We could have ended our Bible Study on 1 Corinthians 15 and the resurrection at verse 28. Nobody would have noticed my clever avoidance of verse 29. At least, if they did notice, they hardly would have blamed me. I mean, just look at it:
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (ESV)
Goodness gracious! Has the apostle Paul just validated a Mormon ritual? I certainly see how people might scratch their heads in bewilderment over this verse. My scalp has a few fingernail marks on it from reading it over the past 47 years.
With this verse, Paul returns to his refutation of those who denied the resurrection of the dead after his parenthetical eschatology lesson in verses 20-28. He appeals to specific practices that intrinsically demonstrate belief in life after death, as if to expose their inconsistency. Verse 29 begins this phase of his argumentation.
Most commentaries agree that this is one of the hardest verses of the Bible to interpret. In fact, two commentaries say that there are at least thirteen possible explanations for the practice of being baptized for the dead. One commentator adds, however, that each explanation has a problem that calls it into question.
Whatever this practice was, it has never been recorded apart from this verse. As a consequence, Bible scholars can only make educated guesses at its meaning. The difficulties understanding the practice of being baptized for the dead prevent me from drawing any dogmatic conclusions. That inability, however, doesn’t excuse us from examining some of the possibilities and then looking at the overall point Paul raises.
Actually, I will limit myself to the two explanations that seem most plausible to me. The first explanation posits that the deaths of Christian martyrs encourage younger believers to boldly declare their faith by being baptized. Though no commentator makes this connection, the idea reminds me of Philippians 1:14, which says that Paul’s imprisonment in Rome emboldened Roman Christians to proclaim the Gospel.
Some disagree with this interpretation because the Corinthian Christians hadn’t yet experienced persecution. I would argue that they must have heard about persecution happening in other regions (see 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10 as an example of one church’s reputation spreading to other churches).
The second possible explanation is that Corinthian Christians, excited about their new faith, actually were baptized as proxies for dead relatives, but that Paul distances himself from the practice by writing in the third person. He doesn’t endorse the practice; he merely refers to it as evidence that the Corinthians demonstrated some level of belief in resurrection.
Some object to this position on the grounds that Paul typically refuted false teaching when he encountered it. This is generally true. However, right here he wants to make a specific point. Digressing from that point, in this particular instance, would distract from his aim of arguing that general resurrection will happen.
As we read the remainder of this passage, we observe that Paul wants to emphasize the idea that Christians live in ways that look forward to their resurrection.
29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? 30 Why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. ~~1 Corinthians 15:29-34 (ESV)
You can see how the overall context minimizes Paul’s emphasis on this point. He basically returns to his argument in verses 16-19 that faith is a waste of time unless there is a resurrection. Whatever verse 29 refers to, then, we should not let it distract us from Paul’s primary point. Christ’s resurrection guarantees our own resurrection so certainly that it utterly transforms how believers live.
Although we can’t definitively ascertain the meaning of verse 29, I pray that today’s study might reinforce the necessity of reading Scriptures in context. In this particular case, context doesn’t explain the verse per se, but it keeps it in perspective. Next Monday, then, we can continue working through this passage, breathing easier because we’ve made it past the highest hurdle.