Baptizing in Proxy for the Dead
After establishing the doctrine of resurrection and how God intends to save all men and put all things under Christ’s feet, Paul makes an odd statement in 1 Cor. 15:29-32,
29 Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?
Paul’s use of the word “otherwise” links it to the previous passage: “that God may be all in all. Otherwise…” In other words, the reason people were being baptized for (hyper, “on behalf of”) the dead is to implement part of the overall plan to put all things under His feet.
This assumes that death is not as much of a deadline that some believe it to be. If baptizing in proxy for the dead could not benefit the dead in some way, then there would be no point in doing it.
Whatever they were doing, it is clear first that the dead were not lost forever. The dead overcomers were to be raised first, the rest of the dead later. But those who died in unbelief would have to await the final Jubilee before returning to the inheritance that was lost when Adam sinned. This is the order of full salvation, and when all of God’s creation has been reconciled to Christ, then and only then is the divine plan for this universe complete.
In view of the fact that even the unbelieving dead will be saved in the end, Paul and others believed that something could yet be done on their behalf. Believers living on the earth could be baptized on behalf of the dead unbelievers. By extension, people could also pray for the dead, for baptism may be thought of as a form of prayer, a petition for citizenship made before the divine court.
Baptism is a legal act in the divine court, performed as a result and expression of one’s faith. Through baptism a mortal is registered in the records of heaven as immortal, having passed from death unto life (Rom. 6:3-5). Hence, baptism is always on behalf of the dead, including those who are yet alive on earth. These are the living dead.
Most baptisms today are performed on behalf of the one being baptized. But in 1 Cor. 15:29 he was extending this principle to those who had already died. People were being baptized in proxy for the dead, because the dead were in no position to be baptized in person.
Technically, when a person is baptized, having faith in Christ, the divine court issues a death certificate for the old man and a birth certificate for the New Creation Man. It is the formal “paperwork” which reflects a change in one’s legal (or spiritual) status and gives someone citizenship.
I believe that in the future, when immigrants desire citizenship in the Kingdom of God, they will be questioned to see if they truly have faith in King Jesus. If they exhibit faith, then they will be instructed on the symbolic meaning of baptism. Then they will be formally baptized, giving them recognition as full citizens of the Kingdom.
The main barrier which appears to prevent the restoration of all things and the salvation of all men is the fact that most people live and die without having faith in Christ. Having no faith, these were not baptized during their time on earth. Must they await their summons to the Great White Throne before they can become citizens? Must they remain unbelievers until every knee bows and until every tongue professes that Jesus Christ is Lord?
Is there nothing that can be done for the dead prior to the time of judgment?
Paul says that God will be “all in all” and that all of the dead will be raised—because IF NOT, then why are believers being baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised, then there would be no point in being baptized on their behalf.
This line of reasoning seems to come out of nowhere and is not mentioned in any other passage. Yet Paul says this as if everyone in the Corinthian church knew precisely what he meant. He treats it as if it were common knowledge, so he does not explain it further.
Can Death Separate us From God?
Because baptism gives the old man a death certificate and the new man a birth certificate, its legal implications are far reaching. Baptism does not involve literal death but is instead a legal death. Once raised to “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), social status is eliminated, along with racial and gender distinctions (Gal. 3:28). This applies only to the new man, of course, because the old man of flesh continues to maintain all distinctions that it had prior to baptism.
Yet insofar as one’s new citizenship is concerned, baptism is the great unifier, and this unity does not end when the old man finally dies and is put into the grave. The fellowship (communion, “common union”) supersedes death, for Paul says in Rom. 8:35-39,
35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? … 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The love of God in Christ is greater than death; therefore, death has no power to separate us, either from Christ Himself or from each other as His body.
During the years of history, this body of Christ has continued to grow, and the fellowship has increased accordingly. Yet the body of Christ is very incomplete as long as the majority of mankind yet remains separated from this fellowship. The purpose of resurrection and summoning them to the Great White Throne is to bring them too into fellowship—once they have bowed the knee and confessed their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
In view of this future conversion, there is no reason why we, as believers, cannot be baptized for them. The biggest objection comes from those who mistakenly think death is a deadline for salvation. They do not think that any sinner who has died can be rehabilitated, but that he is stuck forever in his unbelief. They derive this belief mainly from Heb. 9:27,
27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.
The verse was speaking primarily of Jesus Christ. Jesus only had to die “once.” He was “offered once to bear the sins of many.” The point being made is that no one has to die more than once. After this comes “judgment,” because judgment is God’s way of restoring all men to Himself so that God may be all in all. So we read that Christ “shall appear a second time for salvation,” that is, to fulfill the purpose given to Him when He was named Yeshua (Jesus). His name means “salvation.”
To really understand this verse, one must know the purpose of divine judgment and the fact that its purpose is to restore by discipline and correction—not to destroy them. In other words, there is salvation beyond the grave. There is “hope beyond hell,” as Gerry Bauchemin would say in his excellent book by that title.
The author of Hebrews was explaining the outworking of the New Covenant, which he presented in Hebrews 8. In no way does Heb. 9:27 negate the New Covenant, where God took an oath to save all of mankind and restore the whole earth. So no one can properly use Heb. 9:27 to say that there is no salvation beyond death. Neither can one say that baptism has no benefit for the dead. Death is not a deadline for salvation.
Baptism is into Christ, Not the Church
If someone is baptized in proxy for the dead, he is baptized into Christ—not into a church denomination. Paul writes in Rom. 6:3,
3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?
The church is not an earthly organization, nor is it a building that has a steeple. People do not “go to church;” the church goes to a building to meet with other members of the church body. When a denomination has “church membership,” it only signifies that one is recognized by men in that organization as a believer in Christ.
The Greek word for church is ekklesia, which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word kahal, “congregation, assembly.” It refers to those who are called out to assemble somewhere else. We translate this into English as “church.” The church is the people, not the organization or the building where they meet.
The church is best defined in Heb. 12:22, 23,
22 But you have come to Mount Zion [Sion] and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.
The church consists of those “who are enrolled in heaven.” It does not refer to those who are enrolled in a denomination on earth. There is no “true church” organization here on earth, though many lay claim to this exclusive title. In fact, those who base their status with God on their position of good standing in an earthly organization are in danger of misplacing their faith.
The church denomination did not die for our sins, nor did any of them redeem us from the slavery of sin. Hence, the denomination (or ministry) has no right to claim a baptized believer as their servant. Men are only stewards giving instructions, pointing to Jesus. Men are but clerks recording the transfer of the title deed. The baptized believer used to be the slave of sin (Rom. 7:14) but now has been purchased (or redeemed) by the blood of Jesus Christ. Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:23,
23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.
When men baptize others into their own ministry or denomination, expecting to increase their slave membership, they usurp the property of Christ. Such baptism is a perversion. The one being baptized may have faith in Christ, but he often ends up being a slave to men.
This is the spirit of denominationalism that has characterized the church age since the time of Paul, who did his best to combat this spirit. Paul did not want the believers to be divided up among Cephas, Apollos, or Paul himself, as if the believers were the slaves of men.
Here again we must learn the lesson from King Saul. The people wanted a man to rule them. They rejected God’s rule (1 Sam. 8:7). Saul is a type of denominational church. He sought servants to serve him, and he was a “taker” (1 Sam. 8:11-18). Samuel told the people clearly what manner of king they would have. Saul became a king who usurped the throne and the people of Israel.
God is the Creator. A creator owns what he creates. God did not give man sovereignty. Though He gave the Israelite families a piece of His land as their inheritance, God always claimed ownership over the land (Lev. 25:23). The Israelites were only stewards of God’s land.
As the Creator, God is sovereign. Sovereigns own. Man has been given authority. Authority stewards what others own.
Saul apparently was of the opinion that he owned Israel. That was his concept of a king. His concept of kingship was the same as other kings on earth, because the people had demanded “a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). God granted their wish, but His answer to prayer became a judgment and a curse to them.
Saul’s life prophesied of the church in the Pentecostal Age from the day of Pentecost until modern times. Once again, denominations have been formed which misuse the authority God has given them. They often follow the pattern of King Saul, not understanding the biblical definition of “church.”
Because of this, many denominations baptize believers with the idea that these believers are now servants or slaves of their organization which they call “the church.” No, these believers belong to God. Ministers are stewards of that which God owns. The church is bigger than denominational membership.
With that in mind, we can see that all baptism is to be performed by a steward, not by one who claims ownership of the believer. This principle is true whether a living person is baptized for his own benefit or in proxy for one who is dead.
Baptism dedicates a person to God, not to the church or to the baptizer or to the one standing in proxy for the dead.
Mormon Baptism for the Dead
The Mormons revived the practice of baptizing for the dead in the 1830’s. Their purpose was not to purchase slaves for Jesus Christ but for their own future kingdoms. They believe that if they are baptized in proxy for the dead, they can increase their kingdom when they become gods in their own right. Essentially, they are practicing an extreme form of the spirit of King Saul.
So important is this to them even today that they expend vast amounts of energy putting together genealogical tables in order to identify more potential slaves for their future kingdom.
When they find one, someone stands in proxy for that dead person and is baptized for him or her in a Mormon temple. They believe that such baptism is only valid if done in a Mormon temple, because that dead person is then confirmed as a member of the Mormon religion. The dead person specifically becomes part of the household of the one being physically baptized on his behalf.
Baptism itself is a biblical doctrine, but like all truths, it can be abused in practice. Most church denominations abuse it by using it to obtain their own servants in the name of Jesus. Most limit their scope to the living. The Mormons, on the other hand, go beyond this by laying claim to the dead as well, baptizing them into the Mormon organization and enslaving them to men. Their claims are invalid, of course, because even as God redeemed Israel from the bondage of men in Egypt, so also did Christ redeem us by His blood from the bondage of men in the world. Thus, He owns us and therefore is responsible to save us.
The problem that we face is that only once does Paul mention baptism on behalf of the dead. He gives a few hints, but very few details. He taught it to the church in person, but he gives us no practical instructions in writing.
A single witness gives the facts in a case, but it requires two or three witnesses to confirm it. We only have a single witness here, so to some extent we are left in a state of limbo.
For that reason, many have rejected Paul’s statement. But one cannot reject even a single witness without rejecting a portion of the living word. One commentator claims that Paul was speaking of some Greek cult, rather than Christian practice. But that view is strained, in view of the fact that Paul does not condemn the practice in any way.
Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:29 tells us that if there is no resurrection, then baptism on behalf of the dead is useless and pointless. He treats such baptism as if it is normal. Remember that Paul was answering Chloe’s letter, and it is apparent that baptizing for the dead was already understood. Only resurrection was controversial.
Because we have only one witness as to the validity of baptism for the dead, we can only assume, for the moment, that baptism for the dead has validity. If so, how should it be practiced today? Should we baptize in proxy for the dead? If we were to do so, we should baptize people into Christ, rather than into a denomination. We ought to seek to increase the number of Christ’s slaves/servants, rather than increasing the size of the kingdoms of men.
Must the Dead be Conscious?
Baptism for the dead does not depend upon whether or not the dead are conscious. But it seems as though it is better to think that the living cannot impose the benefits of baptism upon an unwilling subject. According to the law of baptism in Lev. 14:1-7, no one was to be baptized unless they came to the priest for inspection. If the person had been healed of leprosy, then the priest baptized him. If leprosy remained, then the priest was not to baptize him.
If the dead have no conscious existence on any level, then they cannot consent to their baptism. Baptism for the dead first requires that the dead be conscious on some level and that somehow he has received the word of truth that has brought him to a place of faith which makes him eligible for baptism.
The biggest hurdle in such a case is that the baptizer must have the spiritual discernment to know if the dead candidate for baptism has faith or not. That obviously requires spiritual discernment.
In the days of Moses, it was relatively easy to see if a leper had been healed, making him an acceptable candidate for baptism (Lev. 14:1-7). When ministers today baptize the living, it is a bit harder—but not impossible—to discern the heart of the candidate for baptism and to see evidence of faith.
But to discern evidence of faith in the dead is far more difficult, because it is not likely that anyone can see the dead or know his condition.
In all of this, there should be no attempt to speak to the dead or to gain knowledge from them directly, for that would be a violation of the law in Deut. 18:10, 11. Only God or an angel (messenger) is empowered to speak to the dead and instruct him in the truth. Baptism for the dead must be done in the divine court and thereby conducted according to His laws and instructions.
Hence, it goes without saying that not many would be qualified to baptize for the dead. To engage in such proxy baptism would be unusual at best. Perhaps that is why God gives us only a single witness in regard to baptizing for the dead.