The Bible says that after death comes the judgement of God (Hebrews 9:27). A person does not have to wait in order to see whether he can go to heaven (Luke 23:43). God’s decision is immediate; nothing that happens after death can change it (Luke 16:26).
So clearly, Paul cannot mean that someone can save a dead person from hell by means of baptism. In fact, baptism cannot even save someone who is still alive. There is only one way that God saves people. It is when they trust God to save them because of Christ’s death. Baptism is a ceremony with water to show that a person has done that.
It is difficult to know what Paul means by the phrase ‘baptism for dead people’. Clearly, Paul understood it himself. If we were sure about the correct meaning, we might translate the phrase differently. People have many different opinions. However, I will only explain what I consider to be the most likely explanations.
A person accepts baptism because he believes certain important facts. Paul reminded the Christians in Corinth about those facts in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. So, the person accepts baptism for those beliefs. They include the belief that dead Christians will live again (15:12). So, the person has accepted baptism because of his belief about dead people. If that belief was wrong, then the person became a Christian in vain. His decision to trust Christ achieved nothing.
Another explanation is that baptism here is actually a word-picture for danger and death, as in Mark 10:39. If that is correct, then the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is the same as the meaning of the next few verses. We will study what those verses mean in our next article.
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© 2014, Keith Simons.