What Is Baptism for the Dead?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 2:42pm
QUERY: What is your interpretation of the baptism of the dead?
MY ANSWER: This question refers to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:29, “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 does Paul mean? I begin by citing one of my best commentaries on First Corinthians (F. W. Grosheide): “Vs. 29 is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. Interpretations abound but no one has succeeded in giving an interpretation which is generally accepted.”
One thing most Christians agree on is that Paul is NOT referring to the Mormon practice of baptizing living persons in the place of unsaved dead persons, as if such vicarious baptisms can actually provide forgiveness of sins for an unsaved dead person.
I will not attempt to list all possible interpretations (this would take a book), but will simply explain what I think is the best understanding. 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.
This is my best understanding.