“If the dead will not be raised, what point is there in people being baptized for those who are dead? Why do it unless the dead will someday rise again?” 1 Cor 15:29
There are those who think this is most difficult verse in the New Testament. Many of the wisest scholars have tried to explain it. There are as many different interpretations of it as there are interpreters.
Paul’s sense is not easy to understand; what did he refer to?
Here is a summary of the leading options (in no particular order):
(1) TOUCHING DEAD BODIES: Some think that Paul refers to the purification of those who had touched a dead body, which was done both by the ashes of the red heifer burnt, and by bathing himself in water; and which, the Jews say intimated "the resurrection of the dead". Ecclesiasticus 34:25 is produced as proof but the phrase there used is different. The reasoning is somewhat disconnected too. If there is no resurrection of the dead, why all this care of a dead body?
(2) TO BE BAPTISED AS DEAD: Others think that to be “baptized for the dead” means to be baptized as dead, being baptized into Christ, and buried with him in baptism, and that by their immersion they were regarded as dead.
(3) VICARIOUS BAPTISM ON BEHALF OF THOSE WHO HAVE DIED: Others think that the apostle refers to a custom of vicarious baptism, or being baptized for those who were dead, referring to the practice of having some person baptized in the place of one who had died without baptism. Such was the importance of baptism, that when one had died without being baptized, some other person was baptized over his dead body in his place. That this custom prevailed in the church after the time of Paul, has been abundantly proved by Grotius, and is generally admitted. But the objections to this interpretation are obvious:
(a) There is no evidence that such a custom prevailed in the time of Paul.
(b) It cannot be believed that Paul would give countenance to a custom so senseless and so contrary to the Scripture, or that he would make it the foundation of a solemn argument.
(c) It does not accord with the strain and purpose of his argument. If this custom had been referred to, his design would have led him to say, “What will become of them for whom others have been baptized? Are we to believe that they have perished?”
(d) It is far more probable that the custom referred to in this opinion arose from an erroneous interpretation of this passage of Scripture, than that it existed in the time of Paul.
(4) BEING BAPTISED WITH FIRE/OVERWHELMED BY TRIALS: Others think that the word baptized is used here as it is in the sense of being overwhelmed with calamities, trials, and sufferings; and as meaning that the apostles and others were subjected to great trials on account of the dead, that is, in the hope of the resurrection; or with the expectation that the dead would rise. This interpretation, also, agrees with the general tenor of the argument; and is an argument for the resurrection. The argument would be, that they should be slow to adopt an opinion which would imply that all their sufferings were endured for nothing. This view is plausible and it suits the strain of remark in the following verses. But there are objections to it:
(a) It is not the usual and natural meaning of the word “baptize.”
(b) A metaphorical use of a word should not be resorted to unless necessary.
(c) The literal meaning of the word here will as well meet the design of the apostle as the metaphorical.
(d) This interpretation does not relieve us from any of the difficulties in regard to the phrase “for the dead;” and,
(e) It is altogether more natural to suppose that the apostle would derive his argument from the baptism of all who were Christians, than from the figurative baptism of a few who went into the perils of martyrdom - The other opinion, therefore, is, that the apostle here refers to baptism as administered to all believers.
(5) DEFERRING BAPTISM UNTIL DEATH BED: Others are of opinion that there were people who deferred their baptism till they came upon their death beds, and then had it administered to them; but as this practice was not current in the apostle's time, and was far from being a laudable one. Though the persons to whom it was administered were upon the point of death, and nearer the dead than the living, and were as good as dead. Yet it must be forced for these words to reckon this means being baptized for the dead. The best punctuation is, “If the dead rise not at all, why are they then baptized for them” (so the oldest manuscripts read the last words, instead of “for the dead”)?
(6) BEING BAPTISED OVER THE DEAD, IN THE BURIAL PLACE: Others feel the words should be rendered, "over the dead"; and suppose that reference is to the Christians who had their "baptisteries" in their places of burial, and by being baptized here, testified their faith and hope of the resurrection of the dead; but this was rather a being baptized among the dead, than over them, or for them; and moreover it is not certain, that they did make use of such places to baptize in; to which may be added, that the primitive Christians had not so early burying grounds of their own:
(7) BAPTISED TO REPLACE THOSE WHO HAVE SINCE DIED: Others feel he intends such as were baptized, and added to the church, and so filled up the places of them that were dead; but the reason from hence proving the resurrection of the dead is not very obvious.
The three following verses must fit with the sense that is taken to be the meaning of this verse. Time for you to do some thinking of your own. I have done enough work for you now.
Life will test you, but don't let it steal your song!
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The poor man is not the man without money, it's the man with no dream! Ian Green