By Richard D. Draper. Material adapted from Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, BYU Studies, 2010).
“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?”
Because of its implications on theology and particularly soteriology, this verse has generated a large amount of scholarly research, interpretations, and debate, especially outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The concept of baptism for the dead simply does not align with mainstream Christian theology. But Christians cannot just ignore it. Their problem is, in part, that Paul refers to a practice that is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible and, therefore, cannot be elucidated. And further, he does not explicitly condemn it, suggesting it was among the accepted Christian practices. Such a practice does go against certain aspects of Christian dogma but the rub is that it does not make sense for Paul to use a practice that he would consider heretical in order to support sound doctrine. The problem has forced some theologians and scholars to insist that this practice must really refer to something besides proxy baptisms. This insistence has resulted in a plethora of different interpretations passed down from various authorities, but in every instance, these scholars must violate the clear meaning of the text. For this reason, a number of scholars agree that those who “are baptized for the dead” were actually performing vicarious work in their behalf. As one non-LDS scholar noted, “This reading [that the verse refers to vicarious baptisms] is such a plain understanding of the Greek text that no one would ever have imagined the various alternatives were it not for the difficulties involved.” Another scholar noted, “The explanation of vicarious or proxy baptism remains the most plausible, even though its meaning is not fully clear.”
Thus, the biblical text is clear that some kind of work for the dead was going on among the early Saints. This fact, however, tells the reader nothing about precisely who was doing it and how it was done, but it does tell us why—in anticipation of a corporeal resurrection. Indeed, this verse as serves as a rejoinder to the Christian heresy circulating at the time that baptism with the bestowing of the Holy Ghost was the resurrection because it raised the recipient to a newness of life.
The Apostle’s point is that the practice of vicarious work for the dead makes no sense at all if there is no resurrection. The third-person plural “they” suggests that the practice was not being done at that time in Corinth. That Paul briefly mentions it shows, however, that it was well-known to them. “Paul was not writing to them about a new doctrine,” noted Elder Orson Pratt, “but about one which they understood and practiced, and he tried to prove to them the nature of the resurrection and that such a principle as the resurrection was true, from the very fact that they were practicing baptism for those who were dead, in order that they might receive a more glorious resurrection.”
As one LDS scholar noted, “There is some evidence, in addition to the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:29, that proxy baptism for the dead was practiced among and by early Christians. Indeed, in the iconography, in the typology, and in the baptismal instruction of the early church fathers one may discern at least two different sorts of initiation: one through water baptism, and the other through certain initiatory oblations and anointings and baptism for the dead. . . . That men and women are privileged to ‘go through’ each and all of the patterns and ordinances for and in behalf of their deceased families and others is unusual in contemporary religious practice. But, again, the proxy and representational ideas are not at the periphery of early Jewish and Christian practice; they are at the core.”
 Gordan D. Fee, First Epistle of the Corinthians [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 764.
 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008), 580.
 Journal of Discourses, 16:297.
 Truman G. Madsen, “The Temple and the Restoration,” in Temple in Antiquity: Ancient Records and Modern Perspectives, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 12.
See also Hugh Nibley, Mormonism and Early Christianity, vol. 4 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: F.A.R.M.S., 1987), 100–167; and for a non-LDS study see Bernard Foschini, “‘Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead’: 1 Cor 15:29,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 12 (1950): 260–76, 379–88; 13 (1951): 46–78, 172–98, 276–83.