Baptism for the Dead

A Study of 1 Corinthians 15:29

C. H. DOUGHERTY, Layman, Columbia Union Conference


"Else what shall they do which are bap­tized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?"

The Mormon communion uses 1 Corinthians 15:29 as a basis for baptizing living persons in behalf of the spirits of persons who die unbaptized but who since have repented in the spirit world and being unable to undergo baptism themselves, require the services of a living person to be baptized for them.

This practice is not accepted by the Bible student who believes the scriptural princi­ple that the dead are dead indeed—know nothing, their thoughts, love, hatred, envy perished; having no work, wisdom, knowl­edge, device, nor portion in anything done under the sun (Eccl. 9:5, 6, 10; Ps. 146:4). To such a student there is no hope for the dead apart from the promised literal resur­rection of the body, "I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:40, 54).

Some have taught that the word "dead" in our subject text refers to Christ, the con­text thought being that if Christ is not risen, then no dead will rise; our faith is in vain; we are yet in our sins; the dead in Christ are perished; there is no further hope for anyone (1 Cor. 15:12-19). There­fore, what shall they do who are baptized for a Christ who is dead, in His grave, un­able to resurrect them from their graves?

This theory will not bear close examina­tion, however, because in the original the word translated as "dead" is actually plural in the whole chapter. The Emphatic Dia­glott translates our text literally as fol­lows: "Otherwise what shall they do those being dipped on behalf of the dead ones, if at all dead ones not are raised up? why and are they dipped on behalf of them?" It is clear that if we are to understand the verse in accord with the Biblical doctrine of the state of the dead, we must have an accu­rate definition of exactly to whom Paul re­fers as "dead ones"; and this definition must be made by Paul himself in accord­ance with his own usage of the term.

Paul wrote this Epistle to the Gentile church at Corinth. He also wrote to the churches at Ephesus, Colosse, and Rome along the same line, and if we compare similar statements in his various Epistles, we learn to whom he refers as "dead ones."

"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12). "And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins." "Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ" (Eph. 2:1, 5).

"But yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead" (Rom. 6:13).

"But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth" (1 Tim. 5:6). "And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumci­sion of your flesh, hath he quickened to­gether with him, having forgiven you all trespasses" (Col. 2:13).

Thus Paul clearly designates all believ­ers, prior to conversion, as being dead. They were living bodily, but spiritually speaking, they were dead in trespasses and sins. This conclusion he undoubtedly re­ceived from the words of Christ when He said, "Let the dead bury their dead" (Matt. 8:22; Luke 9:60). "For this my son was dead, and is alive again"; "for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again" (Luke 15:24, 32). The apostle John conveys the same thought in 1 John 3:14: "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that lov­eth not his brother abideth in death." Bap­tism is a symbol of conversion from death to life, spiritually in this present life, and lit­erally from physical death to physical life through the resurrection of the dead, after the manner in which Christ was resurrected.

"Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:12). In baptism the believer is symbolically buried with Christ as dead, then he rises to new­ness of life with Him.

"Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection" (Rom. 6:3-5).

Baptism is a figure of entering into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as a seed is planted, then rises into a new growth. This thought Paul elaborates upon in I Corinthians 15:35 to 38 and 42 to 44. "So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incor­ruption" (verse 42).

Thus we have found two meanings, or uses, of the terms death and resurrection; one a spiritual, one a literal; the first pre­liminary to the second. In the first there is a spiritual resurrection from spiritual death to newness of life in Christ (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:13). In the second there is a literal resurrection from a physical death to a new­ness of physical life, with no more death to follow (Rom. 6:5, 8-11; 8:11; Rev. 20:6).

Life and death are incompatible. One destroys the other; therefore, death is the enemy of life. For a person to have eter­nal life, death must be destroyed; and that is what Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 15: 26—"The last enemy that shall be de­stroyed is death." Death will be destroyed by the resurrection to incorruptible life of the body (verse 52). This must be true; otherwise, what shall they do which are baptized for dead ones, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they baptized for dead ones?

We must know definitely just who was baptized, and for whom they were baptized. When you were baptized, for whom were you baptized, yourself, or someone else? Yourself, of course. And when you were baptized, you were baptized for a dead person, and that dead person also was yourself, according to the teaching of Paul. The same is true in all the properly bap­tized Christian world; all have been bap­tized for "dead ones," the dead ones being themselves, each for himself. Not only were they baptized for their former spiritually dead condition, but they were baptized for the physically dead condition that would be theirs in the course of time, that they might attain to the resurrection of the righteous dead through Christ.

That the dead ones in verse 29 refers to the believers themselves is made further apparent in verses 30 to 32. "And why stand we in jeopardy every hour?. .. What advan­tageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die." The we in these verses are a part of the they in verse 29. They in verse 29 is third person, referring to all who are so baptized, any­where, any time. We simply narrows the problem down to Paul and his associates in the ministry, and those who endangered their lives for the sake of the gospel. The Sal Bible Commentary, volume 6, pages 807 and 808, has the following to say on the above text:

"Why should the apostles constantly risk their lives to preach repentance and faith in Christ if there is no such thing as a resur­rection from the dead?"

How certain is it that Christ has risen from the dead? "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. . . . For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:20-22).

"Clarke, after saying that this (verse 29) is the most difficult passage in the New Testament .. . , sums up the apostle's mean­ing as follows: 'If there be no resurrection of the dead, those who, in becoming Chris­tians, expose themselves to all manner of privations . . . can have no reward, nor any motive sufficient to induce them to expose themselves to such miseries. But as they re­ceive baptism as an emblem of death, in voluntarily going under water; so they re­ceive it as an emblem of the resurrection unto eternal life, in coming up out of the water, thus they are baptized for the dead, in perfect faith of the resurrection.' The three following verses seem to confirm this sense."-The Emphatic Diaglott, p. 595, note. (1942 ed.)

"Else what shall they do who are baptized with a view to the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why at all are they baptized with a view to them? .. . 'Else,' if all that is stated in the preceeding is not fact. . . .

"All of the Corinthians are ... among the baptized, . . . {and] all others at other places who are baptized plus all others who receive baptism anywhere and at any time. The one mark that is characteristic of all of them is baptism, the sacrament which makes us Christians. . . . He starts with the reception of baptism because this begins the spiritual life of all Christians, and be­cause this very beginning already connects us with death and with the resurrection. Romans 6:3-5 tells us that baptism joins us to Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. Gal. 3:27, 29 makes it plain that by bap­tism we become 'heirs according to the promise,' and we know of no heavenly inheritance without both Christ's resurrec­tion and our own. .

"'The dead' of whom Paul speaks are not any persons who are dead, but the bap. tized Christians who died as such Chris­tians in the sure hope of a blessed resurrec­tion. Their example, i.e., their baptism and their godly life and final death in this sure hope, furnishes the motive that prompts the living also to desire and to receive bap­tism for the same blessed purpose. Paul's question, therefore, has this sense: that all who are thus moved to receive baptism have no hope, and their baptism is wholly in vain if there is no resurrection (for Christ and for Christians). This is the force of: 'Else what shall they do?'

"This is likewise true with regard to the second question: 'If the dead are not raised at all (if neither Christ nor Christians are raised), why at all are they baptized in view of them (i.e. the dead)?' In this sec­ond question the condition, which is com­pressed into 'else' in the first question, is fully written out: 'If the dead are not raised at all,' and (Gr) 'at all' includes the entire resurrection, that of Christ as well as that of Christians."—The Interpretation of 1 and 2 Corinthians, pp. 688-691.


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C. H. DOUGHERTY, Layman, Columbia Union Conference


June 1963

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