Baptism of the Dead

By Peter Eng
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Baptism for the Dead

Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” (1 Corinthians 15:29)

This is one of the more enigmatic verses in the Bible. I have been talking about the resurrection, and even though we did not come to this text, I would be remiss not to address it.

The plain reading of the text suggests to us that the Corinthians were practicing some type of vicarious baptism for the dead.  This resulted in the Mormons practicing such a baptism for their ancestors who are already dead. They think this avails salvation to them. In order to do this, they need to know who their ancestors are. Consequently, as a group, the Mormons have better genealogical records than anyone.

All Christians, however, reject this reading.

While the plain reading suggests vicarious baptism, it simply cannot mean that because:

  1. There is an absence of such a practice in the main Christian community from the earliest times. We know about this because writers from the historic Christian church wrote to denounce those who practice vicarious baptism. So it is clear the historic Christian faith did not read the verse this way.
  2. It is extremely unlikely that Paul would not comment of this practice which is essentially magic through the sacrament. This is contrary to everything in Scripture about the sacrament of baptism.
  3. Such a teaching makes it totally unnecessary for a person do respond to God. All he needs is for his descendants or some other person to be baptized on his behalf. It is not a benign practice, but one fraught with assumptions that there is something magical in baptism. It contradicts the tenor of Scripture.

There are myriad views on what the verse means, and there is no commonly agreed interpretation on this verse. If you wish, you may find them in critical commentaries that will list the views and reasons for them. What I want to do here is to let you know which view I find the most feasible.  I can’t claim credit for this view, I can only claim credit not to add another view to the existing ones.

I think the view that is most straightforward is to take the preposition “for” as “for the sake of.” This is a viable use of the Greek preposition. The text then reads: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the sake of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for their sake?”

This reading is natural without forcing the text. It simply uses the preposition in a way that is commonly used by Paul in other places.  There is nothing metaphorical or symbolic in this reading and it coheres well with what we can expect in the Corinthian situation. So what does this mean?

This is a phenomenon quite commonly seen even today in Singapore. This happens when a believer has departed in the Lord. He is saved, his soul has gone to Jesus, and his body is waiting for the resurrection. He leaves behind family members who are reluctant to convert. When the living see that if they want to be with their loved one beyond the grave, they have to also embrace the faith as their loved one. So they make a commitment of faith and get themselves baptized for the sake of those who are dead. So they are baptized “for the sake of the dead.”

Let me illustrate from my own life experience. My own paternal grandmother understood that her son (my dad) had died in the Lord. Even though she has been practicing traditional Chinese religion, she wanted to be with her son. She believed in Jesus, but found the social ties of her religion too strong to sever. Yet on her death bed she decided she wanted to be with her son, and was baptized for the sake of her dead son.

I like to suggest this is the simplest, grammatically correct without any contortion of language, and culturally probable explanation for this enigmatic verse.

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