Editors’ note: 

This article is part of a series that covers the most perplexing passages of Scripture.

Near the middle of his great reflection on the resurrection, the apostle Paul pauses to ask his readers: “What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf” (1 Cor. 15:29)? The verse could also be translated: “Why do those who are baptized for the dead do it? That is, if the dead are not raised at all, why are they [certain Corinthians] baptized for the dead?”

The phrase “baptism for the dead” is so obscure and perplexing, the meaning so uncertain, and the variety of interpretations so numerous that it seems wise to say it seems impossible to know what the phrase means. Given the difficulties, some wonder why we should even bother to investigate. But baptism for the dead matters, both because Mormons place extraordinary importance on it, and also because Paul uses it to defend the coming resurrection of believers.

Variety of Interpretations

The simplest reading of the text is that some Corinthian Christians were baptized vicariously on behalf of some who’d already died, seeking a spiritual benefit. The problem with this view, though, is twofold. First, there is no precedent for baptism for the dead in the Bible, the early church, or pagan religions. No one knows who did it or what spiritual benefit they sought. Second, the notion of Christians being baptizing for the sake of those who’ve died offends our theology. It sounds like a magical sacramentalism. It seems to contradict justification by faith alone.

To avoid these problems, some scholars have proposed that Paul’s key terms have rare or figurative meanings. First, they say “baptism” is metaphorical, as in Peter’s expression “baptism with fire.” Second, they say “for” does not mean “on behalf of.” Third, they say “the dead” are the spiritually dead or the dying, not the physically dead. Yet the text gives us no reason to seek metaphorical meanings. All stripes of scholars agree that the plain sense is most likely, though no one knows precisely what the Corinthians did.

The question resembles discussions of the authorship of the Book of Hebrews. So many scholars have worked on the matter that someone, surely, has proposed the right author. But since we suffer ignorance at key points, we are forced to make guesses.

Even if a scholar surmises correctly, he still surmises; whoever is right cannot have the pleasure of basking in it. Still, even if certainty eludes us, we can learn important things. We may never know the name of Hebrews’ author, but we do know what kind of person he was. Likewise, we may never know precisely why the Corinthians were baptized for the dead, but we can know that the Mormon view is false.

Two Guiding Principles

Two principles must guide us. First, we establish what we know and work from there. Second, our conclusions must fit the context of 1 Corinthians and cohere with Paul’s theology.

Beginning with the context, Paul has heard some Corinthian Christians deny the future bodily resurrection of believers. Given how integral Jesus’s resurrection is to the gospel, the apostle asks, “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (15:1–12). In light of the union of Christ and believers, if anyone denies the resurrection of Christians, he also denies the resurrection of Christ.

If dead Christians aren’t raised, then neither is Christ. And if Christ isn’t raised, Paul’s gospel is false, our faith is vain, and we’re still lost in sin. But, Paul continues, Christ has been raised—so that all who are united to him have resurrection life. He was raised as the firstfruits of the dead (15:12–28).

With this, Paul’s theological argument for the resurrection of believers ends. The next section, beginning with our verse, adds a series of ad hoc arguments for the resurrection. Paul’s theme is that both his and the Corinthians’ practice are consistent with belief in the resurrection of the dead. The significance of Paul’s practice is clear: If there’s no resurrection, he asks, why does he face danger every hour? Why should he risk death daily? There is no gain in such sacrifices without the resurrection. Indeed, it would be better to “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:30–32).

Two Conclusions

Two conclusions emerge. First, just as Paul’s sacrifices presuppose the resurrection, so the Corinthians’ practice of baptism for the dead presupposes the resurrection. Second, since 1 Corinthians 15 is about resurrection of the dead, not gaining salvation, the Mormons take the passage out of context.

Additionally, since Paul doesn’t rebuke the Corinthians for their practice, then their baptism for the dead was harmless or, at worst, a minor offense. If baptism for the dead actually perverted the gospel, he would have denounced it, as he condemns other sins in the letter.

Mormon View Undermines the Gospel

These conclusions are sufficient to refute the Mormon view of baptism for the dead. Whatever baptism for the dead means, the practice of the Mormons cannot be correct, for it both disregards the biblical context and undermines the biblical gospel. Mormon baptism for the dead is a proxy administration of baptism for a deceased person who didn’t hear the Mormon “gospel” while alive.

Joseph Smith instituted the practice in 1840 in response to concern among his followers for forebears who died unbaptized. Today, these baptisms are also performed as an act of love for unrelated persons selected from genealogical records in Mormon archives.

According to Mormon teaching, the practice affords the dead the opportunity to pursue salvation through a system of works righteousness. Mormons explicitly teach salvation by good works. Baptism for the dead is part of that system.

Like some Christians, Mormons wonder about the fate of those who died before the time of Christ. Whereas Christians wonder about those who miss the gospel of his atonement, Mormons fear missing his teachings on the way of righteous living.

Further, Mormons claim Smith’s baptism for the dead restored a lost apostolic practice—something allegedly at the center of Jesus’s post-resurrection teaching. According to Mormons, the gates of hell will not thwart the salvation of the dead for which this baptism is essential. “Worthy” Mormons with special temple privileges serve as proxies by undergoing baptism in a basin, patterned after the bronze sea of Solomon’s temple.

The Mormon practice is antithetical to the gospel. The Gospels and Acts declare that Jesus’s post-resurrection teaching focused on his kingdom, the Old Testament witness to him, and the charge to make global disciples. If the Corinthians practiced what Mormons do, Paul couldn’t have tolerated it, since it contradicts the gospel.

What Does It Mean?

Still, the question of the proper interpretation of baptism for the dead remains. Confessing I’m no closer to certainty than anyone, I think it wise to take the passage at face value: it seems that certain Corinthian were baptized on behalf of people—possibly family members or friends who’d died.

Paul knew about this and, even if he didn’t fully approve, his casual tone shows it wasn’t a major error. The best guess, then, is not that they thought baptism played a role in saving the dead, which would be a major error, but that they exaggerated the value of baptism.

It seems likely the Corinthians were concerned about believers who died before they could be baptized, and feared some spiritual loss as a result. This view suits the context and coheres with other Scriptures, which show Paul as a lion when he detecting any challenge to the gospel itself.