Vol. 1 - No. 6
"Baptized on Behalf of the Dead"
by Leon Odom
"Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why are they baptized for the dead?" (I Corinthians 15:29) When the editor asked me to write my views of this passage my mind went back to the fall of 1958. While living in Port Arthur, Texas, I had just finished a study of the first Corinthian letter when we had a well known and a well loved gospel preacher come for a meeting. He was somewhat older than I and I had then, as I do now, love and respect for him and his knowledge of the Scriptures. In the course of the study of the epistle, the 29th verse of this fifteenth chapter gave me no little trouble. I will always be grateful to my friend for sharing his thoughts with me relative to the meaning of the awkward citation.
I had already satisfied my mind as to what the verses did not teach and by the process of elimination found the truth, once revealed to me, much easier to comprehend. This method of study has been a practice of mine for many years now. I have often asked myself the question: "What does the passage NOT teach?" I had observed a number of opinions and none of them satisfied my wonderment.
For instance, it was the opinion of Grotius, Michaelis, Tertullian, and Ambrose that the apostle made reference to a custom of vicarious baptism--a name given for a baptism they had supposed was practiced by the early saints. Such a baptism was supposed to have been when a live saint submitted to an immersion in water for a dead loved one with a view to the latter's salvation. It becomes quite needless for us to point out that the New Testament has nothing to say about any such practice. Nor would Paul stoop to make use of such unholy practice, if indeed such were being practiced, for "tactical" reasons--that is to say in order to make a point in argumentation. When one considers the general tenor of the epistle itself, he would be forced to reject such a conclusion as this one. For instance, the subject of division was covered and condemned (chapters 1-4). The case of incest fornication was covered and instructions given how to handle this immorality (chapter 5). In the letter instruction was also given relative to brethren taking spiritual matters before the courts of the unbelievers (chapter 6). The matter of marriage and the problems under that present day distress were covered (chapter 7). Then the apostle addressed himself to the matter of conscience relative to the eating of meats offered unto idols (chapters 8-10). The early church seemed to be somewhat confused relative to spiritual gifts, hence a lengthy discussion relative to the gifts and the regulation thereof was covered (chapters 11-14). I cannot imagine a practice of "vicarious baptism" being practiced which in the very nature of the case defies every single thing taught about the judgment scene, and the individual's responsibility to give answer for his own life of obedience (or disobedience as the case may be), and not one single word of reproof for such an unscriptural practice. No, Paul was not using any such practice as illustrative of the resurrection in I Corinthians 15:29.
I found that others held to the view that "the dead" here had reference to the Messiah who was put to death--the plural being used for the singular, meaning "the dead one." This certainly made more sense than the other, but for some reason I just could not fit that with the verses that followed in the same paragraph.
Some said to be baptized for the dead meant to be baptized as dead. As people who had died to sin and were baptized in water with a view to the resurrection. But this opinion was not in harmony with either the original language or the context of the verses which followed.
Come with me now to the great resurrection chapter--I Corinthians 15. Let us look at the chapter and briefly outline it for contextual purposes. The first 11 verses we will entitle "THE RISEN CHRIST-FAITH'S REALITY." In the next section, verses 12-19, the theme under discussion is "THE RISEN CHRIST OUR HOPE." Turning to verses 20-28 the subject is "THE LAST ENEMY DESTROYED." That pretty well covers the chapter thus far relative to the context. Context is the first rule to consider in any exegesis of a passage. Therefore, we must conclude that the general subject of the "RESURRECTION" is the overall theme of this marvelous chapter of hope. Now, when we turn to the section marked by verses 29 through 34 we have this subject: "THE EFFECTS OF DENYING THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD." What would be the results of our denial of the resurrection? Paul addresses himself to that matter beginning with verse 29. "Why are they baptized for the dead?" The passage makes this plain and positive affirmation and to deny it is to deny the plain statement of the verse. Someone is baptized for the dead. There is no argument. To further enhance the positive statement an appeal can be made to the Greek word HUPER (for) in the verse. The word "for" is neither in Greek EIS nor GAR. Neither "unto" or "because" as these words would suggest. The word "for" is from HUPER and according to Thayer, page 639, No. 3., means, "In the place of, instead of," and he cites I Corinthians 15:29.
Since the verse declares that someone was baptized in the place of another, we might well rule out water as the element of the baptism. We might also rule out the Holy Spirit that one was overwhelmed by--the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Since judgment was yet to come then as it is now, the element of fire is to be ruled out--other than the fact that one will not be punished in another's stead in judgment. No one person could be baptized in water, Holy Spirit, or fire in the place of another and turn to the Scriptures to sustain such a far-out view. That leaves us with only one other element to consider. The baptism of suffering.
The apostle Paul was overwhelmed in suffering, in trials, in persecutions as were some of the other saints of his day. Christians were burned at the stake--fed to wild beasts in a public arena for sport--tied to chariots and set afire only to be dragged to death at the applause of the heartless Romans. The only way Christians in that day could have gone through such persecution was in hope of the resurrection. The preacher friend that I mentioned earlier illustrated it to me this way: he put about a dozen chalk marks on the board. He said in the days of Paul a Christian would fall (erasing the first mark) and another would rise up to take his place (putting another mark where he had erased one) and would be overwhelmed in suffering in his stead. That would make Paul asking, why would one subject himself to such trials, even death, if the dead rise not at all?
That the "baptism for the dead" is that of "suffering" is further enhanced when we read the verses to follow. "And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour?" The argument here seems quite clear to this scribe. He is asking why would he risk his life also if there is no resurrection. He mentions that he "fought with beasts at Ephesus." Why would I do such a thing if there is to be no resurrection? Why would I "die daily" if there is no resurrection of the dead? "Let us eat and drink and be merry for tomorrow we die."
My conclusion then on this "strange" passage is that it is not so "strange" when viewed as we have in this work. In my judgment, this is the only explanation I have heard that is in complete keeping with the original language--the context and the circumstances of the apostle's day. The bottom line then is that the "baptism for the dead" of I Corinthians 15:29 is the BAPTISM OF SUFFERING.