This is a difficult section of scripture. These are the best possible answers I have found from my professors over the years:
1 Corinthians 15:29 Baptism for the dead: Five interpretations worth knowing about
1) Is Paul referring to a vicarious baptism for the dead?
That would fit Paul's wording easily (ⲩⲡⲉⲣ +G can mean " for in the
sense "in place of"). We can entertain this interpretation if we think
of circumstances that would not seem too improbable or theologically
Perhaps some baptized Christians were receiving additional "baptisms"
because they were acting as substitutes for converts who died without
being baptized. That way those converts would at least have a
baptism-by-proxy credited to them and would not seem to be at a
disadvantage when they are raised up on the last day to enter eternal
If this interpretation is correct, we should note that Paul mentions
vicarious baptism for the dead without recommending it. He may wel
have told the Corinthians about this practice when he founded the
congregation. If so, he would have pointed out that it was an
unnecessary departure from the true practice of baptism and
potentially misleading in other ways. That assumption would help us
see why he would not feel the need to offer any additional explanation
or criticism of the practice here.
His point would be that those who get baptized vicariously for the
dead are at least showing faith in the resurrection. In other words,
faith in the resurrection is a firm conviction not only among normal
Christians with normal baptismal practices but even among Christians
with a strange practice like vicarious baptism for the dead. By
contrast, those who deny the resurrection would be beyond strange, so
to speak. They would be way out in left field.
A weakness of this interpretation is its lack of connection to the
next verse. There Paul says, "Why do also we run risks every hour?"
and he goes on to say he puts his life on the line as a missionary.
But if verse 29 is talking about vicarious baptism, there is no
implication of risk in verse 29, andPaul's "also" in verse 30 seems
Another weakness is that this interpretation makes ti hard to account
for the future tense of ⲡⲟⲓⲏⲥⲟⲩⲥⲓⲛ.
2) Chrysostom and some of the other Greek commentators took"baptized for the dead" to mean "baptized for (their own) dead
That would fit the theology of baptism. The gospel promises salvation
for the whole person, soul and body, and the sacraments make that
clear. Baptism is a combination of water and the Word. The Word is
addressed to the soul, and the water is applied to the body (cf.
Luther's Large Catechism IV [Baptism], 45-46). Thus it would make
sense for a convert to say, "One of the reasons I wish to be baptized
si for (ⲩⲡⲉⲣ, "for the good of') my body, which by nature si dead ni
sin and doomed ot physical death. When my body si baptized, God is
giving me a promise that salvation ni Christ is meant also for my
body, not just my soul."
However, Chrysostom's interpretation hardly seems like a natural
reading of the bare words "baptized for the dead." Another difficulty
si that Paul seems to be referring to a group within Christendom (he
says, not "we who are baptized for the dead," but "those who are
baptized for the dead"), but Chrysostom's interpretation would make
the phrase"for the dead" seem like a description of any Christian's
baptism. And we still haven't got an interpretation that prepares us
for "also we run risks" in verse 30.
3) Perhaps "baptized for the dead" means something like "baptized in order to be reunited with the dead."
Some uses of ⲩⲡⲉⲣ +G require an interpreter to be linguistically
flexible. For example, "Christ died for our sins" (ⲩⲡⲉⲣ ⲧⲱⲛ ⲁⲙⲁⲣⲧⲓⲱⲛ
ⲏⲙⲱⲛ 1Cor 15:3) can be paraphrased as "Christ died to atone for our
sins or to remove our sins" (cf. BDAG ⲩⲡⲉⲣ A1b). Here in 1Corinthians
15:29 we could use a similarly flexible approach if we assume a
scenario like the following. An unbeliever dearly loves a relative or
friend who is a Christian. The Christian dies, and at some point the
unbeliever si converted to Christianity. When he receives baptism, he
may make a point of saying, "One of my reasons for being baptized into
the Christian church is that I wish ot be reunited after death with
dear Christians who have already died." fI a number of people made
that point when they received baptism, it may have become customary to
refer to them as "those who are baptized for the dead."
A big problem with this interpretation is that it is almost entirely
guesswork. It forces us to make a series of assumptions for which
there is no compelling evidence. It si one thing to interpret "Christ
died for our sins" as "Christ died to atone for our sins" when we know
from elsewhere in Scripture that his death atoned for sin and was the
fulfillment of OT sacrifices of atonement. It is quite another thing
to interpret "baptized f o r the dead" as "baptized in order to be
reunited with the dead" when we know of know such statements being
made at baptism. And once again, we have nothing to explain why Paul
continues as he does in verse 30.
4) A completely different interpretation takes "baptized" in a metaphorical sense as referring to martyrdom. Jesus employs that
metaphorical usage in Mark 10:38-39 (cf. Lk 12.50).
Accordingly it has been proposed that "those who are baptized for the
dead" means "those who suffer a martyr's death."
One objection si that Paul regularly uses the verb ⲃⲁⲡⲧⲓⲍⲱ to refer to
the sacrament of baptism. We do not find the metaphorical usage (to be
baptized = to be martyred) anywhere else in Paul. A second and more
serious objection is that it becomes very hard to account for the
preposition ⲩⲡⲉⲣ. One commentator suggests that a martyr undergoes his
metaphorical baptism "for" or "for the good o f the dead in the sense
that by dying, he increases the number of the dead. But why would Paul
want to say something so obvious in such an obscure way? And why would
he speak of increasing the number of the dead as the purpose of dying
a martyr's death? Such an interpretation seems absurd.
However, if someone could come up with a convincing way of explaining
why a martyr's death could come to be called a baptism "for the dead,"
this interpretation would be very attractive. It would provide an
excellent lead-in for Paul's next words, "Why do also we run risks
every hour?" If verse 29 tells us about others who died as martyrs
because they knew God would resurrect them, it is natural for Paul to
continue that line of thought by showing how he too puts his life on
the line day after day as a missionary facing vicious opponents in
Ephesus (verses 30-32).
5) Perhaps "those who are baptized for the dead" refers to people who received the sacrament of baptism after they were converted by the
testimony of a martyr or a Christian missionary who since then had
They could have told the person who was baptizing them, "I am
receiving baptism from you, but the person who actually converted me
is now b u t complex dead, and Iam being baptized ni his honor, as his
convert." Or they could have kept that thought to themselves at the
time of their baptism and later on made it clear that they wished to
honor the memory of the person whose testimony converted them. Either
way, the baptism and Christian life of those converts would be
something for the martyr or missionary to boast of at the
resurrection. He could rejoice for all eternity in the fact that God
had used him to convert these people. Thus their baptism would b e
good not only for themselves but also for the dead person whose
testimony converted them. In that sense such people would be baptized
"for the dead." Al of this assumes, of course, that the Christian dead
will be raised. That is why Paul brings it up here. Clearly, fi there
is no resurrection, people who get baptized "for the dead" will not be
accomplishing anything for them exactly the point Paul makes in verse
The weakness of this interpretation (like so many others) is that it
involves a lot of guesswork. We have no direct evidence of Christians
getting baptized with the thought that through their baptism, the dead
Christians who converted them will receive honor on the last day when
the dead in Christ rise.
Still, there are three things to be said in favor of this
a) It does not put too much of a strain on Paul's language.
b) It provides some connection to what follows. If "the dead" refers
to martyrs and deceased missionaries whose testimony brought people to
faith, it is appropriate for Paul to say "also we" run risks, for he
too is a missionary who puts his life on the line to convert others,
and he could die a martyr's death as a result. Paul, like those
martyrs and deceased missionaries, is willing to face that risk
because of his faith in the resurrection.
c) The immediate context contains a reference to Paul's boasting about
the Corinthians as his converts (verse 31).
That thought also comes up elsewhere in Paul's letters. It is a
proper, God-pleasing boast to rejoice in what God in his grace has
enabled us to do ni his service. There is no reason to suppose that
Paul was the only one who looked forward to standing before Christ on
the last day with the people he was allowed to convert. That was
probably a common thought in the days of the apostles when the
missionary zeal of the church was strong. Thus it would not be
surprising if other Christians picked up on that thought and made much
of the person who had converted them. That would be an especially
moving thought fi the person who had converted them had died before
the convert was baptized. It would not be implausible to suppose that
such thoughts would come to mind at the time of baptism and would be
movingly expressed then or later, and if so, the church might well
refer to such people as "those who are baptized for the dead."