Praying for the Dead

By Wayne Jackson

Since the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, our nation has been plunged into a deeply “religious” mood. The parallel of this “praying posture” has not been observed in our beloved America since Pearl Harbor was bombed — almost sixty years ago. This disposition is encouraging; and one, we hope, that will not be short-lived.

Our hearts cannot but anguish with those who are suffering such soul-tearing losses. Some children have lost one or both parents; husbands and wives have been robbed of loving mates; others will never see brother or sister again. To describe these separations as “painful” is an egregious understatement. The caring soul is wholly sympathetic to the tears of damaged family members.

It is most difficult to be critical of sincere people in a time of such distress. But we must, with genuine compassion, call attention to a glaring error that has manifested itself repeatedly — and occasionally on the part of Christians who ought to know better.

Not infrequently of late, the public has been encouraged to “pray for those whose lives were lost, and for their families.” For those grieving families — yes. Certainly so. For the dead, no. Is this a heartless admonition? It is not. It is spiritual reality. No one should entertain the illusion that someone may be able to pray for him, effecting some beneficial result, after he is dead.

While it is natural to have the inclination to pray in times of acute distress, the only thing one really knows about the parameters of valid prayer is that which is revealed in the Bible. The Scriptures constitute the only legitimate prayer manual. And there is ample evidence in that sacred volume that prayers for the dead are not only futile, the practice is antagonistic to certain aspects of divine truth — in spite of the fact that this pagan practice is common in certain circles of “Christendom.” For example, Roman Catholic theology allows for prayers both to the dead, and on behalf of them. But reflect upon the following points.

  1. Even Catholic authorities concede that there is no explicit authorization for prayers on behalf of the dead in the sixty-six books of canonical Scripture. Roman authorities appeal to the Apocrypha (2 Macabees 12:46), church tradition (late second century and onward), the decree of the Council of Trent (Session xxv), etc., but there is no valid biblical defense to be made for the practice (see Donald Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary, New York: Macmillan, 1961, p. 137). It is only from a few passages, not relevant to the issue, that unwarranted inferences are drawn.
  2. The Scriptures teach that those who have yielded to the Savior’s will (Heb. 5:8-9), enter directly and immediately into the presence of the Lord (Lk. 23:43; Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:6,8). What need, then, do they have for the prayers of people upon the earth?
  3. In the parable of the virgins (Mt. 25:1ff), there is the clear lesson that after those “virgins” went to “sleep” (v. 5 – signifying death; cf. Dan. 12:2; 1 Thes. 4:13ff), there was no further opportunity for preparation (the “door was shut” v. 10). The lesson then is taught that only those who had made adequate, personal preparation would meet the “bridegroom” in that condition. The implications of this illustration are firmly opposed to the notion of praying for the dead.
  4. When Jesus related the details regarding the selfish rich man, and the righteous beggar, Lazarus, (Lk. 16:19ff), he affirmed that a “great gulf” stood between the abode of the unrighteous and the righteous (v. 26). This “gulf” is permanently “fixed” (this is the force of the perfect tense verb), and there is no crossing from one side to the other. How, therefore, could prayers from the living alter the destiny of the lost?
  5. “. . . [I]t is appointed to men once to die, and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). There is no indication that a change in one’s spiritual condition can be made following his death — either by himself, or through the efforts of others.
  6. If it is useless to pray for the living, who are committing “sin unto death” (1 Jn. 5:16), i.e., sin continued — without seeking relief in conformity to God’s law of pardon, how could prayer for those who are dead already avail — since there is no post-mortem plan of salvation?

And so, while we truly sympathize with those who have lost dear ones, we would do well to be reminded of the biblical admonition — “. . . behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). While this language, in context, refers to the gospel age as a whole, the phraseology is not inappropriate for the individual who, in an unprepared condition, faces that inevitable enemy — death (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:26; Heb. 9:27).

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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.