Baptism for the Dead
"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?” (1 Corinthians 15:29 NIV)
1 Corinthians 15:29 is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in the entire Bible. It is believed that this single verse of Scripture has been interpreted in as many as 200 different ways. Much of the difficulty with its interpretation stems from the preconceived notion of interpreters that any explanation of this verse must somehow conform to an orthodox understanding of baptism. A careful reading of this verse, however, will prove that no such interpretation is required, since Paul clearly distinguishes his own practice from that being referred to here.
Corinthian converts to Christ were notorious for bringing the baggage of their former pagan practices into the church. This is easily seen in both of Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians. A substantial portion of both letters is devoted to Paul’s rebuking of the Corinthian Christians for their retaining of pagan practices.
The heretical practice of proxy baptism—baptism for the dead—can be traced back to the second century. It is still practiced today by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though only in temples dedicated by Mormons for such usage. In spite of the fact that we can’t clearly trace the heretical practice of proxy baptism back to first century Corinth, having no track to trace it there apart from this lone verse of Scripture, it doesn’t require any stretch of the imagination to believe that the carnal Corinthians had espoused such superstition, especially in light of the teachings of a popular pagan cult of the day.
Just across the Saronic Gulf from first century Corinth was Eleusis, which served as the center of a popular and ancient mystery religion. This pagan cult, of which Homer was a fan and Cicero an initiate, taught that eternal bliss in the hereafter was contingent upon one’s observance of its initiation ritual, which included a ceremonial washing and purification in the sea. That the carnal Corinthians brought this popular pagan idea into the church and applied it to baptism is certainly plausible; and that they further instituted the heretical practice of proxy baptism on behalf of their unbaptized, deceased loved ones is nothing more than the predictable outcome of such plausibility.
The context of this controversial verse is critical to its proper interpretation. Paul is attempting in this passage to prove the reality of the resurrection. One of the arguments he employs is this pagan practice of proxy baptism. Ironically, some of the deniers of the resurrection were practitioners of proxy baptism. Thus, Paul simply asked to what purpose people were being baptized for the dead if there was no resurrection from the dead. This inspired question of the Apostle Paul’s to the practitioners of proxy baptism pulled the rug out from under their feet when it came to their denial of the resurrection.
In no way was the Apostle Paul affirming the validity of proxy baptism. Instead, he was simply pointing out the futility of such superstition, especially for anyone denying the reality of the resurrection. Notice, Paul refers to “those” who are baptized for the dead, not “we” who are baptized for the dead. While some of the Corinthians denied the resurrection and practiced proxy baptism, the Apostle Paul defended the resurrection as a central tenet of the Christian faith and slammed the door of the Christian church on proxy baptism and all other pagan practices.