1 Corinthians 15:29–34
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? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I face death every day — yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God — I say this to your shame.
The Christians in Roman Corinth were fortunate to have a social and historical context that allowed them to understand some of Paul’s phrases that have baffled generations of Christian thinkers. Many regard 1 Cor. 15:29 to be the most puzzling in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
Although more than forty explanations have emerged, we will offer only two and will prefer just one of them. The first explanation, upheld by a majority of commentators, is that Paul is speaking in verse 29 of some type of vicarious baptism for the dead, a baptism by proxy in which a living person is baptized to confer some type of spiritual benefit upon a dead person — presumably an unbeliever — even the benefit of salvation itself. This view has several serious problems: (1) There is no record of such a baptism in the New Testament or among the early churches; (2) Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant doctrine all reject such a practice, as did several prominent church fathers; and (3) Paul could never allow an act that completely bypasses God’s grace and personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Concerning the proxy baptism view, Gordon Fee says: “It smacks of a ‘magical’ view of sacramentalism of the worst kind, where a religious rite, performed for someone else, can have saving [effect].” We agree with Fee’s rejection of this explanation for verse 29. Today the only religious group that consistently uses this practice of baptism by proxy for the dead is the Mormon Church, which names itself The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Two translations and an interpretation of “baptized for the sake of the dead”
In an attempt to make sense of 1 Cor. 15:29, the NIV makes a fairly lengthy addition to the text, and that is shown in italics in this quotation of their translation: “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?” Thiselton’s translation is closer to the actual Greek text: “Otherwise what do those people think they are doing who have themselves baptized for the sake of the dead? If the dead are really not raised, what is the point of being baptized for them?”
Anthony Thiselton explains that baptism for the sake of the dead “is ‘not in order to remedy some deficiency on the part of the dead, but in order to be reunited with them at the resurrection.’” Thiselton also makes clear the reason: “Paul is referring rather to a much commoner, indeed a normal experience, that the death of Christians leads to the conversion of survivors, who in the first instance ‘for the sake of the dead’ (their beloved dead) and in hope of reunion, turn to Christ.” So, the survivors of a beloved Christian commit themselves to Jesus and receive baptism out of the desire to rejoin their deceased loved one at the resurrection.
Paul’s point is that the only reason that people trust in Christ in this particular way is because they rely on the fact that resurrection will occur. Otherwise, their conversion and baptism would be pointless. The baptism such people undergo is appropriate in light of their own faith in Jesus.
Paul’s own reliance on the resurrection
If you think Paul is exaggerating when he says, “I face death every day” (1 Cor. 15:31), we should recall that Paul’s bold witness for Christ did indeed lead to his eventual death in Rome. Paul writes to the Corinthians from Ephesus, and he speaks metaphorically of the intensity of the struggle there: “I have fought wild beasts in Ephesus” (1 Cor. 15:32). This is likely a reference to the riot in Ephesus against Paul and his followers (Acts 19:23–41) or similar threats. Garland says: “The ‘wild beasts’ plausibly are bloodthirsty human antagonists who would eagerly tear him to pieces. His Roman citizenship did not provide him protection from mob violence.”
Having presented a picture of his own life being in constant danger of death, Paul drives home the point that this life only makes sense if he has the certainty — biblical “hope” is always a certainty — of resurrection in Christ (1 Cor. 15:32b). Garland describes this hope with skill: “Resurrection means endless hope, but no resurrection means a hopeless end.”
Paul shows both his education and his rhetorical skills when he says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32b). This wording simultaneously appeals to Jews, by quoting Isa. 22:13, and to the other citizens of Roman Corinth by its similarity to slogans used in debate among competing Greek philosophies. A life of self-sacrifice in imitation of Jesus makes little sense if there is no resurrection. Jesus was not kidding when he said you cannot serve both God and money, where the latter term encompasses everything the world has to offer apart from God (Luke 16:13). Paul says we serve God through commitment of our lives to Christ because we believe we will experience a resurrection like his.
Paul has already made it clear that he is dealing with “some” (1 Cor. 15:12) who deny the resurrection, and that makes it more likely than not that we should translate 1 Cor. 15:33a by “Stop being misled” rather than NIV’s “Do not be misled.” Some had already been misled and were adversely influencing the others.
Thiselton expresses an important point: “These two verses [33–34], especially v. 34, express the theological heart of the chapter and the hinge of the argument. Knowledge of God (God’s resources, God’s grace, God’s transformative action through Christ) holds the key to understanding what the resurrection is actually about.”
We might say that “come back to your senses” (1 Cor. 15:34) and “stop sinning” are two ways of saying the same thing. Thiselton explains, “Paul regularly regards sin less in terms (if at all) of acts (plural) of commission or omission than as an attitude, stance, and state in which the human will is granted ‘autonomy’ to turn away from God and to seek self-gratification as the chief end of human life.” That statement is worth thinking about!
Paul’s most devastating charge is that “some . . . are ignorant of God” (1 Cor. 15:34). That is actually a stinging rebuke for people who take pride in their knowledge; to be ignorant of God is similar to the darkness of a pre-Christian state. Paul pushes this knife in with the statement “I say this to your shame” (verse 34). In a culture which found its bearings in relation to honor and shame, that was the ultimate insult.
Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) 764–5.
 Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1248, quoting J.K. Howard.
 Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1248, quoting G.G. Findlay.
 David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 721.
 Garland, 1 Corinthians, 721.
 Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1253.
 Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1256.