Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Biblical Practice of Praying for the Dead

All Souls Day, Jakub Shikaneder, 1888

This post seeks to present the biblical evidences behind the custom of offering prayer to God on behalf of the departed. The evidence that the early Christian Church practiced it is old indeed, direct historical and archaeological testimony existent by the mid second century (see: here), hence the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have maintained it. Yet, the idea became controversial in light of the Protestant Reformation, with most churches descending from the tradition of the reformers dismissing it as anti-biblical. Therefore, presenting a Scriptural framework to reference in establishing and developing the concept proves useful. This post will provide positive, even if sometimes implicit, evidence which supports the ancient custom.


The first verses which demonstrate any sort of prayer for the dead go as far back into the Bible as the first and second books of Samuel, where David and his company can be seen fasting on account of death of Saul and his household.

1 Samuel 31:11-13
But when the inhabitants of Ja’besh-gil’ead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan; and they came to Jabesh and burnt them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
2 Samuel 1:11-12
Then David took hold of his clothes, and rent them; and so did all the men who were with him; and they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
From what we know about fasting as a Biblical practice, it can be a means of prayer and petition to God. This is demonstrable from many passages and does not need to be proved (cf. 2 Sam 12:16; Daniel 10:3; Esther 4:16; Ezra 8:21; Acts 14:23). These words from Samuel clearly say that the fasting done by David was done for those who had been slain. Ergo, David is praying for the dead. Admittedly, these passages do not extrapolate as to what are the benefits the deceased might receive through fasting, but that any sort of religious action is taken up on their account is certainly present.

2 Maccabees 12:29-45

The passages from Samuel observe a practice of praying for the dead, but they do not describe as to what end. The most obvious and clearest instance of it is from 2nd Maccabees.
On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.
Upon discovering that slain soldiers were in possession of idolatrous items, Judas Maccabeus and his army explicitly do two things on behalf of the dead: [1] they made supplication in prayer to God and [2] they actually collect silver as to provide for a sin offering to be sacrificed in Jerusalem on account of their sin. The intentions of these actions were that God would remit and forgive the sin of those who had fallen, so that, in view of the resurrection of the dead, they might share in the reward of godliness. In other words, the living pray and make sacrifice on behalf the dead, so that the sin of those who died would not be reckoned unto them at the resurrection, and thus not prevented them from experiencing the bliss of the afterlife.

[Albeit, Protestants don't formally recognize 2nd Maccabees as inspired Scripture. If one does not wish to receive this as Holy Writ, one can at least receive it as historical witness to prayer for the dead, as it demonstrates the custom existed in ancient Judaism. It is potentially able to shed light and give meaning to the practices which precede it and follow it.]


1 Corinthians 15:29

In this passage, Paul weighs in on the issue is in his observance of a strange case in the early church.
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
Whether or not Paul was actually condoning the peculiar practice of being baptized on behalf of the dead (traditional church discipline would testify that he's not), the principle behind such an action is easily identifiable; it is a form of prayer for those who have departed from this life. And Paul points to the practice as a mean of validating that there is in fact a resurrection -- if there were not, the hope of those being baptized on behalf of the dead is unfounded, as there will be nothing for the dead towards which the baptism will avail them.

Also, notice how this phrasing somewhat mirrors that of the passage from 2nd Maccabees:

  • "For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead." (2 Mac 12:43)
  • "If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?" (1 Cor 15:29)

2 Timothy 1:16-18

In this second Pauline passage which is relevant to the subject, Paul is not commenting on prayers made for the dead; rather, he is making them himself.
May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiph’orus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me — may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day — and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.
Pay attention to the details of Paul's words concerning Onesiph'orus:
  1. Paul recalls the man's good deeds as past events: ("...he often refreshed me, he was not ashamed of my chains... all the service he rendered at Ephesus.")
  2. Paul wishes peace upon the family in the present ("grant mercy to the household of Onesiph'orus...")
  3. Paul prays that Onesiph'orus would find mercy on the Day of Judgment ("may the Lord grant him to find mercy.. on that Day.")
As the data suggests, the most natural reading of the passage indicates that the father of the household, Onesiph'orus, had passed away (as is remarked and acknowledged by several learned Protestant commentators.) Is it not natural to remember the good a man has done in his lifetime? Is it not customary to send peace and good wishes upon those who've lost someone in their family? And as Paul solemnly writes, "May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on the day" he is thus praying for one numbered among the dead.

What does this practice of praying for the dead imply? If the soul of the deceased person prayed for is already at rest in paradise, there is certainly no need of any intercession from the living. If their soul is already sentenced to eternal punishment, there is no good able to be granted to them. Thus, the ancient Christian custom of praying for God's mercy upon the departed implicitly acknowledges something of a purgatory; not merely assuming one's purity before God and that one has no need of mercy or pardon upon exiting this life, prayers are made for the dead, that any hindrance not yet wholly blotted out in this life might be done away with before the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. If there is any remittance, any refinement, any purification, any chastisement which takes place after death but before the consummation of the age, then the basic principles of a purgatory are admitted and prayers for such souls are quite the justifiable, and the charitable, practice. (This is also a large reason as to why Protestant Christians tend to reject the practice.)