What is the Baptism of the Dead Mentioned by Paul?

by Brother Lawrence Damien Cos

“Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?”

 Dear CG family

Enclosed find my latest article on Baptism for the Dead. It stems from a discussion we had in Sunday school class last Sunday as we continued our discussion of the book of I Corinthians and last week we were in chapter 15. The issue of baptism of the dead was raised and questions were asked about what Paul might mean here. This is an attempt to address that issue and the questions raised. Thought others than just my Sunday school class might have wondered about this also so am sharing here in the hopes you may be blessed by it and perhaps even learn something. As always any comments are always welcomed.

Dear Sister Marianna and Sunday school class,

  • This past Sunday morning we were in I Corinthians 15 discussing it and specifically as to what Paul might be referring to when he mentions baptism for the dead. To start with all biblical scholars would admit that the passage is obscure and hard to know exactly what Paul means this far removed from when it was actually written. There are also many interpretations as to what it means s there are scholars. Some think it refers to an early practice either by early Christians or non Christians cults of that time in Corinth. However there is no biblical or historical evidence to support that idea or what benefit its practitioners hoped to gain by doing if there were such a practice. 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.

One of the ancient church fathers Epiphanius understood that Paul  was referring to a practice of instructing people who were on their death beds about Christ. However I don’t feel this understanding seems to fit the context or language of the verse. Others have argued that this verse refers to a superstitious baptism for believers who were “outside” the church. The problem with that idea is that Paul’s understanding of “the church” included all believers not just some. The views of believers being outside the “church” is a view of Catholic Christians many centuries later wherein you had to ascribe to certain doctrine or creeds to be a “true” Christian. Still other scholars have as I mentioned earlier 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 day Mormons do. If this is the case it needs to be noted here that Paul neither confirms nor denies this practice. Also if this practice was in fact occurring Paul doesn’t seem to seen it as a big sin as he makes no further comment on it which he wouldn’t have done if he were strongly opposed to the practice or believed it to be a great sin. However the weakness of this argument and view of baptism for the dead is that history has no record of any cults that included baptism for the dead during this time period in Corinth.

Finally there is I believe one final option which I believe makes the most sense and may well have been what Paul had in mind. When Paul wrote this many of the Greeks believed in a “spiritual” resurrection. They believed the spirit left the body at death to go into the next life while the fleshly body rotted away in the grave. It was also a Gnostic teaching that the flesh was evil and a prison for the true spirit of man. They argued that Jesus was spirit only and only appeared to have a body of flesh. Paul here is refuting that idea. He has come to them preaching the literal bodily resurrection of Christ and that he is alive now. All this would be impossible if  the dead were not raised and therefore Christ could not be risen but would still be in a grave somewhere. If that were the case then the Christians had no hope of an afterlife and this life would be it. Paul argues if that were the case then we should eat, drink, and be merry because we were going to die and it would all be over. However since Christ is risen we do have hope of a resurrection and an eternal life in heaven. This leads me to what I believe is the crux of the matter concerning baptism for the dead.

In closing through research and studying a few commentaries on the subject I believe that the baptism for the dead can refer to those who are willing to be identified with Christianity and who suffer the fate of persecution just as those who have preceded them in the faith and have lived as examples before them. These are people who 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 I see here which lead me to this conclusion and helping me gain the perspective I have on this verse.

The first thing crucial aspect I see here is the word baptized. Two of the possible meanings for baptize is immersion and 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. Thus the fabric was baptized in the dye. In reference to Christians when we are baptized into Christ taking on His identity. This leads to a second thing we need to look at.

A second word we need to look at to help us understand this verse is the word for, As used here it can be better understood  as “on behalf of” or “in the place of. Thus there were believers who were being indentified or baptized in the place of the dead. Dead here refers to a corpse.  This makes perfectly good sense to the Greeks of that day because of their culture.

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.”

This I believe shows us what I think Paul had in mind when he made his reference to baptism of the dead. He is using that concept as an illustration of physical resurrection as opposed to vain faith if resurrection doesn’t occur. This leads to a third point we need to consider.

The third point is why be baptized, suffer persecution etc. if there is no resurrection. Also having seen others die for Christ do they actually believe they would have died if they had not believed in a resurrection and would he be willing to do the same? If there is no resurrection then why suffer all they were suffering and fight the beasts at Ephesus or even allowed themselves to be killed for the sake of Christ if there is no resurrection. Better to go have a great big party, eat, drink, get drunk or high, enjoy this life if this is all we have as at some point we will be dying and leaving this all behind and nothing awaits us after death if there is no resurrection or afterlife.

There can be no doubt that Paul was convinced of the reality of our future life. That is what made possible his present life for Christ and his witness which still speaks to us today. Without that confidence in Christ’s promise of resurrection, Paul would have allowed himself to suffer as he did and go through all he did. For us today I believe we need to ask ourselves, “Are we convinced of the resurrection and our future life in heaven with Christ  as Paul was”? 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.

In closing this is my views of a possible explanation for baptism of the dead. It is presented here as food  for thought, to get us stimulated to perhaps do more thinking and contemplation on this verse. In the end I suspect it really doesn’t matter what Paul had in mind here. The big issue it to keep focused on Christ and the promise of the resurrection by dying to self and living a resurrected life in Christ. Marianna feel free to make copies of this for the Sunday school class so they can read and hopefully have a better understanding of this passage. Also any thoughts or comments you may have are as always welcomed.

See you Sunday in class
Brother Lawrence Damien