“Step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. Step on a line, you break your mother’s spine.” The picture is grotesque, but to me, as a child, it was nothing more than a game. I would walk down the sidewalk, chanting the words to myself, avoiding all the cracks and lines — obeying the superstitious belief that if I stepped on one, some kind of bad luck would follow.
Like I said, it was only a game; I never believed for a moment that anything bad would happen. And other superstitious behaviors and beliefs may be similar. For example, Thanksgiving is coming up; are you going to save the wishbone? That, too, can be just a game. But if we think about it, we probably have a habit or two that we do “just because” or “just in case” — something that seems harmless but that we keep doing just in case the superstition is true.
As we have seen in a series of recent posts, the apostle Paul has been trying to convince the Corinthians of the foolishness of their disbelief in the resurrection of believers. In a much debated passage from 1 Corinthians 15, his argument takes a seemingly odd turn:
Otherwise, what are those who are getting baptized for the dead doing? If the dead aren’t raised, then why are they being baptized for them? (1 Cor 15:29, CEB)
The problem, of course, is that no one today knows exactly what was going on; speculation abounds. The most common interpretation is that friends or family members of some Corinthian believers had died before coming to Christ or being baptized. The survivors were being baptized vicariously on their behalf, with some idea that this would be of benefit to them.
If this is the case, then it’s curious that Paul doesn’t denounce the practice as just so much superstitious hocus pocus. But his purpose here is to convince them that the behavior makes no sense. What good is any of this, he seems to say, if the dead are not raised? They’re dead and gone; they have no future. What’s the point?
Strictly speaking, such an argument succeeds only at showing that baptism for the dead, to the extent that it makes any sense at all, assumes that death is not the final word. The argument doesn’t demonstrate that resurrection is the necessary result. But no matter. It’s enough for Paul to get in a rhetorical wedge, indeed, one more in a series of wedges.
All of this raises an important question for believers in all places and times. How much of what we believe is held superstitiously? Did the Corinthians really believe that baptism for the dead would be beneficial somehow? Perhaps. But I can just as easily imagine them doing it “just in case,” without a thought as to the theological implications of doing so.
More problematic still: did their dis-belief in the resurrection have a similar quality? Did they come to that “conclusion” as a way of balancing out a variety of personal concerns, without realizing the implications?
Beliefs, wherever they come from, have consequences. We’ll examine some of those consequences in coming posts.