29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
I was baptized twice. The first time I was like 11 and my parents told me I need to get baptized, and I didn’t want to get in trouble. The second time I was around 18 and I had just become a true Christian, so I wanted to get baptized. It was an amazing experience spiritually and emotionally, to make a declaration in front of several of my friends from church that I am turning from a life of sin and following Jesus.
That is really what baptism is. It’s a symbol that you have gone from death to life and are now alive in Christ. Depending on what denomination or influence your church comes from, it could perform a baptism several different ways. One way we don’t normally see, though, is getting baptized sort of vicariously for a dead person.
Paul mentions this practice in this portion of Scripture though, and he isn’t condemning it. This may cause a lot of confusion for the reader, but it might make more sense if you understand the context around this verse (as with just about every portion of Scripture).
1 Corinthians is a crazy book. The church at Corinth is all jacked up. There was an incestuous relationship going on, pagan practices were adopted into regular church services, and people were just generally NUTS.
Paul spends a lot of time pointing out the pagan practices that the Corinthian church had adopted. Although there are several different points of view on what is going on in this passage, I believe that Paul is pointing out a pagan practice that the Corinthians have adopted simply to make a point. The term for getting baptized on behalf of a dead person is called “Proxy Baptism”. We know that proxy baptism was practiced in a pagan religion practiced near Corinth in the town of Eleusis known as the Eleusian mystery religion.
A note I’d like to make is that Paul didn’t necessarily say that the Corinthian church was 100% definitely practicing this ritual. He says, “why are PEOPLE baptized on their behalf?” He didn’t outright say why are YOU baptized on their behalf, but they were definitely influenced by pagan religions and this practice either way.
So, now that you understand the context of the book, we need to zoom in and understand the context of the chapter around the verse. The Corinthians held a belief that there is no life after death (sounds familiar right). The Corinthians didn’t deny the resurrection of Jesus. They were believers. We see that in verse 1, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand.” That means they believed in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. We see an affirmation of this in verse 12, “12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” The problem is that the Corinthians don’t believe that other “regular” people can live again after death.
So while Paul doesn’t condemn the practice of proxy baptism in verse 29, he doesn’t condone it either. And if you understand the context of the book and surrounding verses, you’ll see that he was simply making a logical point to the Corinthian church. This is smack in the middle of several arguments he makes for resurrection from the dead. This particular argument was that the baptism for the dead that the Corinthian church either practiced or was influenced by, is in direct contradiction to their belief that people do not live again after death. It is the hypocritical thinking of the Corinthian church that Paul is addressing. If there is no life after death, then why do you believe that proxy baptism has any kind of value? If nothing happens after someone dies, then why are you being baptized for them? The Corinthians that held both of these beliefs at the same time were living contradictions.
Concerning direct application to the modern Christian’s life, the mention of proxy baptism in this passage shouldn’t have much influence on your theology. Theology should be “systematic”, meaning that you read the entire Bible and conclude what it is telling you based on every instance. This is the only mention of proxy baptism in the Bible. And though Paul neither condemns nor condones it, you can conclude what his motives were when you read the surrounding context.
So basically, don’t get baptized for your great aunt Ethel.