Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 17, 1952

"Baptized For The Dead"

John T. Overbey, Austin, Texas

Vicarious baptism is not a practice of recent origin, nor is it based upon Biblical fact. It was practiced among the sects as early as the second century A. D. Tertullian, the founder of Latin Christianity, in his writings (Ante-Nicene Fathers), tells of a custom of vicarious baptism existing among the Marcionites, a Jewish sect which was founded in Rome by Marcian in the first half of the second century. Chrysostom says of this sect, that when one of their catechumens died without baptism, they used to put a living person under the dead man's bed, and asked whether he desired to be baptized; the living man answering that he did, they then baptized him in the place of the departed (Smith's Bible Dictionary, Vol. I, page 241, 1889 Edition) Epiphanius relates a similar custom among the Corinthians, which, he said, prevailed from fear that in the resurrection those would suffer punishment who had not been baptized. Although numerous references are made to the practice in the writings of the Anti-Nicene Fathers, there seems to be no evidence that they approved of the practice, but rather rejected it on the ground that it was based on superstition and ignorance. There is no evidence that such was ever practiced in the church at Corinth, and to conclude that Paul alluded to such in his statement in 1 Corinthians 15:29, is wholly unwarranted and has no foundation in fact.

In modern times, the practice is carried on by the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon), and they, like their predecessors, have based the practice on superstition and ignorance rather than on Biblical fact. A careful survey of the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians will show that Paul had no such practice in mind, but was submitting arguments in favor of the resurrection.

Let us note the arguments:

1. First Paul presents an array of witnesses, (verses 6-8). He lists Cephas (Peter), the twelve, more than five hundred brethren, James, all the apostles, and last of all he presents himself. There is not a judge or jury in all the land that would not accept the testimony of that "cloud of witnesses" — unless, of course, it should be proved that the witnesses had practiced deception. But that the witnesses were true is substantiated by the fact that not one time in all their experiences were they ever known to alter their story one iota. Some of them even suffered death for their testimony as we shall see later.

2. His next argument is based on the consequences of the resurrection. "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither hath Christ been raised: and if Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your faith also in vain" (verses 12-14). The resurrection of Christ is the very heart of the gospel, the essence of gospel preaching. The first recorded sermon to be preached under the Great Commission centered around the resurrection. The apostle Peter declared, "This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we all are witnesses" (Acts 2:32). Later, the apostle Paul declared to the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia that "God raised him (Christ) from the dead" (Acts 13:30). Everywhere the apostles went they preached the resurrection of Christ from the dead, realizing that if Christ did not rise their preaching was of no effect.

3. The next argument in favor of the resurrection is found in verses 29-32. It is in these verses we find so much difficulty. However, if one will study the passage in the light of its context, much of its obscurity can be cleared away. In the first place, why should anyone get the idea that Paul is alluding to a practice that neither he nor anyone else mentions in their writings? If vicarious baptism is taught in this passage, it is the only passage in all the New Testament that does so. Me-thinks the idea is foreign to anything that Paul ever taught on the subject of baptism.

The fallacy in the reasoning of so many on this passage is found in the fact that they do not take into consideration the variation in the use of words. The word "baptize" is very often used in a figurative sense in the New Testament. It is in this sense that Jesus uses the word in Mark 10:38, 39. James and John had asked Jesus that they be seated one on the right hand and the other on the left hand in his glory; to which he replied, "Are ye able to drink the cup that I drink? or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?...the cup that I drink ye shall drink; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized." In this connection Jesus was speaking of his impending suffering. He assured James and John that they should endure like suffering with him. James was beheaded not many years thereafter by Herod in the city of Jerusalem (Acts 12:2) and John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos "for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 1:9). Both James and John were "baptized" — they were overwhelmed in suffering for the testimony that they had borne concerning the resurrection of Christ. It was in this sense that Paul was using the word as we shall see from further development.

The word "for" is the translation of the Greek word huper, meaning: for the sake of, in behalf of, or on account of. Then the expression, "The dead," is a translation of the Greek words, ton nekron: meaning, the dead ones. In addition to the fact that these words were used to describe a corpse, we find that they were also used to describe those who were returning from the dead, (Luke 16:30) — one who is resurrected. Since the resurrection is the subject under consideration in the chapter, is it not reasonable to conclude that Paul was using them in that sense in this connection?

Allowing these definitions to stand, the verse under consideration should read thus: "Else what shall they do that are overwhelmed in suffering in behalf of their testimony concerning the resurrection of the dead: If the dead are not raised at all, why should they suffer in behalf of their testimony concerning the resurrection?" This seems to harmonize perfectly with Paul's further statement in verses 30, 31: "Why do we also stand in jeopardy every hour: I protest by that glorying in you, brethren, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily."

Baptism in water of a penitent believer is designed for one purpose, and one purpose only, so far as the New Testament is concerned, and that is for or unto the remission of ones sins (Acts 2:38). It would be as reasonable to practice vicarious faith as it is to practice vicarious baptism. Indeed, no such practice of either is found in the New Testament. And furthermore, there is no evidence that such was practiced in the church in New Testament days, but rather it was practiced among the sects. The same may be said of the practice today!