What Is "The Baptism For The Dead" (1Cor 15:29)?
“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1Cor 15:29)
It is probably not possible to list all of the different interpretations that have been suggested concerning this controversial verse. One notable view holds that there was a custom at that time to undergo water baptism on behalf of a dead person to confer a spiritual benefit on such person. Whether such custom existed as a historical matter no one can now state with certainty as the Bible nowhere else addresses such a custom. We can, however, with confidence reject such a practice as contrary to scripture's teaching that a person's eternal destiny cannot be changed after death.
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:” (Heb 9:27)
Defenders of this interpretation respond by noting that Paul does not explicitly approve of the practice of water baptism for the dead but simply observes that it was in fact occurring. However, Paul does not condemn the practice, and thus, if this interpretation were correct, Paul would be using as an illustration a practice that is not simply unscriptural but devilish in suggesting the possibility of salvation after death. We think this interpretation presents more problems than solutions.
We have mentioned this interpretation not because of its merit but to illustrate the fact that if one does not limit oneself to the scriptures in arriving at an interpretation, there are no limits to what one can conclude. The remainder of this article will be devoted to two possible interpretations of the scripture that we believe can be supported without the need to appeal to historical custom or other extra biblical matters.
In considering the possible meaning of baptism for the dead, it is instructive to note the only two other passages in the Bible that address both baptism and death.
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. (Col 2:11-12)
These passages clearly indicate that the believer today is baptized into Christ's death and therefore participates with him in his resurrection. This is the same concept expressed in 2Timothy 2:
“It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him:” (2Tim 2:11)
When 1Corinthians 15 refers to the dead, it is consistently a reference to Jesus Christ.
“Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” (1Cor 15:12-13, 15-16, 20-21)
Thus, when 1Corinthians 15:29 references baptism for the dead, it is reasonable to view it as a baptism into Christ's death. With this understanding, 1Corinthians 15:29 makes the point that if Christ did not rise from the dead there is no purpose in being baptized into his death through faith. This idea lines up closely with what was stated earlier in the chapter:
“And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” (1Cor 15:14, 17)
If Jesus Christ did not in fact rise from the dead, then the believer's faith and consequent baptism into his death does not accomplish anything.
An alternative interpretation can be seen from a close study of the verse immediately following 1Corinthians 15:29.
“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? And why stand we in jeopardy every hour?” (1Cor 15:29-30)
It is instructive to note that elsewhere in Paul's writings where he asks successive "why" questions, the questions concern the same subject and are rephrasings addressed to the same issue.
“But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?” (Rom 14:10, 1Cor 6:7, 10:29-30)
Thus, Paul's practice in using dual "why" questions, as well as the close context of verses 29 and 30 of 1Corinthians 15 suggests that baptism for the dead is analogous to standing in jeopardy every hour. One of the uses of the word "baptism" in the Bible is to describe a trial of suffering.
“But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!” (Luke 12:50)
Christ subsequently makes the same point toward the end of his earthly ministry.
“But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.” (Matt 20:22-23; see also Mark 10:38-39)
Paul's point in 1Corinthians 15:29 is thus clear. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then there is no reason for Paul and other believers to continue to suffer the persecution and tribulations that they have suffered on his behalf. This idea is consistent with what Paul says in the immediately following verses:
“I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.” (1Cor 15:31-32)
This view that the verse refers to actions on behalf of the deceased Lord is consistent with scripture's use of the phrase "for the dead" to mean the taking of action on behalf of a dead person (Lev 19:28, 21:1, Deut 14:1, 26:14, 2Sam 14:2, Jer 16:7, 22:10, Eze 24:17).
The reader can judge for himself which of these two interpretations is preferable or can reject both and arrive at another interpretation. What we hope this study has demonstrated is that the believer need not look for extra scriptural customs and authority to interpret 1Corinthians 15:29 since the word of God is self-sufficient and provides all that is necessary for understanding.
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