Did Paul Pray for the Dead?

By Wayne Jackson

“Does Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:18) provide Bible authority for praying for the dead?”

Some have sought to argue this position. Roman Catholic theologians frequently appeal to the text in an attempt to establish their case for praying on behalf of the dead. Regrettably, even some Protestants have yielded to this position, in spite of a total lack of solid evidence for the case, and in spite of evidence which is decidedly against it.

First, the following article, from The Catholic Encyclopedia (online) presents an authoritative position regarding the matter.

“In his Second Epistle to Timothy (i, 16-18; iv, 19) St. Paul speaks of Onesiphorus in a way that seems obviously to imply that the latter was already dead: ‘The Lord give mercy to the house of Onesiphorus’ — as to a family in need of consolation. Then, after mention of loyal services rendered by him to the imprisoned Apostle at Rome, comes the prayer for Onesiphorus himself, ‘The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day’ (the day of judgment); finally, in the salutation, ‘the household of Onesiphorus’ is mentioned once more, without mention of the man himself. The question is, what had become of him? Was he dead, as one would naturally infer from what St. Paul writes? Or had he for any other cause become separated permanently from his family, so that prayer for them should take account of present needs while prayers for him looked forward to the day of judgment? Or could it be that he was still at Rome when the Apostle wrote, or gone elsewhere for a prolonged absence from home? The first is by far the easiest and most natural hypothesis; and if it be admitted, we have here an instance of prayer by the Apostle for the soul of a deceased benefactor” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04653a.htm).

The Text

In 2 Timothy 1, there is a form of prayer on behalf of the family of Onesiphorus (v. 16). Subsequently, in verse 18, the apostle prays for Onesiphorus himself. He petitions the Lord that this brother might “find mercy” in “that day,” which obviously is the day of Judgment.

Because the verbs regarding the brother are all in the past tense, and since only his family is alluded to later in 4:19, some have assumed that Onesiphorus was dead (White, p. 159; Fee, p. 237; Kelly, p. 171). The latter argues that this reflects a New Testament example of prayer on behalf of the dead. N.J.D. White also contended that the apocryphal 2 Maccabees (12:44-45) would allow an orthodox Jew to pray for the dead (p. 159). Fee is more cautious.

In response, this must be noted.

  1. There is no concrete evidence at all that Onesiphorus was dead. The arguments for his demise are all based upon inferences, none of which are “necessary.”
  2. That his actions are spoken of in the past tense is perfectly understandable since he was no longer in Rome (17a).
  3. The fact that Paul did not mention him in 4:19, in sending greetings to those in Ephesus, is not troubling — if Onesiphorus himself was somewhere other than in Ephesus.
  4. The fact that Paul prayed for this brother is proof within itself that he was not dead, since there is not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that prayers for the dead are acceptable. Lenski is emphatic that the “analogy of Scripture” is against the idea of any Christian praying for the dead (p. 776). If the brother was dead, why did the apostle offer no word of comfort to the family? (Note: While some deny that this was a “prayer” (Mounce, p. 494), most scholars affirm that it is, and even Mounce later calls it a “wish prayer” (p. 496).
  5. The writers of the New Testament did not consider the apocryphal books as inspired and authoritative. Though they had access to them (since they were “bound up” with the Greek Old Testament), they never quoted from them; this is powerful evidence that they did not view them as in the same class with the Old Testament documents.
  6. If Onesiphorus, as a godly man, was dead, there would be no need to petition God for mercy on his behalf; he would have been a recipient of that mercy already.
  7. If the brother died as an apostate (of which there is no evidence), Paul’s prayer for “mercy” would be worthless inasmuch as mercy will be bestowed on the basis of one’s personal relationship with the Lord, not on that of another’s actions (Ezekiel 18:20; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Moreover, the wicked dead cannot leave their place of torment (Luke 16:26), and their punishment is “eternal” in duration (Matthew 25:46).

Accordingly, these texts in Paul’s second epistle to Timothy do not come remotely close to providing the coveted evidence for the validity of prayers for the dead.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Fee, Gordon. 1988. New International Biblical Commentary — 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus_. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Kelly, J. N. D. 1987. A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles — Timothy I & II, and Titus_. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Lenski, R. C. H. 1961. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, Thessalonians, to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon_. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
  • Mounce, William. 2000. Word Biblical Commentary — Pastoral Epistles. Nashville, TN: Word.
  • White, N. J. D. 1956. “The First and Second Epistles to Timothy and to Titus,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 4. W. Robertson Nicoll, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.