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?
(1 Corinthians 15:29 ESV)
This is one of the verses in scripture which boggle the mind. In the early church they really believed what the Apostles taught about Baptism being a means of the Spirit unto salvation. Tradition has it that a family which converted to Christianity would have a dead person who did not convert Baptized so he or she could be saved. This is conjecture so we do not have any evidence that this was the case.
Now that we have the completed canon of scripture what do we do with this verse?
First we look at the close context and see St Paul is proclaiming how Christ has all power over all things. He is referring to a practice not advocating Baptizing one's deceased loved ones. It is interesting that he only reports this but does not condemn it.
This is spoken by a man who is being persecuted to those who face persecution. When things go this way it is difficult to understand how Christ is therefore victorious. The resurrection is our comfort during times of persecution and also times of illness while shuffling towards our last breath. What wonderful peace this truth gives!
We also see that in the further context:
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
(Romans 3:28 ESV)
We would see that it is Baptism connected with faith which receives the justification. This is not saying that we need wait until a child is old enough to confess Christ. But a person knowing and trusting in the promises contained in Baptism that it saves through the resurrection of Christ has a firm certainty of salvation.
After considering the close and further context it still seems a strange and mysterious verse. It is said that Martin Luther referred to the medieval custom of removal of your hat out of respect for the verse being the word of God. We do not have to totally come to understand strange scriptures forever twisting, conjecturing and troubling ourselves and others with it.
Scripture is true. Have some trouble with a passage? Remove your hat, keep reading and live in the peace scripture offers.
In the name of Jesus. Amen. †