BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD
AN EXPLANATION OF 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? (1 Corinthians 15:29).
The context of this passage is one in which Paul is arguing on behalf of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. The Greeks as a rule did not hold to a bodily resurrection. It was a new concept to them. Their religion taught that the afterlife consisted of a disembodied existence. Throughout this chapter, Paul gives one argument after another showing that Christians legitimately believe in a resurrection.
Now his argument takes a new turn. This new turn is introduced in verse 29, but that is not a stand-alone verse. It must be read in its context.
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?
We notice immediately that this verse appears in a context of suffering. There is are the following elements described:
This is the language of persecution and martyrdom.
Here is the question. If there is no bodily resurrection, then why should I risk my life by holding onto my Christian faith? In Paulís day, it was not healthy to be a Christian. Paul himself had suffered many things for the cause of Christ. He had been beaten with rods, stoned, lashed and thrown into prison. He had come through hunger, thirst, exposure and sickness.
Now comes the question. Why is Paul doing this if there is no bodily resurrection when the only reason he is being persecuted is because he said that a certain dead Galilean got up and walked?
It is in this context that Paul asks, "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?" The Mormons take this verse to indicate that it is possible for a person to be baptized on behalf of someone who has already died and thereby gain salvation for that person. They point to the phrase for the dead and point out that the Greek preposition can be translated, "in place of the dead." They are correct linguistically, but miss the point that the passage is written in a context of persecution and martyrdom.
Here is the question that Paul asks. Why do believers who are under persecution continue to hold to their faith in a resurrection that results in their being persecuted if there is no resurrection? And why do new converts rise up to be baptized in place of those who are being put to death if there is no resurrection of the dead? Why are new believers being baptized and filling up the ranks of the church in place of those who have died if there is no resurrection when it results in being in danger every hour and in daily danger of death ("I die daily")?
If Paul were to be thrown to the lions in the great stadium in Ephesus because of his stand for Christ, that would be of great benefit. But that is only true if there is a resurrection from the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then it is silly for Paul to risk his life.
If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we have followed a lie. If this is the case, then we are not doing Godís will, but only the will of another group of men. If I am martyred only on the basis of some misguided men, what does it profit me?
The good news is that Christ HAS risen from the dead. And that is why people continue to believe in Him, filling up the ranks of those who have gone before us. And that is why YOU have been baptized in place of the dead.
Thus, the picture of being baptized in place of the dead is a picture of new converts coming to Christ and being baptized to replace those who have died in Christ. There is a sense that when you were baptized and brought into the body of Christ, you were baptized to take the place of those who had come before.