A Troublesome Verse and a Glorious Future :: By Dr. Donald Whitchard

Summary: What did Paul mean when he wrote about a “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29? How should it be interpreted? What does it mean in light of further teaching on the resurrection of Christ? Let Scripture speak concerning these and other matters of the faith.

1 Corinthians is a letter dealing with what could be referred to as a “schizophrenic” church. It had become a crazy quilt of pride, drunkenness, sexual deviancy, arrogance, abuse of spiritual gifts, and personal favoritism toward teachers who had been with them, such as Paul, Peter, and Apollos, with some declaring that they are followers of Jesus only (1:10-17).

Paul had been the teacher and pastor for nearly two years before heading to Antioch (Acts 18:1-17). While in Corinth, he worked with a godly couple named Priscilla and Aquilla, who were tentmakers like him. Later, his traveling companions, Timothy and Silas, joined them and helped to spread the Gospel in a city described by the Roman Empire, who were no strangers to vice themselves, as deviant and sexually perverse. Paul had developed a successful strategy to obtain a “foothold” in which to plant the Gospel seeds in each city he visited. He went first to the local synagogues and reasoned with his Jewish brethren, using the Scriptures to show them that Jesus of Nazareth was the Promised Messiah of His people.

It was no different when he arrived in Corinth. While some of the Jewish population came to believe in Jesus as Messiah, many more opposed the message and accused Paul’s preaching of being blasphemous (15:6). Realizing that these rebellious Jews would not listen to him and were beginning to stir up trouble for him and his companions, he decided to “shake the dust from his feet” (Luke 9:5) and go to the Gentiles with the Gospel message.

A vision from the Lord Jesus reassured Paul that his work in Corinth would be fruitful (Acts 18:9-10). While Paul was in the city of Ephesus on his third missionary journey, the news of Corinth’s troubles reached him, and the first of three letters were written by him in order to help them get rid of their worldliness and other sins that threatened to bring them into ruination and ineffectiveness for the Gospel.

One issue he addressed was the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and how it affected everything He promised and affirmed in His teaching. If Jesus was still dead, then nothing He said or did would be of any value or merit, and we would all be doomed to a dystopian future in a literal hell that He had warned everybody about (Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:13-21, 16:19-31). If He had been just a man, He would be in hell with them, unpardoned by God and dying for nothing (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, 32). However, the resurrection of Jesus had occurred as He promised and was affirmed by eyewitness appearances to His apostles, five hundred brethren at one time, and to family members who had not believed in Him yet now followed and proclaimed Him as Lord and Messiah (John 7:5; 1 Corinthians 15:6-7).

He then writes about the practice of being “baptized for the dead” (15:29). This verse has confused many people, and some cults have used it as a means of obtaining redemption apart from Christ alone (John 14:6,19:30; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:8-9). This ritual is practiced today by the Mormons as part of their “worship,” among other false teachings they proclaim in violation of Scripture (Revelation 22:19). It is an example of taking a verse out of context. We always have to read Scripture in its entirety, not just parts that we like or favor, and this verse needs to be examined in light of the world in which Paul lived.

Most pagan religions that were tolerated and practiced throughout the Roman Empire believed in some type of “life after death” or reward, such as the “Elysian Fields,” or being among the deities on Mount Olympus, or places where there was a type of peace and plenty that had evaded people this side of the grave, but either were not sure or had consigned themselves to a tomb and nothing more. The religious practices of the Romans, Greeks, and other nations had their rituals and practices that symbolized a hope of some kind of life beyond mere mortality, and perhaps the act of being baptized in place of a departed loved one was a means of securing their place in whatever lay beyond death.

Paul replied to all of these practices as futile if there was nothing beyond this world and belief in resurrection was a waste of time, effort, and worship as a whole. He quoted a line that fit in with the teachings of the Greek philosopher Euripides, who denied an afterlife and encouraged people to eat, drink, and be merry because that is all you will ever get out of life (15:32), and when you’re dead, that’s it. His dour teachings affect the lives of people today who reject the message of salvation through Jesus Christ (Romans 1:18-32, 3:10-18; 2 Timothy 3:1-18).

But because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, it means that not only do we rise from the dead with a new body, but the entirety of creation, which groans due to the choice of Adam and Eve to rebel against God (Genesis 3: 17-19; Romans 5:12-21, 8:20-22), will be transformed into a new heaven and earth, free from the corruption of sin and its consequences (1 Corinthians 15: 35-49; Revelation 21:1-7).

When we are either raised from the dead or are raptured to meet Christ in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), we are going to be made into His likeness, freed forever from sin, death, and everything that had brought us sorrow and pain in this present world. What God has prepared for those of us who have surrendered our lives to Jesus Christ is beyond any words we can use, but it will be magnificent (1 Corinthians 2:8-9). What we have is a promise that all things will be made new, and that includes you if you choose to surrender your life to Jesus Christ. Why would you want to throw away such a wonderful opportunity to be with Him? Because He lives, so can you.