It’s not often that one comes across a verse that most people don’t have an answer for, either right or wrong. Usually people are quick to deem one as the “correct” answer, even if it’s blatantly incorrect, just for the sake of having an answer in the first place, rather than have the question just exist in limbo. Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:29 though, is one such verse. It reads: 

“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?” 

This statement about “baptism” for the dead, found only here in the entire Bible, has created quite a conundrum; what exactly does Paul mean here? The casual way Paul remarks on it implies that what he’s referring to is common knowledge with his readers – something that has possibly been lost to us nearly 2,000 years later.

There are several ideas as to what Paul is referring to here, such as a baptism for those who are “dead” in their sins (Eph. 2:1), which is nothing different from the water baptism that is described numerous times elsewhere as being essential for salvation. Still others contend that the actual word “baptism” denotes a metaphorical immersion, or possibly another type of baptism that is unrelated to the washing away of sins.

The most obvious explanation is the one promulgated by the Mormons – the idea of a vicarious baptism for those who have since deceased. Their idea is noble: a belief that, since much of the world might have never heard of Jesus before, they would never have had the opportunity to fulfill the requirements for salvation – baptism for the dead takes care of that. This explains their massive interest in genealogical records, as well as the teams of Mormons who are scouring Catholic and Protestant cemeteries and death records, hoping to convert the entire whole of the afterlife.

This idea not only is contradictory to other teachings of the Bible – Proverbs 11:7; Ezekiel 18:1-4; John 8:24; Luke 16:26; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27 for starters – but also to the teachings of their own mormon Bible. Alma 34:35-36 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 does seal you his. Therefore, the spirit of the Lord has withdrawn from you and hath no place in you; the power of the devil is over you, and this is the final state of the wicked.” Since even their own scriptures denounce such a teaching, how could most Mormons believe it?

There is an emotional attachment that supersedes Mormonism, and that is the desire to see your family in the afterlife. No doubt false doctrines arose from this type of position, as Christian wives pleaded for their husbands to obey Jesus as death drew nearer (and vice versa); there inevitably would spawn a belief that there was hope after death. But if there was, don’t you think the rich man in Luke 16 would have asked Abraham for it?

Knowing what it doesn’t mean then, what exactly was Paul getting at? Any answer has to be taken in light of the context that Paul was speaking in 1 Corinthians 15, which has 99% to do with the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection; indeed, he brought up the idea of baptism for the dead to affirm the reality of the resurrection. His emphasis is on affirming the fact that we will arise from the dead, and so the whole of our life is geared towards that reality. If it is not true, then our faith is void (v. 18), we are pitiable (v.19), and Paul’s own work is in vain as well (v.30-32). Whatever specific answer Paul was getting at lies within that same framework of persuasion, and ultimately does nothing to change our salvation requirements at all. Paul’s point remains firm: live your life with confidence, knowing that the resurrection of the dead is imminent!

Last modified: January 22, 2019