What Is "The Baptism For The Dead"?

"Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?"- 1 Corinthians 15:29 

The question above was recently submitted from an Internet visitor to The Bible Page with particular reference to the Mormon claim that this passage is the proof text for their unique practice of being baptized in their temples in the place of disobedient dead relatives in order that they might be saved. Let me make some preliminary remarks regarding the Mormon teaching:

  1. Since the Mormons believe that the Bible is so corrupted as to justify the necessity of the Book of Mormon, it comes with poor grace for them to point at the "corrupted Bible" to prove anything. (Viz., one of the original "Apostles" of their church, Orson Pratt, said [Orson Pratt's works, p.140] "Who knows that even one verse of the whole Bible has escaped pollution, so as to convey the same sense now that it did in the original?"
  2. 1 Corinthians 15:29 says nothing about being baptized by proxy in the place of disobedient dead relatives (and other historical dignitaries), in a temple, by an authorized priest, in order that said relatives, etc., might be saved. The point here is that you have to add a lot to the words actually in the text to get the Mormon practice in the passage.
  3. The Mormon practice is not mentioned in their own Book of Mormon.

There is little question that this is a difficult passage. There are well over 20 distinct interpretations of the exact meaning. Much of this difficulty is occasioned by the rather imprecise translation of the Greek word HUPER by the ambiguous English word "for." The word can have any of the following meanings: "over, beyond, about, above, concerning, for the sake of, in behalf, with regard to, with reference to, on account of", etc. Baptism "with reference to" or "with regard to" the dead, could mean something entirely different than baptism "in behalf of" the dead. When faced with a difficult, obscure passage, it is a good practice to first consider what the passage cannot mean. Let me give you this illustration: If a woman walks into the back of the church building and someone asks me, "Is that your wife?" I reply, "No." The questioner says, "Then who is she?" I reply, "I don't know." He says, "Well, if you don't know who she is, then how do you know she's not your wife?!" You see, I might not know for sure who that one IS - but I do know for sure who she is not! I might not know for sure what 1 Corinthians 15:29 IS teaching. But I do know for sure what it is not teaching - because of other plain passages of scripture and from the context. So what is 1 Corinthians 15:29 definitely not teaching?

  1. It is not teaching that something the living can do affects those already dead. I know this for sure because of the plain passage in Ecclesiastes 9:6: [speaking of the dead] "...neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun." Also, see 2 Corinthians 5:10 -- "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in the body according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." These passages would refute with equal force, the ideas of "spirit guides", seances, prayers to and for the dead, etc. The Mormon doctrine contradicts these plain passages. So I know their doctrine is not taught in this passage.
  2. Whatever the "baptism for the dead" was, Paul was not practicing it. Read the passage carefully with special attention to the pronouns: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? And why stand we in jeopardy every hour?"If this passage refers to the same thing practiced today by the Mormons, then why didn't Paul say "Else what shall we do which are baptized for the dead....why are we then baptized for the dead?" So I know Paul had something else in mind than the practice of submitting to baptism by proxy in order to benefit disobedient dead relatives.

Now, what follows is my studied opinion of what the passage teaches. I know definitely that it doesn't teach the Mormon doctrine. Here's what I think it doesteach - which I believe is consistent with the meaning of the word, and the context. In the Corinthian church there apparently was a group of folks who had been influenced by the old Sadducee doctrine and were saying that there is no resurrection (v. 12); that dead people remain dead. Paul, in this context, is presenting a series of arguments which show that the dead are indeed raised, the terrible consequences if they are not raised, and the inconsistency of the no-resurrection doctrine. Verses 29-30 are the two inconsistency arguments. The one at v. 30 is clear: Paul is arguing, in effect, 'If (as some of you say) the dead aren't raised, then why would we place ourselves in harm's way for the sake of a false and hopeless gospel.' This is much the same thought as v. 19. Now, to the real meat of the nut - vs. 29. First, let's speculate, "what if" HUPER were translated "with reference to?" "Else what shall they do which are baptized [with reference to] the dead, if the dead rise not at all?" I ask myself, 'When I was baptized into Christ, was there any sense in which I was baptized with reference to dead people?' The answer is yes. The thought that people were dying all around me (I was working in a funeral home at the time) and that some day I was going to be among them, was a key element in my decision to become a Christian. Why do folks become Christians? Because they know they're going to die and they want to be ready to meet the Lord when that time comes. Right? So in a very real sense, every time one is "buried with Christ in baptism" he is being baptized "with reference to" dying, death, the dead. Why would anyone be baptized if he didn't believe he was going to be resurrected from the dead? Why are they, (folks submitting to baptism [with reference to the dead]) being baptized if the dead aren't going to be raised?

Those are my conclusions on this subject. What this view has going for it, is that it is consistent with the context, consistent with the meaning of the word HUPER, and consistent with other plain passages which bear on the subject.