By Randy Blackaby
In the midst of his great treatise on the criticality of the resurrection as a central focus of the gospel, the Apostle Paul says, “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?” (NKJV)
It is actually easier to ascertain what this passage doesn’t mean, because of the host of New Testament references about the purpose, manner and prerequisites of baptism. We can be assured that it doesn’t refer to living people being baptized for dead ones who did not obey the gospel during their lifetimes.
The Mormons erroneously teach “proxy” or “vicarious” baptism, but there isn’t a shred of support for such, unless this passage teaches it. But other references to baptism show it is an act of faith on the part of a living person (Acts 8:36-38) that must follow hearing the word of God (Romans 10:17) and repentance (Acts 2:38) and verbal confession of one’s faith (Romans 10:9-10).
Proxy baptism (being baptized for someone else) runs counter to the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments, which shows that God holds men and women individually accountable. Ezekiel 18 shows that we are neither held accountable for our parents’ sins or our children’s sins, nor made righteous by their goodness. In Acts 2:38, where the first gospel sermon is drawn to its conclusion, Peter said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins…”
Further, we know from the Scriptures that at the point of death, a person’s eternal destiny is sealed. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, we see that taught clearly. So the Mormon doctrine of proxy baptism for the disobedient dead and the Catholic ideas of limbo and purgatory are antithetical to the clear teaching of the Bible.
To make 1 Corinthians 15:29 refer to vicarious baptism for people who have died requires an interpretation totally at variance with other clear teaching of Scripture.
So, What Is This Passage Teaching?
If we are going to discover the real meaning of this passage, we must adhere to the principle of examining the context and being sure any exposition we make fits that context. And the context, as we noted in introduction, is the importance of the resurrection of both Jesus and the saints.
It appears that though the Christians in Corinth had obeyed the gospel that affirmed the resurrection of Jesus, which would have included being baptized (Acts 2:38, 8:36-38; 1 Peter 3:21), some were beginning to allege that there was no resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12). The apostle is showing that a Christian’s hope for the future is based in the reality of Christ being raised from the dead. If Jesus was raised, then we can be raised, and that is key to our hope.
Further, the act of baptism is designed to affirm both resurrections. Paul wrote the Romans and said, “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
When, as an act of faith in Christ’s sacrificial death for our sins, we are baptized, we join a group or class of people who will, like Jesus, be raised to immortality. So, the point of 1 Corinthians 15:29 seems to be, why be baptized if you don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead?
But The Language In The Passage Is Difficult
It is true that the language of the passage is difficult and this has led to a host of various interpretations. Some of the difficulty may, in fact, be attributable to problems inherent in translating from Greek to English.
Brother Mike Willis, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, makes this point. “The punctuation that appears in our (English—rb) text was added by later men; the apostle did not punctuate this verse when he wrote it. The divided opinions of textual critics as to how to punctuate it can be seen by comparing the Authorized Version with other versions…Although none of these translations reflects the punctuation which I am going to suggest, they do illustrate the fact that all of the punctuation marks in our text are added by men and that no one set of marks has any apostolic sanction.”
Then, Brother Willis suggests this punctuation of the text: “Otherwise what shall they do who are baptized? For the dead? (i.e., are they baptized to belong to, to be numbered among, the dead who are never to rise again?) Indeed, if the dead do not rise again at all, why are people baptized? For them? (i.e., are they baptized to be numbered among the dead who are never to rise again?)
Now, whether Brother Willis’ suggested punctuation is correct or not, it at least supports what appears to be the context and meaning of this passage.
Randy Blackaby lives in Medway, OH and preaches for the New Carlisle church of Christ. He also serves this congregation as one of its elders. He has preached full-time for about 18 years and part-time for that many more. During the period from 1971 to 1988 he was a reporter and later managing editor of The Xenia Daily Gazette in Ohio. He preached for 14 years in Kokomo, IN and has written a number of newspaper columns as a preacher, including Bible Q&A and op-ed pieces on current issues from a biblical perspective. He is a staff writer for Truth Magazine and writes monthly columns for the New Carlisle Sun, the Knollwood Messenger and this magazine. He has written a host of workbooks on Bible texts and themes, including recent ones on the book of Galatians and the Life of Moses. Currently, he is working on another on what the Bible teaches about “Money and Possessions.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, he made five preaching trips to Lithuania between 1994 and 2000. He can be contacted at email@example.com.