(1 Corinthians 15:29) Doesn’t Paul Teach We Can Be Baptized On Behalf of the Dead?

“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?” (1 Corinthians 15:29)

Many refer to this verse to “prove” that their loved ones are stuck in a place of purgatory, but if we choose to be baptized in their behalf they will move on to heaven. However, the context clearly reveals this congregation to whom Paul is writing did not believe in a future resurrection from the dead. In verses 12-14 he says:

“Now if Christ be preached that He rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? 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.” 

Paul challenges this congregation by asking why they preach Jesus rose from the dead if they do not believe in a future resurrection of believers. He says, “if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen” because the resurrection of Christ is our surety of a future resurrection of the dead. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote:

“… we know that God raised the Lord Jesus to life. And just as God raised Jesus, He will also raise us to life. Then He will bring us into His presence together with you.” (2 Corinthians 4:14; Contemporary English Version)

This echoes Paul’s words he wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

“With a loud command and with the shout of the chief angel and a blast of God's trumpet, the Lord will return from heaven. Then those who had faith in Christ before they died will be raised to life. Next, all of us who are still alive will be taken up into the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the sky. From that time on we will all be with the Lord forever. Encourage each other with these words.” (2 Thessalonians 4:16-18; Contemporary English Version)

Paul counseled the church in Corinth saying that the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of the dead go hand in hand. The future resurrection of the dead is dependent upon the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ is a foreshadow of the resurrection of the dead at the second coming. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then all who have died have no hope of a future resurrection. 

“And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 18)

Paul continues his argument by referring to their continued observance of the Feast of Firstfruits which foreshadowed the resurrection of Christ, and now (since Christ has risen) foreshadows the resurrection of the dead in Christ “at His coming”:

“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man (Adam) came death, by Man (Christ) came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at His coming.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)

Then in verse 29 Paul links baptism to the resurrection by saying, “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?” Baptism represents our dying to self, burying our past life in the water, and to rise unto newness of life as we are brought up from the water. Elsewhere Paul says:

“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” (Romans 6:3-6)

Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is basically asking why the people of this congregation believe and teach of the resurrection of Christ, participate in the Feast of Firstfruits, and believe and practice baptism (which are all symbolic of the believer’s future resurrection from the dead) if they do not believe in a future resurrection. The word “for” in this verse can also be read in the sense of “considering.” 

“Else what shall they do which are baptized CONSIDERING the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized CONSIDERING the dead?” 

In other words, “Considering your belief that the dead will not rise, why then do you participate in baptism which is a symbol of the future resurrection of the dead?” 

The Scriptures nowhere teach we can be baptized on behalf of a dead loved one; just as it does not teach that a dead person who is so-called “caught in purgatory” or some form of spirit world, can be freed from his/her punishment by the payment of money to a church by the living.