The apostle Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthian church have puzzled many Christians for centuries. Some denominations have extrapolated from the verse and have instituted a ritual by which a living believer is baptized in lieu of a person who is already deceased, and who was never baptized in their lifetime. But is this kind of “baptism for the dead” what Paul is really talking about?
The apostle may have been referring to one of four possible logical and historical situations:
1. The possibility that the early Christians were indeed being physically baptized on behalf of those who had died – perhaps before they could be baptized. This possibility is extremely unlikely as the New Testament clearly shows that baptism, while commanded, is not a requirement for salvation per se, and that sometimes it cannot be carried out (Luke 23:42–43; etc.).
2. Paul could have been referring to a pagan Greek custom, or to an unscriptural practice of vicarious baptism being followed by some members of the Corinthian church. This could be possible as Paul says “those” who do this, not “we.” But it is unlikely as we have no other record of such a practice in Corinth or elsewhere in the very early church (it is first documented in the third century AD).
3. Because baptism is a symbolic death to sin and a resurrection to righteousness (Romans 6:3–4), everyone who is baptized is, in that sense, symbolically baptized “for the dead” – that is, by baptism he or she proclaims the death of the old person and the new life in Christ. This was said to be Paul’s meaning by the early Church father, Chrysostom (c. AD 347-), and is certainly possible.
4. A final possibility that is suggested by the context of Paul’s statement is that the apostle was referring metaphorically to the “baptism” of trial and suffering through which the followers of Christ are called to go (Matthew 16:24). This fits with Paul’s words elsewhere linking our suffering with Christ’s death and resurrection (Philippians 3:10; etc.). The fact that the concept of baptism is used in exactly this sense in Matthew 3:11 and Mark 10:38–39, and that Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians to speak of suffering, also makes this meaning possible. Finally, Paul’s use of the ongoing present tense in his use of the word “baptized” in 1 Corinthians 15:29 makes this possibility of the baptism of suffering very likely.
Whichever possibility reflects the situation behind Paul’s statement, it is clear that a physical ritual of vicarious baptism for those who had died (possibility 1) is the least likely of all the meanings the verse could have. It is also a cardinal principle of proper biblical interpretation that we should never establish doctrine on uncertain verses of Scripture. Given that principle and the likelihood that Paul’s comment was either symbolic or metaphorical, there is no reason to invent a ritual practice that is nowhere commanded in the Bible.
Whatever Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 15:29, he simply says that if there is no resurrection, why would baptism for the dead occur or make any sense. Paul’s point in this section of his letter has nothing directly to do with baptism, and everything to do with the certainty of Christian suffering and resurrection.