Baptism for the Dead

 

“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 Cor. 15:29

“This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot… and one shall burn the heifer…   he that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days… and for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: and the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.”

Num. 19:2,5, 11,17-19

 

 

 

Introduction

1 Cor. 11:29 and the ‘baptism for the dead’ is one of the most controverted passages in the N.T., it being given more than 30-40 interpretations throughout Church history.  For an introduction to the topic, see the sermon notes of Rev. Fentiman under the first viewpoint-subheading below.

While acknowledging the ambiguity of the passage, yet there is a straightforward understanding of it that would have been easily understood by the original hearers familiar with their Bibles, there being a whole chapter in the O.T. that directly relates to the subject.  The God-given washing of purification from touching dead corpses by the ashes of a red heifer in Numbers 19 fits every textual consideration of 1 Cor. 15:29.  Every other view (admitted by most commentators) fails on at least one or more points.  The ritual washing of the people of God from the defilement of the dead was a beautiful, living picture of the Resurrection from the dead.  It is the only view with any positive historical evidence that it was happening in Paul’s day.  

A handful of other views are given below as well.  Many more views and resources are hoped to be put up in the future, Lord willing.

 

 

 

1.  The Sacrifice of the Red Heifer, Numbers 19

‘Else what shall they [faithful Israelites] do which are washed on account of dead corpses, if the dead rise not at all?’

Fentiman, Travis – Baptism for the Dead: Sermon Notes on 1 Cor. 15:29  2015, 18 pages

Rev. Fentiman gives an introduction to the subject of the ‘baptism for the dead’ (1 Cor. 15:29) and argues that it refers to the purification washing for touching dead bodies in Num. 19, which the Jews (rightly) held to be a picture of the Resurrection.  Interpreters that took this view were: Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), Salomon Van Till (1643-1713), James B. Ramsay (1814-71), Heinrich Ewald (1803-75) and R.L. Dabney (1820-98).  Fentiman also argues against 12 of the other views.

Dabney, Robert

Systematic Theology, p. 760.

“The most probable explanation [of 1 Cor. 15:29] is, that the apostle here refers to the Levitical rule of Numbers 19:14-19.  Were there no resurrection, a corpse would be like any other clod; and there would be no reason for treating it as a symbol of moral defilement, or for bestowing on it so religiously the rites of sepulture.”

Discussions, vol. 5, pp. 184-7  d. 1898,  4 pages

Read this.  Dabney’s elucidation of the view is brief and helpful.

 

 

2.  Washed from Covenantal Death 

‘Else what shall they [faithful Israelites] do which are washed on account of covenantal death, if the dead rise not at all?’

Kayser, Phillip –  ‘Appendix B – Infant Baptism Started with Moses’, in Seven Biblical Principles that Call for Infant Baptism, pp. 40-45,  1990, 5 pages

Rev. Kayser also takes the view that ‘dead’, in some measure, refers to the dead corpses of Numbers 19.  The washing for this uncleanness is called the ‘water of separation’ and ‘purification’ (Num. 19:9,17).  Similar washings for separation and purification (in the Hebrew: ‘nidah’) were used for various uncleannesses.  Kayser extensively documents this and argues that such a separation by uncleanness involved being ‘cut off’ (Num. 19:13,20) from the covenant community, and hence was considered ‘covenantal death’.  The washing of purification brought such people into covenantal fellowship, and hence, life.  All of this was implicitly involved in the idea of washings from covenantal death.  

While much of this is consistent with the first view given above on this webpage, one weakness of it is that the context of 1 Cor. 15 does not explicitly mention the ‘covenant’, nor is it focused on spiritual life from spiritual death, but rather is concerned with literal, physical bodies, and the resurrection thereof (vv. 4-8,12-13,15-18,20-23,32-39, etc.).  Also, ‘the dead’ (in the Greek: ‘nekron’) is plural and more easily signifies dead bodies than the unitive idea of ‘death’, for which there are other more clear Greek words.

In a previous edition of this article (now unavailable), Rev. Kayser argued that 1 Cor. 15:29 included all of the above connotations an referred to Christian baptism (the current article is still consistent with this view).  That is, Christian baptism connotates a washing and purification from being spiritually dead outside of the Covenant of Grace.  Being converted to Christianity, given spiritual life and entering into the Covenant of Grace, is a guarantee of our future resurrection: ‘Else, what shall Christian believers do who are baptized from covenantal death, if the dead rise not at all?’  This view, though, is open to all the weaknesses of every view that refers to Christian baptism, as outlined in Rev. Fentiman’s article above.

 

 

3.  Baptized as a Substitute for Dead People

‘Else what shall they do which are baptized in place of dead people, if the dead rise not at all?’

This is the most common view amongst secular and critical scholars, and hence is often accepted by default by many evangelicals.  It, however, is unsupported by any historical evidence and has significant weaknesses.  For a summary of them, see Fentiman’s article above.

Augustus Toplady – An Illustration Concerning 1 Cor. 15:29  d. 1778, 2 pages, in Works, vol. 3, p. 418

 

 

4.  Baptism signifies Regeneration which is a Token of the Resurrection

‘Else why are they baptized on account of physical death, baptism being a seal of rising again, if the dead rise not at all?’

Theodore Beza

The New Testament… with brief summaries and expositions upon the hard places, on 1 Cor. 15:29  1599

‘The fifth argument taken of the end [design] of baptism, to wit, because that they which are baptized, are baptized for dead, that is to say, that they may have a remedy against death because that baptism is a token of regeneration.  They that are baptized [are baptized] to this end and purpose, that death may be put out in them, or, to rise again from the death, whereof baptism is a seal.’  

This view has all the weakness of every view referring to Christian baptism (see Fentiman’s article) and has to take the plural ‘dead’ for the unitive idea of ‘death’, for which there are more clear Greek words.

 

 

5.  Baptism over a Dead Christ is in Vain

‘Else what shall they do which are baptized over (in a moral sense) dead persons, if the dead rise not at all?’

Edersheim, Alfred – Tohu va Vohu, pp. 69-71, d. 1899, 3 pages

Edersheim was an important Jewish-Christian scholar of the Free Church of Scotland and later of the Anglican Church.  Paul is saying that if you deny the resurrection of the dead, then you deny Jesus’ resurrection.  If such is the case, that Jesus is not alive and reigning, then what good does it do you to be baptized over dead persons, such as Jesus?  Edersheim asserts that the Lord’s Supper primarily looks to the death of Christ, and baptism primarily looks to the resurrection of Christ. 

If this view were correct, no doubt, Paul would not refer to those who denied the resurrection at Corinth in v. 29 as ‘they’, but as ‘you’ as he had previously in the chapter in vv. 12,14,17, as he is speaking directly to them in the crowd.  ‘They’ is an indication that Paul is not speaking of the same people.  It is also rather indirect for Paul to refer to Christ dead under the broader category of ‘dead persons’, rather than the singular ‘dead person’. 

 

 

6.  Washing a Corpse for Burial

‘Else what shall they do which are washed on account of death, if the dead rise not at all?’

It was a practice common in the first century (and in most centuries, including today) to wash the body of the dead person before burial.  Acts 9:37 and other passages are examples of this.  

This interpretation, however, does not make sense of the verse.  It is not the persons that do the washing that would be confounded about what to do, but it is the people washed that Paul says would be confounded.  On this view, those people are dead and can’t do or think anything.  In addition to this, on the very nature of Paul’s theological discourse(s), one would naturally expect Paul to be describing a religiously significant practice, as opposed to a natural custom that all people do.  While cleaning the dead body is right and good (in respect for the image of God), yet in three days those bodies are going to decompose to dirt, which takes away from the strength of the idea of cleaning the body for the purpose of preserving it in light of the resurrection.

 

Baptized because of being Inspired by the Martyrs

‘Else what shall they do which are baptized because of the martyrs, if the dead rise not at all?’

Edwards, John – An Enquiry into Four Remarkable Texts of the New Testament which contain some difficulty in them, with a probable resolution of them, pp. 137-208, 1692, 70 pages 

Edwards (1637-1716) was a reformed Anglican.  He argues that there many persons being converted by through the heroic martyrdoms of early Christians.  He begins to elucidate his view on p. 193 and actually gets around to it on p. 202.

 

 

Baptized over the Graves of Martyrs 

‘Else what shall they do which are baptized over the [graves of the] dead martyrs, if the dead rise not at all?’

Keach, Benjamin – Tropologia, or, A Key to open Scripture Metaphors, ch. 11, p. 150  1681, 1 paragraph

Keach was a reformed baptist; a few of his works, including this one, have been reprinted today.  Keach asserts that these martyrs died for their confession of the resurrection. 

Donne, John – Sermons on 1 Cor. 15:29: 1, 2, 3  1626, in Works, vol. 1, p. 362 ff.; vol. 3, pp. 388-414 and 414 ff.

The English Donne was most known for his poetry.  His first sermon is on what all agree on in the passage: the hope of the Resurrection.  The second sermon refutes the Roman Catholic view of it and their doctrines of prayers for the dead, purgatory, and indulgences.  

In the third sermon Donne gives his view, which is that either of the two major protestant views of the day are satisfactory, namely that: (1) Converts were baptized over the graves of martyrs in order to show their favorable opinion of the martyrs and as a token of the hope of the resurrection.  This was the view of Luther and Melancthon.  (2) Persons delayed baptism till the point of death so as not to acquire new sins after baptism, which practice Donne is apparently approving of.

 

 

Baptism was Delayed till the Point of Death

‘Else what shall they do which are baptized at the point of death, if the dead rise not at all?’

Donne, John – Sermons on 1 Cor. 15:29: 1, 2, 3  1626, in Works, vol. 1, p. 362 ff.; vol. 3, pp. 388-414 and 414 ff.

The English Donne was most known for his poetry.  His first sermon is on what all agree on in the passage: the hope of the Resurrection.  The second sermon refutes the Roman Catholic view of it and their doctrines of prayers for the dead, purgatory, and indulgences.  

In the third sermon Donne gives his view, which is that either of the two major protestant views of the day are satisfactory, namely that: (1) Converts were baptized over the graves of martyrs in order to show their favorable opinion of the martyrs and as a token of the hope of the resurrection.  This was the view of Luther and Melancthon.  (2) Persons delayed baptism till the point of death so as not to acquire new sins after baptism, which practice Donne is apparently approving of.

 

 

 

 

Related Pages

Baptism

Infant Baptism

Baptismal Regeneration