"Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" 1 Corinthians 15:29 KJV
I received a call tonight, as I have on several occasions, asking what my view on 1Corinthians 15:29 is. What did Paul mean by referring to baptism for the dead? The obvious abuse of this text is by the Mormons who baptize on the behalf of people who die unbaptized. The above article does a good job of highlighting their misguided practices.
One commentator says that there have been over 30 explanations given as to what Paul meant. Whatever explanation you chose, the one thing that is clear, the Mormon explanation is heretical. I have a couple explanations that I really like, which I will detail for you a little later, but first I am going to prove why it cannot mean what the Mormons say it does.
WHAT IT DOES NOT MEAN
It cannot mean that a person can be baptized on behalf of an unbaptized dead person and their sins be forgiven. We can know this because of the scriptural prerequisites for baptism, which a dead person cannot meet.
- FAITH: Faith is a prerequisite for baptism. No one can to come God apart from faith (Hebrews 11:6). This is a very general view of the necessity of faith preceding baptism; however, the scriptures very specifically demand faith on the part of the person the baptism is for at the moment of their baptism. The Ethiopian eunuch asked, "what doeth hinder me from being baptized (Acts 8:36)?" Philip answered, "if thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest (Acts 8:37)." In other words, if the eunuch did not believe he would be hindered form being baptized. No one else could believe for him; Philip said, "if THOU believest, THOU mayest." The one that baptism was for was the one that had to believe. Faith is always a prerequisite for baptism (Mark 16:16). The dead cannot exercise faith.
- REPENTANCE: Repentance is also a prerequisite for baptism. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to the baptism of John he demanded proof of repentance before he would baptize them (Matthew 3:7-8). Repentance is the death of the old man that must be buried with Christ in baptism (Romans 6). Living people are not buried; therefore death through repentance must precede baptism's burial. The dead cannot repent.
THE FINALITY OF DEATH
Another reason that 1 Corinthians 15:29 cannot teach that a living person can be baptized for the forgivness of a dead persons sins is because only the judgement follows death.
"And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment," Hebrews 9:27 ESV
Death is final; there is no opportunity for changing the condition of the soul after death. The only thing left after death is the judgement. If you die a sinner that is how you will remain; if you die a saint that is how you will remain.
I have just listed a couple reasons why 1 Corinthians 15:29 cannot support the Mormon view. I believe that these reasons that I listed above are the "death blow" to their "grave" error (pun intended). There are literally dozens of explanations as to what Paul meant, so feel free to take your pick.
My personal favorite of all the explanations is as follows: Paul is not stating that this is a practice of his or the Corinthian church, rather this is a practice that "they" do. The "they" must be understood with in the context of the entire chapter. There is a "we" and "they" being discussed in the chapter. The "we" is obviously Paul and the Corinthian Christians, and the "they" are those who say, "there is no resurrection of the dead."
The purpose of 1 Corinthians 15 is to rebut "they" who say there is no resurrection. Multiple times Paul states their position and then offers a rebuttal, or demonstrates an unacceptable or contradictory conclusion inherent to their position. So, he states their view, then rebuts it.
In verse 16 Paul argues, if there is no resurrection as "they" say, then Christ is not risen. Again in verse 35 Paul states their opinion when he says, "but some will say." He is stating what "they" say in order to refute it . It is my preferred opinion that this is what Paul is doing in verse 29 when he says, "Else what shall THEY do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are THEY then baptized for the dead?"
Paul was not saying that we baptize for the dead, he was saying that "they," those who deny the resurrection from the dead, were baptizing for the dead. He then asks, why would "they" baptize for the dead if the dead is not raised? That would be a colossal waste of time.
If I viewed the text as Paul discussing a Christian practice of "baptizing for the dead," then this would be my preferred view. Since the topic of 1 Corinthians 15 is the resurrection, Paul is making the point that baptism points us to the resurrection. In Romans 6 Paul uses baptism, as a type of being buried and raised with Christ; therefore baptism points to resurrection.
Here in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is arguing that the resurrection of Christ that we share in through baptism is the earnest, or first fruits, of a final resurrection at the second coming of Christ. So, if our baptism looks forward to resurrection, and there is no resurrection, then why are we baptized for the dead.
So that the dead that we are baptized for, or in reference to, are the dead in Christ that shall be raised in the resurrection. So, if baptism looks forward to resurrection, and there is none, then baptism is a waste of time.
It is late so I hope I am making sense. Make up your own mind. Chose any one of the many possibilities that are available as long at it can be harmonized with the whole of what the Bible teaches about baptism.