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What are we to pray for the dead?


The ultimate question we come to today is perhaps the most unusual of all those I received from the congregation: What are we to pray for the dead? I say unusual because most Protestants traditionally do not believe in praying for the dead. And yet, I think there are arguments for it.

My thinking on this subject has been guided by my literary mentor, C. S. Lewis. The last book that Lewis wrote before his death was entitled Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. In that book, Lewis has a fictitious friend and correspondent, Malcolm, to whom he writes letters on various subjects, but mostly about prayer. In Letter XX Lewis responds to Malcolm’s question about whether or not he prays for the dead. Here is Lewis’ answer:

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him?

On the traditional Protestant view, all the dead are damned or saved. If they are damned, prayer for them is useless. If they are saved, it is equally useless. God has already done all for them. What more should we ask?

But don’t we believe that God has already done and is already doing all that He can for the living? What more should we ask? Yet we are told to ask.

“Yes,” it will be answered, “but the living are still on the road. Further trials, developments, possibilities of error, await them. But the saved have been made perfect. They have finished the course. To pray for them presupposes that progress and difficulty are still possible.”[1]

Lewis goes on to admit that he believes progress and difficulty arestill possible in the afterlife. Therefore, our prayers for the dead may be helpful.

But what does Scripture have to say about this?

One Scripture that touches on this is I Corinthians 15:29, where Paul says, 

Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Now, this is admittedly a tantalizing little comment on Paul’s part because we do not know anything about the practice of people being baptized for the dead in Paul’s time. Be that as it may, the verse raises the legitimate question: “If people can be baptized for the dead, then why can’t we pray for the dead too?”

Another Scripture that touches on this is I Peter 3:18-20 where Peter says,

For Christ also suffered[d] for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you[e] to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

This passage raises a similar question. If Jesus could preach to the spirits in prison (the dead), then why can’t we pray for them? 

One traditional Protestant answer is that we should not pray for the dead or ask for their prayers because Scripture does not explicitly instruct us to do so. But by that reasoning there might be any number of things we shouldn’t do because Scripture does not give us instruction about it. For example, Scripture does not command us to make announcements in our worship services, but we do it anyway. Personally, I take the view that if Scripture does not restrict us from doing something, then it is allowed.

The question of praying for the dead is also related to the question: do we believe in the communion of the saints? For centuries, Christians all over the world have confessed their faith using the form of the Apostles’ Creed, where we say: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

In 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul states to whom he is writing his letter…

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord[a] and ours:

Paul doesn’t use the word “communion” in this place, but he does use the word “saints”. He says that the Corinthian Christians are called to be holy, or called to be saints, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours. In other words, there is a togetherness of the people of God, a common union among all the saints, by virtue of our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, there are two aspects to this communion. We have fellowship with saints below and saints above. That is to say, when we come to faith in Jesus Christ and become his followers, there is a mystical union, not only between believers here on earth, but also with those believers who have already gone on to be with the Lord.

The writer to the Hebrews says, 

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly[a]of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

What does this have to do with praying for the dead? Well, if we believe in the communion of saints, and if that means communion with saints both living and dead, then why can’t we pray for the dead as well as the living? After all, the dead are still alive to God.

The one Scripture that talks about praying for the dead most directly is from the Apocrypha, 2 Maccabees 12:42. In that passage, some Jewish soldiers are preparing the bodies of their slain comrades for burial when they find on these dead bodies certain amulets taken from a pagan temple. This was a violation of the law given in Deuteronomy. So, it says that the living Jews, “turning to prayer, asked that this sin might be entirely blotted out.” 

But the story does not end there. Reading on we find that…

The noble Judas [that is the military hero Judas Maccabeus, Judas the Hammer] called on the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened to the fallen because of their sin. He levied a contribution from each man and sent the total of two thousand silver drachmas to Jerusalem for a sin-offering—a fit and proper act in which he took due account of the resurrection. For if he had not been expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been foolish and superfluous to pray for the dead. But since he had in view the wonderful reward reserved for those who die a godly death, his purpose was a holy and pious one. And this was why he offered an atoning sacrifice to free the dead from their sin. (2 Maccabees 12:42-45)

Thus, we see that the practice of praying for the dead was not unknown to the Jews who lived one hundred and sixty years before Jesus.

One more Scripture that may refer to praying for the dead is in the New Testament, 2 Timothy 1:16-18. There Paul says,

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains; 17 when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly[c] searched for me and found me 18 —may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus.

Bible scholars are divided over whether these verses contain a reference to praying for the dead or not. However, it seems to me that Paul, as a Jew, was, as William Barclay has said, “brought up in a way of belief which saw in prayers for the dead, not a hateful, but a lovely thing.” Barclay goes on to say, “This is a subject on which there has been long and bitter dispute; but this one thing we can and must say—if we love a person with all our hearts, and if the remembrance of that person is never absent from our minds and memories, then, whatever the intellect of the theologian may say about it, the instinct of the heart is to remember such a one in prayer, whether he is in this or in any other world.”

If Barclay’s surmise about Paul is correct, then we do indeed have in 2 Timothy 1:18 an example of what we should pray for the dead. “May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day!”

Paul’s prayer is very much like the prayer that has been called The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer, which is especially popular among Orthodox Christians, finds its Scriptural roots in stories like that of blind Bartimaeus who cries out in Mark 10:46, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”In fact, we see prayers like this throughout the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures.

But there are two differences to note between Paul’s prayer and the Jesus Prayer. One is that Paul is not praying for himself, but rather that God would grant mercy to someone else, namely, Onesiphorus. Secondly, Paul prays that the Lord will grant mercy to Onesiphorus “on that day”.

What “day” is Paul talking about? Paul uses this same expression in 2 Timothy 1:12 where he says, “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”

And then in 2 Timothy 4:8 Paul says, “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Thus, it is clear that Paul is talking about “The Day of the Lord” which, in its biblical expression, includes the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgment. Paul is praying that Onesiphorus will find mercy from the Lord on the Day of the Lord, the Day of Final Judgment.

What better prayer could there be for us to pray for anyone, living or dead, than that? “May the Lord grant that he, or she, will find mercy from the Lord on that day.”

That prayer is 15 words in English. It is 12 words in Greek. But in a pinch, you can shorten that prayer, just as many shorten the Jesus Prayer, to three words. You can pray either, “Lord have mercy,” or “Christ have mercy.” In fact, in Greek, that shortened form is just two words: “Κύριε, λέησον” or “Χριστέ λέησον”.

However, you say it, I think it is the best prayer we can pray for ourselves, for others, for the living, and for the dead.

Let us pray…

Father,

Grant that each of us, and our loved ones whom we name before you now, would find mercy from you on that day… [Silence]


In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.


[1]C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, pp. 107-108.

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