The practice of being baptized for those who have died is based upon a wrong understanding of I Corinthians 15:29.
The inspired New Testament Church did not follow this practice, and the apostle Paul did not teach it. This custom was introduced into the professing Christian world about A.D. 150 by Marcion, a man who created his own religion and established his own church in Rome in A.D. 144. The Bible clearly shows that before a person may be baptized, he must first repent (Acts 2:38) and believe (Mark 16:16; Acts 16:31, 33). The dead are not able to repent or believe, because “the dead know not any thing” (Eccl. 9:5).
Baptism is for the living. Baptism is a symbol whereby the living acknowledge their sins, figuratively die with Christ in a watery grave, and rise out of that watery grave to live a new (righteous) life through Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:4; 8:9; Gal. 2:20). 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 Christ now, to crucify the self now, to be baptized — all this is foolish unless there is a resurrection of the dead. If there were no hope of the resurrection, life could be summed up this way: “Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.” Please compare I Corinthians 15:32. I Corinthians 15:29 now becomes clear.
The subject of the entire 15th chapter is the RESURRECTION. Paul cites the example of those who were baptized as one proof of the resurrection. Their actions symbolized their hope that they would live again. The resurrection is THE HOPE OF THE DEAD. “Why were they baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not?” seems to be Paul’s question in the King James Version. But, this verse is not correctly translated from the original inspired Greek. Paul is not talking about being baptized “in the place of” the dead, or “on behalf of” the dead, or “for” the dead.
The Greek word translated “for” is HUPER. This word has several meanings and can be translated “above,” “over,” “instead of,” “for the realization of,” or “for the hope of,” depending upon the context in which it is used. Notice the following example. Paul declared, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). The Greek word translated “of” in this verse is HUPER, the same word used in I Corinthians 15:29. In Philippians 2:13, HUPER cannot mean “instead of.” It would be senseless to say, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do INSTEAD OF His good pleasure”! Correctly translated, this verse says, “God worketh in you both to will and to do FOR THE REALIZATION OF His good pleasure.”
This is the translation given in “The Analytical Greek Lexicon”. What is God’s “good pleasure”? “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” declared Jesus (Luke 12:32). God works in us “in the hope of” giving us His Kingdom! Thus, the Greek word HUPER in I Corinthians 15:29, according to the context, should be translated “for the hope of.”
Notice the verse again: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the hope of the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the hope of the dead?. What is the hope of the dead? It is the resurrection! Paul is writing about baptism; baptism illustrates the hope of the resurrection. Baptism — arising out of a watery grave — is a symbol of the hope of the dead, which is the hope of the resurrection. This verse, then, has nothing to do with the false doctrine of baptism on behalf of the unbaptized dead.