Question: Why do Mormons practice baptism for the dead, and does the practice have any foundation in Scripture?
Much more important than any current or past practice built upon this verse is what the verse itself actually says and what it actually means, as best as can be determined from the evidence of the passage in its context.
1. 1Corinthians 15:29 is the only verse anywhere in the entire Bible that refers to a ‘baptism for the dead.’ However, this verse does not teach a baptism for the dead. This is a narrative reference, not a tutorial statement or doctrinal statement. What’s more, the apostle Paul uses this phrase in the form of a rhetorical question. Doctrine cannot be legitimately based upon a question.
2. The context of the verse is all about the resurrection of the dead. Specifically, Paul is refuting those who say there is no resurrection of the dead by demonstrating how illogical such a belief is for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ. He uses a series of “if” / “then” arguments, such as ‘if there is no resurrection then you are still dead in your sins’ (17). He uses this same “if” / “then” argument in verse 29: “if there is no resurrection…” then “…what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” The answer? There would be no baptism for the dead if there is no resurrection.
What does that imply for doctrine? Paul is simply making the logical point that if there is no resurrection then the practice of baptism itself would be meaningless.
3. A fundamental rule of biblical interpretation is that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture.’ The Bible consistently and exclusively teaches that a person is baptized as an outward sign of repentance for his or her own sins. Nowhere does the Bible ever teach any form of proxy baptism (i.e., being baptized on behalf of someone else), as for example, taught by Mormonism.
Acts 2:38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
4. Finally, the phrase “baptized for the dead” would be more accurately translated “baptized with reference to [the resurrection] from the dead.” The word “for” in our English Bibles translates the Greek word “huper.” Normally this would be translated “for,” but it can also be translated “with reference to” when the context requires it, as is the case here. Since Paul’s entire discussion in chapter 15 is focused on the resurrection of the dead, it is the resurrection of the dead that he has in view in verse 29.
• Verse 29 does not teach baptism on behalf of those who have died.
• No doctrine should ever be established on the weight of one Bible verse, all the more so a verse that is a question and that teaches no doctrinal truth.
• The context of the verse is about the resurrection, not about baptism for the dead.
• Proxy baptism is contrary to the entire Biblical doctrine of baptism.
• The wording in the Greek NT of the verse itself is consistent with the context of 1 Corinthians 15, and with the biblical teaching of baptism as a personal response to God’s saving grace.