What Does Baptism For The Dead Mean?
In the great resurrection chapter (1 Corinthians 15), Paul states on the subject something that is very perplexing and confusing to a lot of people who study the Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 15:29: "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?" The Latter-Day Saints will take this verse out of its context and apply it to a present-day religious practice (proxy baptism - a living person is baptized on behalf of a person who has already died so that they can receive salvation) that God never intended.
What does this passage mean?
Remember that context is king. Paul had been discussing the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and how it is connected to the general resurrection of the righteous and the wicked at the consummation of the age, which some at Corinth were denying. Paul begins by showing evidence that there were many eyewitnesses that saw the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). He then follows up with the dangerous implications of "what if the resurrection of Jesus Christ had not occurred?" (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Next, Paul discusses the logical implications of the fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). In this section where our perplexing verse is (1 Corinthians 15:29-34), Paul is showing that both the doctrine and conduct of the apostles (as well as other witnesses) of the resurrection is given as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whatever this verse means, it has something to do with the subject of resurrection.
View # 1:
"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. Notice Paul says "they" (that is, those who denied the resurrection of the dead and practiced "baptism for the dead") instead of "we" (implying that this was not a belief or practice that Paul or any faithful Christian embraced).
2. The word "for" is from the Greek word, huper, which means "in reference to, on behalf of, in the place of" (Thayer's Greek Dictionary). The word "dead" is in the plural, which means "dead ones." Those who were denying the resurrection of the dead were being baptized on behalf of the ones who had already died (violating the principles of Philippians 2:12; Luke 16:26; etc.). Not only was this practice unscriptural, but it was a contradiction to their view that there is no resurrection of the dead.
View # 2:
1. The word "they" here probably refers to those who denied the resurrection of the dead.
2. The word "for" is from the Greek word, huper, which means "in reference to."
3. The word "dead" is in the plural, which means "dead ones."
4. When they were baptized into Christ, they came from a spiritually dead state (Ephesians 2:1, 2) to a spiritual living state (Romans 6:1-10). They were raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). There being baptized implicitly also relates to a future physical, bodily resurrection of the dead.
"Otherwise, what will they (those that deny the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead) do who are baptized for (in reference to) the dead (ones), if the dead (ones) do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for (in reference to) the dead (ones)?"
To state it another way: "Or why did the ones denying the resurrection get themselves baptized since baptism relates to the resurrection from the dead? If there is no resurrection from the dead, why would they submit to an act that relates to the resurrection?"
Long ago, Jesse Sewell and David Lipscomb wrote in their Questions and Answers book on page 165: "All who are buried with Christ in baptism declare by that act that they believe that he was buried and rose again; and in believing that he rose, we at the same time believe and by our action declare our faith in a resurrection of all the dead (emp. added). In our immersion, therefore, we declare by that action that we believe in the resurrection of all the dead, of Christ first and through Him all others. If Christ did not rise from the dead, burial with Him in baptism would be meaningless; and if He rose not, then no others will rise, and the religion of Jesus is a failure at last."
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