What Does Paul Mean by ‘Baptism for the Dead’?

Dan Doriani | November 2, 2015

Near the middle of his great reflection on the resurrection, the apostle Paul pauses to ask his readers: “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” (1 Cor. 15:29)? The verse could also be translated: “Why do those who are baptized for the dead do it? That is, if the dead are not raised at all, why are they [certain Corinthians] baptized for the dead?”

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. Given the difficulties, some wonder why we should even bother to investigate. But baptism for the dead matters, both because Mormons place extraordinary importance on it, and also because Paul uses it to defend the coming resurrection of believers.

Variety of Interpretations

The simplest reading of the text is that some Corinthian Christians were baptized vicariously on behalf of some who’d already died, seeking a spiritual benefit. The problem with this view, though, is twofold. First, there is no precedent for baptism for the dead in the Bible, the early church, or pagan…

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