What did Paul mean when he referred to those “who are baptized for the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:29). This mystery has puzzled Christians for centuries. Scholars have suggested dozens of interpretations. But I know of only one answer that is totally in line with Christian doctrine, is totally in line with the context of the surrounding text, is totally in line with the Greek, and makes total sense. So, let’s solve baptism for the dead.
Baptism for the Dead: The Mormon Interpretation
The verse in question is 1 Corinthians 15:29:
Or else what will they do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead aren’t raised at all, why then are they baptized for the dead?1 Corinthians 15:29
As you may know, Mormons believe this verse allows for members of their church to be baptized as proxies for people who have died unbaptized. They base this upon their unscriptural notion that baptism is essential to salvation. In Mormon belief, the work of baptism itself opens the way to salvation, and this work can be performed on behalf of other people. This is, of course, a works salvation. It is a doctrine that is contrary to the Bible’s teaching, “for by grace you have been saved through faith…not of works” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). We see, then, that this Mormon heresy is completely out of line with God’s only inspired written Word, the Bible. We can dismiss the idea that 1 Corinthians 15:29 records that Christians were being baptized on behalf of unbaptized dead people.
What, then, did Paul mean when he referred to people who were baptized for the dead? Could it be that the startling impression this verse gives has flustered some interpreters into offering sometimes wild explanations while they miss Paul’s obvious intention?
Let’s use sound, biblical interpretation by examining the pivotal Greek word, looking at the context, and finding other Scriptures that can help us understand.
I agree with the scholars who say that the key word to consider in trying to understand 1 Corinthians 15:29 is the one translated as “for.” It is huper.
In what sense are we to understand huper? Huper literally means “over,” such as Paul used it in Ephesians 1:22. Similarly, it can be translated as “above,” which is how Paul meant it in Ephesians 3:20. But being baptized “over” or “above” the dead makes no sense, at least in a spatial or positional sense.
Huper can also mean “in behalf of” or “on behalf of.” We see this in such verses as 2 Corinthians 5:12, 20; 8:24; Philippians 1:29; and Philemon 1:13. But translating huper as “in behalf of” in 1 Corinthians 15:29 leads to the problems we saw in the Mormon interpretation. Because baptism shows our personal faith, we can’t be baptized in behalf of others.
I’m not going to go on to give all of the possible ways huper can be translated. You can find these by using a good concordance, biblical Greek dictionary, or Bible software. I found that to use any one of these other translations of huper in 1 Corinthians 15:29, except for the one I’ll concentrate on, requires fanciful interpretations that really make no sense.
Huper as “Because Of”
Huper can also be translated as “because of.” For example, this is clearly the way Paul intended it in 1 Corinthians 10:30: “But if I partake by grace, why am I evil spoken of because of that for which I give thanks?” (Literal Translation of the Holy Bible). So, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15:29 with huper translated as “because of.”
Or else what will they do who are baptized because of the dead? If the dead aren’t raised at all, why then are they baptized because of the dead?1 Corinthians 15:29
What this means is that people were being baptized, not to bring about an effect upon the dead, but because the dead had an effect upon them.
What effect can dead people have on living people? As we see in other Scriptures, such as Hebrews 11, the dead can have the effect of being inspiring witnesses to their faith and walk of life. Immediately after Hebrews 11, the writer says, “Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Many writings and speeches throughout history reference the inspiration the living are to take from those who have died before them. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said,
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain….The Gettysburg Address
Baptism for the Dead: Historical Context
By the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around AD 55, many believers had already died. Some were martyred for their faith. Others, although they weren’t killed, suffered persecution and intense hardship. Yet, they didn’t hide their faith under a bushel. And one of the ways they openly gave witness to their faith was to show their participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ by being baptized (see Romans 6:3-4). When they died, they died in the hope of the resurrection.
The living believers in Paul’s day were inspired by the example of the faithful dead to continue the practice of baptism. They were baptized to show their participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in hope of their resurrection to come huper—because of—the faithful dead who had gone on before them. They willingly, with the knowledge that it could lead to their persecution and even martyrdom, showed their solidarity with those who had earlier done the same and were now dead.
Yet, some of the Christians in Paul’s day were apparently becoming discouraged by so many dying without Christ having returned yet. Some may have not been true believers, but were mockers, saying, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3:4). But apparently most first-century Christians expected the Lord to return during their lifetimes. As they saw their brethren dying and Christ not yet returning, some began to lose sight of the fact that the falling asleep of the saints is not a final death. They began to grieve death as if they were unbelievers with no hope (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13). We see in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 that Paul reminded such discouraged saints that, if they believed in Jesus’ resurrection, they must also believe in the resurrection of all who have died in Christ.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 because some were doubting the resurrection. But the death of the faithful did not cause all of the living faithful to lose hope in the resurrection. These living faithful were baptized in full knowledge that they and the Christians who had already died would all rise together to meet the Lord in the clouds at His return!
Baptism for the Dead: Textual Context
Does the interpretation I’ve given for 1 Corinthians 15:29 fit the surrounding text? I believe it perfectly does.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul briefly summarizes the Gospel of Jesus’ death for our sins, His burial, and His resurrection. Paul then emphasizes that the fact of Jesus’ resurrection was witnessed by many seeing Him alive after His crucifixion.
The apostle then directly connects Jesus’ resurrection with the resurrection of all of the faithful (1 Corinthians 15:12-34). The resurrection of the dead in Christ and the resurrection of Christ are bound together: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised. If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).
To put it bluntly, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then we’re wasting our time believing in a dead man who failed. “For if the dead aren’t raised, neither has Christ been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:16-17). If there is no resurrection from the dead, Christianity completely falls apart.
Then Paul turns this miserable speculation on its head:
But now Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since death came by man, the resurrection of the dead also came by man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.1 Corinthians 15:20-22
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, and it reverses the death that entered the world through Adam. Paul then tells us of the future when, “The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26), and when God will have subjected all things to Christ, except God Himself “that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:27-28).
And with that crescendo stemming from the Resurrection, Paul writes, “Or else what will they do who are baptized because of the dead? If the dead aren’t raised at all, why then are they baptized because of the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:29). And, if there is no resurrection of the dead, “Why do we also stand in jeopardy every hour?” (1 Corinthians 15:30), and if there is no resurrection from the dead then my fighting with animals in Ephesus wasn’t worth it! We may as well live for the moment as the world does, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).
I won’t belabor the point, but Paul continues writing of the resurrection to the very end of the chapter. The context of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is clearly the inseparable connection between the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead in Christ. If the resurrection of the dead isn’t true, then the resurrection of Christ isn’t true and our entire faith is in vain. And if that’s the case, why are we following the example of those who have died? Why are we being baptized like they were, if their baptism was in vain?
But, of course, the resurrection is true. Christ did rise from the dead. The baptism of those who have now died was not in vain. Our faith is not in vain. And we can and should follow the faithful example of those who have gone before us and be baptized.
Baptism for the Dead Is Baptism because of the Dead
Instead of being a confusing mystery, “baptism because of the dead” is simply the baptism that we believers have practiced for centuries. It shows our participation in the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection and our trust in our own resurrection to come. It also shows scoffers that the accumulation of dead believers for two thousand years in no way diminishes our faith in the resurrection. In the day that our Lord returns, all of the faithful dead, as well as the believers alive at that time, will rise to meet Him and live in glory with Him forever. What Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, including verse 29, perfectly aligns with what he wrote in the passage below:
But we don’t want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you don’t grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left to the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with God’s trumpet. The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore comfort one another with these words.1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
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