Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Baptism for the Dead

     In his defense of the resurrection, Paul writes: “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour?” (1 Cor. 15:29-30).1 What exactly is Paul talking about here? Is he advocating vicarious baptism on behalf of those who have died? Is he alluding to literal baptism in relation to the spiritually dead? Is this a metaphoric baptism of suffering and martyrdom? Were loved ones of deceased Christians getting baptized in hopes of a reunion in the afterlife? While it has been estimated that there are over 200 different interpretations of this passage,2 they can’t all be right!
     If we pay close attention to the pronouns used, Paul seems to be pointing out the inconsistencies of the ones arguing against the resurrection. The third person “they” (v. 29) refers back to “some among you [who] say that there is no resurrection of the dead” (v. 12), and it is a prelude to the subsequent observation, “for some do not have this knowledge” (v. 34). Apparently there were some among the Corinthians who were practicing vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead. Although there is no biblical or historical precedent for such a practice, this is the most straightforward reading of the text. Appreciating the fact that we only have one side of the conversation (Paul’s side), this was probably a unique situation in Corinth at the time, of which the apostle and the original audience were aware. Paul is simply noting the inconsistency – why do this if there is no resurrection? “We” (in contrast to “you” the Corinthians and “they” the false teachers) is a pronominal allusion to Paul and his apostolic colleagues (cf. vv. 9, 11, 14, 15); if there is no future hope, then why would teachers of the gospel be risking their lives? (vv. 30-32; cf. 4:9-13).
     Vicarious baptism is never enjoined on followers of Christ. The practice serves no functional purpose, seeing that the fate of those already deceased is unalterable (Luke 16:22-31; Heb. 9:27). Accordingly, as far as the living are concerned, “Awake to righteous …” (1 Cor. 15:34a); “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:1b).
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
     2 Ernest Evans, ed. Tertullian’s Treatise on the Resurrection (London: SPCK, 1960): 312.

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