29 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
Paul begins (Ch. 15, read it) by reminding those in Corinth of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and of the testimony of many witnesses to the Resurrection. The primary context of verse 29 (above) begins at 15:12.
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
The Apostle proceeds to expose the fallacy of such a belief and the consequences of it:
“If Christ is not raised your faith is futile, you are still in your sins.” v. 17
[Apparently some in Greek Corinth held unto a Greek dualistic conception of immortality that negated resurrection. Remember, in Acts 17, the men of Athens laughed at the idea of Christ’s resurrection.]
Paul concludes his appeal to their reason, and then abruptly asks the question above, in verse 29.
The theological problem with this puzzling verse has prompted a myriad of solutions. No where else in Scripture or in the Church is such a practice noted. Bromiley’s solution (ISBE) suggests, “What is the value of baptism unto death, or of the death signified in baptism, if there is no resurrection?”
Gordon Fee (NICNT) notes that were not this verse such a problem, no one would have come up with such alternative meanings. The plain sense of the text is that “they” (who?) are being baptized for those who are “dead.”
Note that Paul does not address his readers, as in verse 17, “you.” He points his Corinthian readers to, what for us is an unknown, “they.”
But in shifting gears, Paul abruptly switches from an appeal to their reason to an ad hominem argument, a la Fee.
An ad hominem can be a “strategy of using [someone’s] own beliefs…against them, while not agreeing with the validity of those beliefs…”
As for this practice of baptism for the dead, we do not know who or whom; why or how. Fee concludes, “finally we must admit that we do not know.”
What we do know is that this obscure practice “lies totally outside the NT understanding both of salvation and of baptism.”
ISBE–The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
NICNT–The New International Commentary on the New Testament