Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:29: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead?” What in the world does this mean?
Over 40 interpretations exist. Mormons practice baptism by proxy. That is, a living person is baptized on behalf of one who is dead. They have done proxy baptisms for many dead U.S. presidents. The idea is that baptism is necessary for salvation and can be accessed post-mortem by proxy. This contradicts Scripture everywhere, which declares that salvation is received by grace alone through faith alone (Rom 3:21-24; Rom 4:3; Eph 2:8-9; 1 Pet 3:21, etc.).
Martin Luther believed it meant being baptized over the graves of deceased saints. John Calvin believed it referred to those who were as good as dead with a terminal illness. Most ancient church fathers believed it referred to the baptism of a living person for a professing believer who had died suddenly before receiving baptism. Two other options fit the context better:
1. Their baptism was a decisive break by which they were renouncing their spiritually dead families (pagan or Jewish) in hopes to prick their consciences to the gospel. I wouldn’t have understood this until I went to Dakar, Senegal. It is 96 percent Muslim. I spoke in a Christian church and gave an “invitation” to receive Christ. The believers looked bewildered. They had never experienced an invitation in a worship service.
They later told me, “If a person comes to our worship service, they have committed to Christ already. A Muslim who sets foot in a Christian church commits spiritual treason. His family will disown him, and sometimes have him killed. Anyone who comes to our worship has renounced
their family and the Muslim faith through water baptism.” Their hope is their public baptism provokes spiritually “dead” family members to follow them. This is viable, but I think it refers to something else.
2. They were being baptized based on the faithful Christian testimony of dead Christians: loved ones, friends or heroes in the faith. Contextually, this makes the most sense. Paul had mentioned their deceased loved ones in verse 18.
His point: “If there is no resurrection, then your loved ones have perished. You will never see them again.” He then describes the Kingdom of God when Jesus returns. He says the resurrected saints will be there to witness the events in verses 24-28. Finally, he connects that thought with the word, “Otherwise” in verse 29. In other words, “Many people are coming to Christ and being baptized on behalf of the testimony of faithful Christians who predeceased them. Why would they do this if they didn’t believe they would be reunited with those Christians in the future Kingdom?”
I wouldn’t have understood this until I went to a tiny village in Ecuador. One of the only Christians in the small village died. They asked me to preach her funeral. I shared the gospel. Afterward, their custom was to carry the casket house-to-house before sealing it in a concrete vault. When the casket came to her son’s house, he draped himself over it and gave an emotional, soul-stirring testimony.
He said his mother shared the gospel with him for years, and he never responded. Her death made him recognize his own sin and his need for a Savior. He declared his desire to follow Christ.
I don’t know if he followed through with water baptism. If he did, I can see how his baptism was “on behalf of” the testimony of his dead mother.
This understanding makes the most sense to me. Whatever it means, though, Paul’s larger point is clear: The bodily resurrection of Christ is the backbone of the Christian faith.
On that, everyone agrees.
Chip Thornton is the pastor of First Baptist Church-Springville.