Braving Hard Passages: Baptism for the Dead
I have always taken comfort from the fact that if Peter could find some of Paul’s saying as hard (2 Peter 3:15-16), so can I. One hard saying in the Apostle Paul’s writing is his remark in 1 Cor. 15:29 regarding the baptism of the dead:
1Cor. 15:29 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?
Two principles that are worth remembering when you come to hard texts are (1) we must always let Scripture interpret Scripture; and (2) do not form an entire doctrine from one obscure and difficult text. This second principle really flows from the first. No major doctrine in Scripture entirely hangs on one text. The beauty of Scripture’s unity is that the clear text interprets the less clear text, or at least keeps us from the misapplication of an unclear text.
First, we should consider the context of a passage unclear to us. For the Corinthian text, two contexts are worth noting: first, the near context of 1 Cor. 15, some in the church were denying the resurrection. Paul’s argument is to set them straight, there is a resurrection.
The other element of context worth remembering is the church of Corinth as a whole. If you read through the entire book you see that there was no small amount of problems in their doctrine, their unity, and their obedience. There was division and infighting over who followed Paul, Apollos, or Peter, and even competition over who baptized them. There was sexual immorality, improper activity at the Lord’s table, etc. This should lead us to think that if Paul is referencing some element of practice at the church, he is not necessarily endorsing it.
Finally, as we think through what baptism is, it is a sign and symbol of our union with Christ. Paul says in Romans:
Rom. 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
Rom. 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
One possible interpretation then of “baptism for the dead” refers to a baptism for their own deadness in sin. “Why are you baptized as part of your death and your resurrection in Christ if Christ isn’t even raised from the dead?” This is possible but really is too much of an outside possibility. Gordon Fee even suggests traditional punctuation of the text could be reworked here (remember the punctuation isn’t inspired, First Corinthians, 766).
In his commentary of First Corinthians, Gordon Fee suggests a few other options, including baptism being used metaphorically as martyrdom (First Corinthians, 765). He also suggests that it could be baptism for the ‘soon to be dead’ (766).
Anthony Thiselton surveys another possible option but concludes Paul is referring to normal experiences where someone dies and that leads to the conversion of a family member who is then baptized in a normal baptism. Thus, the dying of one person led another to convert and be baptized because they had hope and expectation of seeing them again (First Corinthians, 1248). This is a very attractive solution but it is tough to be confident that this is what is actually going on.
The phrases “on behalf of the dead hyper tōn nekrōn“ and “on their behalf hyper autōn“ really seem to have the sense of in place of, or on behalf of another. It seems to be some kind of vicarious baptism for other people. Baptism for the dead then is not for spiritual deadness but people being baptized for others who have already died.
I am persuaded by Manfred Branch’s interpretation. He argues that the plain reading of the text indicates that some Corinthian Christians were either being baptized for dead relatives or friends, or it was practiced for those who had converted by died before baptism was administered (Hard Sayings, 175). First, keep in mind, Corinth had a lot of problems with the ordinances as evidenced by the comments of Paul on the Lord’s Supper. Second, Paul does not affirm or rebuke this practice rather it seems part of his rhetorical argument, “why are you doing this, if you don’t believe in the resurrection?” Whatever they were doing, the force of Paul’s argument says “your actions are inconsistent. Yet your actions indicate your belief in a resurrection.” I believe this rhetorical trap is more important in the scope of understanding all of 1 Cor. 15 even if I can’t be precisely sure who was being baptized and for whom they were baptized.
Two last pieces of advice for handling a hard passage:
- Don’t be afraid to read the commentaries. Sometimes they have a better understanding of hard passages than we do because of their expertise. That being said, Fee concludes “But finally we must admit that we simply do not know” (767).
- Do not be afraid to say we do not entirely know. We can come close to an answer. If you’re teaching the passage, illustrate what you think are the strongest options. Maybe explain why you think it is a particular option but acknowledge good evangelical brethren can reasonably disagree because it is a verse that is not as clear as we like. Do not be dogmatic in your view and do not turn it into a major doctrine.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
Manfred Branch, Hard Saying of Paul (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1989).
Gordon Fee The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
Antony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000).