Readers Question / Comment - What about baptism for the dead?
The outstanding expression in this particular portion found nowhere else in Scripture is "baptized for the dead." Exactly what does it mean? Down through the centuries a number of different interpretations have been suggested. One of the most common among orthodox believers is that we are to understand by the expression, "baptized for the dead," that we as Christians are baptized for or in honor of our Lord Jesus Christ who died. He died, went down into death, and we have been identified with Him, and in our baptism we confess our death with Him, therefore, "baptized for the dead" really means, "bap- tized for Christ who died." Certainly that interpretation is not repugnant to Christian consciences. It is absolutely true that intelligent believers are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, for that, in fact, is the exact meaning of the ordinance of baptism. But is this what is meant here?
In baptism we confess that we were sinners, that we deserved to die, that our Lord Jesus Christ died in our room and stead, and now we are saying, as it were, before the world, before all men, "I take my place with the Christ who died; I desire henceforth to be recognized as one identified with Him in His death, in His burial, and in His resurrection." Looked at in this way the ordinance is wonderfully precious. I never can understand the state of soul of Christian men who would try in any way to belittle or set aside Christian baptism. I know many precious souls have been brought to Christ simply by witnessing the carrying out of this ordinance. There is something so solemn about it as it definitely sets before us Christ’s death on our behalf and our identification with Him, that it cannot but speak to every one who has ears to hear. So I fully accept that view, but do not believe that it explains the expression in the text, "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all."
Another suggested explanation that has found favor with many is that baptism for the dead means that we ourselves who are baptized confess that we are dead, that we have died with Christ, and that therefore our baptism is one for or of the dead as taking that place, although in this world we no longer belong to the world. We have died, and we bury the dead, and so we are buried because we have died to the old life. Undoubtedly baptism teaches that. We who were once living unto the world, we who were once living to the flesh, have now, in the cross of Christ, died to all that; as having died, the ordinance of baptism speaks of a burial. We are through with the old life. But I do not think that explains the expression in the text.
From the very earliest days there has been another suggested explanation, a rather grotesque one. It has been taken up in our own day and spread abroad as though it were the very gospel of God, by those commonly known as "‘Latter-day Saints," or Mormons. Personally, I belong to the Former Day saints, I am not interested in any "Latter-day Saints" movement. It is my joy to be linked with the saints of all ages unto whom Christ Jesus has been made wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. But the view held by these Mormons and a few others is that the apostle means that baptism in itself is a saving ordinance, that apart from it none will ever be saved, and since a great many have died without having the opportunity of being baptized, somebody else must be baptized for them if they are going to be saved. And so they say that the apostle is referring to living Christians being baptized vicariously on behalf of people who have died unbaptized. This is a very common thing among the so-called "Latter-day Saints." In fact, they have many temples in which they carry out the ceremony of baptism for the dead, and people are urged to be baptized, some over and over and over again, for dead people who were never baptized in this life.
When in Salt Lake City some years ago, a young Mormon elder told me he believed that the members of the Mormon church were saving more souls through being baptized for the dead than Jesus Christ ever saved through dying on Calvary’s cross. He mentioned a very wealthy lady who had come out from the East a good many years ago and had been baptized in Salt Lake City over thirty thousand times. Every time she was baptized she paid a sum of money into the church, so you can see that baptism for the dead is rather a good thing from the financial standpoint. She was using her entire fortune redeeming people from death and destruction through being baptized for the dead! She had been baptized for all the friends and relatives about whom she knew anything at all who had died, and then she had gone into history and literature and sought out thousands of names and had been baptized for every one of them. She had been baptized for Alexander the Great, for Nebuchadnezzar, for Julius Caesar, for Napoleon Bonaparte, for Cleopatra, and thousands of other historical characters, in order that she might be the means of their salvation; and it was concerning this lady especially that this youthful elder said to me with a very solemn face, "I believe in the day of judgment it will be proven that this lady through being baptized for the dead has saved more souls than Jesus Christ!" That blasphemous theory finds no place whatever in the Word of God. In the first place the Word of God never teaches that baptism is essential to salvation. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that if people die unbaptized, they are lost.
It is quite true that it is perfectly right and proper that people who are saved should be baptized, and we find this ordinance linked with faith because it is the confession of the faith that we have. But when Scripture says, for instance, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved," it never adds, "He that is not baptized shall be damned," but, "He that believeth not shall be damned." We have the remarkable example of the first soul ever saved after Christ was nailed to the cross, the thief who hung there beside Him, who was saved that day without any possibility of being baptized. With hands and feet nailed to the tree he could do nothing, he could not carry out any ordinance or do anything by which to earn salvation, but he was saved alone by the finished work of the One who hung on the central cross. And every man who is ever saved will be saved through what Jesus did when He died on that tree. So we put away the Mormon conception. There is a fourth view which certain Christians have held throughout the centuries, and that is that some of these Corinthians imagined that baptism was essential to salvation and therefore were being baptized vicariously for others who had died in heathenism, and so the apostle refers to it without saying whether it is true or not. But we can be sure that Paul would not refer to it in the way he does without telling them that it was contrary to the mind of God that living people should be baptized for the benefit of dead people.
I have spoken of four suggested interpretations of these words, and I come now to what I believe is the exact meaning of the text. First, let me say that the expression, "Baptized for the dead," means literally in the Greek text, "Baptized in place of, or over, the dead ones, or those who have died." The word dead is in the plural, it is not a singular noun; therefore it cannot refer to the Lord Jesus Christ; it is not, "Baptized because of Christ." Neither the preposition nor the noun will permit of that interpretation, but the actual rendering would have to be, "Baptized in place of dead ones." It is not, "baptized on behalf, or for the benefit, of dead ones." The preposition does not suggest that. In the earlier part of the chapter the apostle reproves those who denied the physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and says, "If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins" (v. 17). Everything for a believer depends upon the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was delivered up to death for our offenses, He was raised again for our justification, and if He be not raised, manifestly redemption has never been accomplished, the sin question has never been settled, they who have fallen asleep in Christ are perished, they have found that their profession has gone for nought, for there is no redemption if Christ be not raised, and it naturally follows that if that be the case, we are making a tremendous mistake for, "If the dead be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins," and therefore Christ is powerless to save. Think of the millions of people who have been willing to stake everything for eternity upon this Christ who cannot save if the dead rise not, but if Christ be not risen, they have blundered terribly. We might better go on and enjoy this world, for death ends all if that theory be true.