Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
July 13, 1950

"Baptism For The Dead"

W. S. Boyett, Temple, Texas

The passage upon which the present unscriptural practice of baptizing for the dead (baptism by proxy for dead loved ones) is based, is a difficult passage to many commentators. It reads as follows: "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?" (I Cor. 15:29) Many people suppose this is the only passage in the Bible on this subject; but they are mistaken. It is the only passage which has the expression "baptized for the dead," but it is certainly not the only passage where baptism and death, or the dead, are united in the New Testament. It is a failure to harmonize this passage with other passages on the subject that has given rise to so much misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

We wish to discuss the question as follows: (1) the passage in its connection with the context or previous verses of the chapter; (2) who are the "they" that are baptized for the dead? and who are "the dead" for whom they are baptized? and (3) what other passages in the Bible connect baptism with death, and what is the relation of their teaching to this passage?

The Context

A casual reading of the chapter is all that is necessary to see that the main subject under discussion is the resurrection of the dead. There were certain teachers in Corinth who were contending that there is no resurrection from the dead. Paul intends to refute that false doctrine. He says, "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" This statement is followed by a discussion of the necessary consequences of such a doctrine. They are: (1) if the dead rise not, then is Christ not risen; (2) the preaching of the apostles is vain; (3) the faith of the Corinthians was vain (since it was through the preaching of the resurrection that their faith was produced); (4) the apostles were found false witnesses (for preaching a thing that did not happen); (5) the Corinthians were yet in their sins (since it is by the resurrection that we are justified—Rom. 4:25); (6) those who have fallen asleep are perished, since if there is no resurrection, death is the end of all of us; and (7) if that be so, then we have hope in Christ only in this life, and we are of all men most miserable.

After stating these seven things that would result if there were no resurrection, he states very plainly that Christ is risen and has become the first-fruits of them that slept; for, says he, "as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive, but every man in his own order." Here he departs from the fact of the resurrection for a minute to discuss the order of it. But in verse 29, he returns to a discussion of the fact again and says, "if the dead rise not at all, why are they baptized for the dead?" He thus gives another argument against the doctrine of no resurrection.

The chapter, when properly connected, will be found to contain the following argument: "Some are saying there is no resurrection; but if their teaching be true, then is Christ not risen. This would mean our preaching is vain, your faith is vain, etc—things which even the ones who deny the resurrection admit without reservation. Since they thus admit these things, and since these things cannot be except Christ be risen, it must be admitted that Christ is risen. And if Christ is risen, he has become the first fruits of them that slept." Placing verse 29 immediately after this, we have, "Else what shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If the dead rise not at all, why are they then baptized for the dead?" The argument is obvious: the very fact that these people are baptized for the dead declares that, logically, they themselves believe in the resurrection!

Who Are The "They"

Who are the "they" of this passage who are baptized for the dead? In the verses preceding, there are three different parties mentioned: (1) Paul, the writer, (2) the Corinthians, and (3) the "some among you," who are teaching the doctrine of no resurrection. The "they" cannot refer to Paul since he would refer to himself in the first person; it cannot refer to the Corinthians since he was addressing them and would refer to them in the second person; it must refer, therefore, to the "some among you"—the group who were denying the resurrection. Yet these very people, like all the Corinthians, had heard the gospel, believed it, and had been baptized. (Acts 18:8) It was to these people that Paul was directing his rebuke or refutation of error.

Other Passages

Are there other passages in the New Testament that teach that all who are baptized are baptized for the dead? If this can be shown to be the case, then these Corinthians who were teaching "no resurrection" had done nothing more or other than had been done by every man who had been baptized into Christ. There was no strange or different baptism that they were receiving which was unlike the baptism of others.

We affirm that all men who are scripturally baptized are "baptized for the dead." They are not baptized for, or in behalf of, some of their dead loved ones, thus doing, by proxy, for the dead what the dead should have done for themselves while living; but they are baptized for the dead, or in behalf of their own dead body. This is plainly taught by the same apostle in the following passage, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized in Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death? Therefore we were 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; knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now, if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him; knowing that Christ, being raised from the dead, dieth no more; death hath no more domination over him." (Rom. 6:1-9).

If this passage means anything, it means that all men who are baptized into Christ are dead to sin; they are baptized into the death of Christ. This is not the only passage that teaches that men are dead before baptism. Paul said, "And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins." (Eph. 2:1) His question, "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" was called for by the statement that he had made in the preceding chapter, "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." Thus since, while sin abounded, grace did much more abound, shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? The emphatic answer is: God forbid. And the reason: "How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein." Can any honest man deny that they were dead? Consider the next verse, "Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death."

Who Are "The Dead?"

We are dead when baptized into the death of Christ. But you ask, "What part of man is dead?" Paul answers, "The old man that is crucified in baptism." This old man is crucified that the body of sin might be destroyed. (Verse 6) Now it is this body, dead in trespasses and sin, that we are baptized for or in behalf of. It is in baptism that we put off this old body of sin (the body that is dead in sin) and put on the new man in Christ. Possibly the plainest passage on this subject is, "And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead." (Col. 2:10-12).

Meaning Of The Text

A true understanding of the facts in I Cor. 15:29 shows that this is truly meant there, since the expression "huper ton nekroon" in the Green (translated "for the dead") is in the genitive, or possessive, case. Thus they were being baptized for something that they possessed themselves. The man, whosoever he may be, possesses a body of sin, the old man, that must be dead, crucified, buried with Christ by being baptized into his death. (Rom. 6:3) Then the "new man" in Christ is raised up to walk in newness of life.

But why be baptized in behalf of our "dead in sin" bodies if the dead rise not at all? If Christ has not been raised, how could we be in the likeness of his resurrection?

Returning now to our text let us notice the harmony that exists between it and the other passages on the same subject. It reads, "Else what shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If the dead rise not at all, why then are they baptized for the dead?" Notice that he starts with the word "else," which means otherwise. He had stated that Christ was raised, then he adds to that statement: Otherwise (that is if the facts were otherwise, and Jesus was still in the tomb), why were they baptized for their dead bodies. These teachers, along with all the Corinthian Christians, had been baptized into the death of Christ with the hope of being raised with him—as shown in Acts 18:8 and Romans 6. They were also baptized in behalf of their own dead bodies that were dead in sins. Now if (as they say) there is no resurrection, why were they thus baptized? Paul is simply arguing "to the men," showing the inconsistency and unreasonableness of their own behavior if they actually believe all the logical implications of their own teaching.

This passage, taken with all others on the subject, results in perfect harmony and certainly should not give rise to the nonsensical practice of being baptized for the physically dead by proxy; or to the false doctrine that leads to such a practice. This is contrary to all common sense as well as to every truth contained in the Bible. The only example of such a practice found in the history of the world is in paganism. And God pity the so-called "Christian" institution that borrows its practices from paganism!