Baptism For The Dead
(1 Cor. 15:29)
Warren E. Berkley
“Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” 1 Cor. 15:29
Whatever you may discover or whatever remains baffling about this verse, you can be absolutely certain that it doesn’t mean a dead person can be saved from sin by a survivor on earth being baptized! If you never reach a completely satisfying explanation of the verse, you can be certain it doesn’t teach proxy baptism. Because:
The Bible teaches individual responsibility
Nothing we do (good or bad) is accounted to another (Ezek. 18). A false proverb circulated through Israel, that the son would bear the guilt of the father’s iniquity; or that the son would enjoy status with God by virtue of his father’s righteousness (cf. Matt. 3:9). In response to this God said, “the soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself,” (Ezek. 18:20, see also 24-28). Whatever 1 Cor. 15:29 means, it cannot contradict this.
Baptism is an individual’s response to the gospel
Acts 2:38 is the apostle Peter’s instruction to the individuals who were listening to him preach the gospel of Christ: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” Observe that phrase that marks the individual role: “every one of you.” You can only be baptized for yourself! I cannot be baptized for you, nor can you obey for me.
At the point of death, one’s eternal destiny is sealed
Jesus told of a man who wanted relief from his suffering in torment after death. He was told, “…between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to you,” (Lk. 16:26). At death, that’s it! No changes. No evidence can be presented from the New Testament, that after you die somebody on earth can do something to change your state! A dead man cannot repent and be baptized, nor can anyone on earth obey for him.
So whatever 1 Cor. 15:29 means, we know what it cannot mean. It cannot mean that people on earth can be baptized for people in Hades. It cannot mean that people can live in sin and hold on to the hope that after they have passed away, some ceremony on earth will move them from torment to paradise (across the “great gulf”). If we never figure out what 1 Cor. 15:29 means, we know what it cannot mean because of the simple principles so easily discovered all through the Bible. Proxy baptism for the dead should be rejected, based on these things we know.
What does the verse mean?
The chapter and context has a theme: The Resurrection. Though the Corinthians had obeyed the gospel that affirmed the resurrection of Christ, some among them were now saying, “there is no resurrection of the dead!” (Verse 12). We can be clear about this. The problem being addressed is: the gospel they obeyed was verified and empowered by the resurrection of Christ, but now some were saying, “there is no resurrection of the dead.” Paul was responding to that.
Part of his response was to affirm, Christ arose from the dead and we (Christians) were baptized knowing we will be raised! The dead in Christ are an eternally victorious class, who “shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man,” who “put on immortality,” and fulfill the saying, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” Those baptized prompted by this hope express “thanks to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I believe the point of verse 29 is: Why be baptized to join this eternally victorious class, if the dead “do not rise at all?” This may be regarded as a hypothetical argument, but is stated in terms to focus attention on the futility of baptized people denying the resurrection! “Why were you baptized?” Goodspeed’s translation may help: “Otherwise, what do people mean by having themselves baptized on behalf of the dead?” There is nothing here about proxy baptism; nothing about one person being baptized for another. “The dead” are an eternally victorious class. Why obey the gospel to join that class if the dead are not raised at all? Why obey the gospel, if there is no resurrection of the dead? Why subject yourself to “jeopardy every house” if the dead are not raised (v.30).
The resolution of this line of argument? “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord,” (1 Cor. 15:58).