I’ve always found it to be a thing of comfort to know that one Apostle found another Apostle’s writing to include things that are “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:15-16), while honoring him for being used by God to reveal the most comforting spiritual truths. I have often wrestled with many of the things that the Apostle Paul wrote–trying to understand how they fit into the larger context of his argument on the whole. Part of this difficulty is, no doubt, on account of the proximity issue. A 21st Century Christian has to labor diligently to understand the cultural and linguistic background of the New Testament concerning issues relavent to 1st Century Christians. Part is almost certainly due to the fact that God’s truth is profoundly deep and inexhaustible. And part seems to have to do with the redemptive-historical continuity and discontinuity that exists in the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and the two ages of human history (i.e. the present evil age and the age to come). Which brings me to a question I have long considered–namely, “Which of the Apostle Paul’s statements are hardest to understand?”
It doesn’t take long for someone to stumble across difficult sections of just about any of Paul’s epistles. A number of years ago, I preached through 1 Corinthians and found it to be one of the most enjoyable expositions upon which I have had the privilege of preaching–that is, until, I hit the eighth chapter. Paul’s arguments about consciences and food offered to idols prove to be some of the most perplexing portions in the New Testament. Then, when you make it to chapter 15–and the glorious teaching about Christ’s resurrection and our own–you feel as though you’ve made it out of the woods and into the clear. Then you plow into the brick wall of Paul’s question, “Why then are they baptized for the dead” (1 Cor. 15:29)? Who is being baptized for who in this verse? What could Paul possible have in mind. This verse is certainly in the running for the most difficult verse in the Bible.
Dan Doriani writes, “The phrase ‘baptism for the dead’ is so obscure and perplexing, the meaning so uncertain, and the variety of interpretations so numerous that it seems wise to say it seems impossible to know what the phrase means.”1 This is not to say that we ought not labor to come to a settled position. It is not to wave the white flag of surrender to the hermenuetical idol of agnosticism. It is, however, to acknowledge the seemingly insurmountable obstacle we face while we diligently labor to understand precisely what the Apostle is seeking to convey.
Mormon perversion of this passage put aside, there are a number of standard interpretive possibilities in the history of Christian exegesis. Was this a ritual in the early church that Paul is sarcastically including in his argument in order to show the Corinthians their own folly in rejecting a physical resurrection? Is it a reference to people being baptized on behalf of those who were recently deceased? Both of those suggestions are laden with so many problems, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to accept them with any intellectual integrity. There are, however, three plausible interpretive solutions to the meaning of this verse. First, the Scottish theologian, Robert Candlish, wrote:
“Of the other meanings that have been put upon the phrase…that which, perhaps, most commends itself—at least to the fancy and the heart, is the one which, retaining still the general idea of substitution, gives it a different turn, making it not a vicarious representation of the persons of the dead, but, as it were, a vicarious occupancy of the position which till death they filled.
The vacancies left in the ranks of the Christian army, when saints and martyrs fall asleep in Jesus, are supplied by fresh recruits, eager to be baptized as they were, and pledged by baptism to fall as they fell, at the post of duty and danger. It is a touching sight which the Lord’s baptized host presents to view, especially in troublous times. Column after column advancing to the breach, as on a forlorn hope, in the storming of Satan’s citadel of worldly pomp and power, is mowed down by the ruthless fire of persecution. But ever as one line disappears, a new band of volunteers starts up, candidates for the seal of baptism, even though in their case, as in the case of their predecessors in the deadly strife, the seal of baptism is to be the earnest of the bloody crown of martyrdom.
It is surely somewhere in the line of this thought that the key to the perplexing phrase, “baptized for the dead,” is to be found. It implies that somehow baptism formed a link of connection between the baptized living and the baptized dead—committing the living to the fortune or fate, whatever it may be, that has already overtaken the dead. Your baptism constitutes you the substitutes and successors on earth of the holy men and women who have gone before you. It binds you to do their work in life; and to share their destiny in death.”2
Second, Gleason Archer, in his helpful book, Introduction to Bible Difficulties, gives another possible interpretation. He wrote,
“It is in this context that Paul moves into a discussion of the personal application of this joyous prospect to the individual believer. As older Christians fell terminally ill and it became apparent that their departure was near, they would summon their loved ones to their bedside and urge those of them who were as yet unconverted to get right with God. “Before long I will have to leave you, my dear ones,” the dying saint would say, ‘but I want to see you all again in heaven. Be sure you meet me there! Remember that no one may come to the Father except through a true and living faith in the Son. Give your heart to Jesus!’
As they would leave that bedside, deeply moved by this earnest admonition, many of those who were still uncommitted to Christ would give serious attention to the gospel invitation and receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Mindful of the exhortation of their now-departed loved one, they would prepare themselves for public confession and baptism according to the practice of their local church. As they finally took this fateful step in the presence of witnesses, they would in a very real sense be submitting to baptism “for the sake of the dead” (the preposition hyper is intended to mean “for the sake of” rather than “on behalf of” in this particular context)–even though their primary motivation would be to get right with God, as sinners in need of a Savior.”3 (p. 411)
Third, Jonathan Edwards suggested the following interpretive meaning of the passage:
“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” What folly is it to baptize for persons that are dead and not risen again, nor ever to rise! What folly is it to baptize in the name of such! But this is our case, if there is no resurrection of the dead; we are baptized in the name of a dead Man. But who are we if He is not risen, nor to rise? [So] the foregoing verses, speaking of the resurrection of Christ, as from the 16th verse, “For if the dead do not rise then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” And if so, surely our baptism is also vain, as in this verse; and why stand we in jeopardy every hour, if Christ is yet dead and so to continue.”4 (p. 53)
The last is perhaps the most convincing interpretation of one of the most difficult passages in Scripture. The one objection I have heard to this interpretation is that the Greek word for “dead” is used in the plural in the verse, “Why then are they baptized for the ‘dead.’” The argument against this interpretation is that Christ could not be meant since Paul uses the plural form of the word ‘dead.’ But Edwards shows that the section begins with Paul’s statement in verse 16, ‘For if the ‘dead’ do not rise then Christ is not raised.” There the plural is used and Christ is categorically included among the whole group of those who have died. Christ is part of “the dead” since he tasted death for all. It is, therefore, no stretch to see Paul picking up on what he began in verse 16 again in verse 29. When he says, ‘Why the are they baptized for the dead,” he means to say ‘Why then are they baptized in the name (on account of) a dead Christ…if the dead do not rise.’