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BAPTISM OF THE DEAD—What does the Bible mean when it refers to the “Baptism of the dead?”



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Jordan River, Israel. Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.
the River Jordan in Israel where Jesus was baptized

Many people are confused by the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead, a practice which certainly separates Mormonism from Biblical Christianity. God's word repeatedly stresses the need for individual acceptance of the gospel; not salvation based upon another's good works. Often times, Mormons will claim that Paul supported the practice of baptism for the dead in I Corinthians 15:29, "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?" Many Christians do not know how to respond to this claim. Did Paul support this unique ritual?

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was very concerned about their understanding of the resurrection. Corinth was a Greek city and was greatly influenced by philosophy. The Greek mind didn't have any problem in accepting the concept of a “resurrection.” However, when the Greek spoke of “resurrection” he was referring to a spiritual resurrection in which the spirit was freed from physical matter and the evil of this material world. This “resurrection”, Plato taught, would happen to each person at the time of their death. Paul notes that the Christian concept of resurrection is not merely spiritual, but also physical. He argues that Christ was resurrected in bodily form. Paul states,

“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is vain” (vs. 14).

Following this statement, Paul illustrates the importance of understanding the reality of physical resurrection,

“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?”(vs. 29).

This is a difficult verse. It has been interpreted in many different ways:

  • Epiphanius, an ancient church father, understood this to refer to the practice of instructing people who were on their death bed about Christ. However, this understanding doesn't seem to fit the context or language of the verse.

  • Some have argued that this verse refers to a superstitious baptism for believers who were “outside” the church. However, Paul's understanding of “the church” included all believers; unlike the view of Catholic Christians many centuries later.

  • Another view that was held during the middle ages referred to the practice of believers laying under the beds of those unbelievers who had recently died. A priest would ask the dead person if he desired to be baptized and forgiven of sins. The living believer would answer in the affirmative from under the bed and the dead person would be baptized. Although this practice is reported to have existed in the middle ages, there is no evidence that it occurred during the time of the Apostles or that this was the practice to which Paul referred.

  • Still others have suggested that there may have been a cult that existed in Corinth which baptized its members on behalf of the dead, much like modern Mormonism. Commentators have noted that if this is the situation, that we must remember that Paul does not confirm or deny this practice; it is simply used as an illustration of the importance of the resurrection. The weakness of this view is that history does not record any cults that included the baptism for the dead during this time period in Corinth.

  • The final option, which seems to be the most reasonable, is that the baptism for the dead refers to those who are willing to be identified with Christianity and who suffer the fate of persecution just as those who have lived as examples before them. These people are even willing to die for Christ because they are convinced that the resurrection of the dead is a reality.

There are three important factors for gaining this perspective on these verses. The first crucial aspect concerns the word “baptized.” One of the meanings of baptism is “identification.” When Lydia would dip her fabric in a large jar of purple dye, the fabric would take on the same color as the dye. The fabric was baptized in the dye. This baptism refers to immersion, but also identification. When each believer is baptized in Christ's name, it is not a matter of getting dunked in “holy” water; the believer is identifying himself with Jesus Christ.

The second factor that plays an important part in our understanding of this verse is the word “for.” The structure of this sentence is such that the word translated “for” in most Bibles, could be understood more clearly by the words “on behalf of” or "in the place of." Thus, there were believers being identified (baptized) in the place of the dead. This translation would make good sense to the Greeks because of their cultural context.

Every Greek would know the account of Alexander the Great's conquest of the world. In only a few years time, Alexander had rolled his military machine across the known continents, dominating any who would try to resist him. The strength of Alexander's army was known as the Greek phalanx (invented by his father, Philip of Macedonia, but perfected by Alexander). The way the phalanx would work is as follows: the soldiers would make several long lines. The men in the front would carry a large shield that would cover the soldiers from head to foot. Each of the men lined up behind the shield would carry long spears, which they would rest on the shoulders of the men in front of them. Thus, they would approach their enemies in unison and virtually walk right over them. If the man in the front of the line should be killed, the second man would simply drop his spear, pick up the shield and the lines would continue on their march. That second man would pick up the shield “on behalf of (or in the place of) the dead soldier who once carried it.”

From these three important points, we can gain an understanding about what Paul meant in these verses. As an illustration of the reality of physical resurrection (and vain faith if resurrection doesn't occur), Paul questions,

“Why would people suffer and die for Christ if there is no resurrection? Having seen others die for Christ, do you think that I would suffer according to their example if I didn't believe in the resurrection?” He states, “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? Why are we also in danger every hour? I protest, brethren, by the boasting in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If from human motives I fought wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE.” (I Corinthians 15:29-32)

Paul was convinced of the reality of our future life. This is what made it possible for him to give his present life for Christ. Without his confidence in Christ's promise of resurrection, Paul would not have allowed himself to suffer. We must ask ourselves,“Are we convinced of the resurrection, and our future life in heaven with Christ?” If the answer is yes, we ought to be willing to suffer for Christ during this life, following the examples of the saints that went before us. Paul exhorts us to be willing to take up the shield of those who have been persecuted for Christ's sake, remembering the rewards that await those who love him.

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Author: Mark Van Bebber of Films for Christ

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