1 Corinthians 15:29-34 (Baptism for the dead; Eat, drink & be merry)

deathWe now come to one of the most puzzling passages in all of scripture —

(1Co 15:29 ESV) 29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) take this quite literally, undergoing immersions for the sake of deceased ancestors  (“vicarious baptism” we’ll call the practice). But that seems just too far removed from the rest of all of Christianity to be right. It’s Christianity, not magic. But then, Paul’s words really need to mean something.

There are nearly as many theories as there are commentators. Some believe that the Corinthians engaged in vicarious baptisms for deceased loved ones who’d not been baptized during life, but it’s hard to imagine that this was a real need in the early church. Acts records converts being baptized essentially immediately! Of course, many, many years later, converts were sometimes required to wait years, even until near the point of death, for baptism, but there is no evidence that the Pauline congregations ever delayed baptism.

The Pillar commentary explanation works as well as any.

“The dead” Paul has in mind are those who will be “raised imperishable”; “raised in glory”; and “raised in power” (vv. 42-43). When he says people are “baptized on account of the dead” we may assume he means they are baptized on account of the righteous dead, those who will be raised in power and glory. This, then, is more specific than dead people in general, but does not suggest something as specific as living or deceased apostles or specific loved ones who have recently passed away.

We suggest that for believers to be baptized on account of the dead who will be raised in glory means that they have heard about these dead being raised up (to new life and glory) and they want to be part of that group.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), n.p.

The commentary includes a very extensive argument in favor of this theory.

N.T. Wright comes to a similar conclusion.

It may be that some Christians had died without being baptized, and that the practice had grown up (if so, it didn’t last long) of other people undergoing baptism on their behalf as a sign and symbol that they really did belong to the Messiah. Or it may be that ‘being baptized on behalf of the dead’ refers to non-Christians who, after the death of close relatives or friends who were Christians, decided to become Christians themselves, undergoing baptism so that they would continue to be with their loved ones in the final resurrection.

Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 217.

The NET Bible translator notes are less definite —

The most likely interpretation is that some Corinthians had undergone baptism to bear witness to the faith of fellow believers who had died without experiencing that rite themselves. Paul’s reference to the practice here is neither a recommendation nor a condemnation. He simply uses it as evidence from the lives of the Corinthians themselves to bolster his larger argument, begun in 1Co 15:12, that resurrection from the dead is a present reality in Christ and a future reality for them. Whatever they may have proclaimed, the Corinthians’ actions demonstrated that they had hope for a bodily resurrection.

I have to agree that Paul’s point is that the Corinthian practice — whatever it was — admits the resurrection of Christians will happen. But if the Corinthians engaged in vicarious baptisms, it seems odd that Paul would have so easily passed over the practice — unless Paul saw the practice as harmless. In other words, if Paul believed that those who died with faith in Jesus as Messiah would be saved even absent baptism (perhaps because they died before they could be immersed), vicarious baptism for their sake would perhaps be harmless enough.

But if Paul considered the unbaptized faithful — those who died after coming to faith and before baptism — to be lost, how could he let the practice of being baptized for their sake go on without comment? He’d have been heard as treating the damned as saved — obviously, not healthy gospel teaching.

The passage is too obscure to modern ears for us to hang any major doctrinal conclusions on it. The early church considered vicarious baptisms to be heretical. Whatever this practice was, it was forgotten except for this one verse.

(1Co 15:30-32 ESV) 30 Why are we in danger every hour?  31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!  32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Paul points out the personal dangers he suffered for the sake of the gospel. Why take such risks if there’s no reward in the afterlife?

Paul constantly exposed himself to danger because he knew that the dead are raised. He had already reminded the Corinthians of this in 1:8-9 where he said he did not want them to be ignorant “about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”

… That is, he faced death differently, and lived his life in a radically different manner, because he knew he had already been baptized into Christ’s death and was destined to be raised with Christ in the end. In this (only in a more radical way) he is similar to those baptized and committed to following Christ based on the promise that the dead in Christ will rise again and their desire to be among them when that happened. 

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), n.p.

Of course, implicit in Paul’s words is a challenge to us all to live the same radical life — knowing that the worst God’s enemies can do is kill us — and they really can’t even do that.

(1Co 15:33-34 ESV) 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”  34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. 

At first, Paul appears to be changing the subject. But he realizes that the absence of a resurrection could be taken to mean no judgment for how will live in this life!

Paul openly declares that he speaks to their shame–all of this is Paul pushing the hearers to the limits, his trying to shock them back to their (better) senses. Why? Because he has come to the heart of the matter: Life in this world, immersed as it is in suffering and brokenness, and work in behalf of the gospel, can all be reduced to folly if there is no resurrection of the dead, if indeed death has the victory, and if indeed death has the last word. Human striving and achieving, even if inspired by the grace of God, is emptied of all its significance if death is the final verdict. How is one’s work, indeed one’s very essence, one’s innermost being more than a whisper if it all ends in death? Paul posits that the resurrection of the dead, which is the logical and necessary outcome of the already-accomplished resurrection of Christ, gives life in the present its meaning, allows and even demands that one enter struggles on behalf of the gospel, and assures that life’s struggles and hardships have meaning, a meaning that is ensured by God and that will survive death’s sting.

J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), n.p.

In short, contrary to much “Christian” teaching today, if there is no resurrection, Christianity is a waste of time. But if the resurrection is real, nothing else matters.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to 1 Corinthians 15:29-34 (Baptism for the dead; Eat, drink & be merry)

  1. Dwight says:

    Rich, as suggestion. Please post the scripture with the chap and verse. Otherwise if is hard to follow your argument unless we read here, then we have to move to another screen, then back again, etc. It is helpful to post the scripture, then your thoughts on the scripture. Some of us are poor at memorizing scriptures and recognizing them from chapter and verse.Thanks.

  2. Dwight says:

    John F, I agree. I think we in the Western world are too concerned with digging deeper and dissecting scripture and and not with just following what we read at face value, which I imagine is done in the East. Also we do see things from our Western perspective and often force this onto scripture. This is why wine in the Bible is now grape juice, even though they would know it as fermented juice, which is what they have been making for centuries in thier culture.

  3. rich constant says:

    thanks Dwight that’s what I used to do all the time.
    especially on John Mark Hicks blog, and he would just say because the Scriptures Used are sometimes for contexts are up to a Full chapter, that if anyone is really interested they have the scripture reference right there which is easy enough to look up nowadays.
    so then six Of one half dozen the other.
    so that’s the reasoning behind it blessings Dwight. your brother rich

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