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Baptism for the Dead?

As we taught through 1 Corinthians 15:20-34 recently, there were some verses that I did not cover, and one of those was verse twenty-nine. The verse is about baptism for the dead. Since that time, several people have wondered why I didn’t explain the verse and others have asked what Paul was referring to in the verse. These are good questions, which I hope to answer in this blog post.

The verse in focus reads: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”

This verse, one of the most difficult in all of scripture to interpret, is a part of Paul’s application for verses 20-28, in his teaching about the resurrection from the dead. It was given to the Corinthian church as a logical argument for the validity of the resurrection - a proof, if you will, in support of Paul’s argument that the dead do rise. I chose not to explain the verse in the message because there was no practical application in it for us in our present time, and because to explain the verse well would have taken time away from more practical considerations.

That said, the question many have is, what was the practice Paul was referring to? Through the course of the churches history, there have been many and various explanations given regarding the practice of baptism for the dead. One commentator, Anthony Thiselton, makes this point when he observes that there were “. . . about thirty explanations for ‘baptized for the dead’ ” and that “a vast literature stretches from the second century to the present day” (Thiselton, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 1240).  Time and space doesn’t allow for a survey of these various explanations. There are four views, however, that are worthy of our time and are possible explanations for the practice Paul referenced.  

Some have understood these verses to speak of ‘vicarious baptism’ - the baptism of a living person on behalf of someone who had already died. Among those in pagan cults in Paul’s day, there is some evidence that people “underwent rites in the place of others” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 717). The Mormon Church uses this verse as a proof text for the practice of vicarious baptism and practices vicarious baptism for those who have already died. It is unlikely that that was a practice Paul had in mind, however. There is no evidence from the period when Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that anyone was being baptized for the dead (Garland, 717).

A second view sees the term ‘dead’ as referring to the condition of believers who receive baptism. According to this understanding, those being baptized are the subject of the baptism. David Garland points out four reasons why this particular view is most likely. First, it was the unanimous view of the Greek Church Fathers. Second, it would explain Paul’s use of third person pronouns, in that he was speaking of those who were being baptized. Third, it is consistent with Paul’s theology, where he sees baptism as a symbol of the believers death and resurrection in Christ (Rom. 6:3-14; Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). In this scenario the term ‘dead’ would either refer to the persons pre-baptismal state or to their soon to be dead body. Fourth, it fits the context better than the other views.  

A third view sees the Greek preposition huper as meaning “with a view toward” or “for the sake of”. The translators of the English Standard Version interpreted huper in this way, while the NASB, NIV and CSB translators did not. If this is the meaning, what Paul perhaps had in view was a situation where a dying wife/mother who was a Christian requested of her husband or children that they become Christians so she will be reunited with them in heaven someday. Thus, the husband or child, having become a Christian, is baptized ‘for the sake of’ the wife or mother.

A fourth understanding of verse 29 was articulated by David Frederick in his study guide for this passage. If indeed Christ was not raised, Paul would be arguing, Christ would still be dead; and if that was the case, those baptized would have been baptized in the name of a dead man (see
https://westhills.org/blog for January 12).

In light of the four possibilities posed here, I am personally most comfortable with the second understanding above, for the four reasons stated. If that was indeed what Paul had in mind, then David Garland rightly concludes that Paul “used a theological shorthand, familiar to his readers, to refer to Christian baptism” (Garland, 718).

This does not mean that the second view above is indeed correct. It simply means that given the four most likely views about what Paul referred to in this verse, number two seems most likely. When all is said and done, however, we must conclude that the exact meaning Paul had in mind cannot be known, since “history has locked it into obscurity” (MacArthur, First Corinthians, 424). We are certain, on the other hand, that Paul’s reference to being baptized for or on behalf of the dead would indeed be irrelevant, if the dead do not rise. “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”. And in this truth we rest and rejoice!

Sources cited in this blog post: Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC); David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians; John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians.