The Truth about Baptism by Proxy
Paul wrote thus to the Corinthians: "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?" (I Cor. 15: 29). This verse is the proof verse for such religions as Mormonism that practice proxy baptism, the living being baptized for one who is deceased. Baptism by proxy usually involves on the part of the practitioners the elaborate keeping of ancestry records, they want all their deceased relatives to be saved. Also of some interest, the advocates of vicarious baptism usually believe in the essentiality of water baptism (see "Water Baptism" in the subject index on the Archives page).
Does I Corinthians 15: 29 teach proxy baptism? In the first place, the living being baptized for the physically dead is no where commanded or exemplified as being acceptable to God. All the actual examples of people being baptized in the book of Acts and all the associated teaching in the New Testament involved living people being baptized for the remission of their sins (Acts 2: 14-41; 8: 26-40; Rom. 6, etc., see "Salvation" in the subject index).
In the second place, the plan of salvation for the lost is totally designed for the living, responsible person. Every requirement necessitates a response from the living: belief, repentance, confession; baptism (Jn. 8: 24; Acts 17: 30, 31; Rom. 10: 9, 19; Acts 2: 38). To baptize by substitution denies and eliminates the free moral agency and individual responsibility God has assigned to each individual (Jn. 7: 17, 3: 16). Why was not the rich man told when he requested relief, that one of his relatives could later be baptized for him and he could then pass over to bliss? Why is the hadean world presented as fixed and irreversible, if by proxy baptism the fate of the dead can be changed? (Lk. 16: 19-31.) Besides, if the living can arbitrarily and against the will of the dead by their own actions change the status of the dead from lost to saved, why can not the living by their own actions (a renunciation of Christianity) change the status of the dead from saved to lost? If not, why not?
I Corinthians 15: 29 is admittedly a difficult verse (cp. 2 Pet. 3: 16). The verse is couched in the setting of teaching regarding the resurrection, Jesus' and the glorious resurrection of the saints (vss. 4-58). Some at Corinth were actually teaching, "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (vs. 12.) Paul labors at length to prove not only the error of this false teaching, but the utter futility and hopelessness of the doctrine "there is no resurrection of the dead" (vs. 13-20). Death is universal, Paul injects, and hence all men are affected by the resurrection (vs. 22). Death will also continue until Jesus comes again (vss. 24-28). It is into this environment that Paul inserted, "else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead ."
One explanation regarding the apparent reference to proxy baptism is, "Yes, Paul mentions proxy baptism but does not take time to address or condemn it." He simply appeals to those who held the view of substitutionary baptism from the standpoint of the resurrection, his main subject, it is further explained. (See the addendum.) If this is the case, Paul used similar tactics in Acts 23: 6-9 involving the Sadducees and Pharisees.
Many other explanations of I Corinthians 15: 29 treat either "dead" and/or "baptized" as figurative or spiritual (some of these views are forced and unnatural). A further explanation is simply, "all Christians were baptized with a view to death (associated judgment, eternal bliss, etc.) and what shall they ("we") do if there is no resurrection? (see vs. 30 and vss. 12-19.)
Whatever understanding we have of I Corinthians 15: 29, we must not view the verse as teaching vicarious baptism. At the absolute most, I Corinthians 15: 29 may be referring to an unauthorized practice among some of baptism by substitution (the challenge inherent in this explanation is "justifying" Paul's oblique and passing reference). For sure, vicarious baptism contradicts every relevant teaching and example regarding water baptism and, therefore, must not even be viewed as a tenable explanation for "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead ?"
Addendum: Baptism by proxy would have to have been extant, if we accept this explanation. Reference to proxy baptism, though, is found later among Cerinthians (Epiph., "Haer.," xxviii. 7) and Marcionites (Tertullian, "De Resurrect.," 48; "Adv. Marc.," v. 10).