What it is not (1 Cor 15:29)

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)

When I first read this verse as a new believer, I was completely confused. People baptizing for those who are dead? For what reason? What good would that do? Now after being a Christian for nearly forty years, studying the Bible, attending seminary, I can say with complete confidence that I am not confused by the verse, but still cannot give a confident interpretation. I thought I was alone in this until I read from a host of interpreters who have come to the same conclusion. Some had mentioned that there are perhaps as many of 200 interpretations of this verse, some being ludicrous, and yet some being plausible. Moreover, they too conclude that it is not easy to pick one. So, do not be dismayed if this verse confuses you also. However, there are some things we can deduce from this verse as we look at it in the context of the passage and the teachings of the entire Bible.

Historically, some have used this verse to justify a heretical practice of proxy baptism. In other words, it was a practice of a living person being baptized on behalf of others who have died. It is true that some ancient groups, labeled as Gnostics, who professed to be Christians held to this heretical practice (Brattston). Today, the Mormons carry on with this practice.

First, what we do know is that the practice of baptizing for the dead is contrary to everything taught in the Bible regarding salvation and baptism. The Scriptures are clear that salvation is by grace alone by faith alone in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8-9). Water baptism does not save a person. The Scripture shows that baptism by immersion is a step of obedience taken by believers after they have been saved.

Secondly, as we look at this verse, we must understand that while we are confused by its insertion into Paul’s letter, Paul was not confused by it. We must also presume that based upon Paul knowing the recipients of the letter, that they would have understood what he was saying also. It is my opinion that Paul was using something familiar to the church, a heretical practice of some, in a rhetorical sense to make those who said there was no resurrection reconsider their view. This fits with the rest of this paragraph as Paul presents several other rhetorical questions in furthering his argument regarding the veracity of the resurrection (v30, 32).

The point is this. Paul is not saying that the church should baptize people in proxy for dead people. I feel he is making the point that there is no purpose to water baptism if there is no resurrection. In fact, there is no purpose to any religious ritual if there is no resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is foundational to the practices of the church and without it the church is an empty institution.

Published by Steve Hankins, Th.D.

Steve has had extensive military, business and ministry experience. He has served for over 16 years in full time vocational ministry and many years of part time ministry in churches. He has led churches through start-up and recasting of vision. Now He resides on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where he is working to help smaller churches and believers to renew their hearts and regain the joy of the Lord.

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