Baptizing for the Dead—First Corinthians 15:29

“Now if there is no resurrection,

what will those do who are baptized for the dead?

If the dead are not raised at all,

why are people baptized for them?”

This verse was written in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. The context of this verse is paramount to our salvation and to its interpretation, but we will get to that in a moment. There is much confusion aroused by this verse. There are even groups existing today that believe people can be baptized on behalf of loved ones passed away in order that they may be saved. Some have said this verse has had at least 40 explanations given, and others even more—as many as 200.[1] In this study, without attempting to add to the unnecessary plethora of interpretations, we are going to survey one interpretation in particular that seems to best suit the context of what Paul was trying to say. The key is context. This seems elementary, but it is more vital than ever to keep this verse in the context in which Paul was writing. At this time, it is necessary for the reader to stop and read First Corinthians 15:12–32 before going any further. After reading this passage, you will see clearly that Paul is arguing the reality of the resurrection—not just of Christ, but of Christians after they die.

             We will begin by looking at the end of the passage. In verses 29–32, Paul asks two rhetorical questions to support his argument for the resurrection: “why do we endanger ourselves every hour?” and “what will those do who are baptized for the dead?” These are two questions that are meant to prompt the people’s minds to reason with Paul and realize—”yes, there must be a resurrection.” But remember, at this point, we do not know exactly what he means by his statement of baptizing for the dead in verse 29.

            Let us now look at the preceding context of verses 12–19. These verses are all determined to complete the statement of Paul: “if there is no resurrection…” Paul says, if there is no resurrection, not even Christ was raised; our preaching is useless; our faith is useless; our faith is futile; we are false witnesses of God; we are still in our sins; all the Christians who have died are gone, no more, lost; and finally, we have no hope. It seems evident that Paul is writing to a people who believe Jesus has risen from the dead, but yet they do not believe in the resurrection. Paul is arguing that if there is no resurrection, then not even Christ was raised. This in itself would have sparked the attention of the readers and hearers. But Paul was not finished. The next section, verses 20–28, is an eloquent Pauline way of saying that Jesus is risen. Not only is he risen, but he is the firstfruits of all of us who will follow and rise as well. Paul says as clearly as one can, “so in Christ, all will be made alive” (vs. 22). Paul’s argument is that there is a resurrection. Christ is alive, and therefore, we will rise with him and have hope for eternity.

            An argument would not be one of Paul’s if it did not demand the people to think—to reason with him. Paul asks the rhetorical question in verse 29, “if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” We must remember that Paul is writing to a people who understand the necessity and practice of baptism (see the argument in First Cor. Ch. 1). The early church would have understood baptism as identification—identifying with the one whom you are baptized for or into.[2] We get a better glimpse of this as we look at Romans 6:1–10; please read before continuing. First, we must notice how Paul says in verse 3, “don’t you know…?” It seems evident that even the Christians in Rome should have understood the elementary ideology of baptism. It is safe to say Paul would have expected the Corinthians to understand this as well. In the passage in Romans, we understand that baptism is a death, burial, and resurrection identifying with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. We are baptized into Christ’s death; our sin nature dies and no long has mastery over us. Being fully immersed represents the burial of Christ; you bury things that are dead and are not meant to be dug up. We are raised out of the water identifying with Christ being risen from the dead; we live because he lives. Baptism is identification.

            Paul now comes to the mind provoking rhetorical question, but reworded for our understanding; “if there is no resurrection, why are you baptized?” Paul is begging them to reason with him. They understand baptism and how it is to identify with Christ. But Paul is trying to get them to understand that if there is no resurrection, then Christ is not alive. Furthermore, if Christ is not alive, then they are being baptized into death. The Corinthians would have realized right away that this does not make sense. They would have argued, as any Christian would, that they are baptized into life—the life of Christ. Paul argued that you are baptized to identify with the life of Christ, but only if Christ is if fact alive. Paul’s question in verse 29 therefore is telling the Corinthians that if there is no resurrection, you are not baptized for the living, but for the dead; for if there is no resurrection, then Christ is dead. This would have been absurd to the Corinthians. Paul finishes, “if the dead are not raised, why are people baptized for them?” In other words, since Paul has been keeping Christ’s resurrection part of his argument, one could rightly say, “If there is no resurrection, then Christ is dead. If Christ is dead, why are you baptized for him? Do you want to identify with death?”

            This argument of Paul’s and the rhetorical questions were designed to prove one thing: there is a resurrection. Not only is Christ raised, and we are baptized into his life, but all believers will face the resurrection as well. This is what Paul was speaking of when he said “if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). Paul was wanting the Corinthian believers to know that there is a resurrection. He wanted them to know that Christ is alive, and because he lives, they have life and will have life evermore. He wanted them to know that for this life, and for all eternity, they have hope in the living—Christ.      

[1] Brad Price, First Corinthians (2010), 739.

[2] J. Vernon McGee, First Corinthians, Thru the Bible Commentary Series (Nashville: Nelson, 1991), 182–3.