Baptism for the Dead

By Frank Jamerson

Whether you have talked with a Mormon or not, the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is difficult. After discussing the importance of the resurrection of the body, Paul said: “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?”

Sometimes it is easier to say what a passage does not teach than to ex-plain what it does teach. We will first notice what it does not teach and then present a probable explanation of the true teaching of the passage.

Mormonism teaches that the living are to be baptized for those who are dead, so they can accept the vicarious baptism in the spirit world. The Book of Mormon does not teach this doctrine; in fact, it teaches against it. “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, be-hold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors . . . there-fore I beseech you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed” (Alma 34:32, 33). In Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith claimed to have received a revelation that they should be baptized for the dead. “And again, I give unto you a word in relation to the baptism for your dead. Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning your dead: When any of you are baptized for your dead, let there be a recorder, and let him be eye-witness of your baptisms…” (127:5, 6). Mormons will use the Bible, but to them baptism for the dead is a rev-elation from God through Joseph Smith who gave instructions about where and how it was to be done (cf. Doctrine and Covenants 124:29-32; 128:1-5).

There are a number of reasons that the passage cannot mean that the dead are to be baptized by proxy. (1) The Bible teaches that we will give ac-count individually for the deeds we have done in the flesh (Rom. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:10). (2) Abraham told the rich man that “those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.” When he asked that Lazarus go back to teach his brothers, he was told that they could hear “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:26, 31). The rich man was not going to receive a second chance, nor were his brothers. (3) Jesus said that a person must “believe and be baptized” in order to be saved (Mark 16:16). Mormonism teaches that one person can be baptized and later an-other can believe and accept it. Peter said, “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Mormonism reverses this and says that one can be baptized and later another can repent and accept his proxy baptism.

What does the passage teach? There are many interpretations that I do not believe fit the context, but space will not permit an examination of those. I will present an interpretation that I believe fits the context and does not conflict with other Bible teaching.

Paul was defending the resurrection of the body, and after using the resurrection of Christ as evidence, he used baptism and his own “standing in jeopardy every hour” (v. 30). Baptism portrayed the very thing some of them were denying  the resurrection. Paul is saying, “Why then are you baptized for (huper – with reference to) the dead,” who never rise again, according to your belief? Their own practice of baptism is used as an argument against their denial of the resurrection. E.G. Sewell summarized it this way: “All who are buried with Christ in baptism declare by that act that they believe that he was buried and rose again; and in believing that he rose, we at the same time believe and by our action declare our faith in a resurrection of all the dead. In our immersion, therefore, we declare by that action that we believe in the resurrection of all the dead, of Christ first and through him all others. If Christ did not rise from the dead, burial with him in baptism would be meaningless; and if he rose not, then no others will rise, and the religion of Jesus is a failure at last” (Questions Answered, Lipscomb and Sewell, 165).

The same point is emphasized in the next verse. Paul said, “And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour?” (v. 30). If the dead are not raised, why were the Corinthians being baptized, and why were Paul and others jeopardizing their lives by preaching Christ? If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither baptism nor jeopardizing your life for the message of Christ makes any sense! These verses do not teach that we can be baptized for someone else, nor jeopardize our lives for someone else, but they teach that our baptism and faithfulness demonstrate a faith in being united with all others who have done the same things.

Guardian of Truth XLI: 4 p. 6-7
February 20, 1997