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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






30 November 2005

Baptism on Behalf of the Dead


Q: What does 1 Corinthians 15:29 mean?

Baptismal Font at St. Brigid's, KildareThe passage reads, “Otherwise, 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?” Some think that this means “at the request of” or “because of their testimony,” where the dead were those who’d died in Christ who urged their families to be baptized so they would share in the promise of eternal life.

However, others believe that the Corinthian Christians actually were being baptized in the hopes that it would benefit deceased family and friends. We note that Paul does not commend the activity itself; he only uses it as a rhetorical device to move on to the topic at hand, that of the Resurrection. Thus, there may have been some practicing an improper baptism because they had confidence that in Christ was eternal life through baptismal washing. If this were the case, we would say that their eschatology (end times theology) was correct while their baptismal theology was lacking.

There is also another idea, since the word usually translated “on behalf of” or “for the sake of” also means “over.” Thus, some think that there was a group of early Christians who literally baptized “over” the dead — that is, over the graves of departed Christians, testifying to a belief that baptized believers might join them in death for a time, but that all would be raised to glory. This is possible, but not as likely as either of the previous thoughts.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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