Author: Ron Graham
Baptism for the Dead
What does Paul mean by the phrase “baptized for the dead” in 1Corinthians 15:29? These concise notes explain that baptism for the dead is not a proxy baptism (a living person being baptized for a dead person).
¶“29Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?” (1Corinthians 15:29, NASB).
Some people interpret this verse to mean that the living can be baptized on behalf of the dead. In this way, a dead person, who had not been baptized while living, is granted a second chance. A living person is baptized for the dead person. The dead person receives the benefits of the baptism by proxy.
No Supporting Scripture
There is no other place in scripture mentioning a “baptism for the dead” so we have only this verse to go by. No passage that teaches us about baptism makes any mention of being “baptized for the dead”. This makes it difficult to interpret the passage. However we can say some things with certainty, sufficient to know that Paul does not have a proxy baptism in mind.
1 The Baptism
Is Paul is referring to the baptism that Jesus mentioned in the great commission, and that Peter preached on the day of Pentecost? That was a baptism of believers in Christ who repented of sin. (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38).
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned... Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins...” (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38).
Without faith in Christ and repentance from sin, baptism is a meaningless act. So who shall believe and repent? Shall it be the dead person being baptized for? Or shall it be the proxy who is not only baptized for the dead, but also believes and repents for the dead?
The Bible knows nothing of this matter. Any discussion of it would be speculation, and quite outside the Bible’s teaching on salvation and the “one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).
2 The Dead
The Bible does not give the dead a second chance. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus shows us this fact (Luke 16:19-31). But someone might point to the parable’s reference to Moses and claim that the gospel of Christ offers a second chance to the dead. But the gospel says, “It is appointed for man once to die and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
That verse does not read, “It is appointed for man once to die, and after this comes a second chance, and after this the judgment.” There is no authority for that addition. The destiny of the dead is sealed.
On judgment day, whether living or dead, people will give an account and be “judged according to people in the flesh” (1Peter 4:5-6). Judgment will not be according to what dead people do. The dead had the gospel preached to them while they were living in the flesh. Now dead, they await resurrection, and a judgment based on how they responded in the flesh.
3 The Meaning of “For”
In the phrase “baptized for the dead” the meaning of the preposition “for” must be examined. In the Greek it is `υπερ hyper. We are familiar with that word as a prefix in English, in such terms as “hypersensitive” and “hypermart.” In the New Testament, hyper is used in at least three ways:
- (1) Above and beyond. “A disciple is not above his teacher” (Matthew 10:24); “brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13); “the name above every name” (Philippians 2:9); “advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries” (Galatians 1:14); “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20); “Head over all things” (Ephesians 1:22).
- (2) On behalf of. “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15); “makes intercession for the saints” (Romans 8:27); “Their prayer on behalf of you” (2Corinthians 9:14). “I am an ambassador for the gospel” (Ephesians 6:20).
- (3) With regard to. “it is right for me to think this about you all” (Philippians 1:7); “Why am I denounced regarding that for which I give thanks?” (1Corinthians 10:30); “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel” (Romans 9:27); “if I have boasted to him about you” (2Corinthians 7:14); “concerning this thing I pleaded three times with the Lord” (2Corinthians 12:8).
“With regard to the dead”
Let's test the third meaning, rather than the second. The phrase becomes, “baptized with regard to the dead” (1Corinthians 15:29). This does not imply that living people were being baptized for the benefit of dead people. Rather they were baptized for their own benefit but with regard to another person’s death. It is not unknown for baptisms to follow a funeral.
Someone may work hard and live loyally for Jesus, making great sacrifices. When that person dies, there is a strong influence on others to become Christians and follow the example of the dead person. They are baptized being mindful not only of Christ, but also his exemplary disciple now dead.
This would be especially true if the dead disciple had died as a result of persecution. This is apparently what Paul has in mind, because in the next verse he says, “And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour?” (1Corinthians 15:30).
Yet what is the use of it all, if there is no resurrection of the dead? It all becomes meaningless. The person following in the footsteps of the dead disciple is misguided —if there be no resurrection. The baptism itself is worthless because it symbolises a resurrection that didn't happen to Christ and won't happen to his disciples.
But Christ was raised, and the dead will be raised. A person can enter into baptism confident of this. If people are “baptized with regard to the dead” it will not be in vain. The dead disciples who lived for Jesus, and died in Jesus, have left behind a strong and valid influence for the conversion of others.