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?
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)
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."
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.)