Twisting 1 Corinthians 15:29 - Mormonism's Baptism for the Dead
James K. Walker
A unique teaching of Mormonism is the practice of baptizing on behalf of the dead. This is a very important belief of Mormons today. Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie taught: "...the Lord has ordained baptism for the dead as the means whereby all his worthy children of all ages can become heirs of salvation in his kingdom," (Mormon Doctrine, p. 73).
In every active Mormon Temple proxy baptisms for the dead take place in which living Mormons temporarily assume the names of dead people to perform baptisms on their behalf. Mormon leaders teach that this activity was practiced by the first century Christian churches and quote 1 Corinthians 15:29 as proof (Ibid).
1 Corinthians 15:29
"Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?"
Historically, this passage has been the source of much speculation and some confusion. One second century sect, the Cataphrygians (Montanists), seem to have developed the practice of baptizing actual corpses based on a misunderstanding of this verse (see Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, p. 119).
In order to understand this or any other Biblical passage, it is important to examine the context to understand what is being talked about.
The entire fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians deals with the resurrection. False teachers had infiltrated the church at Corinth, teaching "that there is no resurrection of the dead," (vs. 13).
Paul had stated that the heart of the gospel was Christ's resurrection (vs. 1-14). Christ died on the cross for man's sins, was buried, and that he rose again the third day.
To be saved one must turn from their sins and trust in, or "keep in memory" Christ's work on their behalf. Christ's historical death, burial and resurrection is the gospel.
But there were cultic leaders at Corinth that believed and taught that there was no resurrection. The whole chapter is devoted to reasons why this is a false teaching.
Reason #1: There were eye witnesses of Christ's resurrection (15:5-7);
Reason #2: If there is no resurrection, Christ has not risen (15:13, 16);
Reason #3: If there is no resurrection, Paul's preaching is in vain (15:14);
Reason #4: If there is no resurrection, their faith was in vain (15:14);
Reason #5: If there is no resurrection, Paul and the other apostles were false witnesses (15:15);
Reason #6: If there is no resurrection, the Corinthian Christians were still lost in their sins (15:17);
Reason #7: If there is no resurrection, all who have died trusting Christ have perished (15:18).
In verses 20-28, Paul explains that Christ has been raised. He is the "firstfruits" of all that will be raised and that all "enemies" including death have been subjected and conquered by Christ.
Then in verse 29, Paul points out a further reason that the resurrection is real. He says: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" The apostle is pointing out an inconsistency in the practice of these false teachers. Apparently, they did not believe that the dead would rise (15:12), but they practiced proxy baptism for the dead. If the dead do not rise, why did they baptize them after death? It was a contradiction.
By carefully noticing the pronouns, one can see who was actually practicing baptism for the dead. Paul says, "...what shall they do which are baptized for the dead... why are they then baptized for the dead?" Paul did not say, "Why are you (Corinthian Christians) then baptized for the dead?" He did not say, "Why are we (the followers of Christ) then baptized for the dead?" He did not say, "Why then am I (Paul himself) then baptized for the dead?" He was asking, in effect, why these false teachers, who did not even believe in the resurrection, would want to baptize for the dead if the dead do not rise at all.
As pointed out in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, edited by Colin Brown: "The practice (baptism for the dead) could hardly be reconciled with the Pauline proclamation, and was cited by Paul as part of the polemic: people who deny the resurrection for the dead ought not to get baptized for the dead!" (Vol. 1, p. 147).
Baptism for the Dead and the Book of Mormon
A further problem arises with the doctrine of baptism for the dead when the Book of Mormon is examined.
The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that the Book of Mormon contains: "...the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also," (Section 20:9) It also teaches that "...this most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel (is) namely the baptism for the dead," (Doctrine and Covenants 128:17).
Although baptism for the dead is "the most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel," and the Book of Mormon contains the "fullness of the gospel," baptism for the dead cannot be found in the Book of Mormon.
Another problem with baptism for the dead teaching is that the theology taught in the Book of Mormon does not allow for this doctrine. In Alma 34:34, 35, the Book of Mormon teaches that:
"Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis (death), that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
"For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked," (emphasis mine).
Finally, a vital companion doctrine to baptism for the dead is the practice of genealogy, or tracing one's "roots" to determine the names of dead relatives. This is practiced in Mormonism so that those dead ancestors can have temple works performed by proxy (see Mormon Doctrine, p. 308).
The Bible soundly condemns the practice of genealogy for religious purposes (1 Timothy 1:4 and Titus 3:9). The Bible teaches that there are no opportunities for salvation after death. Any doctrine that teaches otherwise is both false and dangerous. As Hebrews 9:27 proclaims: "...it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."