“What will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?”
1 Corinthians 15:29
The fact of the Resurrection often is a powerful testimony to draw people to saving faith in Christ.
The apostle Paul knew that believers who face death with joy and hope can present powerful testimonies to unbelievers. The prospect of life in Heaven and a reunion with loved ones is a strong motive for people to hear and receive the gospel. When believers die, their spirits go immediately to be with the Lord. And one day in the future their glorified bodies will rejoin their spirits, and Christians will worship and enjoy God for all eternity.
First Corinthians 15:29 uses the term “baptized” to refer to those who were testifying that they were Christians. Although the mere act of baptism does not save a person, anyone who is an obedient Christian will be baptized. In Paul’s day, the church assumed that any believer would have been baptized, and people were not baptized unless the church was confident their profession of faith was genuine.
“The dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29 could also include believers, those who have died and whose lives were persuasive testimonies to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. People were being saved (baptized) in Corinth because of (“for”) the faithful witness of deceased believers.
The Resurrection is still a powerful incentive to salvation. In my years as a pastor I have seen people come to Christ after the death of a believing spouse or parent. Those husbands and wives, sons and daughters could not bear the thought of never seeing their loved one again. Those converted survivors were unknowingly touched and changed by the reunion hope that already sustains believers. That hope, based on the promise of resurrection, upheld David after the death of his infant son: “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23).
Suggestions for Prayer: Ask the Lord’s forgiveness for times when your testimony has been weak and the resurrection hope in your life has not been evident.
For Further Study: Read Matthew 22:23–33. What did the Sadducees’ hypothetical story demonstrate about their belief concerning resurrection? ✧ How important was the doctrine of resurrection to Jesus? ✧ To what did He appeal in correcting the Sadducees?
An Incentive for Salvation
Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? (15:29)
This verse is one of the most difficult in all of Scripture, and has many legitimate possible interpretations; it has also, however, been used to support many strange and heretical ideas. The careful and honest interpreter may survey the several dozen interpretations offered and still not be dogmatic about what it means. But we can be dogmatic, from the clear teaching of other parts of Scripture, about some of the things it does not mean. As to what this verse does mean, we can only guess, since history has locked it into obscurity.
We can be sure, for example, that it does not teach vicarious, or proxy, baptism for the dead, as claimed by ancient gnostic heretics such as Marcion and by the Mormon church today. Paul did not teach that a person who has died can be saved, or helped in any way, by another person’s being baptized in his behalf. Baptismal regeneration, the idea that one is saved by being baptized, or that baptism is in some way necessary for salvation, is unscriptural. The idea of vicarious baptismal regeneration is still further removed from biblical truth. If a person cannot save himself by being baptized, he certainly cannot save anyone else through that act. Salvation is by personal faith in Jesus Christ alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8; cf. Rom. 3:28; etc.). That is the repeated and consistent teaching of both the Old and New Testaments. Quoting from Genesis 15:6, Paul says, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ ” (Rom. 4:3). The only way any person has ever come to God is by personal faith.
If one person’s faith cannot save another, then certainly one person’s baptism cannot save another. Baptism is simply an act of obedient faith that proclaims identity with Christ (Rom. 6:3–4). No one is saved by baptism—not even living persons, much less dead ones. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Death ends all opportunity for salvation and for spiritual help of any sort.
In the New Testament baptism is closely associated with salvation, of which it is an outward testimony. Although a person does not have to be baptized to be a Christian, he has to be baptized to be an obedient Christian—with the obvious exception of a believer who has no opportunity to be baptized before death. Baptism is an integral part of Christ’s Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). In the early church a person who was saved was assumed to have been baptized; and a person was not baptized unless the church was satisfied he was saved. To ask, then, if a person was baptized, was equivalent to asking if he was saved.
If we assume that Paul was using the term baptized in that sense, then those … who are baptized could refer to those who were giving testimony that they were Christians. In other words, he was simply referring to believers under the title of those who are baptized, not to some special act of baptism. The dead could also refer to Christians, to deceased believers whose lives were a persuasive testimony leading to the salvation of the baptized. This seems to be a reasonable view that does no injustice to the text or context.
The Greek huper, translated for in verse 29, has a dozen or more meanings, and shades of meaning—including “for,” “above,” “about,” “across,” “beyond,” “on behalf of,” “instead of,” “because of,” and “in reference to”—depending on grammatical structure and context. Although for is a perfectly legitimate translation here, in light of the context and of Paul’s clear teaching elsewhere, “because of” could also be a proper rendering.
In light of that reasoning and interpretation, we could guess that Paul may have simply been saying that people were being saved (baptism being the sign) because of the exemplary lives and witness of faithful believers who had died. Whether this is the right interpretation of this verse we cannot be certain, but we can be certain that people often come to salvation because of the testimony of those whom they desire to emulate.
Some years ago a young man in our church was told by his doctors that he had only a short time to live. His response was not one of regret or bitterness but of joy at the prospect of soon being with his Savior. Because of his confident faith and contentment in face of death, one person I know of, and perhaps more, came to a saving knowledge of Christ.
During the Finnish–Russian war seven captured Russian soldiers were sentenced to death by the Finnish army. The evening before they were to be shot, one of the soldiers began singing “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” Asked why he was singing such a song, he answered tearfully that he had heard it sung by a group of Salvation Army “soldiers” just three weeks earlier. As a boy he had heard his mother talk and sing of Jesus many times, but would not accept her Savior. The previous night, as he lay contemplating his execution, he had a vision of his mother’s face, which reminded him of the hymn he had recently heard. The words of the song and verses from the Bible that he had heard long ago came to his mind. He testified before his fellow prisoners and his captors that he had prayed for Christ to forgive his sins and cleanse his soul and make him ready to stand before God. All the men, prisoners and guards alike, were deeply moved, and most spent the night praying, weeping, talking about spiritual things, and singing hymns. In the morning, just before the seven were shot, they asked to be able to sing once more “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” which they were allowed to do.
At least one other of the Russian soldiers had confessed Christ during the night. In addition, the Finnish officer in charge said, “`What happened in the hearts of the others I don’t know, but … I was a new man from that hour. I had met Christ in one of His loveliest and youngest disciples, and I had seen enough to realize that I too could be His.”
It may be that the first seeds of faith were planted in Paul’s own heart by the testimony of Stephen, whose death the young Paul (then Saul) witnessed and whose confident and loving dying testimony he heard (Acts 7:59—8:1).
In 1 Corinthians 15:29 Paul may be affirming the truth that Christians who face death with joy and hope are a powerful testimony. The prospect of eternal life, of resurrection life, of reunion with loved ones, is a strong motive for people to listen to and accept the gospel. Resurrection is one of the greatest assurances that God gives to those who trust in His Son. For those who believe in Jesus Christ, the grave is not the end. At death our spirits are not absorbed back into some cosmic divine mind. When we die we will go immediately to be with the Lord—as an individual, personal being. Not only that, but one day our glorified bodies will rejoin our spirits, and we will live as whole, completed human beings throughout all of eternity with all who have loved and worshiped God.
Another way in which the believing dead are used as a means of salvation is through the hope of reunion. Many believers have been drawn to the Savior because of a strong desire to be united with a loved one who has gone to be with the Lord. I have never led a funeral service in which I did not make such an appeal. I have seen a husband who would not come to Christ until his wife died. Because he could not bear the thought of not seeing her again, committing his own life and eternity into the hands of the One he knew was her Lord was made more attractive. I have seen children come to Christ after their mother’s death, motivated in part by the desire one day to be united with her. What her pleading and praying could not do, her death accomplished.
It is also true, of course, that the resurrection holds out great reunion hope for those who already are believers. The hope that sustained David after the death of his infant son was that, though “he will not return to me,” “I shall go to him” (2 Sam. 12:23). David knew that one day he and his son would be reunited.
Perhaps confused by some of the same pagan philosophy that plagued the Corinthian church, the Thessalonian believers were concerned because they thought their believing loved ones and friends who had died somehow had no prospect of a future life. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep,” Paul wrote them, “that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:13–14). “Like you,” He was assuring them, “they will be resurrected, and you will all be reunited by the Lord when He returns.”
If there is no resurrection, no hope of a future life, Paul asked, why are people coming to Christ because of the testimony of believers who have died? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they [many present Christians] baptized for [become believers because of the testimony of] them [deceased faithful believers]?
15:29 Verse 29 is perhaps one of the most difficult and obscure verses in all the Bible. Many explanations have been offered as to its meaning. For instance, it is contended by some that living believers may be baptized for those who have died without having undergone this rite. Such a meaning is quite foreign to the Scriptures. It is based on a single verse and must be rejected, not having the collective support of other Scripture. Others believe that baptism for the dead means that in baptism we reckon ourselves to have died. This is a possible meaning, but it does not fit in too well with the context.
The interpretation which seems to suit the context best is this: At the time Paul wrote, there was fierce persecution against those who took a public stand for Christ. This persecution was especially vicious at the time of their baptism. It often happened that those who publicly proclaimed their faith in Christ in the waters of baptism were martyred shortly thereafter. But did this stop others from being saved and from taking their place in baptism? Not at all. It seemed as though there were always new replacements coming along to fill up the ranks of those who had been martyred. As they stepped into the waters of baptism, in a very real sense they were being baptized for, or in the place of (Gk. huper) the dead. Hence the dead here refers to those who died as a result of their bold witness for Christ. Now the apostle’s argument here is that it would be foolish to be thus baptized to fill up the ranks of those who had died if there is no such thing as resurrection from the dead. It would be like sending replacement troops to fill up the ranks of an army that is fighting a lost cause. It would be like fighting on in a hopeless situation. If the dead do not rise at all, why then are they baptized for the dead?
29 It seems on the surface as though Paul is using an ad hominem argument here to get a point across. In Corinth people were being baptized “for the dead” (hyper tōn nekrōn), and Paul points out the logical inconsistency between that baptism and the doctrine of the resurrection. If the dead will never come back to any sort of life again, then why baptize on their behalf?
But several problems emerge with this interpretation. Let me first observe that we should admit that we will probably never know precisely what this phrase means. If it does refer to some vicarious baptism, we have no idea what this practice might have involved, since this is the only first-century reference to it anywhere in Christian literature. Second, if some such baptism was happening in Corinth, was it being practiced by the same people who insisted that “there is no resurrection of the dead”? If not, then the argument would hold no more weight for these “heretics” than the fact that the doctrine of the resurrection is an apostolic doctrine. Third, it seems unusual for Paul not to make any other comment about such a practice since elsewhere for him baptism is the sign of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith; this baptism here, however, involves no faith on the part of the dead person. Nowhere in the NT is there a sense that the faith of a particular person can reach back to cover previous generations. (There is, of course, in 7:14 a sense of faith’s reaching forward to cover one’s children.)
With this in mind, it makes more sense to say that the word nekros (“dead,” GK 3738) probably has a more spiritual meaning rather than a physical meaning. We do know that in Paul’s theology of baptism the water symbolized a person’s dying to sin and rising again to a new life (see Ro 6:3–4; Col 2:12–13). Moreover, in Romans 8:10 Paul relates the deadness of a sinner to the body: “But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.” As Garland, 719, says, “Baptism assumes death and resurrection. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then baptism becomes a pointless rite that falsely represents something that will not happen. The dead will not rise.” If this theology underlies v. 29, it explains why Paul makes no further comment on the practice.
But if this interpretation is adopted, what about the preposition hyper (“for,” “in behalf of”), which Paul never uses elsewhere in his doctrine of baptism? We should note that prepositions in Hellenistic Greek were rather slippery words that often had a host of nuances. Note how the expression “for whom Christ died” uses hyper in Romans 14:15 but dia in 1 Corinthians 8:11. Hyper here may mean no more than that believers are being baptized because they realize they are dead in sin and are being raised to a new life in Christ.
If what Paul is reflecting here is his developing theology of baptism, this would be an added element for the Corinthians to think about. They had, after all, sought baptism at one point. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then what is the meaning of their baptism? If baptism symbolizes the death of the believer’s body to sin and the emergence of a new bodily life in Christ, this symbolism has no meaning apart from a doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 424–427). Chicago: Moody Press.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1807). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 398–399). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.