For The Dead
(1 Corinthians 15:29) 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? 1 Corinthians 15 is, above all other chapters in the Bible, the most comprehensive treatment of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The implications of the denial of a future bodily resurrection of which the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the firstfruits are powerful, as this chapter makes clear. Even though the writing of this epistle was not that many years subsequent to Christ's resurrection (the personal witnesses of which were many and still present, 1CO 15:4-8), corruption, denial and misunderstanding of this doctrine were afoot. Besides the errors which Paul addresses in this chapter, there were others such as that malignant message spread by Hymenaeus and Philetus, “Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some” (2TI 2:16-18). Today's verse has been the topic of much debate over the centuries and has generated varied interpretations, some reasonable and some ridiculous. Some have concluded that this verse somehow supports the notion of proxy baptism by the living for the salvation of those who died in an unconverted state. But that supposes that there is, other than heaven or hell, some type of nebulous spiritual “half-way house” for the soul after it leaves the body at death, or that there is migration of the soul from one domain to another in the afterlife. However, Scripture affirms that there are only two destinations for the soul upon death: heaven or hell, and there is neither migration from those two places nor is there intercourse between those in hell and those left on earth (LUK 16:19-31 et. al.). Let noble readers consider whether the following is a reasonable alternative explanation of today's text. The phrase, “for the dead” appears in various warnings and commandments to Israel to forbid them from imitating the superstitious customs of the heathen nations around them since God had chosen Israel as a peculiar nation for Himself (EXO 19:5). Heathen superstitions were not quaint; they were immoral, perilous and vain (LEV 18:1-30; DEU 12:29-31; JER 10:2-3). Amongst their customs were rituals associated with death, mourning and the afterlife according to their errant beliefs about their infernal deities. Israel, though, was commanded: (LEV 19:28) Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD. (DEU 14:1) Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. (DEU 14:2) For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. As seen in a previous meditation (Marked Men), the mutilation of one's flesh was patently a heathen notion (1KI 18:26-28), the idea being that such actions satisfied their idol gods' demands---demands which even included the sacrifice of children (DEU 12:30-31; PSA 106:35-38; ISA 57:4-5). They also supposed that they could have successful influence with the underworld, as is evident by their use of occult arts such as consulting with familiar spirits or necromancy (DEU 18:9-12). These errors may well have been in view when Moses was giving command concerning the appropriate dedication of Israel's tithes, to wit, that a righteous Jew could swear that the tithes were not used for illicit purposes: (DEU 26:12) When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithes of thine increase the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be filled; (DEU 26:13) Then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God, I have brought away the hallowed things out of mine house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all thy commandments which thou hast commanded me: I have not transgressed thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them: (DEU 26:14) I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I taken away ought thereof for any unclean use, nor given ought thereof for the dead: but I have hearkened to the voice of the LORD my God, and have done according to all that thou hast commanded me. That this text could possibly be referring to professed worshippers of the true God making offerings for the dead (as if the acts of the living benefit the dead in the afterlife) is not a big stretch---it is a common practice to this day among many professed worshippers of Jesus Christ. Mormonism believes that living Mormons can by proxy baptism save long-dead ancestors. Catholicism has historically received offerings, lit candles, made prayers and had requiem masses for the dead's benefit. Now consider that the Gentile Corinthian saints had formerly been wholly idolatrous heathen and were still ignorant about some things: (1CO 12:1) Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. (1CO 12:2) Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Paul had taken pains to further distance them from idolatry (1CO 10:14), explaining that they could not be in fellowship with devil-gods (idols) and also with the true God (1CO 10:15-22). There could be no concord between Christ and Belial, between the church and idols---true saints must separate from heathen unbelief entirely (2CO 6:13-18). They were to be watchful against idolaters in their midst and put them away (1CO 5:11-13). Now, if there were no concerns about some of the vestiges of idolatry being carried over into their new Christian lives and worship, Paul's instructions were unwarranted and irrelevant. Clearly, there were some old ideas that had yet to be vanquished by the light of the Spirit. Note now the language of today's text where Paul, in context, is arguing for the validity of the resurrection, “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?” (1CO 15:29). The use of the third person, “they” is noteworthy since it implies a distinct group. Remember, there were divisions and heresies in the church at Corinth (1CO 11:18-19). Contrary to what Paul (or other apostles) had taught them about Christ and His resurrection, there were openly vocal opponents in the church: “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say SOME AMONG YOU that there is no resurrection from the dead?” (1CO 15:12). That church was still carnal and struggling with basic truth, which is why Paul had to speak to them as babes (1CO 3:1-3). Putting this all together, Corinth still had somewhat of a “heathen hangover.” The heathen had errant ideas about death, the afterlife, and the notion of the living being able to influence the afterlife. It is not unreasonable to conclude that old superstitions and rituals performed “for the dead” were simply (in the thinking of some of them) updated with a new Christian rite of “baptism for the dead.” No big surprise here---this kind of “sanctified paganism” is the very substance of Roman Catholicism. What Paul therefore appears to be doing is pointing out a gross inconsistency in the heretical faction's thinking: if THEY didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead, then why were THEY being baptized for the dead? Their position was especially untenable since Christian baptism is a figure of our salvation by the bodily resurrection of the once-dead Savior, Jesus Christ: (1PE 3:21) The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: In other words, 1CO 15:29 may well be a classic case of a heretic condemning himself (TIT 3:10-11).