What did Paul mean when he said, “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?” (1 Cor 15:29). This verse has perplexed Christians for ages and there is no shortage of interpretations that have been given. In order to properly interpret this verse, we need to answer several questions:
1. Who is being baptized?
2. Who are the dead?
3. What baptism is this?
4. How do the dead benefit from this baptism?
5. Does Paul approve of this practice?
I believe the baptism of this verse is Christian baptism for several reasons: there is no archaeological or literary evidence in favor of a pagan practice for being baptized on behalf of the dead, the practice of baptism is Jewish in origin, baptizō in Paul’s writings always refers to Christian baptism or baptism in the Holy Spirit, those who were baptized for the dead were professing Christians since Paul is using this baptism against their doubts that the dead will be raised while claiming to believe in the resurrection of Christ, and he does not rebuke them for this practice anywhere in his letters. If this was a practice Paul did not approve of, then it is unbelievable that he would never say anything against it. That means those who are baptized are professing Christians, those they are baptized for are Christians who have died, the baptism of this verse is Christian baptism, and Paul does approve of this practice.
But how is Christian baptism a baptism for the dead? It is for them in the sense that new Christians join the visible church through baptism taking the place of those who have died. The preposition “for” should then be understood as “in the place of” rather than “for the benefit of.” Paul’s argument would then be, “Why were you baptized into the church to take the place of those who have died if you do not believe those who have died are going to be raised from the dead? If they are not going to be raised, then you will not be raised either. Baptism is a picture of resurrection from the dead. Why would you participate in this act symbolizing resurrection if you do not believe in a future day of resurrection?”