What does 1 Corinthians 15:29 mean?


by Shawn Brasseaux

“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?” This is probably the most mysterious verse in all of the Pauline epistles—yea, in all the Bible. I doubt there is a person on earth who could fully explain it. This is partly because religion has done a very thorough job in making it extremely complicated by offering their various, and sometimes foolish, guesses as to what it means. Yet, we can use the context to shed much light on this verse. Brethren, to the Scriptures we go to be illuminated!

Some groups—Mormons, for instance—use 1 Corinthians 15:29 to teach that we should water baptize for the dead. (Hence, that organization is well known for keeping the most systematic genealogical records in the world.) The technical terms for this teaching are “baptism by proxy” and “baptism in abstentia.” That is, one individual being water baptized in the place of a dead person—especially a “non-churched” blood relative—in hopes of getting the deceased into heaven. Years ago, one local Roman Catholic priest slyly attempted to use the verse to say “early Christians” practiced it as some type of cleansing for the afterlife. He twisted the verse all out of shape just to advance his church’s (fabricated) tenet of “purgatory.” We will come right out and say it. Although this “baptism by proxy” or “baptism in abstentia” can be traced back to the second century A.D., these doctrines are flat-out heresies and completely false. They certainly are not the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:29. The earliest Christians never practiced “baptism by proxy” and “baptism in abstentia” because the Bible never commands it! Furthermore, you would have to be blind and desperate to make 1 Corinthians 15:29 teach the notion that a judgmental fire cleanses souls in the afterlife before they reach heaven!

Others claim the verse refers to people who were water baptized because of the testimony of those who had died. A “scholar” writes, “A reasonable view seems to be… living believers who give outward testimony to their faith in baptism by water because they were first drawn to Christ by the exemplary lives, faithful influence, and witness of believers who had subsequently died.” Another explanation of the verse is that new converts in the church were water baptized to take the place of members who had died. These two interpretations are also useless. They too are spoken by denominational people advancing their churches’ traditions by forcing water baptism into this the Dispensation of Grace (Ephesians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13; 1 Corinthians 1:17)!

With these opening thoughts divulged, we proceed to determine exactly what the Apostle Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Firstly, the context cannot aid us in defining that term “baptized for the dead.” We have no idea what “baptism” this is—and even those people who enjoy using 1 Corinthians 15:29 to prove their denomination right, they have no idea what the verse is saying. The Corinthians were once pagan (1 Corinthians 12:2). Pagan religions have their water rituals and rites. Whatever “baptism” that is in 1 Corinthians 15:29, it was something the Corinthians knew (from the time when they were lost). Remember that the same pagans who baptize for the dead today existed then in Paul’s day, so Paul may be referring to that. (?)

Secondly, if we look at the verse, we see, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead” and “why are they then baptized for the dead?” Because Paul uses the pronoun “they,” we know he does not associate himself with this baptism (he would have used “we”) and we know that the Christians at Corinth are not related to that baptism (he would have used “you” or “us”). The word “they” indicates that no member of the Body of Christ was performing this baptism of 1 Corinthians 15:29—this was not something for Christians. Despite what religion says today, 1 Corinthians 15:29 was not describing a Christian practice. The verse involves a third party—it was not Paul (writer) and it was not the Corinthians (audience). That fact rules out Christians from the verse entirely. End of story.

Thirdly, if you come across people who want to discuss 1 Corinthians 15:29, point out to them that Paul never condoned whatever “baptism” it was, and we are never commanded to administer it. The expression “baptism for the dead” appears nowhere else in Scripture, which makes it more mysterious. What we know is that Paul was simply making a point, not giving a command to the Corinthians (or to us). If it were such a big deal, something that we ought to believe and practice, Paul would have repeated it in other epistles. He would have given instruction on how to do it instead of making a single, vague reference to it. The Holy Spirit would have provided have been more details had it been worth discussing and practicing. There are no such details so we have no reason to get involved in it. (But, of course, people looking to advance pet denominational tenets will use anything and everything to defend themselves, with no regard for God’s precious Word.)

Ultimately, the whole argument of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is not that “baptism” at all. Religionists miss the theme of the context and just pick on an appealing phrase found in it. It is typical of denominations to “use the verses you want and ignore the ones you don’t!” The purpose of 1 Corinthians chapter 15 is to prove the doctrine of resurrection as valid, not water baptism as valid, and certainly not this “baptism for the dead” as valid. Paul was defending the doctrine of bodily resurrection, which the Corinthians were denying (verse 12). The Apostle was arguing that, if there were no such thing as resurrection, those being baptized for the dead were wasting their time, for the dead would never be resurrected. There is no approval of the practice, just an affirmation of the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Imagine, there are 58 verses on resurrection in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, and the only thing religious people focus on is one silly baptism verse and one silly baptism doctrine. Shame, shame, shame!! Insane, insane, insane!!

Also see:
» Should we be water baptized—for salvation, for a testimony, or not at all?
» Why was the Lord Jesus baptized?
» Why did Paul water baptize?