November 2019

November 2019

Perplexing Passages: Baptism for the Dead?

Perhaps one of the strangest passages in Holy Scripture appears in 1 Corinthians 15:29, in which St. Paul, arguing passionately for the truth of the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, makes reference to a practice prevalent among the Corinthian Christians: “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?” This perplexing passage has given rise to all manner of different interpretations.

Some say that the Corinthians were baptized not “on behalf of” the dead, but literally “upon” the dead, i.e., upon the graves of departed Christians, to express the truth that those departed Christians will one day rise from the dead. There is, however, no evidence for such a practice, and it is not a very natural reading of Paul’s text. Others say that the passage should be interpreted somehow metaphorically as not actually referring to baptism, but this is a stretch. And the list goes on…

The most common interpretation, however, is that the Corinthians were practicing baptism by proxy, or “vicarious baptism.” Presumably they feared for the salvation of their loved ones who had died without baptism, so they underwent an additional baptism “on behalf of” the dead. Various heretical groups of the following centuries used this interpretation to invent their own practice of proxy baptism, and today the Mormons still practice it. That’s why Mormons are so into genealogy: they want to find as many people as possible to baptize by proxy so they can be saved.

While “baptism by proxy” might be a natural reading of Paul’s text, it stretches credulity to imagine that Paul would have let such a practice persist in one of his congregations without giving it a thorough rebuke. “Proxy baptism” suggests a superstitious, magical view of baptism that denies the role of faith in salvation. No one can have faith on someone else’s behalf. Each of us must believe the Gospel for himself. “Proxy baptism” is a denial of this truth. Furthermore, there is no other evidence that such a practice ever existed until the heretical groups that invented it on the basis of their misreading of this very passage.

So what’s actually going on? If Paul isn’t talking about “proxy baptism,” what else could he possibly mean by “being baptized on behalf of the dead”? First, I have to admit that I don’t know. Nobody knows for sure! This is a legitimate mystery of scriptural interpretation. I will say, though, that I recently came across a compelling possible interpretation.

In his book Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, which I recently immensely enjoyed reading, legendary New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias makes reference to a German scholarly article (written by a certain Maria Raeder in 1955, if you’re curious) that, in his judgment, makes a convincing case for a particular interpretation. As Jeremias explains, Paul’s phrase should not be translated “on behalf of” the dead, but “for the sake of” the dead. In other words, people in Corinth were being baptized for the express purpose of joining their departed loved ones in the resurrection on the Last Day. “Take, for instance, a case in which a young woman belonging to the Church, and engaged to be married, died, and whose heathen bridegroom had himself baptized ‘for her sake’—that is, in order to be reunited with her in the resurrection” (pp. 36–37). This is a natural reading of Paul’s text and it fits well with his argument in favor of a general resurrection. Not everyone is convinced by it, by any means, and I don’t know for sure that Jeremias and Raeder are correct, but it is at least one possibility of making sense of a perplexing passage.

What do you really need to know about 1 Corinthians 15:29? First, know that St. Paul is not teaching, and does not approve of, baptism by proxy, whether this text applies to that practice or not. Second, know that Paul’s theology of baptism takes for granted the truth that we will be raised from the dead on the Last Day. Finally, however the verse should actually be interpreted, take comfort in the knowledge that through your own baptism, in which you were promised eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, you will be raised from the dead not to be condemned, but to inherit the kingdom of your Father. The perplexity of this passage remains, but God’s mercy in Christ, expressed through Holy Baptism, is assured!

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf