Baptism for the Dead?
A favorite verse Mormons often use in talking with Christians is 1 Cor 15:29. They use this to justify baptism for the dead, and because Christians themselves do not all agree on the interpretation.
In King James Bible 1 Cor 15:29 reads "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?" Verse 30 says "And why stand we in jeopardy every hour. I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily." Other translations read very similar.
In chapters 1,3,4,5,6,11,14, and 15 of 1 Corinthians Paul rebukes them for their faith and practice. The most serious rebuke, that some do not believe in the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of saints, is saved for the end, 1 Cor 15. In 1 Cor 15:1-11, Paul says a person's faith is in vain if he does not believe in the fact of the physical resurrection of Jesus. Paul shows the ramifications of not believing in Christ's resurrection in 1 Cor 15:12-19. One of the most important ramifications is that if Christ is not raised, then we are not either. In 1 Cor 15:20-28 Paul discusses our resurrection and what happens at that time. Paul in 1 Cor 15:28-35 says to their shame, that how can "they" and "we" do certain things if there is no resurrection. 1 Cor 15:36-49 uses physical illustrations to demonstrate the dichotomy between earthly and heavenly. 1 Cor 15:50-58 concludes with the mystery of our transformation to incorruptibility in the twinkling of an eye.
Four Interpretations of 1 Cor 15:29
1. The Mormon view: baptism by proxy for others is one of the most important works today.
2. We/They. Paul is commenting that even others (like the Mandaeans) believe in the resurrection as shown by their Baptism by proxy.
3. A third view is that baptism for the dead means being converted and baptized at the urging of a martyr; to take their place in the church here on earth so to speak.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's view is that sense all Christians are baptized for the dead, because "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." One can believe both this and the third view together.
1. The Mormon View
Mormons do not believe baptism by proxy is just "a" Biblical doctrine. Actually, the Mormon church has said this is one of the most important duties of the church today. This, along with Temple marriages (actual and by proxy), are the main work that goes on inside of Mormon Temples. The found a verse that uses the words baptism for the dead, and even though no verse in the Bible says Paul or any other Christian did baptism by proxy, they are satisfied.
Pretend for a minute that the Mormons were right. John had three disciples we know of, Ignatius, Papias, and Polycarp. All three wrote voluminously, though much of Papias' work as been lost. None of these uttered a peep about this "most important work." Polycarp had a disciple, Irenaeus, who never mentioned this "most important work". All the other post-New Testament writers never mentioned baptism for the dead. The apostles, including Paul, never commanded or mentioned specifically that Christians baptized for the dead. If this was a "most important work", how come nobody was ever told about it?
Furthermore, if the Mormons were right on this point, it would be better to be wrong on baptism for the dead (in good company with the early church), and believe in the One Supreme God like the Bible teaches, then to be right about a lesser point and worship the wrong god.
2. We vs. They
No early church writings even hint that Christians baptized by proxy for dead people. Now people in the Mandaean religion did baptize for the dead, similar to what Mormons teach. (Mandaeans believed John the Baptist was from God, but that Jesus was a false prophet.) Paul is saying that even others (they) believe in the resurrection, so why can't you?
Many Mormons are not aware that Paul never said Christians baptized for the dead. Those verses say they, not we. In the very next verse, Paul contrasts that with we. Overall, in 1 Cor 15:1-34, I/me is used 21 times, you/our 16 times, and we/us/our is used 10 times. They is only used five times; two times for the other apostles, two times in the verse in question, and once in verse eighteen for they who have died. So if Paul had not done it, Christians cannot be shown to have done it, Paul never commanded it, and nobody else in the Bible or early church history mentions it, Paul simply commented on what others did.
Similarly Tertullian also used "them" and "us" similar to 1 Corinthians 15:29) in On Monogamy (c.193 A.D.) ch.1 p.59
3. Baptism on Account of Others
This view emphasizes that many came to faith in Christ because of the testimony and martyrdom of others. Paul used they instead of we in 1 Cor because he had not been killed for his faith yet. The early church historian Eusebius records an account of this in his work Ecclesiastical History Book 6 Chap. 5.
"But among these, Basilides must be numbered the seventh; he who led away the celebrated Potamiaena to execution.... concerning whom many traditions are still circulated abroad among the inhabitants of the place of the innumerable conflicts she endured for the preservation of her purity and chastity, in which indeed she was eminent. For besides the perfections of her mind, she was blooming also in the maturity of personal attractions. Many things are also related of her fortitude in suffering for faith in Christ; and, at length, after horrible tortures and pains, the very relation of which makes one shudder, she was, with her mother Macella, committed to the flames. [They were burned to death.] It is said, indeed, that the judge Aquilla, by name, after having applied the severest tortures to her on every part of her body, at last threatened that he would give her body to be abused by the gladiators; but that she, having considered the matter a little, after being asked what she would determine, made such a reply as made it appear that she uttered something deemed impious with them. Immediately, therefore, receiving the sentence of condemnation, she was led away to die by Basilides, one of the officers in the army. But when the multitude attempted to assault and insult her with abusive language, he, by keeping off, restrained their insolence; exhibiting the greatest compassion and kindness to her. Perceiving the man's sympathy, she exhorts him to be of good cheer, for that after she was gone she would intercede for him with her Lord, and it would not be long before she would reward him for his kind deeds towards her. Saying this, she nobly sustained the issue; having boiling pitch poured over different parts of her body, gradually by little and little, from her feet up to the crown of her head. And such, then, was the conflict which this noble virgin endured. But not long after, Basilides, being urged to swear on a certain occasion by his fellow-soldiers declared that it was not lawful for him to swear at all; for he was a Christian, and this he plainly professed. At first, indeed, they thought that he was thus far only jesting; but as he constantly persevered in the assertion, he was conducted to the judge, before whom, confessing his determination, he was committed to prison. But when some of the brethren came to see him, and inquired the cause of this sudden and singular resolve, he is said to have declared, that Potamiaena, indeed for the three days after her martyrdom, standing before him at night, placed a crown upon his head, and said that she had entreated the Lord on his account, and she had obtained her prayer and there ere long she would take him with her. On this, the brethren gave him the seal in the Lord; [Our author here means baptism, which, in the primitive church, was sometimes thus figuratively called] and he, bearing a distin-guished testimony to the Lord, was beheaded. Many others, also, of those at Alexandria, are recorded as having promptly attached them-selves to the doctrine of Christ in these times; and this by reason of Potamiaena, who appeared in dreams, and exhorted many to embrace the divine word. But of these let this suffice."
4. Detriech Bonhoeffer's View
The famous German Christian and resister of Nazism, Detriech Bonhoeffer, was remember-ed for emphasizing in his book The Cost of Discipleship "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Bonhoeffer believed this referred to the life of every Christian. Gal 2:20 says, "I have been crucified with Christ and I live yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me...."
Col 2:11-12 says, "in whom also you were circumcised with a circumcision not made by hand in the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh, but the circumcision of Christ; being buried with Him in baptism, in whom also you were raised through the faith of the working of God, raising Him from the dead."
Bonhoeffer is right in saying this is how we are to live our Christian life, but he missed the we/they distinction. Bonhoeffer's view, is not incompatible with the third point, however.
Nobody believes that baptism by proxy is just another Christian doctrine. Mormons teach that it is one of the most important things they can do today, because the water baptism (while alive or else dead) is an essential ordinance for salvation. Christians do not baptize by proxy, because we know the water is not essential for salvation. Salvation is a work of God, and not a work of some mere man who is baptized for us after we have died. Since there is no evidence of baptism by proxy by Christians in the Bible or the early church, as far as Paul is concerned, Mormons can be content to be a "they" and Christians are content to be a "we".
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by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.