(1 Cor. 15:29) What is baptism for the dead?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “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?” (1 Cor. 15:29). Mormon theologians argue that this supports the practice of baptism for the dead. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: There are somewhere between 40 and 200 different interpretations of this passage.[1] A standard rule of hermeneutics is to interpret the unclear passages in light of the clear. For this reason, we should not build serious doctrines on unclear passages like this (contra Mormonism).

The most important observation of this passage is this: Paul is not prescribing baptism for the dead, but merely describing it. Paul does not say, “Why then are we baptized for them?” Instead, he says, “Why then are they baptized for them?” Paul intentionally separates himself from this practice. He switches back to “we” in the verse next verse (v.30).

Paul wasn’t approving of this practice, but he was using this unbiblical practice to make a theological point: namely, why would people baptize the dead if there is no resurrection? Just a few verses later, Paul quotes from a non-Christian writer named Menander (in his comedy Thais) to make a theological point. This demonstrates that Paul would use sources (and practices) that he didn’t approve of in order to drive home a theological point.

This practice of baptizing the dead (i.e. vicarious baptism[2]) occurs nowhere else in the NT, and it is completely absent for the first few centuries of church history. The only place where we find this practice mentioned is in its denunciation. For instance, John Chrysostom (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 40.1) comments on this as a heretical practice among the Marcionites. Craig Blomberg writes, “Early church fathers allude to such a practice among second-century Gnostic and Gnostic-like groups, in which living believers were baptized on behalf of those in their sect or group who had died without being baptized (cf. Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.10; Chrysostom’s Homily on 1 Cor. 40.1; Epiphanius, Heresies 28; and Philaster, Heresies 49). Given the Corinthians’ tendencies toward early Gnostic belief and practice, it is not difficult to imagine something similar having begun among at least a few in Corinth already in the first century.”[3]

The Corinthians were obsessed with who baptized them (1 Cor. 1:13-17), so it shouldn’t surprise us to see that they (or others in the vicinity of the church) were ascribing magical properties to baptism. But this practice should not be followed today.

[1] Johnson, A. F. (2004). 1 Corinthians (Vol. 7, p. 295). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 766). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 267.