Q: #81. What does Paul mean in (1 Cor 15:29) when he says people are "baptized for the dead?"
A: From what I have read, there are about 30-35 different interpretations for this verse. First, and most importantly, let’s talk about what it DOESN’T mean. We know it doesn’t mean that people can be baptized for those who have already died. Once a person has died, we can do NOTHING for them. Whatever decisions they made while on this planet are set for eternity once they die. We cannot pray for them. We cannot fast for them. We cannot “buy” them out of a destiny apart from God if they didn’t accept Jesus while living on the Earth. FINALLY, we cannot be baptized for them.
It is a serious mistake to baptize living people for those who have died. This is practiced by LDS (Mormons) people today, based not only on this verse, but also on their own scriptures.
When we have a verse that is hard to understand like this one, we should always look at the whole of scripture to see if other verses support our interpretation of the single verse. If there are not other verses, then we can assume our interpretation is quite likely incorrect. Many false teachings are built upon single verses, with no other Biblical support.
This is exactly the case with this verse. There is NO other place in the Bible that says we should be “baptized for the dead.” Therefore, it must not “literally” mean this should be practiced.
So, what does it mean? Here is my explanation. We know from history and tradition that there were pagan and Greek cultures that literally “baptized people for the dead” in the time this was written. Apparently, Paul’s audience partly consisted of those who either had fallen into this practice, or at least were aware of it. However, we can see that Paul does make a distinction between believers and those who practiced this, because he says in verse 29 “why then are THEY (not we) baptized for the dead?” Paul was certainly not endorsing this practice.
The context, of all of the verses in (1 Cor 15), is Paul speaking about the importance of believing in the resurrection of the dead. First and foremost, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, but also the resurrection of all who die. Many of the people who practiced “baptism for the dead” also denied the resurrection (1 Cor 15:12). Paul was pointing out the illogic of their beliefs. How could they deny people are resurrected from the dead, but yet they are “baptizing people for the dead?” It made no sense to get baptized for the dead if didn’t believe in a resurrection from the dead.
A number of other commentators that I respect teach that this verse is simply talking about baptized believers who were martyred, and then replaced by new baptized believers. In other words, new Christians were baptized to replace those who had previously been killed for their faith: “baptized for (to take the place of) the dead.”
No one really knows for sure what this verse means, however, as said above, it isn’t so much what it does mean, as what it DOESN’T mean.