Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Neglected Passages #7: Looking Out for the Dead

Thanks to Sally Stewart for the suggestion. We're talking about four passages that discuss early Christian concern for the dead: 1 Corinthians 15:29;1 Peter 3:18-22; 4:6; and Revelation 20:13.

Here's 1 Corinthians 15:29, as translated by Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 760-61).
  • Now, if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
According to Fee, Paul's reference here is part of an ad hominem argument. He knows that some of the Corinthians are in fact undergoing vicarious baptism on behalf of dead persons, he rejects that belief outright, and he uses that practice against them in his argument for a future resurrection of the saints (763-67). Fee's argument rests on the assumption that Paul could not have approved of vicarious baptism, since Paul understands salvation as coming by grace through faith. That is, Paul believed salvation involved the faith of a believer, something one cannot offer on behalf of another person.

Fee's argument makes sense to me, but we should add a couple of qualifications. First, Paul does not explicitly reject vicarious baptism for the dead; we must infer his condemnation of the practice on the basis of more general considerations. Second, it appears some of the Corinthians were engaged in such a practice. Given the widespread concern for the fate of the dead in ancient Judiasm and Christianity (not to mention ancient Mediterranean religion generally), how do we know the Corinthians were an isolated case?

Let's consider a possibly relevant text from the early second century, the Apocalypse of Peter (as cited and translated by Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, 232).
  • Then I will grant to my called and elect one whomsoever they request from me, out of the punishment. And I will give them [i.e. those for whom the elect pray a fine baptism in salvation from the Acherousian Lake. (14:1)
Does the Apocalypse of Peter envision deceased Christians praying on behalf of the damned, resulting in their post-mortem baptism? Bauckham isn't sure, but he "wonders" about how Apocalypse of Peter 14:1 might relate to 1 Corinthians 15:29.

Now what about 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6? These passages surely lie beneath the clause in the Apostles' Creed: "he descended into hell." Eugene Boring helpfully summarizes the most common views of this passage (1 Peter, 136-37).
  • The passage teaches that between his death and resurrection, Jesus preached to the lost souls in the world of the dead, giving them a "second chance" at salvation. Origen advocated this view.
  • Augustine taught that the preexistent Spirit of Christ preached through Noah to the wicked generation destroyed in the flood. This is what 1 Peter 4:6 indicates, referring to their "spiritually dead" state.
  • The passage alludes to the "Watchers," the angelic beings who ravished mortal women. First Enoch and Jubilees, extremely popular Jewish texts of the period, understand Genesis 6:1-4 as teaching that angels ("Watchers") sinned by taking mortal women for themselves and through that act corrupted humankind. As a result, the Watchers are bound and imprisoned. Our passage refers to "the spirits in prison" who "did not obey . . . in the days of Noah."
The simplest solution is to believe that both 3:18-22 and 4:6 refer to the same idea, that the dead who preceded the time of Jesus received an opportunity to hear the gospel from him. (Boring does not share this view.) However, the references to "spirits in prison" and "the days of Noah" strongly suggest that the 3:18-22 relates to angelic and spiritual beings while 4:6 relates to mortals.

Finally, Revelation 20:13 is part of a description of the great judgment. Here we find that "the sea gave up the dead in it, and death and hades gave up the dead in them." The concept of the underworld giving up the dead to face judgment may seem familiar to us, but why the sea? As Bauckham points out, many people in the ancient world were concerned about how our bodies relate to the afterlife. If I lose a limb, do I get it back in the resurrection? Here, the question involves those who die at sea. Never properly buried, how do they face the resurrection? The answer: in the end, even the sea gives back its dead. (See pp. 269-89 in The Fate of the Dead.)


Reverend Ref + said...

I was addressing almost this very thing in a recent post, but for a different reason.

In that post, I was discussing why the LDS aren't Christian. One of the things I mentioned was their baptism for the dead. In the post, I said this:

They've bastardized 1 Cor. 15:29. In this chapter, Paul is talking about resurrection. The overall context of the chapter is that resurrection is a fact: Jesus was resurrected and those who believe will be resurrected. In v. 29, Paul talks about baptism "for the dead" (NIV), or "on behalf of the dead" (NRSV). What Paul is doing here is arguing for resurrection. This is along the lines of, "If there's no resurrection, why bother being baptized?" But the LDS has ignored the context of the entire chapter and v. 29 as a support for resurrection and turned the word "for" into an imperative, thereby changing the meaning of this verse into a requirement for postmortem baptism -- D&C 128:18.

Not sure if this is germane to what you are discussing, or even if I'm making theological sense, but there it is.

After reading your post, I'm wondering how the Corinthian vicarious baptisms differ from the LDS practicing of postmortem baptism? Or is there one?

site said...

The guy is definitely right, and there's no question.