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What Did Paul Mean by Baptism for the Dead?

Biblical Authority Devotional: The Resurrection, Part 10

by Chuck Mcknight on April 22, 2011
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Chuck McKnight, AiG–U.S., discusses the importance of the Resurrection from one of the most ambiguous passages in Scripture.

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? (1 Corinthians 15:29)

Today’s big question: what did Paul mean by baptism for the dead?

This is certainly one of the most confusing verses in the Bible. Theologians have suggested myriads of explanations for what Paul might have been talking about. We must therefore approach the verse with humility, understanding that fellow believers may have different interpretations.

Let us first clear up what the verse does not state. It absolutely does not condone “proxy baptism” (as practiced by Mormons), whereby a living person is baptized on behalf of someone else who is dead. Such an action would clearly contradict biblical teaching.

Next, we should consider what purpose the verse serves here. The whole chapter was written in defense of the resurrection from the dead. Therefore, context suggests that this verse should follow that theme as well.

One view is that Paul referenced the practice of proxy baptism to show, even though it is wrong, those who do it at least believe in a future resurrection. Notice how Paul shifts from talking about “you” to “they.” This might represent a switch from the Corinthian believers to some other group. However, given that the majority of 1 Corinthians consists of Paul’s rebukes against unbiblical practices, it seems unlikely that he would bring up this one without specifically denouncing it.

There is another possibility. Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:4 show us how baptism pictures being buried with Christ, and we are buried with Christ so that we can be raised to life with Him. Baptism reminds us that the dead in Christ will be raised.

Given this understanding of baptism, when Paul spoke of those “who are baptized for the dead,” it seems very possible that he is referring to all believers when they are baptized. Believers’ baptism is “for the dead” or “concerning the dead [who will rise].” That is what gives it meaning. Paul may have been saying that “if the dead do not rise at all,” baptism would be pointless.

I believe this makes a strong argument for the truth of the resurrection, because the doctrine of baptism was already clearly established and accepted. Paul had already referenced baptism earlier in 1 Corinthians 1:13–17. In other words, to reject the doctrine of the resurrection, one must also reject the doctrine of baptism. This is a further demonstration of how central the resurrection is to Christianity. Take out the resurrection, and everything else falls apart.

Baptism has meaning because the dead in Christ will rise.

Today’s big idea: the dead in Christ will rise. Therefore, baptism is not pointless.

What to pray: thank God for the resurrection we have through Him, and for the reminder of this fact that we have in baptism.

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