Baptized For The Dead
It has been said that there are as many interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:29 as there have been commentators. While I find this a little hard to believe, it is true that this verse has been the subject of much speculation. Indeed, it is a very difficult passage which does not lend itself well to correct interpretation.
Using the ASV 1901 as a source, the verse reads: "Else what shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?"
A Common Opinion
Of the opinions which I am familiar with, there is one which seems to enjoy the acceptance of a large audience. This opinion puts a lot of emphasis on early church practices, albeit a limited number of participants, and grammatical usage of terms. While both of these techniques are useful in the interpretation of Scripture, as with any accepted practice their misuse can lead to an incorrect interpretation.
Some have argued that there was a custom among the early Christians of baptizing a living person for the benefit of a person who had died without being baptized themselves. The blessings of baptism being received by proxy. Baptism for dead persons is practiced in con-temporary times by members of the Mormon church.
Still, there is no record within the Scriptures which indicate that it was actually practiced by the first century church, unless one wishes to argue that this verse demonstrates such. And if this were true, then by inference one could possibly conclude that other churches were familiar with and may have even practiced it themselves.
The opinion states, that Paul in addressing the Corinthians, posed a rhetorical question. This question, being an ad hominem, could be used to demonstrate inconsistencies in a person's view, without the speaker being in agreement with said view.
The argument states, that Paul during his defense and promotion of a resurrection of the dead, referred to a practice among the Corinthians in order to give further weight to his argument. By doing so he did not necessarily imply a personal acceptance of baptizing on the behalf of dead persons, but used its familiarity to make his point more profound. "Why do you baptize for the dead if you do not believe in the resurrection from the dead?" It is argued that his usage of why are they, in-stead of why are we, indicates that Paul did not include himself this group.
This opinion has some problems, which to me cannot go unanswered.
1. Paul does not condemn the practice. Within this same letter Paul condemns infighting (1:10, 11), honor to men instead of Christ (1:12-17), worldliness (3:1-3), and fornication (5:1-13), just to name a few. In fact most of the letter addresses some form of error and its correction. And yet, when it comes to the practice of baptizing oneself on the behalf of the dead, Paul offers no correction.
John states that those who abide not in the teaching of Christ have not God (2 John 9). Christ himself said, that to follow the doctrines of men is vain worship (Matt. 15:9). If this be true, how is it that Paul could allow these babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1, 2) to worship in vain and have not God?
If it is true that Paul mentions the practice and does not condemn it, then in effect he would be saying that the practice is not sinful. His silence on the subject would indicate such to those who supposedly baptized for dead persons. I could further argue that after reading this letter those who are supposed to practice such might say, "See Paul does not condemn it, he even acknowledges it and says there is no reason for doing it, if there be no resurrection from the dead." In trying to confound the baptizers for the dead, Paul would only have confused a congregation which needed instruction not fancy rhetoric.
2. It is not in harmony with Paul's character a man who preached Christ in the synagogues of the Jews under threat of death (Acts 9:20-23), the one who rebuked the foremost Apostle Peter for shunning the Gentile brethren (Gal. 2:11-21), a tireless fighter for the cause of Christ (2 Tim. 4:7). There are too many examples to list of Paul's devotion to truth and his tireless efforts to correct error, to believe he would remain silent about baptism on behalf of dead persons.
3. It stands alone in its usage by Paul. I personally cannot find another instance where Paul uses an ad horninem argument. Especially about a subject which should be considered sinful, and therefore condemned, not given further confidence by silence on the subject. Also, with the great many verses devoted by Paul to baptism, this is the only one where he ever mentions a so-called baptism on behalf of the dead.
A Different Opinion
I believe that there was no custom or practice among the Corinthian brethren of baptizing persons on behalf of dead persons. Any such practice which may have occurred later could possibly have been based upon a misunderstanding of this verse. Therefore, latter-day practice in no way justifies the thought that the Corinthians practiced such, and should not give weight to such opinions. In other words, just because scholars can find religious groups who may have practiced baptism for dead persons, does not imply that the Corinthians must have also done so.
I strongly believe that if such practice occurred, then Paul would have condemned it. He would not have allowed a congregation to knowingly participate in a sinful act, even to get his point across. Therefore, Paul did not use an ad hominem argument.
The context within which a difficult verse is presented will often times present a solution as to its meaning. The entire fifteenth chapter deals with the fact of the resurrection, its relationship to our belief, and the ultimate victory over sin and death. There are three concepts upon which Paul preaches that, if there be no resurrection, then your very efforts are in vain.
In verse 14 he says: "and if Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your faith also is vain." In verse 16 he says: "For if the dead are not raised, neither hath Christ been raised." And in verse 29 he says: "What shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all." So, if there be no resurrection, then your faith is in vain, the gospel of Christ is a lie, and there is no reason for baptism.
Paul here places a little more weight on baptism than some of our contemporaries would like. Indeed, the denigration of baptism by the denominations may be part of the prejudice which conceals this verse's interpretation. Because many denominations deny the importance of baptism, they cannot believe that it is being spoken of here. They prefer to believe that Paul is only referring to a sinful practice of the Corinthians. But not only does Paul place the gospel and faith in a position where it is directly dependent on a resurrection of the dead, but he puts baptism on an equal footing. This thought is in harmony with Paul's teachings on the subject of baptism.
Rather than present multiple statements concerning the fact that the practice of baptism without a resurrection would simply be a bath, Paul unequivocally states it within one verse. A single verse being in conjunction and addition to what was just presented. I believe this thought to be borne out by Paul's usage of the adverb "else." Be-cause of his lengthy presentation on the necessity of a bodily resurrection, Paul does not reiterate this fact by repeating another lengthy presentation in relation to baptism. The argument has previously been presented. Paul here simply states that baptism also depends on a resurrection from the dead.
Some in conflict with this opinion may say, "Why did he use they, instead of we?" In verse 16, Paul said, "your faith." Could we argue as above, that by using the adjective "your" Paul was acknowledging that their faith was different from his own. Why not use our? In verse two Paul again uses "you" in "by which also you are saved." Why not use "we" instead of you? Again is Paul not saved by the very same gospel? To argue that "they" in verse 29 definitely excludes Paul is in-consistent with his message. "They" refers to those who are to receive or have received baptism. Paul is a member of this group. I am a member of this group. Why are they or anyone baptized if there will be no resurrection.
In verse 23 it says, "But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits; then they that are Christ's, at his coming. " Does Paul count himself as one of Christ's own? Does his language here exclude him? Did he use "they" instead of "we" here because his is only a hope of everlasting life and not an assuredness? Why does they here include Paul, but in verse 29 exclude him?
Lastly, in verse 29 it says, "If the dead are not raised." In verse 16 it says, "if the dead are not raised." And concluding verse 16, "neither hath Christ been raised." Is it simply coincidence that the phraseology is exactly the same. In verse 16 Paul concludes that if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. So too in verse 29, if the dead are not raised, then why be baptized? So then, when Paul said the dead in verse 29, I believe that he was referring to the resurrection of the dead.
I feel that I have presented a very credible answer to the question, "What does this verse mean?" It does not suffer from problems 1, 2, and 3. It does present an answer which is in harmony with the context, Paul's character, and his message.
Guardian of Truth XLI: 20 p. 22-23