Sometimes verses in the Bible jump off the page for me, like is one, 1 Corinthians 15:29, regarding baptism of the dead.
This is the argument, like what we understand about our Mormon friends: Baptism for the dead is a non-biblical practice where a living person is baptized in lieu of a person that passed away, as a means of making a public profession of faith for a person that is already deceased. We can, essentially, think of it as the practice of baptizing a dead person.
Those who have this belief base these baptisms on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:29, “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”
This is a difficult passage to interpret, but we know by comparing it with the rest of Scripture that it does not mean that a dead person can be saved by someone else being baptized on his or her behalf, because baptism is not a requirement for salvation in the first place (Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:28; 4:3; 6:3-4). The entire passage (1 Corinthians 15:12-29) is about the certainty of the resurrection, not about baptism for the dead.
Let’s look carefully at the Bible itself:
The mention of people being baptized to save the souls of the dead is found nowhere else in Scripture. In fact, this interpretation (vicarious baptism) was condemned as heresy by many of the early church fathers! False teachers had infiltrated the church saying, “There is no resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:12), so the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 addresses the historical fact of the resurrection of the dead.
What was being baptized for the dead? It is a mysterious passage, and there have been many different interpretations.
- The plain meaning of the Greek in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is that some people are being baptized on behalf of those who have died (proxy baptism)—and if there is no resurrection, why are they doing this at all?
- Either Paul is referring to a pagan custom (notice he uses “they,” not “we”), or to a superstitious and unscriptural practice in the Corinthian church of vicarious baptism for believers who died before being baptized.
- Either way, Paul certainly does not approve of the practice; he merely says that if there is no resurrection, why would the custom take place? The Mormon practice of baptism for the dead is neither scriptural nor sensible. Baptism for the dead is a practice that was common in the pagan religions of Greece and is still practiced today by some cults; but it doesn’t change a person’s eternal destiny, for that is determined while he lives (Luke 16:26).
First Corinthians 15 gives reasons why this practice is based on false teaching from false teachers:
- There were over 500 eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection from the dead, most of whom were still alive at the time of this writing (1 Corinthians 15:5–7).
- Ultimately, a major inconsistency is evident: If they did not believe in life after death, then why are they being baptized for the dead. Paul is simply saying, “If you reject the resurrection of the dead, you shouldn’t baptize for the dead. It is illogical!”
- Those practicing baptism of the dead were the false teachers, not Paul or the other Christians. This is evident because Paul referred to the ones being baptized as “those” and “people” (not “I,” “you,” or “we”).
- Even for those who believe in the resurrection, the practice of baptism for the dead in order to earn another person’s salvation cannot be reconciled with Scripture. The Bible says that salvation comes as a gift of God’s grace, but only through each individual’s faith in Christ—that is faith alone, not any work of baptism. Ephesians 2:8–9 says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
- The Bible clearly teaches that there are no opportunities for salvation after a person has died. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
Perhaps it could it refer to the fact that people are being saved through faith and are being baptized because of the testimony and witness of the martyrs. Could it be the witness of those saints who are now dead, impacted lost people so that these new believers are being baptized (because of the testimony) of the dead?
The phrase could read something like, “being baptized to take the place of those believers who have died.” Wiersbe argues that if there is no resurrection of the dead, why bother to witness and win others to faith in Christ? That would mean life is a dead-end street.
Weep over those who have died, but also weep over those who still have the opportunity to be saved before it is too late.