Baptism for the Dead?

Q.  Was there a practice of baptizing of the dead in Corinth?  Is that biblical? Or was Paul just using this practice to illustrate how the Corinthians were contradicting themselves since they claimed there was no resurrection?

A. Baptized for the dead is referred to only in 1 Co 15:29, a controversial verse, and practiced today mainly by the Mormons. There was such a practice by some in NT times, but it’s not biblical. Let’s see what some modern versions say to get at the meaning:

  • Amplified Otherwise, what do people mean by being [themselves] baptized in behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
  • ESV 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?
  • Expanded If the dead are never raised, what will people do who are being baptized for the dead [it is unclear what this practice was or whether Paul approves or disapproves]? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people being baptized for them?

The practice, then, consisted of someone being baptized on behalf of those who have died, by proxy. Some in Corinth believed that there is no resurrection:

  • 1 Co 15:12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

Paul used v 29 simply to show that the claim in v 12 is inconsistent with the practice of baptism for the dead, because, if the dead are not raised at all, why bother? He did not endorse this practice, nor did he rebuke it strongly as another gospel. For a practice to be biblical for the church, I believe it needs to be taught by the Lord in the gospels, practiced by the early church in Acts, and reinforced by the apostles in the epistles. For example, both believers’ baptism and holy communion satisfy the above criteria, and are ordinances generally accepted by the Church, though there may be minor variations in their mode of expression. Some sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. confirmation, confession or penance, extreme unction, holy orders etc.) do not meet all three criteria and are not generally accepted by Protestants. Baptism for the dead is mentioned only once in an obscure verse, and not considered biblical, though some cults misinterpret this text and turned it into a doctrine.

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