The practice of being baptized for unconverted friends is founded on a misinterpretation of I Corinthians 15:29: “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?”
The inspired New Testament Church did not practice this custom, nor did the apostle Paul teach it. Baptism for the dead was introduced into the professing Christian world about 150 A.D. by the heretic Marcion.
Before a person may be baptized, he or she must first repent (Acts 2:38) and believe (Mark 16:16, Acts 16:31, 33). The dead are not able to repent or believe, they know nothing (Eccl. 9:56). The dead have no hope until the resurrection!
Baptism is for the living. It is a symbol whereby the living acknowledge their sins, figuratively die with Jesus Christ in a watery grave and rise in hope of a new life through Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:4).
Baptism is also a symbol of the resurrection. To rise up out of the watery grave is to acknowledge belief in the resurrection of the dead (Rom. 6). To surrender one’s life to God, to crucify the self, to be baptized - all this is foolish unless there is a resurrection. Paul said, “If the dead do not rise, lest us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (I Cor. 15:32).
Now we are ready to understand I Corinthians 15:29. The subject of the entire 15th chapter of I Corinthians is the resurrection. As one proof of the resurrection, Paul cites the example of those who are baptized to symbolize their hope in the resurrection. Why were they baptized if the dead don’t rise? But the verse is not correctly translated from the original inspired Greek. Paul is not talking about being baptized in place of the dead or on behalf of the dead or for the dead.
The Greek word translated “for” is huper. It has several meanings: “above, over, instead of, for the realization of, for the hope of.” The context determines the meaning of the word.
Turn to Philippians 2:13, Authorized Version, for example. Paul here declares, “It is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasures.” The Greek word translated “of” in this verse is huper, the same word used in I Corinthians 15:29.
And what is God’s “good pleasure”? “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” said Jesus (Luke 12:32). God works in us in the hope of giving us His Kingdom.
Now turn to I Corinthians 15:29. Here the Greek word huper is translated “for the hope of”: “Otherwise what will they do who are baptized for the hope of the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the hope of the dead?”
What is the hope of the dead? The resurrection! Paul is writing about baptism, which illustrates the hope of the resurrection. Baptism – arising out of a watery grave-- is a symbol of the hope of the dead, the hope of the resurrection. This verse has nothing to do with the false doctrine of baptism on behalf of the unbaptized dead.