Adventures In Missing the Point: “Baptism For the Dead”

This post is dedicated to a friend and to my father, who share my deep love for Scripture, and persist daily in fearlessly exploring it’s depths, unafraid to ask questions and pursue new angles.  Grant & Dad, who knows where such a journey may lead us….

“Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?”   – I Cor. 15:29 (NRSV)

Last year, our church did spent an entire Fall exploring the rich meaning of baptism in a series we called “Down in the River to Pray.”  Such explorations are always exciting to me.  I love to learn, but I don’t learn well alone.  I am much more likely to learn new things in community/fellowship with others.  This is good and bad.  Good because it cultivates an ‘open heart’ attitude within groups that creates space for God to do something new.  Bad because it can lead to chasing rabbits.  This is one such rabbit.

However, it is not so bad after-all.  It has been fun for me to come back to this particular rabbit; not so much in the interest of finally catching it, as much as trying to glimpse which direction it goes.  I know for certain, that I cannot finally answer the questions that have long arisen (ironic word at this point) from this peculiar verse.  Scholars much more equipped than myself to pin down this rabbit, have failed to do so, and the best scholars among us admit that this text is elusive and difficult at best, impossible at worst.  However, I think (to carry the rabbit metaphor further), we have gotten off the trail with this verse, and need to find our way back.  Interestingly enough, while this verse indeed takes us off track to chase a rabbit, within it are the words that bring us back to the proper trail.

1. This verse (I Cor. 15:29), in particular,  is peculiar and obscure.  However, I Cor. 15, in general is not obscure or peculiar – rather, it is literally “the Gospel.”

To get anything at all out of verse 29, we need to understand the whole of I Cor. 15.  It is helpful to note that I Cor. 15 is nothing less than Paul’s apostolic gospel.  He says so himself in verses 3-5.  More specifically, verses 3-5 & 12-28, are the gospel.  And what is that gospel?  That is a very good and important question.

Do yourself a favor.  Read Acts carefully with special attention to the moments when the gospel is being proclaimed.  When, in Acts, you find yourself reading a gospel sermon, ask yourself this:  “What is the gospel being proclaimed?” and “How does it compare with what I think the gospel is?”  I think you will discover some interesting insights, not least this:  Our contemporary version(s) of the gospel tend to focus on the substitutionary death of Jesus, and the blood that atones for our sins.  The earliest gospel sermons (in Acts) hardly mention this.  Instead they focus on the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Paul even says in I Cor. 15, “If Christ has not been resurrected… then you are still dead in sin.”

Recently a friend of mine was teaching on the Resurrection, and a class member commented something like this:  “What is important is that Jesus died for our sins.  I always just assumed the Resurrection was just a given.”   I don’t want to diminish the claim that Jesus’ death is both atoning and important.  But I think the apostles, according to their own gospel, would have reversed that claim to say it like this.  “What is important is that God raised Jesus to life, defeating death and vindicating him.   We always assumed his death was just a given.”

To say it more simply and succinctly:  Lots of revolutionaries, false Messiahs, dissidents, etc., were crucified and died.  Only one was raised from the dead to walk in flesh again.

And this theological claim is so important.  When God vindicated Jesus by defeating death and raising him to life from the dead, He revealed 3 things:

(1) Jesus Christ received the first-fruits (in His Resurrection) of what we can all look forward to.

(2) Jesus Christ now is the rightful ruler of the entire cosmos

(3) The Renewing/Redeeming/Refreshing Power that Raised Him (Holy Spirit) is now at work within us and the world to do for all of creation what God did for Jesus.

These three are central to the gospel, so much so that without them there is no gospel.  In other words, substitutionary atonement – death on the cross for sins – is not the totality of the gospel.  Without the Resurrection, Paul would say, there is no hope.

2. I Cor. 15:29 is clearly parenthetical to what Paul is saying I Cor. 15.  

There are several sections in I Cor. 15 that are obviously parenthetical, that is, not part of the main argument.  In some ways, verse 28 states the climax, and final goal of Paul’s “gospel sermon” in I Cor. 15.  Verse 29, then, shifts the focus from the gospel itself to it’s significance.  Which brings us to a very peculiar parenthetical question/suggestive remark:

“Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?”   – I Cor. 15:29 (NRSV)

3. Possible meanings of the parenthetical verse 29.

A. It could mean that some Christians have died without being baptized, and the practice had developed of other people undergoing baptism on their behalf as a sign and symbol that ‘this person really did belong to the Messiah’.  This is not an altogether implausible scenario, since the Holy Spirit was on the move in amazing ways extending the fellowship of the Kingdom to far reaches of the world in ways that were not “normative.”  Usually, in such scenarios, rather than legalistically undercutting enthusiasm, the apostles came behind the Spirit’s movement and taught the normative response to the gospel (see Acts 10).  Paul could be doing something like this.  Clearly, if this was the practice, it did not continue for very long, as the “standard/normative way of responding to the gospel and being marked out for God, indeed became the standard…”

B. It could be that “being baptized on behalf of the dead” refers to Christians, having lost non-Christian loved ones or dear friends to death, are baptized in the hopes that their act of faith ‘on behalf of the dead’ will somehow sway God into considering/including them among his ‘marked out ones’ at the final judgment.  This is typically what people ‘think it means’ upon first reading it.  The reverse (see below in ‘C’) however far more plausible, based on what we know of Christian conviction in the 1st Century.

C. It could be that “being baptized on behalf of the dead” refers to non-Christians, having lost Christian loved ones or dear friends to death, decided to become Christ-followers themselves, undergoing baptism so that they would continue to be with their loved ones in the final resurrection.  This, to me, is the most likely scenario.

4. Don’t miss the forest for the trees in verse 29.

The “trees” of verse 29 is “baptism on behalf of the dead.”  The “forest” is Paul’s gospel of Resurrection.

“Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?”   – I Cor. 15:29 (NRSV)

The point is, whatever the meaning of the practice of ‘bapstism for the dead’, that “if the dead are not raised at all” there is no point to any of it.

The Resurrection is a BIG (the BIGGEST) doctrine of Christianity.  It proclaims so much more than personal salvation, or ‘eternal security of the individual believer’.  In Romans 8, all of creation is waiting in eager expectation for this final glory of Resurrection to revealed to the children of God.  All things will be made new.  New Heavens and New Earth awaits us in the Resurrection.  Restoration. Renewal.  (See. Rom. 8, I Cor. 15, Rev. 21:1-7).

Resurrection is literally the final destination of the ENTIRE STORY OF HUMAN HISTORY.   And Paul says, essentially, in verse 29, if there is no such thing, if there is no Resurrection, then there is no point to any of it.  Leslie Newbigin, in his book “The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society” makes a similar remark to Paul, though lengthier:

“…if there is no point in the story as a whole, there is no point in my own action. If the story is meaningless, any action of mine is meaningless… so the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ can only be given if we ask ‘What is my story?’ and that can only be answered if there is an answer to the further question, ‘What is the whole story of which my story is a part?’ “

Chasing the Rabbit of I Cor. 15:29 is indeed fun, and it has been a wonderful adventure in missing the point.  But focusing too keenly on the particular meaning of “baptism on behalf of the dead” in verse 29 is indeed missing the point.  One could substitute almost any “act of faith” for “baptized on behalf of the dead” and the statement would still make sense.  Because true acts of faith always point to a deeper/future reality.  Resurrection.  It is what the whole world is waiting for.




  1. Love it. Great post. I love reading your blog…I love how you try to situate things in their proper place in their story instead of taking them as discrete things.

    Also I love you’re statement above about the resurrection being important and Jesus’ death begin a given. He had to die in order to be returned to life, after all–it just makes sense!

  2. I had to do some reading, which included Wikipedia (to my great shame). But I think a plain reading is best: there were Christians who had adopted the practice of receiving baptism on behalf of believers who had died (or perhaps even non-believers, or folks who were on the fence). There were some pronouncements from early church leaders against the practice which seem to indicate that that was what was happening. Also note that the notion of making provision for the salvation of the dead continued in the Catholic practice of celebrating Mass for the dead and saying prayers for their benefit.

    I have an image of Paul absolutely enraged by the very idea that Christ was not raised, and lining up every possible argument against that heresy, including the example of a practice that was not entirely orthodox. In this case his example exposes a misunderstanding of the nature of baptism, but a correct understanding of the resurrection, and so the example served his point. Who knows, he may have addressed this issue again in person or in a lost letter. I like how you put it in your post–the Spirit moved and the apostles came along and taught orthodoxy. I would add that they cooperated with the Spirit to make up orthodoxy as they went, as in the case of the Jerusalem Council.

  3. Greg,

    I think you are dead on with your image of Paul being “absolutely enraged by the very idea that Christ was not raised, and lining up every possible argument against that heresy.”

    About the Holy Spirit moving in powerful and extraordinary ways to herald the gospel to the far reaches of the world, and then the apostles coming behind that: I don’t mean to insinuate that the Spirit did anything contrary to orthodoxy. Only that the gospel had been proclaimed in extraordinary ways and the people did not quite know the normative ways to respond to that new proclamation. I think they knew it required a new orientation for life (something like repentance). Other than this, they waited for further apostolic teaching and instruction. I like your tone of “cooperating with the Spirit to make up orthodoxy.” – I would probably say they were “building” and “re-envisioning” orthodoxy that was rooted in Jewish imagery and metaphor and practice.

  4. Pingback: If I Were Mope [2013 Edition] | Beggar's Bread

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