According to Mormonism, water baptism is a requirement for salvation. Since not everyone may have had the chance to be baptized during this lifetime, Mormon leaders place great importance on researching ancestral family trees. Living Mormons are then commanded to get baptized on behalf of those already dead in a sacred ceremony that is performed in one of the 140+ Mormon temples located throughout the world. Mormons believe that this allows their gospel to be preached to these souls in the next life, providing an escape from “Spirit Prison.” Rather than attempting to introduce a unique teaching in this passage, however, Paul’s focus was on providing evidence for a bodily resurrection. While the passage could indicate that some during his day may have practiced a baptismal ritual for the dead, Paul neither endorses nor criticizes the ritual. Since there are no other passages referencing baptism for the dead, it is unwise to take a verse out of context to support such a unique teaching.
In 1 Corinthians 15:29, the apostle Paul wrote, “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?” President David O. McKay wrote, “Not a few commentators have tried to explain away [this passage’s] true significance; but its context proves plainly that in the days of the apostles there existed the practice of baptism for the dead; that is, living persons were immersed in water for and in behalf of those who were dead—not who were ‘dead to sin’ but who had ‘passed to the other side’”(Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay, p. 129).
Brigham Young University professor Robert Millet said,
“Many non-Latter-day Saint scholars believe that in 1 Corinthians Paul was denouncing or condemning the practice of baptism for the dead as heretical. This is a strange conclusion, since Paul uses the practice to support the doctrine of the resurrection. In essence, he says, ‘Why are we performing baptism in behalf of our dead, if, as some propose, there will be no resurrection of the dead? If there is to be no resurrection, would not such baptisms be a waste of time?’”(A Different Jesus? pp. 130-131).
Millet assumes that Paul was a participant in this rite. When verse 29 is dissected, though, it can be seen that Paul purposely did not use the first person we in this verse. Thus, another BYU professor, Charles R. Harrell, explains, “It should be noted that the voice changes from ‘we’ to ‘they’ for this verse only: Else what shall ‘they’ do? And why are ‘they’ baptized for the dead? Then the shift is back to ‘we’—why stand ‘we’ in jeopardy? Could Paul be alluding to a practice that only ‘they’ (not ‘we’) were participating in?” (This is My Doctrine, p. 355).
Christian theologian D. A. Carson explained why this assumption is wrong:
The most plausible interpretation is that some in Corinth were getting baptized vicariously for the dead. Several factors, however, put this into perspective. Although Paul does not explicitly condemn the practice, neither does he endorse it. Several writers have offered the following analogy. Imagine a Protestant writing, “Why do they then pray for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all?” No one would take this as an endorsement of the practice of praying for the dead; it is a criticism of the inconsistency of praying for the dead while holding that the dead do not rise. To make this rhetorical question an endorsement of the practice of praying for the dead, one would expect, “Why do we then pray for the dead?” Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 15:29 Paul preserves the more distant they. After all, his primary concern in 1 Corinthians 15 is the defense of the Christian doctrine of resurrection. His rhetorical question in verse 29 may simply be pointing out the inconsistency of those who deny the final resurrection, granted their rather strange baptismal practices.
And they were strange. There is no good evidence for vicarious baptism anywhere in the New Testament or among the earliest apostolic fathers. By the same token, there is no hint that this vicarious baptism (if that is what it was) was intended by the Corinthian believers to cover as many deceased people as could be named. If the practice existed at all, it may have been tied to a few people or special cases—for example, when a relative died after trusting the gospel but before being baptized. We really do not know. If it were something like that, one could understand why Paul does not make a federal case of it. In any case, Paul’s clear emphasis is that people are justified by grace through faith, which demands a personal response. Christian baptism is part of that personal response, even as it is a covenantal pledge. In contrast, baptism on behalf of someone who has not exercised such faith sounds like magic—of something far from Pauline thought. (“Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?” Christianity Today, August 19, 1998).
Carson suggested that the reason the 1 Corinthians 15 passage is difficult to interpret is that this is the only passage in the Bible specifically mentioning “baptism for the dead.” He wrote,
The reason is not that God must say things more than once for them to be true or binding. The reason, rather, is that if something is said only once it is easily misunderstood or misapplied. When something is repeated on several occasions and in slightly different contexts, readers will enjoy a better grasp of what is meant and what is at stake. That is why the famous “baptism for the dead” passage (1 Cor. 15:29) is not unpacked at length and made a major plank in, say, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession. Over forty interpretations of that passage have been offered in the history of the church. Mormons are quite sure what it means, of course, but the reason why they are sure is because they are reading it in the context of other books that they claim are inspired and authoritative (“Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?” Modern Reformation 5:3 (May/June 1996), pp. 18-22).
The historical context also needs to be considered, and it reveals that baptism for the dead was not a regular practice of the Christian church. According to Christian theologian Geoffrey W. Bromiley,
apart from a possible reference in Tertullian (De res, 48c), there is evidence of such a practice only among heretical groups like the Cerinthians and the Marcionites,” and neither of these groups existed when 1 Corinthians was written (“Baptism for the Dead,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 1:426).
If Doctrine and Covenants 128:17 is true when it says that baptism for the dead is the most “glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel,” then it should be expected that the New Testament would have spoken much more about it.
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