Question: Mormons practice baptism for the dead and cite 1 Corinthians:15:29 as justification: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead. If the dead rise not, why then are they baptized for the dead?” Catholics also take this verse to mean that the early church practiced baptism for the dead. Why don’t we do so today?
Response: Paul uses several arguments to prove that there must be life beyond the grave: 1) the fact that Christ rose from the dead (vv 12-16); 2) that if Christ is still dead there is no salvation (vv 17-18); 3) that if there is no life beyond the grave then Christianity is the most miserable religion (v 19) because we are called to deny ourselves in this life in exchange for the life to come (2 Cor:4:8-18); and 4) in 15:29 he argues that even the pagans believe in a life beyond the grave, as evidenced by the fact that they baptize for the dead.
How do we know he’s referring to pagans? Earlier in Chapter 15 (vv 12, 14, 15, 17, etc.) Paul uses the pronouns we, you, our, your, and ye, referring to himself, the apostles, and the Christians to whom he was writing. At verse 29 the pronoun changes to they; then at verse 30 it reverts to we. Clearly those referred to as they in verse 29 are not the Christians he refers to as you and we, but the pagans around them. The latter practiced baptism for the dead, but there is no hint that Christians did or should do so, for that would be contrary to the gospel.