1 Corinthians 15:29—Doesn’t advocating baptism for the dead contradict Paul’s teaching that each person must believe individually?

Problem: Paul said, “what will they do who are baptized for the dead?” This seems to imply that if a person gets baptized on the account of a dead person, then the deceased will be saved. But, this is in conflict with the clear teaching of Scripture that anyone old enough must believe for himself or herself (John 3:16; Rom. 10:9–13; cf. Ezek. 18:20) to be saved.

Solution: This is an obscure and isolated passage. It is unwise to base any doctrine on such a passage. Rather, one should always use the clear passages of Scripture to interpret the unclear ones. The Bible is emphatic that baptism does not save (see comments on Acts 2:38). We are saved by grace through faith, not by works (Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5–7; Rom. 4:5). Further, we cannot do anything that would obtain salvation for another person. Each person must personally believe (John 1:12). Everyone must make his own free choice (Matt. 23:37; 2 Peter 3:9).

Scholars differ as to what Paul means in this passage. The following interpretations are possibilities.

Some believe Paul is referring to a cultic practice among the Corinthians who had many other false beliefs (cf. 1 Cor. 5; 12). In effect, Paul would be saying, “If you don’t believe in the Resurrection, then why engage in the practice of baptizing people for the dead. You are inconsistent with your own (false) beliefs.” They think that the practice was so obviously wrong that Paul does not need to condemn it explicitly. They point to the fact that Paul says “they” (others) not “we” baptize the dead (v. 29).

Others suggest that Paul is simply referring to the fact that baptism of new converts is replenishing the depleted ranks of believers who have died and gone on to be with the Lord. If so, then his sense here would be, “Why do you continue to fill the church with baptized converts, who replace those who have died, if you do not really believe there is any hope for them beyond the grave?”

Some suggest that Paul is referring to the fact that baptism symbolizes the believer’s death with Christ (Rom. 6:3–5). The Greek word “for” (eis) can mean “with a view to.” In this sense, he would be saying, “Why are you baptized with a view to your death and resurrection with Christ, if you do not believe in the Resurrection?”

Still others, point out that the preposition “for” in Greek (huper) can mean “for the sake of.” In this case, baptism would be for the sake of those who are dead. They point to the fact that Paul says “If the dead do not rise at all; Why then are they baptized for the dead?” (v. 29) Since it was common in the NT period to be baptized as one accepted the Gospel, this was a sign of one’s faith in Christ. Thus Paul would be saying, “Why be baptized if there is no resurrection?” For Paul later says that if there is no resurrection, then “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (v. 32). Whatever the correct interpretation, there is no reason to believe Paul is here contradicting his clear teaching elsewhere or the rest of Scripture which insists that every person must freely choose or reject God’s gift of salvation.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.