by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 3:01pm


QUERY: First Corinthians 15:29 says, “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?” What is Paul saying here? It does not seem to fit with everything else the Bible teaches about personal salvation.

ANSWER: What does not seem to “fit” here is the supposed implication that an individual’s personal choices during this lifetime are not necessarily the measure of whether or not that person will be eternally saved or lost. The passage is seen as suggesting that a person can die in a lost state, yet can be ultimately saved anyway IF someone who is still living submits to baptism on his or her behalf. This would be a kind of “baptism by proxy,” and it is a vital part of the Mormon religion.

There are some immediate problems with this concept. For one thing, it conflicts with the teaching of Hebrews 9:27, which seems to rule out any idea of post-mortem salvation. This passage says that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” This does not leave any room for a change of salvation status based on something that happens after death.

Another problem is that this idea gives baptism a power that goes way beyond Biblical teaching. The NT does teach that Christian baptism is a salvation event, in the sense that God performs the works of salvation at that moment (justification and regeneration—the double cure). But baptism itself has no power to produce these saving results. More significantly, not even God bestows salvation in the baptismal event unless the person being baptized has true faith and repentance, and has confessed Jesus as Savior and Lord. But Paul says nothing here about someone “believing” for the dead, and “repenting” for the dead, and “confessing” for the dead—without which baptism for the dead would be useless. Some think this problem is solved by assuming that the dead have the gospel preached to them and thus have the opportunity to believe, repent, and confess. This is based, however, on a false view of 1 Peter 3:19. Hebrews 9:27 still applies.

The biggest problem with this approach is the assumption that whatever practice Paul is referring to in this verse, he is somehow ENDORSING it. That is simply not the case. The main point of this whole section of the letter is to establish the importance of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus as well as the reality of our own personal resurrection from the dead at the second coming (see esp. vv. 12-19). In vv. 29ff. Paul is saying that some of our own choices and activities show that in fact we DO believe in the resurrection. In vv. 30-32 he says that his own faith in the resurrection is obviously exhibited by his willingness to submit to persecution from the enemies of Christ. Why would he do this if there is no resurrection? Also, it seems to be a fact that some people were being baptized for the dead (v. 29). But if there is no resurrection from the dead, why would people do such a thing? Such a baptism would be futile. This is an “ad hominem” argument. Paul is not himself endorsing such motivation, nor is he saying that such a baptism is valid. He is simply pointing out the inconsistency of being thus baptized and at the same time denying the resurrection.

The point is that we do not HAVE to know exactly what the “baptism for the dead” was all about, since it is NOT being taught as something we in fact ought to do. Still, it may be the case that such baptism was indeed being practiced (despite its invalidity as a proxy event), and many have speculated as to what it involved. If one is so inclined to join in this speculation, the first thing to decide is the meaning of the preposition “hyper,” translated “for” in the phrase “FOR the dead.” It is usually taken as meaning “on behalf of” or “in the place of.” This is a valid and common meaning when the word is followed by a genitive case noun or substantive, as it is here; and most interpretations follow this understanding.

For example, one reader submits the following pagan practice as a possible source for this practice among the Corinthian Christians: “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. The Corinthians were known to be heavily influenced by other customs. After all, they were in a large economic area frequented by a great many different people. It is probable that the Corinthians were being influenced by the religious practices found at Eleusis where baptism for the dead was practiced.” To say that this is “probable” is quite a stretch, but we can agree that it is possible. Still, it is quite speculative.

In my judgment, what the Corinthians were actually doing is better reflected by another connotation of the word “hyper.” This preposition can also mean “about, concerning” (says my Arndt & Gingrich lexicon). That makes the most sense to me here: some of the Corinthians are being baptized “concerning, with reference to, or in relation to” believing loved ones who had died. I.e., some individuals were themselves being baptized and becoming Christians, in part at least from the motivation of the promise of being reunited with loved ones who had become Christians and had since died. As Murray J. Harris sums up this view, “converts to Christianity were having themselves baptized in order to be united with their departed relatives and friends at the resurrection” (“Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” in volume 3 of “The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology,” Zondervan 1978, p. 1208).

Paul is not necessarily endorsing such a motivation for becoming a Christian. He actually makes no comment on it one way or the other. His point is simply this: if there is no resurrection from the dead, such a baptism is futile.

[This is actually my second time to answer this question. Here is part of my first answer, published sometime around October 2009: “Paul’s main point is to show why it is so important to believe in the resurrection of the dead, i.e., in the resurrection of the body at the second coming. Believing in the resurrection is a vital part of our faith, he says. Otherwise, why would someone possibly be baptized (i.e., become a Christian) in the hope of someday seeing again Christian loved ones who have already died (“the dead”)? I.e., to be baptized “for the dead” means to become a Christian in the hope of someday being reunited with dead loved ones who themselves were Christians.

“I am not completely satisfied with this interpretation. E.g., this translates the word “hyper” (“for”) in the sense of “in reference to” or “with regard to” or “in relation to,” which is a bit awkward. Also, it suggests that some are baptized for a questionable motive—to see loved ones again. But the presence of this personal (somewhat selfish) motive—the desire to see loved ones again—does not mean this is the ONLY motive for being baptized. Even so, it is difficult to exclude personal motives altogether; surely all of us were baptized at least in part for the purpose of being saved. If this is appropriate, then surely the motive of wanting to be reunited with deceased Christian loved ones cannot be objectionable as such.]

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