Scratching My Head at Baptism for the Dead

Rembrandt, The Apostle Paul, c. 1657Is it okay for a teacher or preacher of the Bible to admit that sometimes he just doesn’t know all the answers?

This question was impressed on me as I was preparing to teach on “baptism for the dead” this past Sunday morning. This text (1 Corinthians 15:29-34), to my mind, is one of the most enigmatic sections of the entire Bible. As I worked my way through the text, I just could not find much there to help me figure out exactly what the Corinthians were doing.

As I made my way through Gordon Fee’s commentary, it became really clear to me that I am not alone in this predicament (Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT, pp. 763-67). His survey of the interpretive options on offer is helpful, and I leave it to the reader to investigate them for himself. Yet even he points out that there are numerous difficulties in interpreting this text.

The most obvious interpretation of the language is that some in the Corinthian church were being baptized vicariously in behalf of some people who had already died. Thus our translations usually read something along these lines:

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (ESV)

The problem with this interpretation is twofold: (1) there is no historical or biblical precedent for such a baptism, and (2) it gives the appearance that Paul at least tolerates a magical view of baptism—a view that makes baptism efficacious apart from belief in Christ.

Moreover, Paul leaves us hanging on a number of important related issues: (1) Who was being baptized? (2) For whom? (3) Why were they doing it? (4) What effects did they think it had for those for whom it was being done? Paul doesn’t give us the answers to any of these questions.

So how do we teach a text like this one when the author won’t answer all of the questions that we have about the subject matter? My advice is this. Sometimes we just have to tell people that we can’t be one-hundred percent certain about what Paul is referring to historically, but we can be certain why he brings it up.

In this case, while it would be nice to know what the Corinthians were doing, we don’t have to know precisely in order to follow his argument. If we are going to listen to Paul’s argument, then we have to recognize that his point is that the Corinthians were participating in a rite that totally contradicted their stated belief that “there is no resurrection from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:12).

In this text, Paul is attempting to prove to them that their “baptism for the dead” (whatever that means) represented an expression of hope for the future. Such a hope makes no sense whatsoever if there is no resurrection of believers at the end of the age. In other words, Paul appeals to this practice not to define it or endorse it, but merely to show that the Corinthians are inconsistent. His main point is clear: “Repent of your denial of bodily resurrection, and believe the Gospel.”

So here is one case where I don’t have to know everything in order to faithfully explain Paul’s message. I can give my best guess as to what baptism for the dead was, but it would be just that—a guess. Maybe Gordon Fee is right. Perhaps “baptism for the dead” consisted in some believer’s being baptized for others who either were believers or were on their way to becoming believers when they died (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:30). At the end of the day, I still wouldn’t be able to prove it with indisputable certainty.

Nevertheless, I can explain why Paul brings the matter up and teach what Paul’s main point is. And this is the job of the preacher—to faithfully explain and apply the Bible. As usual, we have everything that we need to do just that.

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10 thoughts on “Scratching My Head at Baptism for the Dead”

  1. I appreciate your honesty, Denny. This passage is one in which the great interpretors over the centuries have been lost, but some modern commentators would like us to believe they can thrash the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with it. You made the wise choices in your discussion.
    One correction to your otherwise fine article, if I may. There is much of evidence in first and second century writings for the practice of baptism for the dead among the earliest Christians, which I would be quite willing to point out to you. The practice makes perfect sense to those who believe that those who have not heard the gospel clearly and simply in this mortal life will hear it after death, in the world of departed spirits, before their resurrection, but makes no sense to those who believe that all those who have not heard the Gospel in this mortal life are damned forever. Some modern as well as medieval theologians have puzzled and speculated about this problem, but the early Christians knew the answer, and it’s more than just about baptism. And isn’t it remarkable that Paul would include it among his proofs of the resurrection?

  2. Dear Lowell,

    Thanks for the comments. If you have found first-century evidence of vicarious baptisms for the dead, then I would like to see it. I know Chrysostom describes such a practice among the Marcionites, but they were heretics.

    If you have discovered some non-heretical instances, I think you will have been the first to uncover it.

    Richard Hays, First Corinthians, p. 267: “Vicarious baptism for the dead is not otherwise attested in first-century Christianity.”

    Gordon Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 764: “There is no known practice in any of the other churches nor in any orthodox Christian community in the centuries that immediately follow.”

  3. “In other words, Paul appeals to this practice not to define it or endorse it, but merely to show that the Corinthians are inconsistent. His main point is clear: “Repent of your denial of bodily resurrection, and believe the Gospel.”

    Well Dr. Burk you are consistent. This is exactly what you taught us in our hermeneutics class, we must keep the main point the main point. Also, we shouldn’t build doctrines out of silence. One might say, Paul never said it was wrong, so it’s not.

    This text is difficult but I have been taught that what the Corinthians were doing was wrong and that Paul was just using their ‘wrongful’ practice to argue against their wrong beliefs.

    Wade C.

  4. Hi,

    Have you heard the interpretation that many in the church at Corinth were being so persecuted that it was understood to make a public profession of faith meant you would be killed as a martyr?

    I have always understood this passage to mean this, and as you read it in the broad context of the passage…it makes sense.

  5. Jeremy,

    Yes, I have heard that interpretation. But there again, it’s a supposition that cannot be verified.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  6. Thanks again, Denny. I perceive that you don’t wish to be contentious, nor do I. I have to smile, however, for any early text that describes baptism for the dead positively is sure to be called “heretical” because the very idea goes against so much of today’s usual doctrine that no teaching or acceptance of Christ can take place after death. Any teaching that most Christians today don’t understand will likely be termed “heretical”. The following quotes are from a 68 page article titled “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times”, which is available to any one who will write to me a 35 W. 59th St., Indianapolis IN 46208.
    After discussing the righteousness of saints who lived before the birth of Jesus Christ, and describing a representation of them coming up out of water the Pastor of Hermas writes:”They had to come up through the water to be made alive, for they could not enter the kingdom of God in an other way than by laying aside the deadness of their former life. So even those who had fallen asleep received the seal of the Son of God. … So the water is the seal. … These apostles and teachers who had preached the name of the Son of God, when they fell asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to those who had previously fallen asleep, … For they had fallen asleep in righteousness and great purity, only they had not had this seal.” “It is necessary for them to come up through the water in order to be made alive; for otherwise none can enter the Kingdom of God … therefore even the dead receive the seal … The seal is, of course, the water.” (Chapter 16: 2-7) You might read the entire chapter to see that these excerpts are true to the teaching there.
    As you are probably aware, most scholars believe that most of the Pastor of Hermas was written in the early second century.The Pastor of Hermas appeared in a number of listings of canonical early New Testament books, but was not accepted when the final choices were made around 400 A.D. Tertullian, Epiphanius and other early Christians also discussed baptism for the dead.
    To really clarify the whole subject I recommend the entire article I referred to above.

  7. “Yes, I have heard that interpretation. But there again, it’s a supposition that cannot be verified.”

    May I offer a quibble here? That is, a quibble on the notion that “baptism” in 1 Corinthians is a term signifying persecution unto death. It is not a supposition that the term is used this way, for the other uses of the word “baptism” in this sense come from the mouth of the Lord Himself.

    This is the sense of the term in Matt. 20:22ff and also in Mark’s account of the same episode (Mk. 10:38ff). Jesus’ use of “baptism” to refer to some future cataclismic even in his own life (Luke 20:49) would be a tad problematic as to the sense of the word, absent His use of the term in Mark and Matthew.

    But, there is it, in at least two gospels, from the mouth of the Lord: “baptism” as the term to name a persecution unto death. Unless we wish to suppose (and it would be a huge supposition!) that Paul and the Corinthians had not access to either Matthew, Mark, or the oral tradition underlying them both, how can Paul’s words not evoke these sayings by Jesus?

    bq

  8. Dear Brother Quotidian,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I think there is no question that Paul had access to the oral traditions underlying the Gospel accounts (e.g. 1 Cor 11:23-26; 15:3-7, 36). As a matter of fact, I would not be surprised if he were the source of Luke’s Lord’s supper tradition (compare Lk 22:19-20 to 1 Cor 1:23-26).

    But in this case, there’s no evidence that Paul is drawing on an oral tradition that uses Jesus’ metaphorical meaning for baptism. For this reason, I haven’t found this interpretation convincing.

    Thanks,
    Denny

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