This is an intriguing and difficult passage, for which several different theories suggest what it means. For example:
- Some regard the words “the dead” is equivalent to or means “the resurrection of the dead” with baptism verifying belief in the doctrine of the resurrection.
- Some believe that Paul spoke of a cult practice he did not endorse, but that it nevertheless showed their belief in resurrection.
- Some seem to think more on the line of a baptism of persecution, trial, and death.
Most of the different views are “harmless,” and support the theme Paul was elucidating – resurrection. On the other hand, the Mormon Church has finessed “baptism for the dead” into a major ordinance, an important part of their faith and practice. They have their members baptized by proxy for long-dead people who were not Mormons, in order to “save” them. There is no such practice in the New Testament.
It is best to understand this verse in its context of resurrection (the theme of 1 Corinthians 15), and in light of other texts that connect baptism, death, and resurrection. New Testament believers are never baptized for the benefit of others who are physically dead. Baptism (immersion) is a portrait of death, burial, and resurrection. Romans 6:4 says, “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” There were are baptized “into death.” In Colossians 2:12 we are “buried with him in baptism” and “also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.” If there is no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen (1 Corinthians 15:13). “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (v. 14). Therefore, too with our baptism. It is practiced in vain if there is no resurrection of the one who is dead. “Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished” (v. 18). To be “baptized for the dead” is for our death to sin in Christ, and representing his resurrection and in hope of our own. If the dead rise not at all, what shall we do? Shall we continue with a form that is meaningless in what it pictures and to what it points?