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Why was Paul preaching baptism for the dead?

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Why was Paul preaching baptism for the dead?
Posted on January 26, 2021  - By Rufus Simon Varghese

In 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul says: “For otherwise, what will those do who are baptised for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptised for them?” I have tried reading this verse in many different translations but there’s just no getting around it: why does Paul seem to be teaching baptism for the dead here?

Some have erroneously concluded from 1 Corinthians 15:29 that the living can be baptised for the dead and thus, earn some merit for the deceased. This is a doctrine taught by Mormonism, a cult group that has all of its fundamental Biblical teachings wrong. 

Such a doctrine is not taught or supported in any other part of Scripture, either in Pauline literature or in other writings of the New Testament. So, in order to make sense of what ‘baptism for the dead’ means, let us look at the context of chapter 15. 

In writing this chapter, Paul seeks to clarify a whole lot of confusion that the Corinthian believers had about the topic of resurrection. They were confused about whether the resurrection is real or not. Here’s an outline of Paul’s main points till v.28:

  1. Centrality of the resurrection: Believers need to hold fast to the message of the gospel that saved them and is sanctifying them (vv. 1-2). Jesus’ death and resurrection are the key elements in the gospel and these are in accordance with the Scriptures (vv. 3-4).
  2. Proof of the resurrection: There were multiple eyewitnesses who saw the resurrected Christ. They include those who were His associates (Peter and the Twelve), a large group of people numbering upto 500 brethren at a time, sceptics like James, and enemies like Paul. So, the case for the resurrection is authentic (v. 5-8).
  3. Implications of the absence of resurrection: If there is no such thing as resurrection, then Christ is not raised from the dead. If that is true, our faith is futile; we have no hope for an afterlife and we are still in our sins (v. 12-19).
  4. Effects of Christ’s resurrection on those who believe: Christ’s resurrection is true and since He is the firstfruits of those who have been dead in Him, it will lead to the resurrection of all who belong to Christ at His coming, when He will destroy every rule, power and authority and ultimately death itself (vv. 20-27). Jesus, after having subjected all things under Him, will be subject to God the Father (vv. 27-28)

There were multiple eyewitnesses who saw the resurrected Christ

No resurrection, no hope

Having understood what verses 1-28 say, let us look at verse 29, where Paul connects the topic of resurrection to the topic of baptism on behalf of the dead. (The word “for” — ‘huper’ in Greek — is better translated as “on behalf of”, as the ESV Bible puts it, or “for the sake of”.)

Now, water baptism in itself means that a person is demonstrating his inward allegiance to Jesus by publicly identifying with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection through immersion in water. A person takes Christian baptism in the first place, because he/she believes in the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Despite this, some of the believers had begun having doubts about the reality of the resurrection. If resurrection isn’t true, it implies a few things:

  • The dead ones have no hope of receiving a glorified body and are in sin.
  • That gives no incentive for those who are living to come to Christ, because if the resurrection is not true, it is proof that God didn’t accept Christ’s payment on the cross. Sins are not atoned for. 
  • No resurrection would mean Christ was just as much of a sinner as us.
  • If resurrection isn’t true, the church at Corinth wouldn’t be attracting new converts since, apparently, there would be no hope that could be offered for an afterlife nor deliverance from sin and death. The church membership of Corinth should have gone to zero because of the lack of hope.

If resurrection isn’t true, the church at Corinth wouldn’t have attracted new converts. Membership would have gone to zero

On the contrary, more people were being convinced of the basic elements of the gospel, because of the Scriptural support and the overwhelming number of eyewitnesses who could testify to seeing the risen Lord. All of these Corinthian believers could verify the reality of resurrection by checking it up with the “500 brethren” who were alive at the time (v. 6). 

New believers joining the Corinthian church through baptism were, therefore, in a very real sense, ‘replacing’ the number of people who were dead in Christ. The new believers were joining with the dead believers in the hope of the resurrection through faith. Why would they do so if there was no hope for life after death? This is what Paul meant by verse 29.  

Why the church is growing

We aren’t reading about a ritual that has no backing in Scriptures. Baptism of the dead as a ritual is demonic and a result of a faulty interpretation of the Bible. Believers shouldn’t fall into such a misinterpretation because it is an attack on the message of the gospel.

When we see this phrase ‘baptism on behalf of the dead’ in context, we understand from 1 Corinthians 15 that the undisputed fact, infallible proofs, life-changing implications and eternal effects of Christ’s resurrection are undeniable. Resurrection is true and, even though many who are in Christ have fallen asleep, they will resurrect when Jesus comes again. 

More and more people come to faith because the doctrine of the resurrection is true and because Christ gives them the solution to the greatest problem of sin and death. The new believers identify with the dead in Christ through their baptism and their joining with the living members of the church of God. This is why Christianity continues to this day and hasn’t died away.

Rufus Simon Varghese

About Rufus Simon Varghese

Born and raised in Dubai, UAE, Rufus completed his Masters in Theology at Asian Christian Academy in Hosur, India. He has since been involved in personal outreach ministries and teaching youngsters Scripture. Currently based in Ernakulam, India, he is teaching at a Bible school as well as ministering to the Hindi-speaking immigrant working population in Kerala.



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