Whenever someone we love dies — in old age or tragically before their prime — our hearts cannot but anguish with those who are suffering 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 separations like these 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, 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.
Praying For the Dead
While it is natural to have the inclination to pray in times of acute distress, the only thing one really knows about valid prayer is that which is revealed in the Bible. The Scriptures constitute the only legitimate prayer manual.
And there is ample evidence in the sacred volume that prayers for the dead are not only futile, but that 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.
Admission: No Biblical Authority
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 (Attwater, 137). It is only from a few passages, not relevant to the issue, that unwarranted inferences are drawn.
No Need for the Righteous Dead
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?
Death Ends Opportunity to Prepare
In the parable of the virgins (Mt. 25:1ff), there is the clear lesson that after those virgins went to sleep signifying death (cf. Dan. 12:2; 1 Thes. 4:13ff), there was no further opportunity for preparation (the “door was shut” Mt. 25:10).
The lesson then is taught that only those who had made adequate, personal preparation would meet the bridegroom in a prepared state. The implications of this illustration are firmly opposed to the notion of praying for the dead.
Death Involves a Permanent Separation
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 (Lk. 16:26).
Jesus stated that 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?
Dead Initiates One’s Final Judgment
According to Hebrews 9:27, “[I]t is appointed to men once to die, and after this comes judgment.” 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.
Prayer Useless for Those Who Die in Rebellion
The apostle John prohibited prayer for those who are committing “sin unto death” (1 Jn. 5:16), meaning those who are in constant rebellion, sin continued without seeking relief in conformity to God’s law of pardon.
If such is the case with the living who are in persistent rebellion, 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).