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Insight on a Confusing Verse (1 Corinthians 15.29)

I was recently asked to explain a verse that, to be completely honest, I find to be one of (if not the most) confusing verses in all of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 15:29. In it, Paul writes, “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (ESV). If you are asking, “What in the world is he talking about?” you are not alone. Scholars who I would consider much smarter than me have looked at this verse and said things like “the sense of the text escapes me” and the verse “remains a mystery” (Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993], 560). However, in light of the way some have used this verse, I think it is good to dig a bit deeper to help understand what it doesn’t mean and also to think about the point that Paul is making here.

Written For Us, But Not To Us

What is so interesting about this verse is that the Apostle Paul does not seem to offer any sort of explanation for what exactly he is talking about. This is a good reminder that the letters found in the New Testament are written for us but not to us -- they are God’s Word to teach us how to live as God’s people who have been redeemed through faith in Jesus Christ, but they were written to real churches that were in particular places at a particular moment. Therefore, it is a bit like reading someone else’s mail or, to modernize that example, reading someone else’s emails or text messages. We might speak about something that is known and understood by us and the one with whom we are conversing, but a third party reading (or hearing) it would have no idea what we are talking about. Unless we explain it, the third-party will always be somewhat in the dark. In this situation, we are the third-party reader.

Just because we don’t fully understand what Paul is writing about, this does not mean that we shouldn’t look for clues to help understand its meaning. Whatever theories we examine must make sense of the particular context, but it also needs to make sense in light of what we see elsewhere in Scripture. In fact, one thing we need to keep in mind when we are reading difficult passages in Scripture is to let the things that are more clear guide us as we think about the things that are less clear; we need to be careful emphasizing or basing some sort of practice on a verse that is more obscure. Therefore, we will want to evaluate possible meanings of this passage with the rest of Scripture.

One Problematic Interpretation and Practice

This verse has been used by the Mormon church as the basis for their practice of  “proxy baptism”, that is, a baptism performed on “a living person who is acting on behalf of someone who is dead” (see https://www.lds.org/topics/proxy-baptism?lang=eng). The Mormons perform this rite at their temples, and they practice it because they believe that in order for someone to enter the kingdom of God, they must be baptized. Mormons do not believe that proxy baptism guarantees salvation of the deceased, as they believe a deceased person can accept or reject this baptism in the afterlife, but this would be a needed step for the deceased that can be taken by another in their place.

There are multiple problems with this practice from a biblical perspective. First of all, while baptism is the natural (and normal) step for a Christian to take to receive the sign and seal of God’s covenant with him or her, it is not a requirement to be saved; the thief on the cross was saved without being baptized and God’s people in the Old Testament were saved by grace through faith without being baptized. Perhaps more important is that the Bible teaches “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV); there is no suggestion that one gets a second chance to receive salvation after death. The choices and decisions we make while on earth are the ones  we will be held responsible for. Finally, a problem with the practice of proxy baptism is that it also goes against what we see in Scripture, which says that we are responsible for our actions and decisions and cannot rely on the good works or actions of another human. We can’t rely on the faith of our parents or on the baptism that someone else has received for us.

Other Possible Views

Scholars have given no shortage of other explanations. One example is that this could be referring to Christians who were baptized in honor of friends who were believers but who died (or were killed) before they were baptized. (There was often a long period of instruction before one was baptized.) There do appear to be some groups in the early centuries that had members baptized for those who had died without being baptized (see Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.10; Chrysostom, Homily on 1 Corinthians 40.1). These church leaders who described this practice, however, did not endorse it and criticized the groups that practiced it (in part because it is not clear what value such a baptism would have for a person if they are already in the presence of God).

Some writers (such as Martin Luther) have noted the possibility that “for” should be rendered “above” as the Greek word could also mean that, so people were baptized at top of the graves of those who had already died. However, this does not seem the best translation of the Greek word, and we still would have to ask why they would practice that. Another proposed view is that the idea of being baptized for the dead refers not to the death of others, but being baptized in light of our own mortality (we are as good as dead!). This is how the early church leaders Tertullian and Chrysostom explained the verse. Yet another view is that when someone was baptized, they were being connected with people who were now dead but had been baptized and whom they would be looking forward to reunification. Another view is the idea of being baptized for the dead is that the people were being baptized because of the witness they saw in Christians who were were put to death for their faith. All of these views seem possible, though it is not certain if any is probable.

Overall, I agree with the the New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg in stating, “Given the plethora of suggestions for interpreting verse 29, we are not to be dogmatic in upholding any one of them.” (1 Corinthians [NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], 304). It is interesting to note that nowhere else in the Bible is this practiced talked about, and while some groups may have had some practice, they seem to have been fringe groups and not the majority of the church. Therefore, it might be okay not to know for sure what is going on.

Is Paul For or Against This Practice?

In trying to understand what exactly Paul is talking about here, we might lose track of the fact that Paul is not seeking to teach about this practice or even condon the practice. He simply states it as something the people were doing, and then notes that it does not make any sense if there is no hope of the resurrection. In addition, it should be noted that it never says the church in Corinth itself did this, and even if they had, this would not mean that others should as well (as there were many things they did that were not right!). In fact, Paul could even be making a point that this practice that he does not approve of doesn’t even make sense if there is no resurrection of the dead, as Paul is confronting this false teaching in 1 Corinthians 15.  

Don’t Miss His Point

The point of 1 Corinthians 15 is not that the church should be doing this, but rather, because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead in bodily form, we have hope for the resurrection of our bodies.  The truth of the resurrection allows us to (and should compel us to) live bold and faithful lives, as noted in the words that follow this difficult passage:

“Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’ Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:30-34, ESV).

If Christ did not rise from the dead, we have no hope in life or death and could just do whatever feels good. But as Christ did indeed die and rose for us, we should live in hope of death and resurrection, knowing that we can physically die in hopes of being raised. We can die to our own desires and pleasures because there is a moral order of right and wrong.

This verse is a good reminder that at times we may be confused about certain things in the Bible, but that is okay -- we don’t have to have all the answers, but we do need to look to the One who does, and the hope that we have. While we might not know exactly what the Corinthians seem to be doing here, we can know for sure that Jesus Christ has been risen from the dead, and that changes everything in our lives and ultimately in our world!

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