Sometimes as you’re reading the Bible you hit a phrase or sentence that throws you for a loop.
There’ll be a verse that sounds weird, that doesn’t seem to make sense, and that doesn’t come with any extra explanation. 1 Corinthians is a letter of the New Testament that has a few more of these than other books of the Bible, and one of the weirdest pops up in chapter 15, verse 29:
‘Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptised for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised for them?’
Why indeed? Baptism, a symbolic washing that represented the cleansing and new life given by Jesus trough his death on the cross, has been a rite in the church from the very beginning. But here Paul talks about people in Corinth who are being ‘baptised for the dead’. He doesn’t elaborate further, and there’s been a lot of debate throughout history as to what he could mean. How are we to understand what he means by it?
What not to do.
First let’s think about how not to understand this verse. Today the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has a practice of baptising people ‘for the dead’, based on this verse. Basically, after a non-Mormon person dies, a Mormon can be baptised ‘for’ the dead person, on their behalf, so that they become a Mormon after their death (and against their choice!) based on the baptism of this living person! On the face of it, that’s what Paul seems to be advocating here.
But it can’t be how we understand this verse.
Here’s why: two of the key principles for how we read the Bible are ‘scripture interprets scripture’ and ‘what’s clear interprets what’s fuzzy’. What that means is that when we read something in the Bible that’s fuzzy, we see if other things that are written in the Bible elsewhere shed light on what it might mean. And not only is there no other reference in the Bible to people being baptised on behalf of non-Christians who were already dead, but the very idea contradicts what Paul says elsewhere. Paul clearly says that the rite of baptism itself can’t save anyone in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17. He didn’t baptise many people in Corinth because, he says, ‘Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel’. Romans 3:22, Ephesians 2:8 and Galatians 3:1-6 clearly say that it is only by believing, by having faith in Jesus, that someone can be saved. So no one will be saved posthumously by someone getting splashed with water on their behalf. There’s no reason to think the baptism Paul’s talking about here is anything other than normal Christian baptism.
What is the ‘for’ For?
The first thing to think about is what Paul means when he says ‘for the dead’. In English the first thing that word ‘for’ sounds like it means is to do something ‘on behalf of’ someone else or for their good; the way the Mormons understand it. But the word ‘for’ here can also mean ‘the cause or reason for doing something, (because of, on account of). If that’s true, then there was something about ‘the dead’ that is motivating people to become Christians and get baptised. Is there a reason people might become Christians ‘on account of the dead’ that aligns with the rest of the Bible’s teaching? There is.
Death as Motivation
This verse takes place within an argument Paul is making that those Christians who have died will actually rise from the dead because of Jesus. Paul’s telling the Corinthians here that there are people who’ve converted to Christianity because of people who have died. It seems reasonable to believe that Paul is aware of Christians who converted because they faced the fear of death and, hearing of the hope of the resurrection Jesus brings, turned to Jesus to receive the hope of life beyond death. There’ve been many Christians throughout history who first turned to Jesus for that reason. In fact, throughout the book of Acts the
Apostles urge people to turn to Jesus in order to save themselves from God’s judgement.
Paul’s answering the idea some Corinthians seemed to have that there’s no life beyond death. If that’s true, he’s saying, if Christianity doesn’t actually teach that Jesus brings life from the dead, then what’s up with all those believers who turned to Jesus because of the reality of death and the hope of resurrection beyond it?
Sometimes, in another time and language, a writer will express something that sounds odd when translated into English. Sometimes there’s a couple of ways a translation can go. But when we consider those parts of the Bible in light of the rest of what the Bible teaches, we can be confident in a consistent message , a message centred on eternal life through trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf.
Cross Cultural Connect Pastor