Recently, I was reading a post by radio talk show host Glenn Beck, who was talking about his Mormon faith. Strangely, a lot of Christians have embraced Glenn as a fellow Christian, ignorant of his religious affiliation. To be sure, Glenn is a Mormon and does NOT ascribe to the doctrine of Christ, but rather of the false prophet, Joseph Smith.
Glenn’s comments in his article were intended to demystify some of the odd practices and beliefs of Mormonism and present it as, essentially, a Christian denomination. One of the topics he addressed, ever so briefly, was the subject of baptism for the dead. Mormons believe that a living person can undergo baptism on behalf of a dead person, to ensure they obtain entrance into the “Celestial Kingdom”. Glenn asserts that this is just basic biblical teaching. So, what “basic biblical teaching” is he referring to and why does this matter?
Mormons argue that the Bible teaches the doctrine of baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29. The KJV read this verse as follows:
1 Corinthians 15:29 (KJV) – Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
As I studied this passage myself, I found that scholars have deliberated over its meaning for many years. It has sometimes sparked considerable debate and confusion among Christians. Catholics, by-the-way (and some other religious sects), also contend that baptism for the dead is biblical… and here we have a verse that appears to address the subject.
Could the Mormons be right on this? On the surface glance, one could argue, it may appear that the apostle Paul might have actually indicated that baptism for the dead was a legitimate practice… and he seems to affirm it by saying, “what would be the point of doing it if the dead didn’t actually expect to rise again?” It is therefore understandable that some Christians would stumble at the introduction to this rarely acknowledged passage of Scripture… isn’t it?
I have to insert here that I believe it’s quite a long stretch to go from one verse that sounds suspicious all the way to formulating an entire doctrine around it, complete with massive rituals to accommodate it and legitimize it. This is where the admonition to “study to show thyself approved” comes directly into play and we must always remember that context is essential. If we disregard a due diligence in study, then we may cause ourselves to be far more susceptible to the embrace of error and deception. Paul also warned the Corinthians to cast down vain imaginations and to bring every thought into the obedience of Christ… We certainly have enough “vain imaginations” being tossed around in modern Churchianity these days. We need to submit our minds to the instruction of Christ Jesus!
I won’t run long on this topic because I don’t believe it’s necessary. If you are curious, you can obtain a large resource of scholarly commentary on this passage using free Bible study products like e-Sword. If it entertains you, you may examine the many different arguments that have been challenged concerning this passage and topic. Rather than get into all of that here, I am going to summarize my own research for convenience and share my perspective on this. It’s not because I feel like picking on Mormons or people who believe in weird rituals, but because I love the Gospel of Jesus Christ and I want to encourage you to not allow any foothold of the enemy to deceive you.
Part of the reason this topic has sparked debate and confusion is because history records that there were at least two sects of Christians around the period of the mid second century that appear to have practiced baptism for the dead in some form. These were generally regarded as heretics, but some believe this passage of Scripture warrants tolerance because it seems to at least allow for the possibility… However, I do not believe there is any possibility this passage is referring to some weird religious tenant of Mormonism, Catholicism or whatever other sect we might find that thinks people should engage in baptism rituals for the dead.
This is where it is important to regard the context of the passage we are looking at. The apostle Paul is discussing the subject of the resurrection of Christ and His power over all enemies, including and especially death. Preceding verse 29, Paul has laid significant groundwork to emphasize the importance of the resurrection, for without it, our faith and our preaching of Christ is worthless.
1 Corinthians 15:13-14 (KJV) – But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
The passages following after 1 Corinthians 15:29 speak of the Christian’s path of enduring through suffering in this life, realizing that we have a hope in Christ, who rose from the dead to life everlasting (just as we shall). So the point of baptism is expected to be followed by the endurance of faith in life… Even if death may come, we endure now, and afterwards we shall receive the hope of resurrection.
It is between these two things that this passage (vs. 29) appears. It should be noted that nothing in any of Paul’s letters (or even in the context of this very passage) address “baptism for the dead” as a doctrinal instruction. So what exactly did he mean?
On approaching this study, I held in mind the truth that the believers in Corinth were sometimes known for allowing their excitement about spiritual things to derail them into aspects of error, which is part of why Paul was writing to them; to correct these issues and build up their faith in the truth. My initial thought was that perhaps Paul’s mention here was deliberately to address a practice that they had become accustomed to, but which had not been taught by Christ or any of His apostles. While that could be a possibility, the fact that Paul doesn’t seem to follow up his statement with any kind of direct rebuttal of the error, may indicate that either he did approve of the practice or, perhaps, we have misunderstood the phrasing of the passage. I tend to believe the latter is more likely.
As I was studying, I became aware of the fact that Greek expositors regarded the words “the dead” as equivalent to the words “the resurrection of the dead”, and the baptism as a manifestation of belief in the doctrine of the resurrection. That little detail right there explains a mouthful and brings the context of this passage together. It indicates that Paul was not at all referring to a “baptism on behalf of dead people in the hopes that they would be saved,” but rather he is directly referring to the symbol of baptism itself as it concerns the person being baptized!
With this understanding, I searched through various translations of the Bible to find one that phrased this passage accordingly. The God’s Word version says it very well in my opinion:
1 Corinthians 15:29 (GW) – However, people are baptized because the dead will come back to life. What will they do? If the dead can’t come back to life, why do people get baptized as if they can come back to life?
You’ll quickly notice that doesn’t sound anything like a practice of “baptizing for the dead”, but rather of baptism with the understanding that in Christ there is a resurrection!
Paul is simply reiterating the meaning of the symbolism of baptism… We should understand that baptism is a representation of burial in death with Christ and then being raised with Him unto new life. The word “baptism” literally means “to wash” and so it is that by professing our faith in Christ, we agree that our old sins are washed away as we align with Him in death and resurrection. When Paul speaks of “baptism for the dead” he means “for the resurrection of the dead” (i.e. of THEMSELVES). He is not talking about performing some ritual on behalf of dead relatives or friends so they can get into heaven. Not only that, but the context of the entire passage only reaffirms that this mindset about the resurrection should inspire us to press on toward the high calling of God. We should expect to endure, even hardships (possibly even death), as faithful servants of Christ. In other words, baptism is NOT for the dead, but for those who are made alive in Christ Jesus and have a path yet to travel!
It is an historical fact that some Christians in early times chose to be baptized as they suspected death was near at hand. This was in response to words of Jesus who said:
Matthew 20:22-23 (KJV) – But Jesus answered and said, “Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.”
Because Jesus referred to his own “baptism” in the context of suffering, endurance, and ultimately death (but also victory), some early Christians sought to identify with Christ in baptism by correlating it with the death they would surely face by persecution or other peril. Even in this styling of the act of water baptism, it was not something done on behalf of dead people, but with deep contemplation of the sacrifice and suffering of Christ, that afforded their glorious salvation and brought the promise of life eternal with Him.
There is also historical record of Christians sometimes performing baptisms on or near gravesites of their fallen brothers and sisters. There was nothing spooky-spiritual about this… Rather it was merely an act of honoring those that have gone on before them, having run their race, and “handed off the baton” as it were. By performing the act of baptism on a gravesite, they were essentially declaring their intention to continue running the race set before them that their brothers and sisters behind them had now completed through death. They fully expected to face trials and suffering as a good servant of Christ, just as others had done before them, but each with the hope of resurrection in Christ.
None of these examples bore any connection with the concept of baptizing a person on behalf of another dead person.
I did find one commentator who indicated his opinion that Paul may have been making an ad hominem argument against people that were baptizing on behalf of the dead. In other words, the thought was that he (Paul) was using their activity to point out its futility because it misses the point of the purpose of baptism. A dead person cannot respond to Christ in baptism, for they are already dead. A living person need only be baptized into Christ related to his own commitment to be buried with Christ and raised to new life. While I suppose it is, technically, a possibility… I struggle with that particular author’s opinion of the ad hominem argument in light of the fact that there is simply no apparent biblical evidence here to support it other than the commentator’s idea.
Another thought some have suggested is to point out that the Jews were very concerned with making special care for the dead. They had various practices to prepare the bodies, performing special washings (remember that the word baptism means “washing” literally), and rituals. The argument is that Paul is reminding them with a question, “What’s the point of all these special washings and preparations for death, if death is all there is?” I actually like this idea in one respect, because it does connect with what I believe is Paul’s primary point concerning the significance of the resurrection of Christ… What’s the point of “washing” (i.e. baptism) if there is no resurrection?
It’s amazing how easily people get off track with little topics like this. By focusing in on a detail and adding mountains of speculation, imagination and turning everything into some kind of religious ritual, they miss the overall point the apostle means to highlight. No wonder Christianity seems so prone to deception these days. Christians have put aside their relationship with the Master and dispensed with studying His Word, in exchange for whatever they are being fed by whatever teacher successfully manipulates their attention. They go for what “sounds right” to their itching ears and what “feels good” to their flesh… and then find the ideology that best suits their preconceived conclusions.
It’s no wonder to me that we have Christians today that think Mormonism is just another “Christian” denomination… This watering down of the message has been going on for a very long time and the attendants of our churches in America (and beyond) have been content with grazing on the corrupt food offered by deceived and deceiving preachers. They have been taught to depend on men and religious institutions and taught that getting your spiritual food directly from Christ Jesus is “dangerous.” But I am telling you my friend, it is not getting your food directly from Christ Jesus that is dangerous!
If you do not learn to feed yourself spiritually by grazing in the pasture of the Good Shepherd, you will render yourselves incapable of discerning whether food shared by others who claim to be His servants is good or not. You will be manipulated. You will be deceived!
Christ will NEVER fail you or forsake you if you search for Him with ALL your heart. In this hour it is most essential! We must become servants of our Father in Heaven. We must do only that which we see Him doing. If we do this, we will be blessed. We will know what it is to have life and that more abundantly. That doesn’t mean we will have all the health and wealth that the prosperity teachers talk about, but we will have HIM in abundance and that is life itself!!! What could be more substantial and wonderful? Nothing I tell you!!!