Why does Paul refer to people baptising on behalf of the dead in 1 Cor. 15:29?
Paul was using the logical argument form known as argumentum ad hominem—an argument based on what men were doing (or believed) at that time and with which the readers would be familiar (read examples of argumentum ad hominem in Wiki). The Corinthians were familiar with people who practiced baptism for the benefit of the dead. He refers to them as “they” as opposed to “us” which he uses in the next verse. This tactic refers to what people were doing (without implying endorsement) to make a valid spiritual point –
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? And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?
This was evidently a practice that was going on – Paul does not endorse it- he uses it as evidence that people believed in the resurrection. He’s making the point that people (“they” the other ones – not “us” which he uses in the next verse) were doing this strange thing (see commentary by Chrysostom below) because at least they believe in the resurrection. Jesus used an ad hominem argument -Matthew 12:27 “And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out?”
Paul makes the point that there is a resurrection – even the people baptising on behalf of the dead know it. The point is not baptising on behalf of the dead, or endorsing those who do – but that there IS a resurrection and people are so convinced of it they want their dead friends baptised too. They were probably convinced having seen Jesus raised or knowing someone who did.
Chrysostom (347-407 CE) referred to this practice of being baptised on behalf of dead people
“He takes in hand again another topic, establishing what he said at one time from what God doeth, and at another from the very things which they practice. And this also is no small plea for the defence of any cause when a man brings forward the gainsayers themselves as witnessing by their own actions what he affirms. What then is that which he means? Or will ye that I should first mention how they who are infected with the Marcionite heresy pervert this expression? And I know indeed that I shall excite much laughter; nevertheless, even on this account most of all I will mention it that you may the more completely avoid this disease: viz., when any Catechumen departs among them, having concealed the living man under the couch of the dead, they approach the corpse and talk with him, and ask him if he wishes to receive baptism; then when he makes no answer, he that is concealed underneath saith in his stead that of course he should wish to be baptized; and so they baptize him instead of the departed, like men jesting upon the stage. So great power hath the devil over the souls of careless sinners. Then being called to account, they allege this expression, saying that even the Apostle hath said, “They who are baptized for the dead.” Seest thou their extreme ridiculousness? Is it meet then to answer these things? I trow not; unless it were necessary to discourse with madmen of what they in their frenzy utter. But that none of the more exceedingly simple folk may be led captive, one must needs submit to answer even these men. As thus, if this was Paul’s meaning wherefore did God threaten him that is not baptized? For it is impossible that any should not be baptized henceforth, this being once devised: and besides, the fault no longer lies with the dead, but with the living.”
When one passage in isolation refers to a strange custom it is not reason to adopt it. It is reason to compare it with other scripture to see what is “ALSO WRITTEN”. There are many passages which say that one must repent and believe before being baptised. Dead people can’t repent or believe, it’s too late.
Luke 13:3 – Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish
Mark 16:16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
Understanding also precedes baptism Acts 8:30 “Do you understand what you are reading?”
Conclusion: The context of 1 Cor. 15 needs to be understood. Paul is not endorsing those who were baptising on behalf of the dead. He refers to them to strengthen his argument that people are convinced of the resurrection.