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?
— 1 Corinthians 15:29 —
Few passages in Scripture are more confusing than 15:29, with its language of “baptism for the dead” (βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν). What is Paul trying to say? Is he addressing, or condemning, or condoning some strange practice in Corinth? Is he speaking of the traditional ordinance of water baptism, but using strange language? Should we read 1 Corinthians 15:29 with everything else Paul said about baptism? Or should we delimit this verse to the cultural context of Corinth?
For starters, we can clearly assert that Scripture in no way supports “proxy” or “vicarious baptism.” In the context itself, Paul is not giving instruction for baptism; he is using it as a rhetorical illustration: if many line up for baptism, which depends on the resurrection, why do you accept baptism but not resurrection. Again the focus of 1 Corinthians 15 is resurrection; “baptism on behalf of the dead” is in reference to that larger issue. Paul is not giving us any instructions for the ordinance itself
Rightly, the orthodox church has always understood Paul this way. Throughout church history, this passage was only used by heretical groups to implement such a practice; it has never found a place among true believers. Among Mormons, there is a false doctrine built on this verse, that a Mormon priest must baptize someone for them to be born again—hence some are baptized today on behalf of earlier, unbaptized souls. But among evangelicals there is no such practice.
What is present among biblical Christians is a wide variety of interpretations. In what follows I will attempt to list these interpretations and conclude with something of an approximation of what I believe Paul is saying. I say approximation, because this is one of those passages that we must hold with open hands. In other words, while we can confidently stress what this passage does not teach, we are in a more difficult position to lock down a precise definition of what Paul does mean. The context, the grammar, and the meaning are all difficult to us. Still, we should labor to understand his words, especially in the context of the book. But first, a list of possible interpretations.
Whenever you come to a debated passage, one quick way to get a lay of the interpretive landscape is to check out a bevy of Study Bibles. When I did that on 1 Corinthians 15:29, here’s what I found.
The NET Bible provides a judicious caution in approaching 1 Corinthians 15:29 and four plausible interpretations for the “baptism for the dead” (549–50).
The phrase ‘they . . . who are baptized for the dead’ has baffled interpreters for centuries. Paul simply mentions this practice without explaining it in detail or indicating whether he endorses it or not, whether it was a proper or improper Christian practice. Since so little is known about it, Christians cannot be dogmatic concerning one view or another. The whole conclusion hinges on how one understands the preposition (hyper) and its accompanying genitive in the text. . . . Four major views have been put forth (the bold titles are my own):
- Replacement Baptism. “They . . . who are baptized for the dead” were new converts who were being baptized in the place (hyper) Christians who had died. This view holds that converts to Christianity were baptized to take ‘the place of’ Christians who had died and thereby continued to carry on the Christian church.
- Proxy Baptism. “They . . . who were baptized for the dead” were Christians who were being baptized a second time, this time for (hyper: ‘in behalf of/for the sake of’) Christians who had died before being able to be baptized.
- Gravesite Baptism. “They . . . who are baptized for the dead” were converts who were being baptized over (hyper) the graves of other Christians who had already died, thus connecting the faith of believers in the past with the faith of believers in the present.
- Traditional Baptism. “They . . . who are baptized for the dead” were converts who, knowing the reality of their own eventual deaths, were baptized for (hyper: ‘for the benefit of’) themselves, they themselves who would be the ‘dead’ of the future. In this way they affirmed their belief that since Christ rose, they also would rise (1 Cor. 15:22, 23; John 14:19), for baptism permits Christians to be united in Christ’s resurrection, spiritually and physically, and thereby to be assured of their own personal resurrection (Rom. 6:3–11; Mk. 16:16).
ESV Study Bible
More succinctly, the ESV Study Bible gives a judicious treatment of the vicarious and traditional views. Affirming the uncertainty of any interpretation, the ESV lands on traditional baptism over vicarious baptism.
Some interpreters through the centuries have thought this referred to vicarious baptism on behalf of deceased people, probably those who had believed in Christ but had not been baptized before they died (cf. Luke 23:43). But the interpretation is uncertain, and whatever the practice is Paul reports it without necessarily approving it, and is clearly not commanding it. Baptism for the dead is an important part of Mormonism, but the Bible gives no support to the idea that anyone can be saved apart from personal faith in Christ . . . Other interpreters argue that by ‘the dead’ Paul means the bodies of living Christians, which are subject to death and decay: They are baptized ‘on behalf of their dying bodies,’ showing hope that their bodies will rise again (see Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:42–44, 47–49, 53–54). On this view, Paul argues here that the baptism of perishing bodies is useless if the debtor not raised. (p. 2215)
NIV Study Bible
Likewise, the NIV Study Bible follows the traditional view,
This phrase is most plausibly understood as referring to Christian water baptism, described in a manner that adapts to the context: if there is no resurrection from the dead, it makes no sense for new Christians (who were spiritually ‘dead’ before their conversion) to undergo baptism if faith and baptism have no effect on what happens after death. (p. 2355)
HCSB Study Bible
Interestingly, the HCSB Study Bible accepts the proxy view as a description of a false practice in Corinth. Paul’s rhetorical point, they suggest, is that this practice is meaningless, if resurrection has not happened.
Being baptized for the dead probably refers to the practice, apparently unique to the Corinthian church, of someone undergoing baptism on behalf of a believer who had died without undergoing baptism. Paul was not condoning this practice, and certainly Scripture nowhere teaches directs us to conduct such baptisms. Paul simply pointed out that it was meaningless for the Corinthians to enact such practices if they disbelieved in the resurrection of the dead. (p. 1984)
MacArthur Study Bible
The MacArthur Study Bible holds to a traditional view, but relates the baptism of new converts to the faithful lives of the saints. Thus, the dead in Christ serve to motivate baptism.
A reasonable view seems to be that ‘they . . . who are baptized’ refers to living believers who give outward testimony to their faith and baptism by water because they were first drawn to Christ by the exemplary lives, faithful influence, and witness of believers who had subsequently died. Paul’s point is that if there is no resurrection and no life after death, then why are people coming to Christ to follow the hope of those who have died? (p. 1756)
Interestingly, this interpretation takes the opposite point of view from Michael Hull, who writes in his book Baptism on Account of the Dead how Paul uses new believers seeking baptism to motivate those Christians questioning resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:12). He puts himself in Paul’s sandals, and imagines what the apostle might be saying to those in Corinth:
“Look at those eager baptismal candidates. Look at their faith. It was once yours. They believe all that I preached about Jesus. They do not doubt that many persons including myself have seen him alive after death. They do not doubt that those among us who have fallen asleep will rise on the last day. As a matter of fact, it is their firm faith in the resurrection of Christ and of his death that moves them to baptism. That is what they believe. That is what you once believed. Come back to your senses!” (Michael Hull, Baptism on Account of the Dead, 235; cited Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 786)
From the Study Bibles, we find about 5 interpretations with some nuances. As we move to the commentaries, the nuances only increase. For instance, Anthony Thiselton lists 13 different views; David Garland more than six, not counting his own; and Gordon Fee has four categories with many distinguishing marks. Many differences relate to the use of the word “dead” or the application of the preposition hyper, which can mean “for,” “on behalf of,” or as some argue “on account of” or “for the sake of.” You can see why the commentaries disagree.
More qualitatively, Ciampa and Rosner observe,
A quick and unreflective reading of the words baptized for the dead would seem to suggest that people are allowing themselves to be baptized in the place of and for the benefit of others who are already dead. It has frequently enough been claimed that that is “the plain and necessary sense of the words.” Key arguments against this view include the fact that there is no biblical or historical evidence of any precedent or equivalent practice in the earliest church or in its pagan context. References to vicarious baptism in the early Fathers are found in condemnations of Gnostic misunderstandings of this verse. That is, there is evidence that vicarious baptism may have been adopted by some heretical groups through the misinterpretation of this verse, but there is no evidence that anyone had ever thought of or practiced such a thing before Paul wrote this verse. (p. 781)
Such an interpretation is also so out of step with Paul’s own understanding of baptism as it is reflected elsewhere in his writings that it is extremely difficult to believe that he would refer to such a practice without condemning it or at least distancing himself from it. It seems that whatever practice he is referring to here is one that reflects, like his own life-choices mentioned in vv. 30–32, an appropriate course of action given the fact that the dead will be raised. (The First Letter to the Corinthians, 781)
This description seems like a good bedrock summary on which to stand: whatever Paul means in 1 Corinthians 15:29, he is using the point of baptism to encourage confidence in the resurrection and not to establish an alternative or additional practice regarding baptism.
Baptism, Resurrection, and Faith in Christ
In my own understanding—held with open hands—this leads me to believe that Paul’s mention of baptism is in keeping with his understanding of baptism in all other letters. I don’t believe he is making any sort of connection with a vicarious or proxy baptism. Despite the “normal” reading of the language, it seems better to understand baptism on behalf of the dead as baptism for one’s own dead body (see the NET Bible and ESV Study Bible) or as baptism on account of the dead, meaning baptism that looks forward to the reunion of believers who have died in Christ (see Ciampa and Rosner and Thiselton).
Whatever the final decision, the point of 1 Corinthians 15 focuses on the resurrection, not baptism. Baptism is as an ordinance which resembles and reflects the hope of a Christian in the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6). Indeed, the whole Christian church is marked out by baptism, because the church is a community of the resurrected. How does one make public their hope in the resurrection? Through baptism. Therefore, if resurrection is a fable, why be baptized at all? The ritual is meaningless without the resurrection. This seems to be the underlying logic of Paul’s argument—however the details of baptism are worked out.
Indeed, if in Corinth there was great emphasis put on baptism, as is evidenced in 1 Corinthians 1:13–17, then Paul reasons, there should be great(er) confidence in the reality of Christ’s resurrection. For why else would believers continue to identify themselves with Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism? By appealing to baptism (the lesser ordinance), which the Corinthians embraced, he was urging them to embrace resurrection (the greater substance to which baptism points).
Therefore, this verse when read in the context of the whole passage, especially verses 30–34 shows us that resurrection motivates us to live lives for Christ. This verse does not lead us to go beyond the Scripture and baptize the dead or baptize people as proxies for the dead. Rather, it teaches us to trust the risen Christ and to keep practicing baptism and every other biblical practice, as evidences of our hope in Christ. For this reason, Paul includes this mention of baptism to ground our faith more fully in Christ’s resurrection, and to go on practicing baptism in the church, bearing witness to the resurrection of Christ and our coming resurrection with him—the very point he made in 1 Corinthians 15:20–28.
So in our reading of 1 Corinthians 15:29, let us press into the hope of the resurrection and urge for baptism as a sign of that hope—not sacrament that confers any kind of meritorious grace. At the same time, may our practices in church reflect our resurrection hope, as we invite others to come and identify themselves with Christ who died and rose again.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
 “There is evidence that vicarious baptism may have been adopted by some heretical groups through the misinterpretation of this verse, but there is no evidence that anyone had ever thought of or practiced such a thing before Paul wrote this verse.” R. E. Ciampa and B. S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 781.
 “Mormons refer to this verse as support for their practice of baptism for the dead. According to Mormon doctrine, no one can be born again apart from baptism at the hands of a Mormon priest. This creates a problem for those living before the advent of Mormonism. The solution is to baptize the dead by proxy.” The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, 1732.
 “We suggest that for believers to be baptized on account of the dead who will be raised in glory means that they have heard about these dead being raised up (to new life and glory) and that they want to be part of that group. As Keener puts it, this may be Paul’s “roundabout way of saying ‘baptized so as to be able to participate in eternal life with Christians who have already died,’ hence baptized in the light of their own mortality as well.”175 Of course, Paul strongly ties baptism to the hope of the resurrection of the dead in Romans 6:3–13 as well: “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (vv. 3–5). Baptism itself is tied to the resurrection hope by way of its integral role in the conversion experience. It is not that baptism per se brings salvation, but baptism is understood to be the initial confirmation of faith and act of initiation into the body of Christ. Certainly this text echoes the theme of other baptism texts that indicate that baptism is part and parcel of the process of entering into Christian life and fellowship.” Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 784.
 “In 1955 Maria Raeder (following G. G. Findlay) explicated more clearly than before a view which had been hinted at in earlier theories, namely that baptism for the sake of (ὑπέρ) the dead refers to the decision of a person or persons to ask for, and to receive, baptism as a result of the desire to be united with their believing relatives who have died. This presupposes that they would share the radiant confidence that they would meet again in and through Christ at the resurrection of the dead. As a pupil of J. Jeremias, Maria Raeder was well aware of linguistic issues and argues convincingly that this coheres well with uses of the preposition ὑπέρ, in the “final” sense of for, i.e., for the sake of. Indeed, it is regularly so used in the context of the work of Christ and the earliest kerygma, and coheres well with Robertson and Plummer’s proposed baptized out of consideration for the dead. If we consider such a scenario as that of a godly parent who longs for a son or daughter to come to faith, the nuance of ὑπέρ as for the sake of (in pragmatic terms) makes sense.” A. C. Thiselton, A. C., The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1248.