What is the Context?
The church at Corinth were believing that Christ was not raised from the dead. Because of this, Paul spends 1 Corinthians 15 arguing that Christ has indeed been raised. Additionally, he was arguing for a Christian worldview against a Greek worldview.
It is important to note that Paul was using “baptism on behalf of the dead” as an illustration and example in a long chain of arguments that the resurrection of Christ is essential and undeniable.
Paul asks the Corinthian church, if no one is raised from the dead, why they baptize people on behalf of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). The conclusion is that people do rise from the dead.
Did Anyone Actually Do This?
Church fathers had allusions to this practice. It happened in splinter groups and not mainline Christianity. No Apostles approved of this practice. By 390 AD, the practice was forbidden by the Council of Carthage.
Why Was Paul Silent?
The Corinthians had a bigger issue than baptizing on behalf of the dead. Their biggest issue was not believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul was most concerned about this bigger issue than correcting secondary doctrinal issues.
How Do Others Explain This Text?
Syntactical: Words don’t mean what the words mean.
Some figures in church history have contemplated that this baptism might not refer to baptism in water. Perhaps some people who were close to death and could not get baptized would have a proxy get baptized for them (Calvin held this view).
On Account Of: Another option is that people who decide to get baptized *because of* someone who has died. For example, if a child died, the mother would get baptized because she wanted to see her baby in heaven. Another translation could render getting baptized “on account of them” (of those who have died). Getting baptized because of seeing a loved one is a fetal hope – not a full hope rooted in the Gospel.
Grammar: A third reason is that the word for “baptized” is in the Greek middle voice, which means that it is an action that the subject and object are both taking part in. In this context, it sounds like the baptism should be on their own behalf. At the same time, the baptism for them is looking forward to someone who has died.
A Plain Reading of the Text
Just coming to this text without any former training or understanding, one would come away with the idea that people were being baptized on behalf of people who died. This is the plainest sense of the text.
Why shouldn’t Christians be baptized on behalf of the dead? Scripture teaches that once an individual dies, his opportunity to convert to a saving faith in Christ is over. There is no “second chance” after death. Additionally, baptism does not save. Only faith in Christ. The belief that baptism saves is not orthodox.
Brittany Proffitt lives in Dallas and is a writer and content manager for So We Speak.