“Baptized for the Dead?”Categories: Meditations
Last month, the Jackson Heights church had a tent at the Maury County Fair. Coincidentally, the tent across the walkway was manned by the Mormons. One of our workers was feeling frisky, so he crossed the lane and started talking Bible with them. However, they took him aback when they asked him about 1 Corinthians 15:29, which reads, “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?”
This is one of the Mormons’ favorite texts because they, unlike (nearly?) everybody else, practice baptism for the dead. They think that if you baptize a live person as a proxy for someone who has died, the dead person will benefit spiritually. Among other things, this explains the Mormons’ interest in genealogy (Ancestry.com, for instance, is Mormon-owned). They want to make sure that they know who their ancestors are so that they can get baptized for them.
When we take 1 Corinthians 15:29 by itself, this interpretation appears reasonable, even though it creates difficulties with other texts. If the dead can be saved because we’re baptized on their behalf, what happens to the requirement that we must believe in Jesus in order to be saved? This sort of problem alone should cause us to return to 1 Corinthians 15 to make sure that we understand baptism for the dead properly.
In fact, a reading of 15:29 in context reveals that Paul is talking about something else entirely. Throughout the entire chapter, he’s addressing the claim by some know-it-all Corinthians that there is no resurrection of the dead. The Stoics and the Epicureans, for instance, denied the possibility of resurrection, and their unbelief apparently seeped into the Corinthian church along with Gentile converts.
Paul argues against this worldly philosophy by pointing to the example of Christ. His resurrection affirms our hope that someday we will be resurrected too. Conversely, as Paul argues in 15:13, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” From there, he reasons that if Christ has not been raised (and therefore remains dead), the entire Christian faith falls apart.
Verse 29 is an extension of this same argument. If the dead are not raised, then even Christ is dead, and all of us who have been baptized because of Jesus have been baptized because of a dead man. This would make baptism pointless.
After all, as Paul shows in Romans 6:1-11, baptism has spiritual value because it unites us with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. As he writes in Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” If Christ was not raised from the dead (because there is no resurrection), nobody who has been baptized has risen to walk in newness of life either.
Rather than being an introduction of some bizarre new doctrine, then, 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a reaffirmation of one of the most important elements of our faith. If Christ is dead, baptism is meaningless. However, if He has risen from the dead, we now can know that baptism gives us life as the Father gave Him life.