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Article 26 - Baptism for the Dead

Baptism for the Dead: What Is It?

Jon Gary Williams

"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?" I Corinthians 15:29

This text has been greatly misused and abused, especially by the Mormon church which teaches the doctrine of "baptism for the dead" -- the belief that people living can be baptized for people who are dead.

To properly understand this verse, one must first see the background of the context. Paul was responding to the problem of some who rejected the bodily resurrection. In arguing his case for the resurrection he presents several arguments, one of which is found in verses 29-32.

Before looking at this argument, it is necessary to identify the meaning of the word "dead." Our Mormon friends assume that the word "dead" refers to the people who have died - - that is, people currently living are baptized for (on behalf of) people who have died.

However, this cannot be. Why? Because the phrase "for the dead" is in the possessive case, ton necron, and cannot refer to doing something for someone else! If Paul was saying that someone was doing something for another person, he would have used the indirect object, to necron.

To what then does the word "dead" refer? Paul, in speaking of those who had died, is referring to their bodies. Remember that Paul is discussing the resurrection - - but, the resurrection of what? Dead bodies. Note: The only thing that can be raised is that which dies. But, it is only the body which dies. Therefore, the word "dead" refers to physical bodies.

The context clearly shows that Paul was referring to dead bodies. Notice carefully:
v. 35 "body;"

v. 37 "body;"

v. 38 "body...body;"

v. 40 "bodies... bodies;"

v. 44 "body...body...body."

Also, in verses 42-44 notice how Paul identified the "dead." He used the word "it," clearly speaking of a thing: "It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption, it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory, it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power, it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body."

Hence, Paul's argument regarding those who reject the resurrection is this: If there is no resurrection (of the body), why go to the trouble of baptizing the body (or baptizing on behalf of the body)?

Then Paul confirms his argument by asking, in verse 30, "Why stand we in jeopardy every hour?" That is, if there is no resurrection and, hence, nothing for which to look forward, why risk our lives for Christ? In verse 31 he stated his willingness to "die daily," confirming his belief in the resurrection.

Then he adds, that "if the dead rise not," his sacrifice at Ephesus was to no avail (v. 32). If there is no resurrection of the body, his conclusion is this: it would be better just to "eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."