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Baptism for the dead: Is it biblical?

The main Bible verse relating to the baptism for the dead is found in 1 Corinthians 15:29, where Paul writes the following, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?”
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Overview

This article will explore the following ideas related to the baptism for the dead:

  1. Context of 1 Corinthians 15:29
  2. Agreement with Paul’s theology
  3. Translation and punctuation

First, consider the following...

1 Corinthians 15:29, written to the believers in Corinth, is often misunderstood and is often the one and only Bible verse used to determine what the Bible says about the baptism for the dead.

As we seek to understand the meaning of this verse it is wise to remember this verse’s context and also to search through the entire Bible to determine the accuracy of a theological concept.

2 Corinthians 13:1 says that, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.” Therefore, we should look for a consensus from the Bible to determine what the Bible really says about the baptism for the dead.

Before we dive into understanding the baptism for the dead and explore 1 Corinthians 15:29, consider what Peter says about Paul’s writings. He says that as you read the letters of Paul you need to study extra carefully so that you are not tripped up by how Paul writes and the concepts he presents (2 Peter 3:16).

Baptism for the dead

The idea of being baptized for a dead relative is found nowhere in the Bible. In fact the only person who can in any way be a substitute or proxy for humanity is Jesus Christ. The Bible makes it clear that you cannot attain salvation based upon another human or even your own works.

Ezekiel 18:20 supports the idea that a person is saved or lost based on their own actions. “The son shall not bear the guilt [sins] of the father, nor the father bear the guilt [sins] of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

While alive, a son cannot save the father or cause the father to lose his salvation by his deeds. In the same way we cannot be saved or lost by the good or bad deeds of another person. This is also true after death. Once a person dies, their future life and resurrection is based on their actions and accepting Christ while alive.

Hebrews 9:27 states that, “...it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” This means that there are no second chances after death. Once a person dies they are judged based on the life they lived and their acceptance of Christ. There is no option for another person’s works or baptized to take their place.

1. Context of 1 Corinthians 15:29

If we look at 1 Corinthians 15 as a whole chapter, we will see that the main point is the resurrection of the dead and not the baptism for the dead. Apparently some of the Corintians were being taught that the dead don’t rise again.

Paul points out the danger of this teaching and shares that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ also didn’t rise from the grave. And if Christ didn’t raise from the dead, then Paul’s preaching is in vain and the Corinthians’ faith is in vain.

2. Agreement with Paul’s other writings

In 2 Corinthians 5:10 Paul states, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

Paul is saying that a person receives salvation based on their own actions including their acceptance of Christ, not on the actions or baptisms of their friends or relatives. No one can take the place of Christ in giving you salvation.

3. Punctuation and translation

Next, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15:29 from a different angle. An important consideration to the question about the baptism for the dead is punctuation. The original Greek had no punctuation. The translators did their best to convey the meaning of the original texts, and place the punctuation in the appropriate locations.

In Nestle’s 20th edition Greek New Testament the location of the question marks are written as follows and adds clarity to 1 Corinthians 15:29.

“Otherwise what will those do who are being baptized? Join the dead (who believed in the resurrection)? If actually dead persons are not raised, why then are they being baptized? In order to be like those dead who believed (in resurrection, i.e., fools)?”

Dr. David Lanier comments on this positioning of the punctuation in 1 Corinthians 15:29 explaining that, “This reading brings out Paul’s frustration with those who denied the resurrection and places it in context with the foregoing and following text. The staccato courtroom-style questioning follows closely Paul’s emotional style in pressing important issues to the fore. The Semitic parallelism in the questions mirrors both rabbinic Halaka and Paul's signature use of sarcasm, a strong characteristic in both the Corinthian letters.”

Conclusion

The context of 1 Corinthians 15, the agreement with Bible theology and the explanation on punctuation by Dr. Lanier allows us to understand the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:29. This evidence shows us that Paul wasn’t actually promoting baptism for the dead, but rather in 1 Corinthians 15, his main point was showing that the resurrection of the dead was an actual event in which the Corinthian believers could put their faith and hope in.

Why should you care?

Baptism for the dead introduces a dangerous concept, that salvation can come from your own or someone else's works and not through Jesus. Baptism for the dead deceives us into thinking we may have a second chance for salvation after we die. This idea also places our salvation into the hands of another human and not solely into the hands of Jesus Christ.

The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). We can only receive salvation through the gift of Jesus. Nothing but Christ can provide salvation.

Chainama Seventh-day Adventist Church