What did Paul mean by “baptism for the dead”?


Baptism for the dead is mentioned only once in Scripture, in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (15:29). All through this chapter Paul’s theme has been the resurrection of the dead.

The text reading: “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” has been used to support several false beliefs:

1) that the dead are “alive” and through baptismal rights performed by the living can receive forgiveness of sin; thus the state of death is a state of consciousness in another realm and

2) the belief that all the dead will be resurrected. The plainest Bible teachings declare there is no consciousness in death. (see Ecc. 9:5, 10) When we die, our record is closed and by it we shall be judged; and Paul clearly explains that all hope of future life depends upon a resurrection.

Paraphrased, Paul is asking, “Why be baptized for the dead if the dead rise not at all?”

The New Scofield Bible comments on Paul’s thoughts in this passage. It reads:

“Paul is not speaking of baptizing living believers in place of either believers or unbelievers who are now dead. There is no assignment of saving efficacy to baptism. The argument is: Of what value is it for one to trust Christ and be baptized in the ranks left vacant by the believing dead, if there is no resurrection for believers? Why place life in jeopardy and forfeit benefits of this life, if there is no life after death?”

This is in perfect harmony with Paul’s argument of the absolute necessity of the resurrection. All future life depends upon it; without a resurrection both hope and faith are vain.

Unger’s Bible Dictionary offers the similar thought that “the dead” might refer to ”other believers who by firmness and cheerful hope of resurrection, have given in death a worthy example, by which others were animated to receive baptism… Christ might also be considered among them, by virtue of whose resurrection all His followers expect to be likewise raised.”

Surely it is a powerful argument in favor of the resurrection which has been the cornerstone of the faith of Christian believers in every age. Knowing that there is life beyond death for every faithful believer, a Christian can forego the pleasures and comforts of this world, face persecution and even risk their lives if need be, knowing that in Christ they have hope.