note that Paul neither approves of or condemns this practice. In fact, he distances himself from it.
Notice that in the previous “if/then” statements, Paul uses the first person plural, including himself with the use of “we” and “our” (15:14, 15, 19). Notice in the verse right after the one we are considering (15:30), Paul returns to the use of the first person plural, using “we.” But in 15:29, he does not use first person plural. He doesn’t even use the second person plural, as if baptism on behalf of the dead is something widely practiced by his readers. No, Paul does something that stands out in the immediate context. He uses the third person plural: “they.”
So, if there was a group in the Corinthian Church who was offering baptism on behalf of the dead, it was a small group, one from which Paul intentionally distinguished the majority of his readers and himself. Paul is simply mentioning how foolish it would be for them to be baptizing on behalf of the dead if the dead aren’t going to be raised.
A second view— one I lean toward—explains the verse as a sort of theological shorthand Paul uses with his readers. This view interprets the term “dead” here to refer to the condition of the believers who are receiving baptism, and it reads the verse such that those being baptized are being baptized on behalf of their own deadness. The Greek word translated “dead” could also mean “dead body.” So Paul is not describing one person being baptized for another, but a person being baptized for his flesh, dead in sin.
I favor this explanation for several reasons. First, many of the early Church Fathers understood it this way. Chrysostom (c. 347-407) said while preaching on this verse that Paul was speaking of being baptized because of their “dead bodies.” He said, “For in fact with a view to this you are baptized, the resurrection of your dead body, believing that it no longer remains dead.”
Second, this fits nicely with Paul’s theology of baptism in his other letters. Paul teaches that humans are spiritually dead in their sins before they are made alive by God’s saving grace (Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 2:13). Paul was not the first to speak of unbelief as a state of spiritual deadness. Jesus also spoke of those who remain in their sins in this way. In John 5:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believe him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” In Romans 6:1-11, Paul explains baptism as a symbol that depicts the transformation from being dead in sin to alive in Christ. Therefore when Paul speaks of “baptism for the dead,” he could reasonably be referring to a baptism of those not physically dead, but dead in sin.
I believe Paul is essentially reminding the Corinthians of the meaning of baptism: they were dead in their sin and now they are raised to new life in Christ. If there is no resurrection, then baptism is meaningless. And if baptism is meaningless, why practice it?
That’s a good question for us to consider, as well. Do we really believe that Jesus was raised on the third day as the Lord of lords and King of kings? Do we really believe that one day our bodies will be raised and prepared for an eternal state in either heaven or hell? If so—and we should believe this since that is exactly what the Bible teaches—then we should also remember the testimony of our baptism. The old is gone; the new has come. We have died to sin and live to Christ. To live otherwise is to deny our baptism.