By Clinton D. Hamilton
That there are difficult passages in the Bible, one cannot deny. Because a passage may pose some difficulty does not mean, however, that one cannot understand what God has revealed. As always, one must look to the language and the context in which the language occurs. Also one must take into consideration what is revealed in other passages. One must not interpret a passage in a manner that would put it in contradiction of plain teaching elsewhere. Truth is an entity in which there is no contradiction. If one correctly interprets a passage, it will not be a contradiction of teaching elsewhere.
Baptism for the dead is a major doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church. Basically, this teaching is based on 1 Corinthians 15:29. The question which is the subject of this article is based on this passage.
Question: In 1 Corinthians 15:29, what is being baptized for the dead?
Response: The question is clear and unambiguous; the issue is squarely put. The first 11 verses of 1 Corinthians 15 affirms the following: the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and his being seen by many after his resurrection. Both Paul and the other apostles by the grace of God preached the gospel that involved the resurrection of Christ (vv. 9-11). The Corinthians heard, believed, stood, and were saved by their obedience to the gospel, “if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain” (vv. 1-2). What Paul preached is what he received from the Lord (v. 3; see also Gal. 1:11-17).
Companionships or association with false teachers evidently had led some into error on the question of the resurrection. Paul said, “Be not deceived: Evil companion-ships corrupt good morals” (v. 33). Companionships is translated from homilia, which means an association of people “who are of the same company” (Vine). In this context, it refers to those in close association who are evil in their false teachings. Thayer defines the term to mean “companionship, intercourse, and communion.” The idea is to be close in association and influenced by that association. They were being influenced by their association with false teachers and thus were led into error about the resurrection. Corrupt is rendered from phtheiro which means to bring one to a worse state (Vine). Both Thayer and Vine point out that the expression in 1 Corinthians 15:33 is from the pagan poet Menander whose saying had become a proverb. Thayer says that in an ethical sense the word conveys the idea of corrupt or depraved. Ethos is the word from which morals are translated; it means custom or habit. Thayer points out that contextually it refers to “usage prescribed by law, institute, prescription, rite.” In the passage before us, morals refers to the teaching about which Paul spoke in the first few verses of I Corinthians 15 concerning the resurrection of Christ.
By listening to false teachers with whom they had a close association, they had become depraved in that they believed error about the resurrection. To counteract this depravity in what they believed, Paul proceeded with a series of arguments. He demonstrated that the denial of the resurrection, as some were wont to do, was illogical and unsound in relation to the evidence for the resurrection, the gospel they heard, and their own practices (vv. 12-32). Eyewitness testimony is the best human testimony possible; many had witnessed the resurrection of Christ and testified about it (vv. 5-8). In addition to these witnesses, there is the testimony of the scriptures that Jesus would be raised the third day (vv. 3-4). The scriptures as the testimony of God, Peter tells us, is more sure than eyewitness testimony (2 Pet. 1:19-21) because it is from God by the Holy Spirit who moved holy men of old to speak.
Let us observe Paul’s arguments. If Christ is preached as being raised from the dead, how say some of you there is no resurrection of the dead (v. 12)? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised (v. 13). If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching and your faith are in vain (v. 14). If the preaching of the apostles that God raised Christ from the dead is false, then the apostles were false witnesses and there is no resurrection (v. 15). If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain, and you are yet in your sins (vv. 16-17). If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then they that have fallen asleep in Jesus have perished (v. 18). If there is hope in Christ only in this life, then we are most pitiable (v. 19).
Christ has been raised from the dead and is so preached, the first fruits of them that are asleep, for by man camedeath and by man came the resurrection of the dead (vv. 20-21). As in Adam, all die: so also, in Christ all shall be made alive (v. 22). There is an order in the resurrection: Christ, the first fruits, then they that are Christ’s at his coming (v. 23). When the resurrection occurs, then comes the end when the kingdom shall be delivered to the Father when all power and authority shall have been abolished and the last enemy, death, also shall have been abolished (vv. 24-28).
Paul continued his arguments by saying that if the dead are not raised, how do you explain baptizing on behalf of the dead ones (v. 29)? This evidently was a practice among them, for his question assumes this. He does not endorse or confirm the teaching and practice. However, he makes an ad hominem argument against them. Their practice of baptizing for the dead would be logically absurd if there is no resurrection.
Paul continues. If there is no resurrection of the dead, what is the profit in all the suffering and jeopardy that Paul endures every hour (v. 30)? Paul says he dies daily and fought with beastly false teachers in Ephesus; if there is no resurrection, there would no profit in their evil associations having corrupted or depraved them about the fact of the resurrection of the dead (v. 33). Paul then calls on them to “awake to righteousness, and sin not, for some have no knowledge of God: I speak this to move you to shame” (v. 34).
Having demonstrated the futility of the false teaching which some of them had come to embrace, he then deals with questions of possibility connected with the resurrection (vv. 35-49). The ultimate victory over sin and death which it brings is the resurrection to be with the Lord (vv. 50-56). This victory comes through the resurrected Christ (v. 57). “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (v. 58).
In conclusion, a number of observations, comments and arguments will be made relative to what verse 29 teaches about the expression “baptized for the dead.” In the original text, the expression is of baptizomenoi huper ton nekron. The manner in which this is introduced after the interruption of his arguments from verses 23 through 28 shows Paul’s contempt for the practice (see Alford in his The Greek New Testament). There is an ellipsis which in effect states, “If it be as the adversaries suppose,” certain consequences follow. By the use of the third person and the article, Alford argues that Paul “indirectly separates him-self and those to whom he is writing from participation in or approval of the practice” of baptizing for the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, those who engage in the practice of baptizing for the dead cannot explain why they practice it. Doing so under these circumstances would be logically absurd to the extreme.
The dead in this passage evidently refers to those whose bodies and spirits have been separated. In the next conditional clause following, Paul uses the term nekroi referring to people who have left the body. Therefore, one cannot say dead is used figuratively to refer to one who is dead in sin. Figurative language is not used.
Huper is a preposition which in this context has the sense on behalf of some one else, the dead ones. There was, no doubt, a practice of their being baptized on behalf of people who have died. Paul does not endorse or approve the practice but uses it to show its futility if there is no resurrection of the dead. This interpretation does no violence either to the language or the context.
Other scriptures teach that one will meet God and Christ in judgment as he exits life. “It is appointed unto men once to die, and then cometh judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We all must appear before the judgment-seat of God (Rom. 14:10). When we are “made manifest before the judgment-seat of Christ,” it will be to “receive the things done in the body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Jesus said men shall come forth from the tombs: “they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28-29). God has “appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). One cannot do something on behalf of the dead; the dead ones will go to judgment as they died.
When one analyzes the language, the context, and other passages which have implications on the interpretation of the language in context, one is forced, I believe, to the conclusion that Paul refers to something they were doing. By an ad hominen argument (taking their own practice and using it to show their inconsistency), he demonstrates that their practice of baptizing for or on behalf of dead people contradicts their denial of the resurrection. Jesus used such an ad hominem argument against the Pharisees when they charged him with casting out demons by Beelzebub (Matt. 12:22-37; Mk. 3:22-30; Lk. 11:14-26). He said, “And if I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges” (Matt. 12:27; Lk. 11:19). He does not endorse and confirm that their exorcists actually cast out demons but he demonstrated they were inconsistent in the way they approved others and condemned him. The above interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is not in conflict with any other scriptures and does not violate the language and the context in which it occurs.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: No 19, p. 5-6
October 7, 1993