Baptized for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from 1 Corinthians:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2013)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study

 

BAPTIZED FOR THE DEAD

        The number of interpretations given to 1 Corinthians 15:29 keeps growing.  In the 1950's, the number of interpretations was over 50.1  Recently, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Fisher (op. cit., p.247) wrote, "Over 300 interpretations have been given to this difficult saying."  Fee has suggested that most interpreters attempt to find an alternative meaning for one of three words – either "baptize" or "for" or "the dead."2

        How have interpreters understood these words "baptized for the dead"?  The interpretations suggested can be set forth, or classified, under three groups:

I.  Baptism, or washing, in the proper sense (dip, submerge, drench, wash in water, or immerse), but not the baptism that is an ordinance of Christ. Many possibilities are suggested:

A. The washing of dead bodies.  (Beza)

The word "baptized" in this interpretation is taken in the sense of washing or purifying, as in Mark 7:4, Hebrews 6:2 and 9:10.  The claim is that dead bodies were carefully washed and purified just before burial, because they hoped for a resurrection.

REFUTATION:  (1) Baptidzo does not mean ablution or washing; baptidzo is used with no other connotation than full submersion.  (2) The participle "baptized" in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is in the middle or passive voice, indicating something the subject does for himself or for his own benefit.  We are not to give it an active meaning like Beza did.

B. The wetting of those who wash the dead.  (Beza)

Based on this interpretation, the supposed meaning is, Why get wet as you prepare the bodies of the dead for burial if there is to be no resurrection?

REFUTATION:  Same as above.  Further, if this were the true interpretation, "dead" in 1 Corinthians 15:29 would have to be in the accusative case rather than genitive case.

C. The ritual ablution used by the Jews before they offered their sacrifices for the dead.  (Cornelius)

REFUTATION:  The chief defect in this explanation is that the argument is based on the presupposition of frequent sacrifices for the dead offered by Jewish people, a practice about which we know little or nothing.  Paul is not basing his argument to the Corinthians on Jewish practices that may not even have existed in Corinth or anywhere else.

D. The washing of purification required when there has been contact with a dead body.  (Vasquez)

This idea refers back to the Old Testament Law.  See Leviticus 11:8-43.

REFUTATION:  What connection Jewish ceremonial purification has with the topic of the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15 is hard to see.

E. Vicarious purification for those who died in impurity.  (Turrianus)

REFUTATION:  Turrianus' opinion assumes a Jewish practice of vicarious purification or baptism for those who died tainted with legal impurity.  Such a practice is nowhere mentioned, and is still to be proved historically.

F. The immersion of divers trying to rescue bodies of shipwrecked sailors. (Flaccius)

REFUTATION:  The fishing for the bodies of those drowned at sea has nothing in common with the doctrine of the resurrection.  Further, if Greeks denied any future resurrection, who would ever think that attempts to recover the bodies of the drowned was so that they one day might get a resurrection body?

G. A reference to some sort of ceremony or ritual performed in connection with baptism.  (Ceulemans, Fouard, Bover)

REFUTATION:  Such ceremonies associated with the act of baptism are found only after Paul's time.  The book of Acts indicates that, in the 1st century, the act of baptism, i.e., its administration, was very simple.

 

II.  Baptism in a metaphorical (figurative) sense.

A. Baptism (i.e., doing the works of penance) for the relief of the dead.  (Bellarmane, the Roman Catholic interpretation)

How "relief for the dead" is thought to be an argument for or against resurrection is hard to see.

REFUTATION:  This commentator cannot agree to the idea that giving alms, fasting, and praying on the part of relatives of the deceased will bring relief to the deceased (who is supposedly in Purgatory).  Philippians 2:12 (KJV) states that each person is to "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."  No one except each person himself is able to meet any of the conditions prerequisite to personal salvation, and that only while he is living in this world.

B. Baptism for the dead means sadness over the dead.  (Brochmann)

That is, people mourned (and shed many tears) because of the death of a loved one, and are thus "baptized for the dead."

REFUTATION:  Mourning for the dead in no way indicates a belief in the resur­rection.  Rather, it might be argued that the more the mourners "cried," that is, "are baptized," the less faith they would be showing in the resurrection.

C. Baptism as the persecutions endured to hasten the Parousia.  (Hoekstra)

It is said the faithful undergo persecutions and calamities with the special intention of allowing the cup of iniquity to be filled, so that second coming is hastened, and thus the dead are helped by bringing about their resurrection sooner.

REFUTATION:  There is no proof of any such practice, especially that those persecuted were consoled in their tribulations by thinking of the aid they were giving to those already dead.  Rather, those persecuted were thinking of the crown that awaited them in heaven.  This interpretation is hardly an argument for or against the idea of future resurrection.

D. The baptism of suffering or martyrdom.  (Maldanatus)

This seems to be the most popularly accepted interpretation during the 20th century.3  It is said the word "baptized" is used here as it is in Mark 10:39 and Luke 12:50, in the sense of being 'overwhelmed' with calamities, trials, and suffer­ings.  It is understood as meaning that the apostles and others were subjected to great trials on account of the dead, i.e., in hope of the resurrection or with the expectation that the dead would rise.

This interpretation would agree with the general tenor of the argument.  (1) It agrees with the context, verses 30ff.  (2) A denial of the resurrection would indi-cate their sufferings had all been for nought.  (3) The tense of baptidzomai (see IA above on p.1) can be made to harmonize with this view.  (4) Grubbs indicated that a reference to suffering or martyrdom is a necessary, vital, and logical link in the apostle's argument for the resurrection.  (a) Verse 13 - If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised.  (b) Verse 15 - If Christ has not been raised, the apostles are false witnesses.  (c) Verse 29 - If they were false witnesses, why stood they in jeopardy every hour?

OBJECTIONS to the view that the baptism of suffering is the baptism intended:  (1) It is not the usual and natural meaning of the word "baptize."  Paul elsewhere uses the word to denote the baptism commanded in the Great Commission.4  Oi baptidzomenoi – "those being baptized" – "unless otherwise defined, can only mean the recipients of Christian baptism."5  (2) A metaphorical use of a word should not be resorted to unless necessary.  (3) This interpretation does not relieve us from any of the difficulties in regard to the phrase "for the dead."

 

III.  Baptism that is the ordinance Christ commanded. -- the baptism of penitent believers in Christ.

A. Baptism for the benefit of another (usually understood to be someone already dead).  There are a number of variants to this theme:

1. Vicarious baptism, baptized on behalf of someone who is dead.  (Ambrosiaster, Shore, Anselm, Grotius, Meyer, Alford, the RSV, and the Mormons)6  Vicarious baptism is the baptizing of living proxies in place of those who had died unbaptized.7

a. Arguments for this interpretation:  (1) Many strange opinions and practices existed at Corinth.  (2) It is affirmed Paul is arguing ad hominem.  Paul would be saying, "What good is this practice of vicarious baptism, if the dead are not raised?"  Most commentators who take the verse to refer to vicarious baptism suggest it was practiced at Corinth, but affirm Paul did not approve of the practice.8

b. OBJECTIONS:  (1) There is no evidence that such a custom prevailed during the time of Paul.  (That this custom prevailed in the church after the time of Paul has been abundantly proved.  Especially was such a practice found among the heretics; see Cerinthus, c. AD 100 and following;9 the Marcionites, 2nd century through the 6th century.)  The practice of vicarious baptism may well have arisen from a perversion of this text.  (2) See Philippians 2:12.  Man is responsible for his own salvation.  Salvation is not by proxy.  (3) In a context which talks about "resurrection of dead (bodies)," what would be the point of bringing up such a practice as vicarious baptism.  A person's soul could be in bliss or not, and no resurrection is needed in such an argument.  (4) To answer the Mormons is difficult, not because of the strength of their arguments, but because they are not on common ground with us.  To refute their ideas, we must first refute their "new revelation."10

2. Vicarious eschatological baptism.  (Preisker)

According to this theory, when the definite, predetermined number of the elect is filled, Christ will return.  This baptism (vicariously) helps fill up the number and thus helps hasten the Parousia.

REFUTATION:  Both the 'vicarious' and the 'eschatological' ideas are false as far as the Scripture teaches.

3. Baptism of a dead body sought vicariously.  (Julian)

The idea is that a relative of the deceased sought a baptism of the corpse, as though it would help ensure salvation.

REFUTATION:  See Philippians 2:12.

4. Baptism in defense of the faith in the resurrection on the part of those who died.  (Muller)

It is asserted that baptism was received by those who denied the resurrection with the special intention of defending the Christians who have died in the faith of the resurrection.

REFUTATION: There is no foundation in this text, or in reason, for this opinion.

B. Baptism for the benefit of the one being baptized.

1. Baptism of those who have already received the Holy Spirit.  (Montanus) 

Montanus referred to Cornelius and his family (Acts 10).  He says, "Since Cornelius and his family were already washed of their sins [when they were baptized of the Holy Spirit], the act of baptism bore witness not to the resurrection in newness of life, but to the death of the body and the future resurrection of the body."  (Elucidations)

REFUTATION:  Montanus, it seems, is right in his conclusion, but wrong in his hypothesis.  The Holy Spirit descending upon a man would not save, apart from baptism in water in obedience to Christ.  Three times we are told in Acts the baptism of the Holy Spirit was to convince Peter that the Gentiles were eligible to obey the gospel (Acts 10:47, 11:15-17, 15:8).

2. Baptism that includes the mortification of the passions.  (Julian) 

It is true that we die to sin in baptism, and rise to walk in newness of life.

REFUTATION: To thus interpret this passage, we must understand the word "dead" in two different senses in the same verse, and there is no warrant for this (Luke 9:60 notwithstanding).

3. Baptism of those who are on their death bed.  (Epiphanius) 

These would be baptized "for the dead," because (having no hope of gaining anything more in this life) they hoped to gain what all righteous dead will gain – the resurrection to life eternal.

REFUTATION:  The Scriptures do not encourage waiting to repent until one is on one’s death bed.

4. Baptism by which we take the place of the Christians who have died.  (Le Clerc, Hammond)

REFUTATION: This makes verse 29 irrelevant to the argument because, the place of the dead being supplied by their successors, it would be no matter to them whether the dead themselves rose or not.

5. Baptism, at which the names of the dead Christians are received.  (Hensius) 

Hensius wrote, "Baptism succeeds circumcision and retains certain of its rites; among which is the giving of a name."  Thus, to those to be baptized, and especially infants, the Christians were accustomed to give the names of the dead "apostles, martyrs, holy fathers, deceased relatives ... in order that these might still exist and live ...."

REFUTATION:  How many of the apostles, "holy fathers," and relatives had died by the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians?  And the utter folly of his idea that the early Christians baptized infants!

6. Baptism over the sepulchres of the martyrs.  (Luther)

REFUTATION: There is no indication of martyrdom at Corinth at this time.

7. Baptism for the dead means baptism for the sake of Christ who died.  (Spanhemius, and see also the article in Christian Standard, October 10, 1931)

REFUTATION:  "The dead" (toi nekroi) is plural, and cannot be a reference to the death of Christ.

8. Baptized after having been exhorted by a friend or relative now dead.  (Robertson and Plummer, so in substance Lenski, G.G. Findlay, and Jeremias) 

The idea is that some are baptized out of respect for folk who have since died.  Persons, previously inclined to Christianity, sometimes ended up being baptized out of affection or respect for the dead, i.e., because some Christian relation or friend had died, earnestly desiring and praying for their conversion.

REFUTATION: How does this add any weight or argument to show the resur­rection of the dead?  (Jeremias tries to avoid this point by writing "with a view to becoming united with the Christian dead in the resurrection.")

9. Baptism received for fanciful reasons.  (Krausins) 

'What shall they do who receive baptism because they are urged to, being beguiled and deceived by idle dreams, and thoughts of the dead?'

REFUTATION:  What value is this for proving either immortality or the resurrection?

10. Baptism for their own dead bodies. 

The baptism Paul alludes to is the baptism commanded in the Great Commission, the baptism administered to all believers, an act that pictures death, burial, and resurrection (cp. Romans 6:3-5).  Paul is basing his refutation of their denial of resurrection on the need for them to be consistent.  How can they at one time submit to immersion (a vivid picture of resurrection), and then in the next breath insist they do not believe in resurrection?

This is the view advocated by Chrysostom, by the Greek Fathers Theophylact and Theodoret, by Erasmus, Evans, Cornelius A. Lapide, Wordsworth, and Lenski.  See this view presented ably by Owen L. Crouch, "Baptism for the Dead" in Christian Standard 86 (July 22, 1950), p.461.

This is the view advocated in this commentary.

 

Conclusions:

        Vicarious baptism cannot be accepted as a possible explanation.  The phrase cannot mean that the baptism of certain living persons conveys benefit to other persons who are already dead.  The presence of the article, "the dead," and the close connection of "of the dead" to the participle "baptized" prevent this interpretation from being given.

        Two viable interpretations then are left – namely, the baptism of suffering (or martyrdom), and the baptism that puts one into the body of Christ (believer's baptism, it is called).  The latter part of this verse (1 Corinthians 15:29) will suggest that the baptism of the Great Commission, the baptism that puts one into the body of Christ, is the one intended.

        If there is to be no resurrection of dead bodies, why go through a ceremony (i.e., the baptism in water commanded in the Great Commission) that pictures death, burial and resurrection?

 

 

     1 Bernard M. Foschini, "Those Who are Baptized for the Dead" 1 Cor. 15:29:  An Exegetical Historical Dissertation (Worchester, MA:  Heffernan Press, 1951).  Foschini's study originally appeared as a series of articles in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly beginning with Vol.12 (July 1950), p.260ff, and continuing on in volume 13 (1951).
     2 Gordon H. Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians” in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1987), p.765.
     3 It is the position presented by Lightfoot, Rosenmuller, Pearce, Homberg, Krause, Robinson, Godet, MacKnight, Grubbs, and G.M. Elliott.  The baptism of suffering was defended by Grayson H. Ensign in "Baptism for the Dead" in Christian Standard 86 (August 26, 1951), p.540.
     4 See Romans 6:3ff; 1 Corinthians 1:14,16ff, 10:2, 12:3; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12.
     5 Findlay, Expositor's Greek Testament., V.2, p.930.
     6 Fee (op. cit., p.764) affirms that a fair reading of the Greek is that some were being baptized, vicariously, in behalf of other people who have already died.  A. Oepke [in Kittel, TDNT, Vol.1, p.542, n.83] wrote that "all interpretations which seek to evade vicarious baptism for the dead ... are misleading."  Beasley-Murray [Baptism in the New Testament, p.185-192] agrees.  A.B. Oliver also advocated this view in "Why are They Baptized for the Dead?  A Study of 1 Cor. 15:29," in Review and Expositor 34 (1937), p.48-53.
     7 Chrysostom [Hom. 40 on 1 Cor. 1] derisively tells of the practice among the Marcionites that if a person who intended to become a member of the church, and was actually under instruction (a catechumen) died before being immersed, sometimes someone else underwent baptism on behalf of the person who had died unimmersed.  The practice sprang from the idea that unless a person is baptized, he was excluded from the bliss of the faithful in heaven.  It was to safeguard against this exclusion that sometimes people volunteered to be immersed on behalf of those who had died.  While the thrust of his scholarly article is the need to punctuate verse 29 differently from how our KJV version does, K.C. Thompson, "1 Corinthians 15:29 and Baptism for the Dead" in Studia Evangelica II (1964), p.647ff, agrees with Chrysostom's view that "baptism for the dead" was vicarious baptism.
     8 Other evidence is marshaled to defend the idea that Paul disapproved of the practice.  For example, attention is called to the fact that Paul uses the third person "they" when he writes ("what will those do ...?") – the suggestion being that the third person indicates that whatever "baptism for the dead" is, it is not something the whole church is doing.
     9 Epiphanius relates that the followers of Cerinthus practiced vicarious baptism.  Haer. xxviii.6
     10 See Luke P. Wilson, "The Mormon Doctrine of Salvation for the Dead:  An Examination of its Claimed Biblical Texts," Christian Research Journal, Nov-Dec 1997, p.22ff.  According to Mormon teaching, Jesus went to the spirit world during the time between His death and resurrection, where He appointed missionaries from among the righteous to preach to those who had died without the gospel.  Because baptism is essential to eternal life, Christ also instituted proxy baptism for the dead as an ordinance for the church so that those who accepted the gospel in the spirit world could have the rite performed on their behalf to seal their salvation.

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