Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Baptism for the Dead

Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? (1 Cor. 15:29)
This obscure passage has been used for much mischief, because of its use in support of the idea that baptism is salvific.

Using this isolated verse in that manner is wrong in many regards. First of all, it violates the most fundamental hermeneutic, namely that obscure scripture must be interpreted in light of abundantly clear scripture. And the clear message throughout the New Testament is that baptism does not save; only a personal true faith in Jesus Christ saves. For the dead, it is too late. If they were not believers, they are lost forever. If they were believers, then they were saved, like the repentant thief, without being baptized. (Yes, if they were believers, then they should have been baptized and would have wanted to be baptized if they understood it and had the opportunity.)

Some think Paul was commenting on the incongruity of a Corinthian practice of holding a baptism on behalf of the dead, while at the same time denying bodily resurrection. In this view, Paul is pointing out the obvious inconsistency between the practice and the denial.

I tend to disagree with this view, because Paul does not actually appear to condemn the practice. If the Corinthians were actually holding baptisms on behalf of the dead, I think Paul would have gone beyond pointing out how it was merely inconsistent with other errors in their theology.

If baptisms for the physically dead were actually happening, then, some would say, the fact that Paul does not condemn it implies that the practice was acceptable and meaningful. After all, only the Corinthian denial of the resurrection seems to be an issue. Paul’s lack of condemnation is viewed as favorable circumstantial evidence for salvific baptism.

I think Paul does not condemn it because it wasn’t happening. I think Paul is simply stating that is there is no resurrection (especially Christ’s), then all baptism is utterly pointless (and that the dead are the unregenerate). This is the main point of the entire chapter:
13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Cor 15:13-14, NIV)

If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (1 Cor 15:32, NIV)
It is absolutely a mistake to start with a chapter whose theme is reality of the resurrection, extract a difficult verse to hold as definitive for an altogether different issue, and from it form a new gospel, a gospel that conflicts with the rest of the New Testament.

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