A friend of mine asked me about the Mormon practice of “Baptism for the Dead.”
It is a strange practice, and is definitely a misappropriation of a Pauline text:
Otherwise, what will they do, those being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not at all raised, why indeed are they baptized on behalf of the dead?
Granted, it is a strange passage, and apparently there were some Corinthians baptizing people on behalf of the dead, but #1 Paul never condones this practice and #2 no kind of baptism ever saves a person. Baptism is not a requirement for salvation (cf. Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:28; 4:3; 6:3-4).
You have to put the verse in the context of the rest of the passage (vv. 12-29). Paul is teaching about the necessity of the resurrection, not about baptism, it’s a “side note.”
This is the only reference to it that we have in the NT, but we do know this: #1 It seems that people were being baptized on behalf of those who had already died. However, Paul is making the case for the resurrection, not teaching about baptism. His point is that even the people who practiced this rite must have believed in the resurrection, otherwise, why do it? #2 Paul is likely referring to a pagan ritual, not something the church was doing (notice he uses “they” not “we”). The most one could say would be that perhaps some in the church were doing it, but not Paul or his followers (again “they”). #3 He is certainly not approving this practice; he merely says that if there is no resurrection, why would the people who baptize for the dead be doing this?
The Mormon practice of baptism for the dead is not affirmed in the Bible, and it doesn’t make any sense. Baptism for the dead is a practice that was common in the pagan religions of Greece and is still practiced today by some cults; but no kind of baptism changes a person’s eternal destiny, we know from scripture that is something decided when someone is alive (Luke 16:26).
What is most likely happening in this passage is that Paul is writing to the Corinthians to affirm the resurrection from the dead. The Corinthian church is full of people who’ve come out of pagan beliefs (that’s why he encouraged them not to eat meat or drink wine – pagan usage). Paul is referring to the pagans who baptize on behalf of the dead to say “see, even the pagans realize there’s an afterlife…” For Paul, and the rest of the NT, the hope of the believer is resurrection. He was helping these new believers who had come out of paganism realize that “resurrection” is not a foreign topic for them after all.