What is the baptism for the dead (see 1 Cor. 15: 29)?
The expression must be understood from the context in which it occurs. 1 Cor. 15 is written to address the denial of resurrection being taught by some at Corinth: “how say some among you that there is not a resurrection of [those that are] dead?” (v12). As part of his rebuttal, the apostle raises several questions, including two in v29: “since what shall the baptised for the dead do if [those that are] dead rise not at all? why also are they baptised for them?” (v29). Now as verses 20-28 are a parenthesis, v29 therefore refers back to v12-19 where (speaking of the assertion that the dead were not going to be raised), the apostle declares: “then indeed also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (v18).
To deny the resurrection while maintaining a Christian profession is an absurdity. In v19 Paul argues that “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are [the] most miserable of all men”, and, indeed, it would be much more rational to “eat and drink; for to-morrow we die” (v32). The apostle’s life, however, was not just marked by self-denial, but also by severe persecution for in v30 he poses the question “Why do we also endanger ourselves every hour?” If there was no resurrection this made no sense. We know from elsewhere that Paul was not afraid to die, and he took no special pains to preserve his own life. It was far more important to preach the Word, but as he asks “what is the profit to me if [those that are] dead do not rise? (v32). Why did he endanger his life if death was the end? It would be absurd. Furthermore, if the “dead rise not at all” (v29), why were new converts joining what was little more than an ascetic community? Again, what was the attraction of a company that carried with it a real prospect of a shortened life, and a painful death? This is the thinking that lies behind the apostle’s questions “Since what shall the baptised for the dead do if [those that are] dead rise not at all? why also are they baptised for them?” (v29).
Now the word for occurs twice in v29 in relation to the baptism for the dead, and in both instances is a translation of the Greek word huper. This word literally means over or above, and some also interpret the verse itself in this literal way. In this view, the world must be recognised for what it truly is, namely a vast cemetery of dead unbelievers, and also the Christian seen for what he is, namely a child of resurrection. It is over this cemetery that Christians have been baptised in order to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6: 4)—much as Noah was baptised by the waters of the flood (see 1 Pet. 3: 20-21), waters that bore him up in salvation, but beneath which lay the unbelieving dead.
However, huper is much more commonly used in its secondary senses of in place of or on account of or for the sake of—as in, for example, “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15: 3, my emphasis), and there seems no reason not to translate v29 this way as well. Of course, this opens the way for the idea that the baptism for the dead refers to a baptism of the living on behalf of those who might have died unbaptised. Lying behind this is the false doctrine that baptism is necessary in order to enter eternal blessing. Mark 16: 16 gives us the true idea, for while belief and baptism are there presented as necessary for salvation, condemnation is only on the grounds of unbelief: “He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned”. Salvation of course relates to both heaven and earth, for the living saint needs to be preserved from many damaging influences as he passes through this world, and baptism is the practical means by which he is separated from such evil. A saint who dies unbaptised (for whatever reason) is beyond the reach of Satan’s world, and, for him, baptism is now irrelevant. The problem with the dead in 1 Cor. 15: 29 is not that they had died unbaptised, but whether (as some were saying in Corinth) they would ever be raised from the dead.
Since baptism refers to this life, the action described by huper surely refers not to something done for the dead, but what affects the living who remain. Hence the apostle is referring to those living that were being baptised in place of others who were now dead. As older converts died (either through persecution or natural causes), they were replaced in the ranks of the living saints by new believers. This raises an interesting practical point for both reader and writer: it is all very well seeking to satisfy our minds as to the meaning of the “baptism for the dead” but are we actually doing it? The Bible never envisages a diminution in the body of Christ—at the very least, those who “fallen asleep through Jesus” (1 Thess. 4: 14), are to be replaced in the ranks by new converts. Any group of the Lord’s people that mostly buries its dead but rarely baptises new converts is therefore defective in its state.