It’s subtle, yet clear. The Bible does not say we should do Baptism for the dead. Not even close.
Let’s take a close look at the passage in question:
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? 1 Corinthians 15:29 NKJV (emphasis added)
Note that the writer –Saint Paul- asks “what will they do?” and “Why then are they baptized?”
He isn’t asking “what will we do?”
He isn’t asking “what will you do?”
He isn’t asking “what will I do?”
He’s asking “what will they do? And this is a key to the whole understanding of this verse.
He’s not asking about what the church is doing, but what others are doing. So who then are the “others?”
We’ll get to that right away. (Hint: it’s not the Church) But first, notice this.
Nobody in the Old Testament ever gets baptized for the dead. Never. Ever.
Nobody in the Old Testament even thinks of getting baptized for the dead far as we can tell. And it isn’t even mentioned in any other place in New Testament!
The New Testament quotes the Old Testament hundreds of times –and this shows us how important the Old Testament is. And the Old Testament is really, really important.
The New Testament is concealed within the Old Testament. And the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament.
They fit together perfectly.
One principle of Biblical interpretation is you can’t make a major doctrine out of a single verse of scripture. It needs to have support from other scriptures and it needs to be founded on an important principle.
Baptism for the dead fails to meet that standard. But that’s not all. There’s more.
What Does Baptism for the Dead Mean in the Bible?
Pagan groups performed baptism for the dead during antiquity. Gnostics –heretics who held a combination of Christian and pagan beliefs- also performed baptisms for the dead.
Gnostics believed that only spiritual things were pure, and that anything made of matter was evil. They also believed in secret knowledge, which brought them deep into occult practices.
In their view, a living human being was a prisoner of the flesh -trapped in a body- and couldn’t become free until death.
Early church fathers, like Clement and Tertullian saw and understood the pagan origins and the errant thinking behind these beliefs and left us a paper trail so we could understand what the pagans and Gnostics were up to.
Clement’s Excerpta ex Theodoto gives us a great understanding of the Gnostics and their beliefs.
The Gnostics believed angels were spirit beings that had escaped the imprisonment of a mortal body and now needed to be baptized vicariously since they no longer had a body to be baptized.
This kind of thinking is very twisted up. It just shows how easy it is to get tangled up if we don’t keep our theology straight.
Our Theology needs to be logical, since God is not the author of confusion and since logic comes from God Himself.
Not only is God the author of logic, (see my post “Is God Bound by Logic?”) but by his perfect nature, he holds himself to the logic he created.
So if it is right for God to be logical, shouldn’t we also be logical?
What Does the Bible Say About Having to be Baptized?
When the centurion asked Peter “What must I do to be saved?” the reply was “Repent and be baptized, you and your entire house”.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38, ESV
So does that mean you have to be baptized in order to be saved?
Christ promised salvation to a thief on the cross who had no opportunity to be baptized. So what did Peter mean in the quote above?
What he meant is that baptism comes after salvation, and a saved person will get baptized as an expression of his faith and trust in God.
Baptism doesn’t save a person. Believing and trusting in God leads to salvation.
Which leads us back to baptizing of the dead.
If somebody’s dead, how are they going to believe? How will they have faith to trust the Living God if they’re already dead?
Then how about what the Bible says about judgment?
“It is appointed for men once to die, and after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)
After we die, the decision to follow or not follow Christ has already been made. Either you did or you didn’t.
Then comes the judgment.
That’s it. So the time to make that decision is here. And now.
There are no more salvation decisions to be made after death.
Then let’s also think of it this way;
Does the Bible Support Baptism for the Dead?
There is exactly one verse in the entire Bible that handles the subject of baptism for the dead.
As stated above, it is very easy to see that this verse does not talk about Christians baptizing for the dead.
It is also clear from the writings of the early church fathers that practitioners of this practice were pagans. Not Christians.
There were some heretical fringe groups that would mix Christianity with paganism, and the church fathers called them out on this.
When you read the LDS writings on this, they say the groups who performed baptism for the dead were Christians.
But the early church fathers call these same groups heretics or cults. And they were eyewitnesses of these events.
Doesn’t this give them more credibility than a 21st century LDS commentator? I think so.
As part of the discussion about baptizing for the dead, it makes sense for us to go back and ask more questions about what baptism means to the Christian in the first place.
Symbolism of Baptism for the Believer
The symbolism of baptism is an important matter for the Christian. Most Christians get baptized by full immersion in water.
The manner is like a person dying and being buried and then rising again from the dead. The pastor will immerse them face up in the water and then lift them back up again out of the water.
If baptism doesn’t save you while you’re alive, what makes you think it’s going to save you when you’re already dead?
Baptism is a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and how the Believer enters into that same experience Jesus had at the cross through the concept of substitutionary atonement.
This means that since Jesus Christ died for our sins, we don’t need to die for them:
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
It means that when he suffered the pain and death from our sins, we don’t have to -and he traded his righteousness for our sinfulness. That means we get to make the other side of that trade.
By trusting and believing in Jesus Christ and his death, burial and resurrection, we trade in our sin for his righteousness!
The doctrine of substitution isn’t only from the New Testament. It also permeates the Old Testament:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5
So then –in the face of all this Biblical logic, reason and evidence that Baptism of the dead is totally refuted by the Bible -who still believes in baptism of the dead?
Well… the Latter Day Saints –the Mormons.
Every Bible-believing Christian denomination (see my post “Why Are There So Many Denominations?”) supports the correct Biblical view of baptism as an important step in the faith of living believers.
Now there are plenty of things various Christian denominations disagree about, but this isn’t one of them.
But the LDS folks have a belief that is 180 degrees opposite to the Bible on this. In this, they miss the main point of salvation.
Salvation is by faith:
John MacArthur says it so well in his New Testament Commentary on 1 Corinthians:
(See my comments on the excellent John MacArthur Study Bible here.)
Baptism for the Dead Bible Verses
There is only one verse in the whole Bible about baptism for the dead.
Important Bible doctrines typically have many passages in both Old and New Testaments to create a foundation and structure to support them.
This is a major clue that Baptism for the dead is not a Biblical doctrine.
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? 1 Corinthians 15:29 NKJV
If there’s only one verse on this subject, there’s probably no reason to make it into a Biblical doctrine.
Simple as that.
Baptism of the dead is clearly excluded by the Bible and confirmed by 2000 years of theological examination, argumentation and study.
The ancient practice of baptism for the dead was a pagan ritual of people with neither knowledge nor understanding.
The one Bible passage (1 Corinthians 15:29) used by proponents of Baptism of the dead is sadly misunderstood, but it’s easy to clear up any misunderstandings by carefully reading the text and considering the back story.
If you’d like to see 100 Bible verses on baptism, just click here.
Writings of the early church fathers show the correct understanding, and really help clear it all up.