Baptized for the Dead


When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will
 also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that
 God may be all in all. Otherwise, what will people accomplish by having
themselves baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why
are they having themselves baptized for them?
1 Corinthians 15, 28-29

When Paul writes that the Church is baptizing "for" or on behalf of the dead, he uses the Greek preposition hyper (πρ) which may be translated to mean "for the sake of" or "for the benefit of" the dead in Christ who await the redemption of their bodies on the last day. Paul isn't admonishing the Christian community at Corinth for this traditional practice, so he must have also believed that the celebration of the sacrament - perhaps the general prayers and penitential works involved - assisted the faithfully departed souls. If these souls were already in Heaven, they wouldn’t need to be benefited from their prayers, and if they were in Hell, they couldn't possibly gain any benefit from them. So, where might these departed souls who can benefit from the celebration of baptism among the living be? The Catholic answer is in an intermediate state between Heaven and Hell, namely Purgatory.

And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again receives her. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and
said to her in a dream: Mother, thou shalt have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she
may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the just.
Acts of Paul and Thecla
(A.D. 160)

They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are
hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble
Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what
had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his
soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an
expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the
resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been
useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that
awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.
Second Book of Maccabees 12, 41-45

Both the Corinthians and Judas perform a ritual by taking the resurrection of the faithfully departed into account. The author of the OT text says that it would have been "useless and foolish" of Judas Maccabeus to perform the sacrificial sin offering on behalf of the godly dead if there were no hope in the resurrection. Following the same train of thought, Paul asks: "If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they having themselves baptized for them?" The apostle probably had this Maccabean passage in mind when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians. He is affirming that baptism on behalf of the dead would be superfluous only if there were no resurrection on the last day, notwithstanding Christ's eternal atonement for sin. Temporal atonement is left for the faithful to make. Moreover, we should note that in Maccabees 12, God is referred to as a judge. The context of the above passage is God's judgment and the remission of sin: the full blotting out of sinful deeds and freedom from all temporal debt of sin and its residual effects by appeasing divine justice.

“Without delay, on that very night, this was shown to me in a vision. I saw Dinocrates going out from
a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a
filthy countenance and pallid colour, and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This
Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age? Who died miserably with
disease…But I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every
day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in the camp-show. Then
was the birth-day of Gets Caesar, and I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning
and weeping that he might be granted to me. Then, on the day on which we remained in fetters, this
was shown to me. I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright;
and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment. And where there had been a
wound, I saw a scar; and that pool which I had before seen, I saw now with its margin lowered even to
the boy’s navel. And one drew water from the pool incessantly, and upon its brink was a goblet filled
with water; and Dinocrates drew near and began to drink from it, and the goblet did not fail. And
when he was satisfied, he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children,
and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.”
The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitias, 2:3-4
(A.D. 202)

"Make friends quickly with your accuser while you are going with him
to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard,
and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you
have paid the last penny."

Matthew 5, 25-26

Our Lord is teaching us about the particular judgment of sinners at the moment of death and the temporal consequence and penalty of sin: prison or a place of detainment until full restitution is made. This debtor's prison is a metaphor for purgatory. And by "accuser" Jesus means Satan. The Greek word for the accuser, or more literally “opponent”, is antidikos (ἀντίδικος), which is also used by Peter in his First Letter 5:8-9: "Your adversary (ἀντίδικος) the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him steadfast in the faith." Satan prowls around to ruin our souls with the added touch of accusing us of sin before God (Zech 3:1; Job 1:6-12). 

To restore the equity of justice between God and us, because of the times we have failed to resist the devil, we must personally atone for our sins and make temporal satisfaction to God by accepting and enduring temporal punishment for the cleansing of our tarnished souls. At our particular death we do go to court with our accuser, and so what Jesus means by saying we should make friends with him before we face our judge is that we should settle all scores we have with the devil by resisting him and renouncing all his empty promises in this life so that he can make no accusation against us as we stand before God.

Our time in the debtors' prison depends on all unsettled scores; sins that have been forgiven through our repentance and by acts of contrition but, nonetheless, still require temporal satisfaction to be made on our part by further acts of penance to remove the residual stain of sin on our souls. Indeed, the debt of sin can be remitted only by having to do penance for it. Doing acts of penance, whose pain and loss counterbalances the sinful pleasures one is heartily sorry for, completes the temporal redemptive process. Christ did not suffer and die so that we should no longer owe God what is His rightful due for having offended His sovereign dignity (Mt 5:17; Job 42:6; Lam 2:14; Ezek 18:21; Jer 31:19; Rom 2:4; Rev 2:5, etc.). If this were so, then there would be no need for us even to repent, besides doing penance. Our Lord and Saviour ultimately made eternal expiation for sin on behalf of all humanity. However, we cannot reap the fruit of his merits unless we make temporal expiation for our own personal sins in union with his temporal and thereby eternal satisfaction.

This is from Jesus himself: "No, I say to you: but unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish" (Lk 13:3); "Bring forth, therefore, fruit worthy of penance" (Mt 3:8). True repentance for the forgiveness of sin calls for fruit worthy of our act of contrition. For instance, our outward acts (alms-giving/fasting) must conform to our inner disposition or spiritual reality (charity/temperance) to off-set our vices and sins (greed/gluttony) which have been forgiven by the act of repentance pending full temporal restitution. We are temporally consigned to purgatory if we have any outstanding debts to pay when we die.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.
Psalm 51, 1-4

Temporally, we are still indebted to God for our offenses against Him and are required to make restitution for the remittance of our debts. The purpose of satisfaction is to repair the offense offered to God and make Him favorable to us again. An act of reparation can be satisfactory to God only if there is something painful and sacrificial about it. This is what is meant by commutative justice, that virtue whose object is to render to every one what belongs to him. When we sin against God, we deny Him what He is supremely entitled to, viz., our love and obedience. So, saying sorry isn’t enough to restore a balance of equity in our relationship with God. This requires that we show our love for God which we have denied Him by making it up to God, so to speak. By accepting our sufferings or making personal sacrifices and offering them to God our "spiritual worship" as means of reparation for our offenses against Him, equity is restored, as the pain or loss counters the vain pleasure of selfish gain which is the object of our sins.

Pain and suffering have no spiritual and redemptive value if divorced from repentance. Repentance is incomplete if the temporal debt of sin remains in the balance. God forgave David for his mortal sins of murder and adultery after he sincerely repented with a contrite heart and broken spirit, which rendered his prescribed sin offering worthy. But to completely offset his transgressions and restore equity of justice, God took the life of the child David conceived in his act of adultery with Bathsheba for having murdered her husband Uriah: an innocent life for an innocent life, or an eye for an eye. And God also permitted the rape of David's wives for his act of adultery (2 Sam 12:9-10, 14, 18-19). Only then could David's broken relationship with God be fully amended, provided he accepted his pain and loss as a cleansing temporal punishment for his sins and purgation of them to restore the equity of justice in his relationship with God. This peace and reconciliation with God were achieved in view of the foreseen merits of Christ in his sacred humanity and in union with them.

Purgatory, therefore, isn't a medieval invention of the Catholic Church. The ancient Jews, Paul, and Jesus acknowledged its existence. Extant documents of the early Church Fathers provide testimony to the ancient Catholic belief in this transitional state after death for the faithful departed. Thus, it's very important for us to offer up sacrifices and prayers for the dead for the sake of releasing them from prison as soon as possible by helping them pay the last penny since they can no longer merit redeeming grace for themselves. 

Meanwhile, the poor souls in purgatory are offering up their sufferings and prayers for our spiritual benefit. They can thereby merit the actual graces we need to help maintain the equity of justice between us and God in our lives so that we might be judged worthy to go straight to heaven upon death.

Early Sacred Tradition

“Accordingly the believer, through great discipline, divesting himself of the passions, passes to the
mansion which is better than the former one, viz., to the greatest torment, taking with him the
characteristic of repentance from the sins he has committed after baptism. He is tortured then still
more–not yet or not quite attaining what he sees others to have acquired. Besides, he is also
ashamed of his transgressions. The greatest torments, indeed, are assigned to the believer. For
God’s righteousness is good, and His goodness is righteous. And though the punishments cease in
the course of the completion of the expiation and purification of each one, yet those have very
great and permanent grief who are found worthy of the other fold, on account of not being along
with those that have been glorified through righteousness.”
St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 6:14
(post A.D. 202)

“[T]hat allegory of the Lord which is extremely clear and simple in its meaning, and ought to be
from the first understood in its plain and natural sense…Then, again, should you be disposed to
apply the term ‘adversary’ to the devil, you are advised by the (Lord’s) injunction, while you are
in the way with him, ‘to make even with him such a compact as may be deemed compatible with the
requirements of your true faith. Now the compact you have made respecting him is to renounce
him, and his pomp, and his angels. Such is your agreement in this matter. Now the friendly
understanding you will have to carry out must arise from your observance of the compact: you
must never think of getting back any of the things which you have abjured, and have restored to
him, lest he should summon you as a fraudulent man, and a transgressor of your agreement, before
God the Judge (for in this light do we read of him, in another passage, as ‘the accuser of the
brethren,’ or saints, where reference is made to the actual practice of legal prosecution); and lest
this Judge deliver you over to the angel who is to execute the sentence, and he commit you to the
prison of hell, out of which there will be no dismissal until the smallest even of your delinquencies
be paid off in the period before the resurrection. What can be a more fitting sense than this? What
a truer interpretation?”
Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, 35
(A.D. 210)

“For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (1
Cor.,3); but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated
from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile
the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no
reward for your gold and silver and precious stones; neither is this just. It remains then that you
be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can
comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but
what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys
the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works.”
Origen, Homilies on Jeremias, PG 13:445, 448
( A.D. 244)

“For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace is given. Yet virginity is
not therefore deficient in the Church, nor does the glorious design of continence languish through
the sins of others. The Church, crowned with so many virgins, flourishes; and chastity and
modesty preserve the tenor of their glory. Nor is the vigour of continence broken down because
repentance and pardon are facilitated to the adulterer. It is one thing to stand for pardon, another
thing to attain to glory: it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has
paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is
one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to
have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God
at the day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord.”
St. Cyprian of Carthage
To Antonianus, Epistle 51 (55):20
(A.D. 253)

“Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets,
Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition. Then
on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of
all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the
souls, for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth.
And I wish to persuade you by an illustration. For I know that many say, what is a soul profited,
which departs from this world either with sins, or without sins, if it be commemorated in the
prayer? For if a king were to banish certain who had given him of-fence, and then those who
belong to them should weave a crown and offer it to him on behalf of those under punishment,
would he not grant a remission of their penalties? In the same way we, when we offer to Him our
supplications for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners, weave no crown, but offer
up Christ sacrificed for our sins, propitiating our merciful God for them as well as for ourselves.”
Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 23:9,10
(c. A.D. 350)

“The servant who knows the master's will and does not get ready
or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.
But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment
will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much,
much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much,
much more will be asked.”

Luke 12, 47-48

Pax vobiscum