“Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?”
Paul now gives assurances on the resurrection from his willingness to risk death (15:29-34). This is an ad hominem argument for the resurrection. This willingness to risk death broaches ludicrousness if the dead do not rise. On the other hand, there are three incentives for believing in the resurrection:
Incentive for salvation, 15:29
Incentive to serve, 15:30-32
Incentive toward sanctification, 15:33-34
The idea is if what Paul just said is not true (resurrection of Christ and believers), then why are people being baptized in place of the dead? If people deny the resurrection, then they reject the core of the gospel. Christians facing the prospect of death have a powerful future – eternal life and reunion with those who have gone on before.
what will they do
Such baptism is of no use if there is no resurrection. Christians give no verifiable account for baptism and thus participate in an absurdity. They would be better off to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow they die like dogs.
who are baptized for the dead,
What does baptism for the dead mean? There are a number of answers to this difficult verse. Some feel that this was proxy baptism – baptism for Christians who died before they could be baptized, maybe due to martyrdom. The word “for” means in the place of not on behalf of. The point was: “Why should we fill up the ranks of those who died (vacant places in the local church) by baptizing more people if there is no resurrection?” Living Christians were in the process of being baptized in the place of those who had previously died. They filled up the vacant places of those who died. New Christians replaced those who had moved out from the ranks of the local church and been promoted to heaven.
if the dead do not rise at all?
If there was no physical resurrection, Paul argued, there was no point in baptizing for those who had previously died. There was nothing gained by this, for they remained corpses. If there is no resurrection, the bottom falls out of Christianity. We forfeit the pleasures of this life and the next one as well. Christians are shortchanged, and the biggest suckers the world ever saw if there is no resurrection.
Why then are they baptized for the dead?
No one knows the exact meaning of this text because it is fraught with interpretation problems. Living Christians gave outward testimony by baptism for believers who died for their faith and could not be baptized themselves. In context, the argument asks why people are coming to Christ if believers die for their faith.
The certainty of the resurrection is an incentive for keeping eternal values in view.
Christians in heaven have moved from the church militant to the church triumphant. The certainty of the resurrection gives incentive for keeping eternal values in view. Christians know that death does not end all. They know that there is hope beyond the grave and that the grave is not the bleak, barren terminus of existence. Christians know that we do not die like dogs. If there is no resurrection, the gospel is a farce, Christianity is a fake, and Christians operate under a cruel hoax. Christianity has a message for a world with no hope. The world’s message is: “Keep a stiff upper lip,” “Keep smiling, for there is a silver lining in every cloud.” This is religious drivel; it is no hope for those who lose loved ones in death.
The Mormon church, or the Church of the Latter Day Saints, teaches that believers in Mormonism must baptize for the dead, for ancestors so that they can be saved. That is why they emphasize genealogy. The Bible nowhere teaches a vicarious or substitutionary baptism for others.
There is no other passage in the Bible that suggests baptism for the dead, and this verse does not command this practice. The history book of Acts nowhere indicates such a practice. It is very dangerous to build a doctrine on one obscure verse, and there are over thirty various interpretations of this verse. The principle of interpretation is that the majority of verses must take precedence over the minority of verses, and the clear verses must take precedence over the unclear verses. Our verse has many legitimate interpretations, but we can assert none with confidence. A reasonable interpretation is that we fill up the ranks of Christians who died by baptizing new believers.
We can be confident, however, that this verse does not teach salvation for the dead by proxy baptism. Nowhere does the Bible teach that a person becomes a Christian by baptism. The important message is the gospel, not baptism:
1 Co 1:14, 16-17, 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. 16 Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
Baptism is an outward sign of salvation already accomplished. We come to faith solely by faith through grace,
Ro 3:28, Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
Ro 4:3-4, 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 4Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. 5But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
Ep 2:8, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,