Baptism for the Dead
1 Corinthians 15:29
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?…

I. MANY COMMENTATORS HAVE DECLINED TO ACCEPT THESE WORDS IN THEIR OBVIOUS SENSE. Here are some of their interpretations: "What shall they gain who are baptized only to die?" "What shall they gain who are baptized when dying, as a sign that their dead bodies shall be raised? .... What shall they gain who are baptized for the removal of their dead works?" "What shall they gain who are baptized into the death of Christ?" "What shall they gain who are baptized for the hope of the resurrection of the dead?" "What shall they gain who are baptized into the place of the dead martyrs?" "What shall they gain who are baptized into the name of the dead?" "What shall they gain who are baptized in order to convert those who are dead in sin?" "What shall they gain who are baptized over the graves of the dead?" i.e., martyrs — a custom which existed in the post-apostolic Church. "What shall they gain who are baptized for the good of the Christian dead?" i.e., to accomplish the number of the elect, and to hasten the kingdom of Christ. Taken together, these sound like a series of ingenious answers to a conundrum, no one of which is the true answer. And thus they read us a most impressive homily against putting forced, or "spiritual" meanings on the plain words of Scripture. These opposing constructions of St. Paul's words refute each other, and warn us that we must abide by the natural and obvious sense of the passage, in whatever difficulties it may land us. Take them literally and St. Paul says, that in the Corinthian Church men were baptized for, in the stead of, the unbaptized dead.

II. WE HAVE MANY HISTORICAL TRACES OF THE CUSTOM OF BAPTIZING FOR THE DEAD. and attest that it existed among the ( A.D. 130-150). relates that a similar custom prevailed among the Corinthians, a still earlier sect, and adds: "There was an uncertain tradition handed down that it was also to be found among some heretics in Asia, especially in Galatia, in the times of the apostles." St. gives us a graphic picture of such a baptism. He says: "After a catechumen was dead, they hid a living man under the bed of the deceased; then, coming to the bed of the dead man, they spake to him and asked whether he would receive baptism, and he making no answer, the other replied in his stead, and so they baptized the living for the dead." Similar observances have obtained in all ages. The Februarian lustrations for the dead are familiar to all readers of Ovid. Tertullian refers to them as very much on a level with the Corinthian baptism for the dead. They were designed to contribute in some indefinite way to the welfare and happiness of the Roman dead. With the Jews, if any man died in a state of ceremonial uncleanness, which would have required ablution, one of his friends performed the ablution; he was washed, and the dead man was accounted clean. In a kindred spirit the Patristic Church once placed the eucharistical elements in the mouths or hands of the dead.

III. NOW A CUSTOM WHICH HAS OBTAINED SO WIDELY, and which still lives virtually in the Roman "masses for the dead," MUST HAVE HAD SOME HUMANE AND NOBLE MOTIVE. Nor, I think, is the motive far to seek. Death often lends new life to love. When we have lost those who were nearest to us, we long to do something to prove the sincerity of our love. Suppose, then, that in Corinth a son, who had often listened to the Christian preachers, lost the father who had listened with him. Both, let us assume, have been impressed by the truth, but they have not been drawn by it into the Christian fellowship. The father dies: and now the son resolves that he will hesitate no longer. He will put on Christ by baptism. But the dear father now dead — can nothing be done for him? He might have been baptized had he lived a little longer: perhaps, as he lay a-dying, he lamented that he had not been bolder. Are his good intentions, his regrets, to come to nothing? May not his son's baptism be in some sort the father's too? May not the son say to the minister of the Church, "My father would have been baptized had he lived; I will be baptized for him"? If he did say that, we may be sure the minister would respect his feeling; possibly he might even share it. For we must not forget how ignorant the Corinthians were, and that on the main sacramental and doctrinal points. And if vicarious baptism were administered by any one teacher, if those were admitted to baptism who were moved thereto by love of the dead as well as by love for Christ, we can easily see how a superstitious custom would soon grow up in the Church.


1. And yet, did he not, in becoming all things to all men, that he might save some, often accommodate himself to the views and feelings of those whom he addressed when he could not share them? We can hardly suppose that St. Paul admired the allegorical method of interpretation which was so dear to many of the Jews. Yet, in speaking or in writing to men who used this method, he often adopted it (Galatians 4:21-31). So again, as he passed through Athens, he saw an altar with this inscription, "To the Unknown God." The Athenians meant only some god whom they did not clearly know, who might well consort with the crowd of divinities in their Pantheon. "Him," says St. Paul, "I declare unto you." But it was not any such god as was in their thoughts, but the only wise and true God. Here again, therefore, he was accommodating himself to views which he could not share; he appealed to the polytheism of a heathen race in order to set forth Jesus as the Saviour and life of men. So, once more, when he took a Jewish vow, and, after a Jewish custom, shaved his head at Cenchrea; or when he went and purified himself in the Temple, or when he caused his "son Timothy" to be circumcised, he became as a Jew that he might, gain the Jews. Is it impossible, then, that, in persuading the Corinthians of a resurrection, he should appeal to a superstitious custom which he himself did not approve?

2. Nevertheless, one does not like to conceive of St. Paul as doing that. The least we should expect of him is that, if he condescended to use such an argument at all, he would disconnect himself from the superstition on which it was based, and hint his disapproval of it. And this much, I think, he does. There are traces of his tacit disapprobation of this baptism for the dead even in our English version. Mark the tone of his argument before and after the 29th verse, and you will see how completely he identifies himself with his friends at Corinth. If the dead rise not, he says in the previous verses, our preaching is vain, your faith is vain, etc. It is all we and you. The same tone dominates the subsequent verses. Contrast with this the tone of ver. 29. "Else," i.e., if the dead rise not, "what shall they do who are baptized for the dead?" St. Paul no longer speaks of we and you, but of they and them, as though he were speaking of men with whom neither he nor his friends were in perfect sympathy. And this change of tone is much more marked and obvious in the Greek. To give effect to his change of tone and the niceties of his grammar, we may paraphrase his question thus: "What will become of those," or, "What good account of themselves can they give, who are in the habit of being baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not? The very ground and motive of their custom is cut from under their feet by a denial of the resurrection, and therefore they, of all men, should be the very last to deny it."

V. NOTE ONE OF THE GRAVE MORAL QUESTIONS THE SUBJECT SUGGESTS. I have spoken of the humane and universal feeling in which this vicarious baptism probably had its rise and strength. We have lost those who were dear to us, and if we have hope for all our dead, we can sympathise with the anguish of those who have no hope. We can see that if fears for their eternal welfare had been added to our sorrow at the loss of those who were very dear to us, that added burden would have been enough to break our hearts. And the question I would fain suggest is — Are your children to long, when you are taken from them, that they could be baptized for the dead? If only because you love those who will be after you, and would save them from vain longings and inconsolable regrets, it will be well for you to consider this question, and to act out your answer to it without delay.

(S. Cox, D.D.)

Parallel Verses
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?

WEB: Or else what will they do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead aren't raised at all, why then are they baptized for the dead?

The Termination of the Mediatorial Kingdom
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