Baptism for the Dead

Q – Today I’ve been spending time at your Q & A section on the web. Very edifying.

Jim – Well, that’s very kind of you. Thank you for saying so. I like that section, too. It’s one of my favorites. It was always our goal to make this website as interactive as possible. And, the exchange of ideas and questions is vital to clarifying our theology and unifying our doctrine. After all, “Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” (Prov. 27:17)

Q – Recently, I had a friend ask me about this passage in 1 Cor. 15, particularly verse 29 –

“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For ‘He has put all things under His feet.’ But when He says ‘all things are put under Him,’ it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.

(29) Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? 30 And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour?” (1 Cor. 15:20-30) NKJV

His question was, “why were they baptizing DEAD people?” My answer was, “I dunno, but will do some research on it.”

So, today I’ve been studying the different translations and can’t quite figure out what is meant by baptizing the dead. Could you shed some light on this? Was this another one of the awful practices in Corinth at the time and Paul is coming in to straighten them out?

Jim – Hey, you’ve done it! You’ve asked a question that no one has asked before! Well done! Sometimes I get several versions of the same question, but this one has not come up until now, which is a bit surprising. It’s actually a passage that I wrestled with at one point. Of course, as a consequence, I have an answer. 🙂

To start, it was not the dead, per se, that were being baptized. Rather, living people were being baptized as substitutes for those who had already died. Notice Paul’s language. He talked about “they” (more on that in a minute) who are baptized for the dead. Living people took on the name, or acted as substitutes for, people who had died without being baptized.

Now, there’s some debate historically about this practice and no one’s quite sure where it began. There’s no evidence that it was ever a practice in the Christian Church outside of sects or offshoots of the true faith. But, this much we do know – there was a city north of Corinth called Eleusis. The pagans in Eleusis had a practice of baptizing their converts in the sea as a means of guaranteeing a good afterlife. And, they taught that dead loved ones were still working their way toward Heaven. So, as an aid to your beloved dead, you could be baptized in their place and thus push them along the path of eternal bliss. Now, as you can tell by Paul’s multiple admonitions to the Corinthians, they were heavily influenced by the pagan culture around them. So, there’s speculation that the Church at Corinth was attempting to adopt this practice.

In any case, it’s clear from Paul’s text that he was not promoting that practice. That’s made the more obvious from his contrast between “us” and “them” – a method he often employed to differentiate the Church from the world. The larger context of this passage is that bodily resurrection is a certainty, since Christ had arisen. And, Paul was listing his proofs and evidences of the veracity of that event. Consequently – the resurrection of Christ being true – we who belong to Him will share in that resurrection event. Then, as extra evidence that the resurrection of the dead is a sure thing, Paul asked an intriguing question. Knowing that even the local heathen had the habit of baptizing on behalf of the dead, he asked what the point of such activity was if there is no life after death.

He asked, “What will they do who are baptized for the dead if the dead don’t rise?” In other words, even the heathen believe that there must be a resurrection or that practice is empty and silly. He followed with, “If there is no resurrection why do they baptize for the dead?” Good question. And, he closed with the stinger, “If there’s no resurrection, why do we apostles who preach this stand in constant jeopardy?” In other words, why would we risk life and limb for this teaching if we had not seen Christ with our own eyes and were not material witnesses to the reality of His bodily restoration to life?

So, Paul did not advocate the practice of baptizing on behalf of the dead. But, being a cunning debater, he even used the practices of the surrounding heathen to prove his point. He was showing that the basis of his preaching was not so foreign or bizarre. Even the heathens had to have some intrinsic basis in believing in the resurrection or their baptistic practices were moot.

That Paul – he’s a clever guy.

Anyway, in modern religion, the Mormons do teach, based on 1 Cor. 15, that baptism for the dead is a valid practice. Believing that baptism is essential to entering into covenant with Christ, and that salvation is only possible through Christ, they worry over the millions of people who died prior to the time when the knowledge of Christ became widespread. So, assuming some unfairness in that historical dilemma, they take on the names of dead people and are baptized in their place.

But, as the text shows, Paul never taught that doctrine. You find it in none of his other letters and you never see him discuss it beyond this passing reference. And, of course, the original audience in Corinth would have understood Paul’s point. But, as hundreds of years have passed and Paul’s words are taken from their natural and historic context, his teaching gets twisted around as though he advocated baptizing for the dead.

And, that’s pretty much that. Hope it helps.