Baptism for the dead



John Hoole





This topic came to my attention a couple of weeks ago, when a couple of young Mormon men came knocking on our door.  At our front door, we had a very good discussion of various subjects.  Among them was the subject of “baptism for the dead.”


One of the distinctive doctrines of the Mormons is their view that deceased human beings can hear and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit world.  And through proxy baptism performed by people still living on behalf of the dead, they can attain eternal life in the presence of God.


By and large, the only passage they cite as corroborating this belief is found in 1 Cor. 15This is the resurrection chapter of the Bible.


1 Cor 15:29 (NIV) reads:


29     Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?


What I am about to give you is what I said to them, after which one of them said, “Wow, that’s an interesting thought.  I’ve never heard it put that way before.”


The first thing I mentioned was that I believe the Bible never contradicts itself.  And if I make that assumption, then I should be able to corroborate the idea of baptism for the dead in other parts of the Word of God.  I pressed on with the statement that what I actually find, is the corroboration of the exact opposite.


I said, “your doctrine of baptism for the salvation of the dead is actually contrary to biblical teaching that a person’s eternal destiny is fixed at death.  By that, I mean that a person cannot change his eternal state after they died.  And I shared some of the passages we have mentioned in our lesson the past several weeks.


2 Cor. 5:8 tells us “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”  This seems to imply the eternal destiny of a dead person occurs immediately following their death.


And then, in Luke 16:19-31, we find the rich man and Lazarus immediately going to their eternal abode directly after they died.  And this passage tells us that it is not possible to go from one place to the other following death.


It appears to me that with this knowledge, we have a problem.  You have a doctrine that is contradicted by the rest of the Word of God.  And then I added, these are but a few of the Scriptures that corroborate the idea of a person’s eternal destiny being fixed at their death which excludes the possibility of repentance in the spirit world.


They still couldn’t agree with me, so I set out to show them what Paul was saying in 1 Cor. 15:29The first thing I said to them was, “In this Passage, Paul only mentions the subject of baptism for the dead.  He is not actually teaching it as something that should be practiced.”  They still couldn’t agree with my statement.  So I took them a little further.


I said, as with all biblical interpretation, it is important that we examine the context of a specific verse.  Paul was writing this letter to the church in Corinth because he was made aware of erroneous teaching going on there.  This caused some of the people at Corinth to write a letter to Paul, asking him to address several issues that had come up in their congregation.  Paul mentions that in 1 Corinthians 7:1And from that chapter on, Paul addresses their questions.


The entire 15th chapter was written to correct the teaching of some within the local body at Corinth.  They were teaching that there was no resurrection.


We see that mentioned in 1 Cor 15:12 NIV


12     But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?


                            Here, Paul mentions that some were teaching there was no resurrection.


In the first 11 verses of this chapter Paul sets the stage for asking the question in verse 12.  Paul speak to the authenticity of the resurrection of Jesus.  He say, in verse 4, that Christ was raised from the dead on the 3rd day, “according to the Scriptures.”  The first thing Paul does is to show that the Scriptures themselves said Christ would be raised from the dead.  Right up front, Paul says these naysayers were contradicting the Scriptures.


Then he report how Jesus, following his resurrection, was seen by many people.


       •  First, Jesus was seen by Peter,

       •  Then the 12

       •  Then by more than 500 at the same time.

       •  by James

       •  The apostles

       •  Paul


This is an overwhelming amount of evidence.  Paul implies, by his comment concerning the 500, that since most of them were still alive, why don’t you go ask them if it was really Jesus or not.  After putting forth this evidence of the resurrection of Christ, Paul says, “If there is no such thing as a resurrection, how is it that Christ was?”  If there is no resurrection


         •  then Christ hasn’t really risen.  (vv. 13,16)


         •  then our preaching is vain and we are still in our sins.  (vv. 14, 17)


         •  that makes us false witnesses. (v. 15)


         •  those who have died in Christ have perished.  (v. 18)


         •  Christians are of all people most miserable.  (v. 19)


Then, in verse 20, Paul says that Jesus not only was resurrected, but that His resurrection is the “first fruit of all who will be raised.”  He adds that those who are resurrected after Christ, will have that happen in a predefined sequence and order.


From this point on, Paul switches from the resurrection of Christ to our resurrection.  When he gets to verse 29, he makes his statement about baptism for the dead.  Look at the wording of that verse once again.


1 Cor 15:29 (NIV) reads:


29     Now if there is no resurrection, what will they do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are they baptized for them?


Notice the word “they.”


         He did not say “you” (meaning the Christians at Corinth).


         He did not say “we” (meaning all followers of Christ).


         He did not say “I”  (meaning Paul himself) baptized for the dead.


The word “they” here is referring back to the people he mentioned in verse 12 who do not believe in a resurrection.  He is making this point in verse 29 to show the inconsistency of their own practice.  Paul is asking, “if these people don’t believe in the resurrection, why then are they practicing baptism for those who are dead.”  What’s the purpose of baptizing for the dead, if in fact the dead are gone, and that all there is?


Paul’s mention of baptism for the dead is not an endorsement for that practice.  He is really chiding those who don’t believe in the resurrection, mentioning some of their own practices which contradict their own belief.


There are a number of other Scriptures showing that a person cannot change their eternal status after they have died.  In Ezekiel 18:20 (NAS), the prophet argues that neither obedience nor disobedience is transferable from one generation to another.


Ezekiel 18:20 NAS


20     The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.


This Scripture is not speaking specifically of baptism for the dead, nor is it speaking about acquiring salvation once a person dies.  But it does speak to the fact that the son cannot bear the punishment for the father and vice versa.  The righteousness of the son makes no difference in the state of the father.


Notice that what is said about “righteousness” is equally applicable to “wickedness.”  If it were possible for a living person to submit to an act of righteousness (e.g. baptism) and having that blessing passed on to the deceased, why could not an act of evil of a living person also be passed to the deceased?


The Bible teaches that judgment will be meted to “each one, according to what HE has done,…. whether it be good or bad.” (2 Cor 5:10)


Again, in Romans 14:12, “each one of us will give account of HIMSELF to God.”  No one will be judged upon the basis of another’s deeds.


Another passage that helps us here is found in Matthew 25.  It is the story of the 10 virgins – five wise and five foolish.  When the bridegroom came, the 5 foolish virgins tried to borrow oil from the wise virgins.  They were refused.  In my mind, this story unquestionably teaches that obedience cannot be transferred.  It is an individual and personal matter.


If prayers or baptism of the living could bring about salvation of the dead, then it would be possible to transfer from the place of torment to paradise.  Yet Jesus plainly taught that “there is a great gulf fixed” between the two states.  He goes on to say that “none may cross over.”  (Luke 16:26)


Again, I believe the Bible says that God has decreed that once a person dies, his/her station in eternity is permanent.




Let me share with you one of the most comforting things about dying as a believer in Jesus Christ.  You won’t have time to get used to it.  What I mean is that by the time the doctor pronounced you dead, by the time the line on the hospital monitor goes flat, you will have been ushered out of that dead body and into the Lord’s presence.


If the Lord should tarry his return, and I die, and you who remain have my funeral, or more appropriately, a memorial at that moment, I will be more alive than the people who are “funeralizing” me.


To summarize this point, let me say that I believe the Bible is crystal clear that our spirit does not lose its consciousness at death.  The only thing that “falls asleep” is our body – and that only in a symbolic sense.


In Philippians 1:21, Paul observes, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  He then adds in verse 23 that his desire to “to depart and be with Christ.”  Paul certainly did not expect to be in a coma, nor in a purgatory, after he died.


By now we should have a fairly good idea of what happens when a person dies.  But we still haven’t really answered the question raised by Job at the very beginning of this lesson.  Let me raise it again.


If a person continues to exist – that is, their spirit retains consciousness after the death of their body, it follows that there must be a place for that existence.




         Heaven or Hell.


The question is not whether we will die, but what awaits us on the other side of the grave.  Everybody has an opinion, from the atheist who says there is nothing beyond death, to the universalist, who says God is waiting to receive all of His creatures with open arms.


Unlike those mentioned earlier when they were interviewed on the street, not only is there a heaven……but also a literal hell.  We like to hear about heaven, but some feel less sure of hell.  The Bible treats both of them as genuinely real locations, where people will spend eternity.


What will happen when you die?  And in what resurrection will you have a part?  That depends on what you have done with Jesus while you are still living.


If you already know Him as Savior, you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night wondering what will happen to you when you die.  Death won’t sing you at all, because the Bible says “the sting of death is SIN,” and Jesus has already taken the sting in his own body.


One day a little boy was riding in the car with his father when a bee flew in through the window.  It starts buzzing around the boy.  He begins to scream, “It’s going to sting me, the bee is going to sting me.”  The father reaches out quickly and grabs the bee.  He hold it in his hand for a few seconds, and then released it.  The bee begins to buzz around, and the boy started to cry again.  But his father said, “Son, you don’t have to be afraid.  “All that bee can do now is make noise.”  Then the dad held out his hand, and there in the palm of his hand was the bee’s stinger.


On the cross of Calvary, Jesus Christ took the stinger of sin, which is death.  So all death can do now is make noise.


I hope none here today are like the rich man, because for him and any other who don’t have Jesus, the stinger is still very real.  If you miss Jesus, that will be a long time to have been wrong.  For the non-Christian, the life they have now is the only heaven they will have.  Compared to where they will be going, this truly is like heaven, by comparison.


Life is not a game.  We cannot afford to gamble on eternity.