Q&A: 1 Corinthians 15:29

by Aaron

Can you explain I Corinthians 15:29? It was used at a funeral service that I attended over the weekend and I'd never heard it before.

I have to wonder, were you at a Mormon funeral? Mormon's have a practice of baptizing themselves and others for those who have died. The Mormon Church has claimed this verse as the reason they do so (1 Corinthians 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?).
In the practice people will go to their Mormon temple, appropriately dressed, and adopt the name of a person who has died and then be baptized for that person. There are numerous records of people having been baptized for Princess Diana, Barak Obama's mother, Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter), Elvis, Adolph Hitler, Gandhi, Anne Frank, and even Pope John Paul II. Mormon teenagers have been baptized for Shakespeare and Einstein as well. Mormons do this because they believe baptism is part of the requirements for salvation and now these people can enjoy extra spiritual benefits in the afterlife.
But, and you probably know this is coming, the Mormons are incorrect because that is not what this verse is stating. We must always be those who take the scriptures in context. 
In Verses 1-19 of 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is recounting the facts of the resurrection, the reality that it happened and the hope that it gives us. In verses 20-23 Paul speaks about the order of the resurrection:

  • Christ was first, raised in a glorified body
  • Next will be those who are His at His return

Verses 24-29 talk about Christ's return and His destruction of death.
Paul is making an argument about the resurrection and how essential it is for believers to understand and believe. North of the city of Corinth was a city named Eleusis where a pagan religion practiced baptism for dead people (though not with the same connotations as Christian baptisms, obviously) to guarantee a good afterlife. The Corinthians were always being swayed back and forth by other religions (much as people in America are today); they were in the center of an economic world power that a large mass of foreign people frequented. The Corinthians would have been fully aware, and possibly influenced by, the practices at Eleusis.
One the arguments that people made against Christianity (as they do today) is that Jesus didn't rise, and so our own personal hope of a resurrection in Him is worthless. So in one verse Paul not only calls the practice of being baptized for the dead useless, but says if the "dead are not raised why also are they immersed on behalf of them." (Literally the Greek text should be translated as THEY). He is NOT saying "we" are baptized for the dead, he is saying the detractors and those who oppose the message of the gospel are being baptized for the dead and it would be stupid to be baptized for the dead and not believe in a resurrection.
Read all of 1 Corinthians 15 in context (at least verses 1-29) and it will make a lot more sense. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…