Baptism for the Dead?
NCW 11, August 1994
Q. What did Paul mean when he referred to people being "baptised for the dead"? (1 Corinthians 15:29). Do you practice vicarious baptism?
The death and resurrection of Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) are of first importance to believers (1 Cor.15:3-5). Through the power of His resurrection, Yah'shua (Jesus) assures us of forgiveness and salvation. The promise of our resurrection is that Elohim (God) will glorify our mortal bodies to immortality.
In Corinth, some people had dismissed the promise of Elohim (God) and said there is no resurrection (v.12), which was also the teaching of the Sadducees. Paul replied: "...if the dead are not raised, then Messiah has not been raised either. And if Messiah has not been raised, your emunah (faith) is futile; you are still in your sins" (v.16-17).
The people who taught no resurrection apparently were baptising the living on behalf of the dead. "Now if there is no resurrection," Paul wrote, "what will those do who are baptised for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised for them?" (v.29).
Paul was pointing out that their practice was irrational. Since they did not believe in the resurrection, why bother with vicarious baptism for dead people? According to their own view, even the living have no hope for immortality.
This is one interpretation. Since we do not know the exact historical background of this passage, we can only guess as to the true meaning. Some scholars believe that the word "for" should be substituted for "for the sake of", so that the text reads: "..if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptised for the sake of the dead?" (v.29). The word "dead" is also sometimes interpreted metaphorically, as when Yah'shua (Jesus) said: "Let the [spiritually] dead bury the [physically] dead" (Matt.8:22; Lk.9:60) or when He told the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection) that "when the [spiritually] dead rise, they will neither marry not be given in marriage..." (Mk.12:25). Thus Paul could have meant: "if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptised for the sake of the [spiritually] dead [as you are]?" Or, to put it another way: "Why do you baptise if you do not believe in the resurrection?"
Most scholars believe that this second interpretation reads too much into the Greek text. What we do know, however, is that Paul taught that acceptance of Messiah is a personal decision that cannot be made on behalf of anyone else, alive or dead. That the dead depend on a proxy baptism on earth for those who receive the Besorah (Gospel) in world of spirits in order to be saved, as the Mormons teach, for example, is nowhere even hinted at in the Bible, nor is such a teaching even to be found in their most important book of scripture, the Book of Mormon. Rather, the latter (interestingly) confirms the Biblical witness.
That various heretical sects, such as the Marconites, practiced vicarious baptism, is an historical fact. The later disciples of Cerinthus, for example, on more than one occasion had themselves baptised for relatives or friends who had died without having received baptism, in the hope that they would obtain a place in heaven as a result. But this was based on the belief, later developed by the Catholic Church and subsequently adopted by many groups, that the ordinance of water baptism itself saves. It is quite logical, of course, to conclude that baptism for the dead is absolutely necessary for the salvation of those who did not receive the Besorah (Gospel) on earth if water baptism literally saves.
This is not, however, the teaching of the New Testament. It is not water baptism that saves but the blood of Messiah that saves. Paul said: "...the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Ruach (Spirit), offered Himself unblemished to Elohim (God), (will) cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we can serve the living Elohim (God)" (Heb.9:14, NIV). We are able to enter "the Most Holy Place by the blood of Yah'shua (Jesus)" (Heb.10:19); it is "the blood of Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ)...[that] purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). And in the resurrection, we have our robes (souls) "made...white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev.7:14). If baptism were the means of the remission of our sins, would we not be commanded to memorialise it when partaking of the Lord's Supper? (1 Cor.10:16).
Rather, we are led to understand from the scriptures that baptism is an outer sign of repentance -- a public declaration, if you like, that we are turning away from a life of sin and putting our trust in the blood of Messiah. Notice carefully the words Yah'shua (Jesus) spoke: "Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mk.16:16). The key word here is "believes" -- notice that "baptised" does not appear in the parallel statement, "whoever does not believe will be condemned". We are condemned because we do not believe, not because we are not baptised. Baptism is an outward sign of belief only; if it were more, Yah'shua (Jesus) would have said: "whoever does not believe and is not baptised will be condemned".
Paul explains what baptism actually means to the Romans: "...don't you know that all of us who were baptised into Messiah Yah'shua (Christ Jesus) were baptised into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Messiah was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom.6:3-4, NIV).
If baptism is a regenerating ordinance, as Catholics, Mormons and others teach, then according to Paul we should first die and then come back to life again as we are baptised. We all know that doesn't happen. Rather, we are led to understand by the apostle that baptism is a drama in which we symbolically put away our old life as we go under the water, and symbolically put on the life of Messiah as we come out of the water.
So although baptism is not a means by which we enter into a vital faith relationship with Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), it is closely associated with it nonetheless. Baptism depicts graphically what happens as a result of the believer's union spiritually with Messiah, which comes with emunah (faith) -- through emunah (faith) we are united with Messiah, just as through our natural birth we are united with Adam.
Baptism is a commandment and therefore as believers we must obey the ordinance, but it does not itself save a soul or regenerate it. And the cleansing that takes place, takes place within through the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit). And we have the case example of Paul himself (not to mention thousands of other believers) who were born again before they were baptised, and experienced inner regeneration apart from this ordinance. Some experience it afterwards (Acts 9:17-18).
When fundamental doctrines like baptism become corrupted, they open the way to pernicious heresies. There are now millions of Mormons, Catholics, Lutherans and others who teach that a man cannot be saved unless he is baptised, thus opening the way to other false doctrines.
What does this tell us about baptism for the dead, then? It tells us that vicarious baptism is not necessary for a soul to receive Messiah as Saviour. Therefore the mode in which it is performed in the Mormon Church is certainly wrong.
But is there any sense in which this could be a correct or acceptable Christian practice? Is it possible that baptism for the dead could be viewed in the same way as the true mode of baptism for the living?
We presume it can be. Paul does not condemn the practice himself, but rather the people who are doing it (the Corinthians) and the hypocrisy they practice, since they do not believe in the resurrection anyway.
This ministry does not practice vicarious baptism. It isn't necessary for its mission, which is to bring souls to living emunah (faith). Rituals do not save but they can certainly edify and be points where faith can be focussed. Messiah commanded rituals (ordinances) so they certainly serve an important function as a means by which the Body of Messiah can be brought closer together. Baptism for the dead was not one of those ordinances either mentioned or commanded by Yah'shua (Jesus). It is not mentioned in Torah either. However there was a Talmudic Jewish practice which may link to that of some Christian heretics. James Trimm claims:
This is admittedly a possible interpretation were it former Talmudic Jews performing the ritual, which is possible, though it is unlikely that Greek or Roman Corinthinan converts would do it unless they had first been converted out of the synagogues first.
"Paul is referring here to the Jewish practice called taharah, the ceremonial washing of a dead body before burial. In this 'baptism for the dead' the deceased is placed on a special board called a 'taharah-board' washed and then 'baptized' either by immersion in a mikveh or by pouring a continuous stream of 9 kavim (usually 3 buckets). Of course the soul has departed from the body, so the body is baptized for the soul which is no longer within it.
The ritual of taharah is performed because even the dead are entitled to some degree of ritual purity. In 1 Corinthinas 15 Paul is arguing in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and in doing so Paul points out that this ritual of 'baptism for the dead' would be pointless "if the dead rise not at all". The taharah ritual would not be performed if there was to be no physical resurrection."
Just as handshakes, hugging and kissing help draw people closer to one another in the human social dimension, so ordinances like baptism and the Lord's Supper help draw believers closer to Messiah in the spiritual dimension. They are aids to spiritual growth, much as a fine wine is far more enjoyable to drink from a crystal glass than it is from a dirty old wooden bowl. The ordinances have the effect of thus sharpening the senses so as to bring the worlds of spirit and matter that much closer together. The wine tastes the same from either vessel, but their is a certain aesthetic 'plus' that comes from drinking it out of fine glass. Similarly, the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) saves whether one is baptised or not, but the ordinance of baptism serves to enhance our sense of awareness of the operation of the Ruach (Spirit) and the mystery of Messiah's work for us. And since Messiah wishes to develop all our senses, making them perfect by bringing them into harmony with the Spirit, ordinances are important. But baptism for the dead is not one of those ordinances. Baptism for the living, on the other hands, is commanded for those who are able (the penitent thief on the cross obviously was not able and yet he joined Yah'shua/Jesus in Paradise that same day).
For an alternative interpretation of "baptism for the dead", see What Does the Bible Mean When it Refers to Baptism for the Dead?
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