False teachers, such as Joseph Smith, often take a phrase out of context and then force their own meaning into the passage. This phrase “being baptized on behalf of the dead” found in 1 Corinthians 15:29 has been made into a support for proxy baptism, which is an entire system of baptism unknown anywhere else in the Bible.
To understand the passage in question, Christians need to gain an understanding of the context by reading the surrounding passages. Notice how the conjunction ("Otherwise" or "Since" (Ἐπεὶ) 1 Corinthians 15:29) connects the passage to the previous section. The author intended a continuation of thought. The passage is stated as a question and Paul continues to make a further question and a statement (1 Corinthians 15:29-32). The passage in question cannot be understood separately from the context, and I think the context provides the meaning for the passage.
Let me summarize the context. 1 Corinthians 15 is known for its focus in the resurrection from the dead. The gospel is centralized in the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples, including Paul (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).
The issue with which Paul contends is there are those in the church who say, "there is no resurrection of the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:12), to which he responds in 1 Corinthians 15:12 to 34. Starting with the Gospel, Paul makes a few "if"/"then" arguments, beginning with the claim that "if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised." (1 Corinthians 15:13) By the means of reducing the stance to absurdity (reductio ad absurdum), Paul strongly argued that it is impossible to be a Christian and reject the resurrection.
Paul shifts his argument to the positive assertion "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:20). “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21–22). Paul says that all humans under Adam die in sin—spiritually dead (cf. Romans 5:12–17, Eph. 2:1-3). All in Jesus is "made alive.” (I will come back to this point). Jesus rules and reigns over all, so all things are in subjection under Jesus, and Jesus in submission to God the Father.
We now come to the selected passage, 1 Corinthians 15:29–31 (ESV): Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!
Note the statement is stated as a question, "Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:29 (NA28): Ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱβαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν;) The ESV translates the passage as "what do people mean by being Baptized on behalf of the dead?” The word ποιήσουσιν should be translated normally as "they will do," yet the wording is changed to "mean," suggesting the idea that some people have said this, but it is not what Paul affirms. In doing so, the translation takes the literal meaning of proxy baptism, but tries to shield Paul from it. The NET Bible translates the passage correctly as, “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?”
The confusion is not a problem due to translation or our inability to understand the words. Baptism is normally understood as what a person does in public recognition of his or her union with Christ. The person is alive making this public declaration and undergoes baptism for him or herself as one who is united with Christ. The confusion is over the combination of "baptized" and "in behalf of" or "for" "the dead." Proxy baptism contains two aspects which are entirely inconsistent with what we know about baptism, 1) a person is baptized in behalf of another person, 2) this other person already died. There are too many problems with proxy baptism for me to go into, and it would take me away from the point of this article.
If we take the words literally, proxy baptism would be the most superficial understanding of the text, however I don't think we should take this passage "literally". I understand this maybe taboo for some schools of thought, so please allow me to explain my claim.
With any unclear statements, we need to continue reading further to better understand the context. Paul immediately asked, "Why are we in danger every hour?" (1 Corinthians 15:30) How does this question follow from the passage before it? This question is not the only comment, as Paul is emotionally charged and insistent: "I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!" (1 Corinthians 15:31) Paul says he is putting himself in “danger every hour” and states “I die every day” right after saying “being baptized for the dead.” I take these points to be closely connected to the above "baptized for the dead". Given the greater context, I think Paul is referring to the "Baptism for the dead" as his continued risk in ministry.
Baptism is not always understood literally. This figurative use of the word “baptism” as facing death was used by Jesus, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50) Jesus was already baptized (Luke 3:21-22) when he said those words, and Jesus was not talking literally about a second baptism, but figuratively speaking about his crucifixion. Jesus also used "baptism" figuratively in his conversation with the two brothers who wanted to be on Jesus’ left and right. Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10:38-40) Again, Jesus was already baptized in Mark's account (Mark 1:9-11), and he was not talking about a second literal baptism. Jesus used the word "baptism" idiomatically speaking about facing death.
I think the church would have been familiar with Jesus’ use of "baptism" for facing death, and I think Paul was speaking figuratively in this context. It is quite reasonable to say that Paul was speaking hyperbolically when he said, "Why are we in danger every hour?" (1 Corinthians 15:30) I would assume that there were hours when Paul was not in danger. There should be no dispute to say that Paul was speaking figuratively when he said, "I die every day!" (1 Corinthians 15:31) To force a literal interpretation of Paul’s words here would be the most unnatural understanding of Paul’s words in this context. It stands to reason therefore that in this context, Paul is speaking figuratively, and therefore he could have been speaking of "baptism" figuratively as Jesus did.
We have seen that "baptism" is figuratively used to mean facing death, but what about "the dead" in the second half of that phrase— "on behalf of the dead"?
For whom was Paul risking his life? The text suggests he risks his life daily for the spiritually dead. We come back to the earlier context that all humans died in Adam, and all those in Jesus will be "made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22-23; cf. Ephesians 2:1-5) Paul faced death for the spiritually dead, so that God would give them spiritual life.
To undergo baptism figuratively suggests facing death. Thus, Paul's argument is that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then why does he undergo risking his life, as if he was undergoing baptism for the spiritually dead? His ministry is the proof that the dead are raised. In essence, Paul poses the question: “if there is no resurrection of the dead, why would I be risking my life for the spiritually dead?"
For Paul, suffering in ministry is closely connected with the suffering of Christ, as we read in 2 Timothy 2:10–13 (ESV): “Therefore, I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”
The reader's own resurrection from spiritual death to spiritual life is a foreshadowing of the physical resurrection that will come in the future. Due to this hope of the resurrection for those to whom he brings the gospel, Paul willingly endured the risk of life – baptism – everyday, so that God would make alive those who are spiritually dead.