What’s going on here?
Let’s review the context. In 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 Paul is arguing that the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely necessary for our faith. Without the resurrection our faith is worthless. To bring this point home he assures the readers that those who have died are actually only asleep. Death is not the end. If Jesus is not raised those who have died are lost. Playing on this thought he then introduces a practice among the Corinthians – baptism for the dead. Such a practice is meaningless if there is no resurrection. The question is the purpose or intent of this practice.
Some suggest that Paul is being hypothetical here. It’s not that this practice is actually taking place, but if it was it would serve no purpose without a belief in the resurrection. This view eliminates the need to explain the function of the practice, but Paul doesn’t even hint that this is hypothetical. It seems like Paul is referencing an actual practice of the church there.
So, why are the Corinthians being baptized for the dead?
One possibility is that a believer can affect someone else’s salvation. You or I can express faith in Jesus and submit to baptism not only for ourselves but for others. In this case we can secure salvation for someone who has passed on or at the very least give them a posthumous opportunity to express faith in Christ. This is a practice of some religions (as I understand it). This interpretation, however, seems to contradict the New Testament’s clear teaching on the necessity of individual faith. Where else in the New Testament is this vicarious faith even hinted at? Where in the New Testament is someone baptized on behalf of anyone else, living or dead? Whenever we encounter confusing or obscure passages like we have here, a general rule of interpretation is to interpret the confusing passage in light of clearer passages. For that reason, I dismiss this view.
But what is the alternative?
1 Corinthians was written around AD 55. Paul first visited Corinth about 6 years previous to writing this letter. Perhaps others had come with the good news before Paul, but the fact remains that many God-fearing people had died between the time of Jesus’ resurrection and the reception of the gospel which included baptism as the initiatory act of faith. The Corinthians may have been wondering about the fate of those people?
Imagine this scenario. Stephanus, a believer in Corinth, heard the gospel at the teaching of Paul and was baptized. He had very devout parents and grandparents who died before hearing the good news. They never had the chance to be baptized. Stephanus is confident that had they lived to hear the gospel they would have been baptized. So, to honor their faith, Stephanus is baptized for them. Not for their salvation but as a token of their faith and assurance that even though they have died they still benefit from the resurrection. In this case Stephanus is not being baptized to secure their salvation but to testify to their saving faith. Although this kind of practice is not taught in the New Testament, such an understanding does not violate any clear teaching in the New Testament.
It is important to note that Paul does not necessarily endorse this practice. He merely uses the practice as further evidence of the necessity of the resurrection to the Christian faith. This practice may fall into the category of personal preferences. But, since Paul nowhere else teaches or encourages this practice I tend to think that Paul considers the practice harmless or else he would have set them straight as he is often known to do!
In any case, the importance of this verse is to offer further evidence that Jesus is actually raised and his resurrection guarantees the resurrection of all the faithful – past, present, and future.