Baptized for the Dead

E. St. G. Baldwin, Toronto, Ont.

1 Cor. 15:29


In the International Critical Commentary it is stated that thirty-six interpretations of the phrase “baptized for the dead “have been given; three are discussed as to their respective merits, and one is selected as the best that has as yet been suggested. It reads as follows: —

“Persons previously inclined to Christianity sometimes ended in being baptized out of affection or respect for the dead, i.e. because some Christian relation or friend had died, earnestly desiring and praying for their conversion. Such might reasonably be designated as those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead.”

It might, I think, well be asked what proof is there that such a practice existed so early in the history of the church, that Paul should have referred to it; and if no such evidence has come down to us this exegesis may be set aside as unsatisfactory. This explanation, in common with all others I have seen, is an attempt to arrive at the meaning of the sentence as though it stood alone, with the emphasis laid on baptism; whereas the whole discussion is upon resurrection, and this section (ver. 29–32) is dealing with the subject from the negative side of the case, and demonstrating the futility of both faith and baptism if there be no resurrection.

To understand, then, the meaning of the words “being baptized for the dead,” we must endeavor to see their relation to Paul’s argument; and when we see that relation we will also see, I think, that there is a baptism for the dead that Paul did refer to when writing to the Corinthian deniers of the resurrection, and still refers to to-day when we read his great thesis on the resurrection. To make clear the connection of verse 29 with the argument, it is necessary to go over from the beginning the Apostle’s statement of his case for the resurrection.

This section of the Apostle’s letter was written to those who were members of the church at Corinth, who had doubtless confessed their faith in Christ by being baptized, but who were now saying that there was no resurrection of the dead. In answer Paul first recapitulates briefly what he had preached to them as the gospel, mentioning many, from Cephas the first to himself the last, who had been eyewitnesses of the risen Lord. Then, asking, “How say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?” he proceeds, first of all, to give them the reason why the Lord Jesus rose; and so important does he deem this reason, so fundamental does he consider it to the proper understanding of what he is about to say, that he repeats it, to emphasize its importance, no less than three times within the compass of four short verses (ver. 13–16). That reason is, that Jesus rose because mankind rise. For if the dead are not raised, not even (οὐδέ) Christ hath been raised.

That Paul is not here or throughout his argument intending to teach that the resurrection of men depended on the resurrection of Christ, he in verse 15 protects himself from such a construction being put upon his words. There he states his great basal premise as strongly as it is possible to state it: “And we are found even false witnesses of God; because we have testified concerning God that he raised the Christ: whom he did not raise, if indeed after all the dead are not raised.”

In verses 13–16 St. Paul is only dealing with the bare fact of Christ’s resurrection, and teaching that there would be a resurrection even though Christ had never come to earth.

By his declarations of verses 13–16 he means to say, and his readers to understand, that Christ when dead, if there was no resurrection, was merely one of the great host of the dead, merged with and in no sense differing from them so far as resurrection was concerned. This is well brought out in the Greek. Verse 13 reads, εἰ δὲ ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν οὐκ ἔστιν, οὐδὲ Χριστὸς ἐγήγερται, the preposition ἐκ being absent from before νεκρῶν, clearly showing that the Apostle was not referring to the peculiarly distinguished resurrection of Christ, but to that which was the common racial inheritance of all men and of Christ.

Having laid down this great foundation assertion (and sure, indeed, must Paul through the Spirit have been of a resurrection to come of the whole race, to have dared thus to make the Christ’s resurrection stand or fall with it), he proceeds to recite in verses 17–19 the consequences that follow, if Christ has not been raised; and after that (in ver. 20–28) he enumerates some of the benefits that ensue to, and the glorious future of, the believer if Christ has arisen.

He then returns to the negative side of his case, and puts the three questions of verses 29, 30: Else what will they do that are being baptized in behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised, why are they then baptized for the dead? And why stand we in jeopardy every hour?

That Paul does not refer here to vicarious baptism for the dead, or to the baptism of those for whom deceased friends had prayed during their life, is, I think, very clear; for Paul identifies his own case as being similar to those who were being baptized for the dead, because he unites himself with them by the conjunction with which verse 30 opens. But as we know the circumstances of Paul’s baptism,— that he was baptized because of his personal faith in a crucified and risen Christ,— we are justified in believing that those with whom lie unites himself in his argument were those who from a like faith had been baptized, and not for any other reason. Yet, nevertheless, it is also plain that in this stage of his argument from the negative side of the case, as to whether there be a resurrection and the proper course of life to pursue if there be none, Paul unites himself to those who have been baptized for the dead. What does Paul mean in his own case here? When we know that, we shall know what being baptized for the dead is.

No one, I think, can doubt that Paul intended us to understand, after the words εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ ἐγείρονται, the remaining clause of his great basal premise, οὐδὲ Χειστὸς ἐγήγερται; so that we must remember that, whatever meaning we attach to ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν, it must be one that takes due account of the inclusion of Christ amongst the dead. That such is Paul’s intention is evident for two reasons: First, he draws the same conclusions after his first statements of the great premise in verses 13–16, as he does after its partial recital in verses 29, 30, — conclusions which are logical only when considered in the light of the complete statement; and, secondly, because he comments on his own case, and the conclusions arrived at in it are only reconcilable with the supposition that they are based upon the Christ not having been raised. The meaning, then, of being baptized in behalf of the dead, is baptism for a dead and unrisen Christ.

The questions yet remain, why the article is used? Why νεκρῶν instead of νεκροῦ? and lastly the use of ὑπέρ? Can it be fairly used in the manner that is necessary to the proposed exegesis? The use of the article with νεκρός appears in verse 29 for the first time, and limits those referred to, to those who have died in the faith of Jesus Christ, and Christ with them if not raised. In verses 13–15 without the article, all dead, including our Lord, are indicated. The plural is used, because Christ and His people are mentioned as being in one and the same state, so far as resurrection is concerned, if there be no resurrection.

In regard to ὑπέρ the usual meaning “in behalf of” is, I think, favored by most translators. In the explanation most approved of by Robertson and Plummer it is said those who were baptized out of affection or respect for some dead Christian, or friend who had earnestly desired and prayed for their conversion, might reasonably be designated as those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead. If that be a legitimate application of the term “in behalf of,” it can certainly be used with much greater propriety in connection with the dead when they include Christ Himself whether raised or not, for He not only asked but commanded all believing disciples to be baptized.

This, if a correct interpretation, makes Paul’s argument consistent throughout.

He begins with the statement that if there be no resurrection, we have no risen Christ.

That if there is to be no resurrection, it is folly to act as though there was, by being baptized.

That if there be no resurrection, the highest wisdom is to make the most of this world, and its sensual gratifications.