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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?" 1 Corinthians 15:29

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

To properly understand this verse, we must see the contextual background and we must identify the meaning of the phrase "baptized for the dead" and in specific the usage of the word "dead" as found in these verses. Paul was responding to the problem created by those who rejected the fact of a bodily resurrection (15:12). In refuting this erroneous view, Paul presents several logical arguments, beginning by saying that if there is no resurrection of the body, Jesus himself was not resurrected from the dead. "But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen." (v. 13)

The Mormon religion assumes that the word "dead" refers to all people who have died, and the phrase "baptized for the dead" refers to baptisms occurring for (on behalf of) people who have died. And so Mormons teach that special baptisms are to be performed on behalf of individuals who have passed away.

Paul, however, was not speaking at all about specific people who have died. He was merely making a general reference to bodies of people who had passed on and not to individual souls waiting in the Hadean realm.

In this passage Paul is discussing the resurrection, and in specific, the resurrection of bodies. Let us note: The only thing which can be raised is that which first dies - - and it is only the body which dies. In this broader discussion Paul is using the word "dead" as a reference to the physical body itself and not to any select individuals who had passed away.

The context clearly shows that Paul was referring to dead bodies. Notice the repeated use of the word itself:

v. 35 "...with what body do they come?"
v. 37 " do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain
v. 38 "...But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body."
v. 40 "There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies
v. 44 "
It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual 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."

Paul's argument to those erring brethren who were rejecting the resurrection can be summed up thusly: If there will be no resurrection of your body, as some you believe, for what reason did you baptize your body? Paul then confirms his argument by asking, "Why stand we in jeopardy every hour?" (v. 30). Paul is contending here that if there is no resurrection and nothing for which to eternally hope, why risk our lives for Christ? In answer to his own question, Paul states in verse 31 his willingness to "die daily," confirming his belief in the resurrection.

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

The doctrine of proxy baptism is flawed due to the fact that we each are accountable for ourselves only. No one answers for another person. No one is given the means to determine the eternal destiny of any other individual. "So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God..." (Romans 14:12). "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it is good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). Any doctrine contradicting the Biblical truth is shown to be false.