“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).
These words are a part of a greater context. Some were teaching that there is no resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12). Paul, in response to this, reasoned with these Christians: (1) God either has the power to raise the dead, or He does not. If God does not have the power to raise the dead, then Christ is risen (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). However, hundreds can testify to the resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Christ is risen from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20a). Therefore, do not think that it is impossible for God to raise the dead. (2) God not only raised Christ, He will raise those who are in Christ to a better existence (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 50-58). “Therefore… be steadfast, immoveable always abounding in the word of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). (3) Have you considered the implications of not believing that we will be raised? If the dead are not raised, then why be baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29). If the dead are not raised, why stand in jeopardy every hour? (1 Corinthians 15:30). Why endure the things that we do? “If, in the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage is it to me? If the dead do not rise, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!'” (1 Corinthians 15:32).
What is baptism for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29). (1) Some have understood this to refer to vicarious or proxy baptism by the living for those already dead. The Mormons so teach (this is one of the reasons that Mormons maintain the largest genealogical library in the world). However, there are some difficulties with this view: (a) Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, was not writing to introduce a new kind of baptism. Instead, he was reasoning from an existing practice. Where is proxy baptism clearly instructed in the New Testament? Where is the clear New Testament example of anyone being baptized for another? (b) This view denies that there is a great gulf fixed at death which cannot be passed over (Luke 16:26; Hebrews 9:27). (c) This view undermines personal responsibility (Ezekiel 18:20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 17:30; Romans 12:1; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:13). (d) New Testament baptism, for the remission of sins, involves – personal belief (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 8:36-37; Acts 18:8); repentance (Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19); and, confession (Acts 8:36-38). (e) It seems to violate the Book of Mormon which reads, “For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked” (Alma 34:35). (f) The third person plural pronouns “their” and “those” appear several times in this chapter. The reference is at times to the dead or those who had died (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:18, 23, 35 cf. 15:29). Some believe that this is asking “What will they (the dead) do who are baptized for the dead (on behalf of their dead selves), if the dead do not rise at all?”
(2) Some have suggested that Paul was referring to an existing practice, without endorsing the practice. Gary Workman explains that some see this as “an argumentum ad hominem – an appeal to something that was being practiced even though one does not agree with it (see, for example, Matthew 12:27). Paul would therefore not be condoning proxy baptism any more than Jesus believed that the Jews were actually casting out demons” (Workman, Baptism For The Dead, The Restorer, January 1992). Two obvious difficulties exist with this view. (a) Wayne Jackson expresses one difficulty, saying, “Why would Paul mention, even in an ad hominem fashion, this practice of proxy baptism, without any censor, when such a practice is so patently foreign to the New Testament teaching regarding the nature of baptism? Does it make sense that the apostle would rebuke one error (no resurrection), and yet pass over in silence an equally false view (proxy baptism)? (Jackson, Mormon Doctrine: Baptism For The Dead, http://www.christiancourier.com). (b) Jim McGuiggan expresses a second difficulty, saying, “You can show your opponent is inconsistent for practicing something which logically implies the resurrection of the dead if he denies the resurrection of the dead but you can’t establish the truth of the resurrection of the dead by basing your argument on their erroneous practice” (McGuiggan, The Book of 1 Corinthians, pp. 196-197). There is an additional consideration, (c) Gary workman explains, ” There is no evidence that any such proxy baptism occurred in the first century. The earliest known practice of it among Christians was by the followers of Cerinthus and by Marcionites, two heretical groups in the second century. But these groups may have derived their practice from a misinterpretation of this very practice” (Workman, ibid). Admittedly, this could have been practiced by some earlier, though the historical evidence is lacking.
(3) Some believe that this refers to New Testament baptism in water for the remission of sins. It is believed that the sinner is baptized for the dead. (a) Some understand “the dead” to refer to Christ; that is, they were baptized for Christ, who died for them. However, this cannot be for “the dead” is plural (literally the dead ones). (b) Others believe that “the dead” refers to the future state of these people. They are baptized in preparation for the afterlife. The word “for” (huper) can mean “on behalf of,” or “for the sake of,” or “concerning,” or “with reference to” (see 2 Thessalonians 1:4; Romans 9:27). I have no strong objection to this view.
(4) Some believe that this refers to these brethren baptizing others for the dead. Wayne Jackson explains, “Some scholars suggest that the preposition huper – “for…” can signify “in place of,” or “instead of” (cf. Arndt and Gingrich, 1967, 846). This might reflect the meaning that those being baptized were doing so to ‘take the place of’ the dead. James MacKnight refers to an ancient Greek writer who describes the replacement of soldiers who died in battle: ‘They decreed to enlist other soldiers in place of [huper] those who had died in war’ (1954, 203). The meaning of the passage might thus be: ‘If, as some of you argue, there will be no resurrection, why do you continue to baptize folks to take the place of your comrades who have died in defense of their faith? If there is to be no resurrection, why replenish the church?'” (Jackson, Mormon Doctrine: Baptism For The Dead, ibid). Why do you continue to baptize people to replace others who have died for the faith? I have no strong objection to this view. However, this seems, at best, remotely related to the subject of the resurrection.
(5) I believe that the context best fits the baptism (overwhelming) of suffering [Matthew 20:22-23 (cf. Matthew 26:39; Hebrews 2:9); Luke 12:50]. Consider the words of Foy Wallace Jr., “Have you ever observed carefully the context of that passage (1 Corinthians 15:29 – B.H.)? The very next verse says, “And why stand we in jeopardy every hour?’ (1 Corinthians 15:30 B.H.) And in the verse after that the apostle says, ‘I die daily’ (1 Corinthians 15:31 B.H.). They were living in ‘jeopardy’ as Christians in the constant liability of death. Some had ‘fallen asleep’ – martyrs who had died for believing and testifying to the resurrection. Those who had not died were baptized, immersed in the sufferings referred to by Paul. They were in the daily peril of death, their lives ‘in jeopardy every hour.’… why should those who had died, be baptized in their sufferings, immersed in sorrow and death, ‘for the dead’… Hence, what shall they do, who like Jesus were baptized in suffering, if there is no resurrection of the dead? And why should we who live ‘stand in jeopardy every hour,’ live in daily peril of death, as though ‘ appointed to death’ (1 Corinthians 4:9 B.H.), if there is no resurrection of the dead? What is the gain? What is the inducement to be baptized in such suffering if there is no resurrection? In verse 32 the apostle refers to his own experience in Ephesus when he withstood opposition as though he had ‘fought with beasts,’ and he asked, ‘What advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? It appears clear to me that the baptism of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is not a baptism in water, but a baptism in sufferings, which all endure for the resurrection of the dead” (Wallace, God’s Prophetic Word, pp. 281-282). I think that this best fits the context.
A word of caution: While there may be a few possible meanings to this difficult passage, which do not contradict what is plainly taught elsewhere in scripture, one should reject any interpretation which goes against what is plainly taught elsewhere in scripture. Moreover, one should be cautious not to build an entirely new doctrine out of a passage with dubious meaning. Clear passages should be used to help interpret difficult passages and not the other way around. Difficult passages should be harmonized with clear passages.