Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:29-34
Discussion Audio (58m)
The proof of a resurrected life in a Christian
is whether or not their lives contribute
to the improvement of lives around them.
In the heart of Essay Five Paul discusses aspects of the ethics of a Christian life. He utilizes ad hominem argumentation to demonstrate the absurdity that results if the Corinthian position is assumed to be true.
There are at least two issues as we deal with this passage. The first is that verse 29 (baptism for the dead) is one of the most unusual and difficult texts to interpret. I’ve read that there are anywhere from a couple of dozen to over two-hundred different interpretations that have been suggested for this verse. The second issue is that the specific problems and applications of ethics given are far removed from 21st century American life. How are we to take what Paul has written and understand it as something meaningful in our Christian lives?
The two most viable explanations (in my mind) that have been offered in regards to verse 29 both understand the “baptism for the dead” to NOT mean “someone being baptized vicariously on the behalf of someone who has died.” In the first explanation the “dead” refers to the physical body that symbolically “dies” during the baptism ritual.
So understood, a translation might read, "Otherwise [i.e., if there is not a future resurrection] what will those being baptized accomplish for the corpses? If corpses are not raised at all, why are they being baptized for them?" Here, in agreement with the Greek fathers, corpses refer to the bodies of the people being baptized. If in baptism one's body is immersed in water (dying and being buried with Christ) in hope of being united with Christ in a resurrection like his, if there is no future resurrection, then what is the point of the baptismal liturgy? The common Christian experience of baptism demands belief in a future resurrection.
The second explanation does mean the “dead” to refer to someone (e.g., a family member) who has died, but explains “baptized for the dead” to mean that the person being baptized is doing so (going through conversion) in the hope of becoming reunited with their loved ones at Christ’s return.
The absurdity Paul points out then is that if there is no (bodily) resurrection, as the Corinthians assert, then there is no point to baptism, because first, the ritual of baptism assumes a bodily resurrection. Second, if people are converting to Christianity in the hopes of becoming reunited with their dead loved ones, if there is no resurrection, there is no point in the conversion. Paul has already argued that if there is no bodily resurrection, there is no Christianity – it is all a lie. So the very act of going through baptism proclaims the reality of a future, bodily resurrection.
The next point is that the very fact that Paul and the apostles are willing to subject themselves to privations and sufferings is proof that the resurrection is fact. Paul argues that if it were not, why would he place himself in danger, face the reality of death every day, and do battle with “beasts”? (The “beasts” should be understood metaphorically as those who oppose Christian teachings.) It is because he believes in the gospel: the death, burial, and most of all, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If the resurrection is false or even merely metaphorical, then there is no hope. Sin and death have won the victory at the Cross. God has lost. Evil has triumphed over good. Self-centeredness has overcome self-sacrificing love. Jesus should have accepted Satan’s deal (at the Temptation). People should live each day doing their best to drown out despair and sorrow, because that’s all there is.
But the resurrection is true. Life has overcome Death. Love has overcome self-preservation. Good will triumph over all evil. God has won. This is the gospel. This is why Paul is able to endure and find joy, even when he is harassed and placed in danger and harmed.
Because Paul believes in the victory at the Resurrection, he is able to believe in the destruction of death at the end of time. Because Paul believes good will triumph over evil, he does not succumb to despair and hopelessness. Instead he works with all his might to bring the gospel and be an agent of hopeful change to all he reaches. He is willing to take on the character of God, in spite of all the problems and dangers that brings, to show the world what genuine strength looks like.
Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians is for them to live in the same way: to look out for the good of one another and to be agents of good in the present time. Resurrection has both present and future components. Redemption begins here and now. Christian life, eternal life, is not only about the future, but about the present; in fact, there is no future life if it does not being now, in this world, in this physical body.
Probably because most people have had such a difficult time knowing what to do with v.29, there has been a strange silence in the church with regard to this paragraph. Yet it stands as one of the more significant texts pointing to a genuine relationship between what one believes about the future and how one behaves in the present (c.f. 2 Pet. 2-3). This is not to say that the future is the only motivation for correct behavior, but it is to plead that it is a proper one because it ultimately has to do with the nature and character of God. We should be living in this world as those whose confidence in the final vindication of Christ through our own resurrection determines the present.
What kind of lives are we living today? Is it merely motions of Christian rituals? Or are we putting in our best efforts to improve the lives of all those around us?
 Reading the New Testament: Corinthians, entry for 1 Cor. 15:20-32.
 Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, quoting Thiselton; location 5319.
 New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, entry for 15:34.