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 at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” Mormons claim they follow the Bible literally, and that evangelicals don’t. The Roman Catholic Church also believes that Masses and novenas for the dead help to reduce their time in purgatory. Why don’t evangelicals obey the Bible and practice baptism for the dead? And wouldn’t this verse indicate that something could be done for the dead after all?
Response: In 1 Corinthians 15, known as “the resurrection chapter,” Paul uses three principal arguments for the Resurrection: the fact 1) that Christ rose from the dead and was seen by numerous competent and credible witnesses (vv 5-11); 2) that if Christ is still dead, the Apostles are liars, Christianity is a fraud and there is no salvation for mankind (vv 12-18); and 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 hope of the promised life to come.
Arguing from a purely logical standpoint, Paul suggests that one can also infer the resurrection of the body from the fact that after a seed is placed into its “grave” in the ground it comes back to life in a new body. He further points out that mankind has an intuitive recognition that death is not the end. As evidence of this he offers the practice of baptism for the dead engaged in by non-Christians of that day as something that would not be followed without belief in a resurrection.
Inasmuch as Paul refers to baptism for the dead in this manner, how do we know that the early church didn’t follow this practice which Paul definitely says was current at that time? There are several reasons. First of all, there is no instruction telling how such a practice should be observed. Nor is there even one example in the entire Bible of believers baptizing for the dead. Furthermore, the statement that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb:9:27) would indicate that it is too late after death to do anything for the deceased. Only judgment follows.
Finally, we have the language Paul uses in this passage which makes it clear that in verse 29 he is not referring to Christians at all, but to pagans. Throughout this chapter leading up to the statement about baptism for the dead Paul uses the pronouns “we,” “you,” “our,” “your,” and “ye,” referring to himself, the Apostles, and the Christians to whom he was writing (vv 14, 15, 19, etc.). At verse 29 the pronoun abruptly changes to “they”; then at verse 30 it reverts to “we” again.
Clearly those referred to as “they” in verse 29 are not the Christians he refers to as “you” and “we” in the preceding and following verses. Inasmuch as “they” are clearly someone other than Christians, they can only be the pagans among whom the believers lived. And it is a historical fact that baptism for the dead was indeed practiced throughout the Roman Empire, but not by the Christians.