Baptism for the Dead
Good News Magazine
February 1976
Volume: Vol XXV, No. 2
QR Code
Baptism for the Dead
Lester L Grabbe  

A scripture which has puzzled theologians for centuries is I Corinthians 15:29: "Why then do those who baptize for the dead do what they do, if there is definitely no baptism for them?" (Author's translation throughout.)
   One scholar who cataloged al1 of the various explanations of this verse over the centuries counted over two hundred! Since he wrote, several more have been advanced. Many attempts to explain the verse have been ingenious. Many have had a great deal of merit. Yet there is no consensus among scholars on the meaning of the passage.
   Does this verse alter the understanding of baptism in the New Testament? Does it teach "vicarious baptism"? Do scholars have to agree on the meaning of I Corinthians 15:29 before we can properly understand Christian baptism?
Requirements for Baptism. Baptism is a ceremony with symbolic significance. As Romans 6 shows, baptism is a symbolic death and burial. At baptism the new convert figuratively buries his old self — with its sinful past and its history of living contrary to God — and rises a new individual in Christ.
   Yet even though baptism is a ceremony, what it represents — and thus the ceremony itself — has certain prerequisites. Baptism is more than just an initiation ceremony. It is not the Christian counterpart of swallowing goldfish to enter certain collegiate fraternities. A person seeking baptism should be ready to change his whole life. He has to be ready to surrender himself to God and His direction.
   When the apostle Peter was asked what to do in order to become a Christian, notice what he said: "Repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
   Notice carefully these steps which must precede a true and valid baptism. An individual must first repent of his former way of living apart from God. He must believe the gospel and the new way of life it presents (see Mark 16:16). He must be willing to make any changes necessary to live as Christ would have him. Only then is the person ready for the ceremony of baptism which symbolizes this change of life through faith in Christ.
   Any baptism which is not preceded by the proper prerequisites is invalid. The person may be doused in the water, but he will not receive the Holy Spirit (see Acts 19:1-7). Such a baptism is completely worthless.
Should Christians Practice "Vicarious Baptism"? When one understands the purpose of, and requirements for, baptism, it becomes clear that there can be no such thing as vicarious baptism. One person cannot be baptized on behalf of another. Each individual must be baptized for himself, after his own repentance before God.
   Therefore, it is clear that I Corinthians 15:29 does not teach vicarious baptism. Whatever that verse means, it is not a command to be baptized for those friends or relatives who died unbaptized. Such a concept is contrary to the clear teachings and intent of Scripture.
   This does not mean, of course, that those who were not Christians at death are lost forever. For evidence that all will have a proper opportunity for eternal life, read our free booklet After Death... then What? and the reprint article Is This the Only Day of Salvation?"
Explanations of "Baptism for the Dead." As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there have been multiple explanations of the phrase, "baptism for [huper in Greek] the dead." The reasons include the fact that the phrase in Greek is capable of more than one interpretation and that the historical situation is not clear from the New Testament or secular history.
   The term "baptism for the dead" is used only in I Corinthians 15:29. Paul does not tell us what he has in mind. The Corinthian church obviously knew what he was referring to, but history has not recorded their knowledge for us. Several possibilities would fit the context of I Corinthians 15.
   Some have suggested that the passage has reference to the resurrection, which is the hope of the dead. One could bring that idea out by the following paraphrase: "Why then do those who baptize with the hope of the dead in mind — which is the resurrection — do it, if the dead are by no means raised?"
   Another explanation which has wide appeal is that Paul refers to a peculiar rite carried out by a group in Corinth. This group might not have had anything to do with the Church since Paul says "those who baptize for the dead," not "you who baptize for the dead." According to this explanation, Paul is not appealing to any practice of the Church but to a pagan rite — as an example — with which the Corinthian Christians were familiar.
   Other explanations are also possible. In any case, there is no command to "baptize for the dead." In all the discussion of how to baptize and the significance of water baptism, there is no mention of baptizing "for the dead." It is also clear that any so-called vicarious baptism is contrary to biblical teaching.
Conclusion. The exact meaning of "baptism for the dead" is no longer discernible with absolute certainty. Several explanations are possible,
   However, it is clear that true baptism must be preceded by repentance and belief. No one can repent for another, whether the other person is dead or alive. So-called vicarious baptism is, therefore, contrary to biblical teaching. Any attempt to extract such a doctrine from I Corinthians 15:29 is completely absurd.
   There is no command to baptize for the dead in all the New Testament discussion of baptism. The instructions on baptism and its significance are clear. I Corinthians 15:29 has to be understood in the light of plain biblical teachings, not the other way around.

Back To Top

Good News MagazineFebruary 1976Vol XXV, No. 2