At baptism, each Christian commits to a glorious truth!
Question: I have heard some claim that you can be baptized on behalf of dead relatives or loved ones who were not baptized before they died. Is this what the Bible says?
Answer: A few professing Christian groups have a mistaken idea about a puzzling statement the Apostle Paul seems to make. He wrote to the Corinthian brethren, “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?” (1 Corinthians 15:29).
This verse illustrates well the problem of translation, and the importance of understanding the context of what is written. What was Paul discussing in this chapter of 1 Corinthians? Let’s look more closely:
Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?… For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:12–20).
It may seem odd to us today, but in Jesus’ day there were religious people, such as the Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection from the dead. The very first Christians were Jews, including some who were Sadducees. In the verses above, Paul is explaining the resurrection from the dead as the hope of true Christians.
Before we look at the language of the translation, let’s remember what baptism is. Genuine repentance is required before anyone can be legitimately baptized (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8; Acts 2:38). As a condition of baptism, repentance should be evident—a change in how we live. We’re told that faith is required, as well (Hebrews 11:6). None of these conditions can be fulfilled by a dead person—indeed, God tells us through Solomon that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Much of the confusion involves translators’ use of the word for. The Greek word huper is used more than 160 times throughout the New Testament, and here it is used simply as “for.” But, observing how huper is used elsewhere, it becomes clear that the word often carries the sense of “for the hope of” or with a sense of “above” or “more than” or “exceeding” (cf. Philippians 2:13). The God’s Word Translation of 1 Corinthians 15:29 renders it this way: “However, people are baptized because the dead will come back to life. What will they do? If the dead can’t come back to life, why do people get baptized as if they can come back to life?”
Here we see clearly that Paul is making the point that the hope of all mankind is the resurrection. Without that hope, it is meaningless to be among God’s firstfruits, and our baptism is without purpose. The entire Work of God is focused upon the hope of resurrection—a brighter future coming not only for those called in this age, but potentially for all who have ever lived.
And, to fulfill that hope, each Christian must stand before God as an individual. None of us can qualify another human being for baptism. Embracing the hope of forgiveness and resurrection is an individual matter and cannot be done by others for us (cf. Ezekiel 18:20). For most, that hope will come at the White Throne Judgment, described in Revelation 20 as a time after the thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ. At this Judgment, the billions who lived and died without truly understanding Christ’s message—many who never even heard Christ’s name—will be resurrected. Their minds will be opened, and they will be taught God’s truth for the first time.
After genuine repentance, they, too, will be baptized and enter into a covenant with God—not for someone else, but for themselves. This is God’s awesome plan for the vast majority of mankind. To learn more about this wonderful future, request a free copy of What Happens When You Die? or read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org.