Question

How do you understand baptism for the dead?

Answer

I don't think we can have much confidence that we know what that is. It is only mentioned once in Scripture (1 Cor. 15:29), and it is not described. Moreover, the language used to speak of it is vague.

Still, commentators speculate about it all the time (as I am about to do!). Many think that it involved vicarious baptism on behalf of those who had died, though the benefits the early church believed such baptism conferred are unclear. The Greek vocabulary here resembles that in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45 in the Apocrypha of the Septuagint, which refers to a sin offering made on behalf of the dead, and which praises this action in light of the future resurrection. I do not mean to imply that 2 Maccabees should be accepted as canonical — it should not. I simply mean to point out the way the vocabulary is used in a related context.

Most Christian commentators suggest that Paul spoke of a practice that he did not approve. Arguably, Paul did to point out that his audience already (though inconsistently) believed what he was telling them regarding the resurrection. Specifically, the Corinthians' practice of baptism for the dead, wrong as it was, presupposed the final resurrection. Paul clearly had opponents in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 1:12; 9:3; 2 Cor. 11:13), and it is not unreasonable to believe that some of them taught odd and otherwise unknown doctrines, perhaps including baptism for the dead. It is also not unreasonable to think that baptism for the dead would have developed in a Christian-Jewish context as the New Testament equivalent to the sin offerings for the dead mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45.

Just as the Old Testament does not advocate offerings on behalf of the dead, the New Testament does not advocate baptism on behalf of the dead. Nevertheless, it would seem that both baptism and sin offerings for the dead were practiced. In my estimation, such practices represent good motives, but poor theology and application of Scripture.

The good motives may be the reason Paul did not come down hard on them (cf. 2 Chron. 30:18-20). Other reasons Paul did not address the problem here may be that it was neither the point of his argument, nor a source of significant strife within the church. No doubt many other problems went not only untreated but also unmentioned in this letter.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.