Prayer for the Dead

Dear Pastor Lawyer,

Should people pray for the dead?

Thanks, Hal

Dear Hal,

This has been a topic of debate in the church for a long time. In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul talked about whether he was going to continue to minister to the Philippians or if he was going to die. In his talk about this issue he mentioned that if he were to die, he would be with the Lord (1:23). This passage, coupled with passages like the one where Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), lead us to understand that since Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation, people go right to be with him in Heaven. Those He knows (Mt. 7:21-23), are ushered into the places he’s prepared for them (John 14:1-3). And conversely, people whom he doesn’t know, are sent straight to Hell. There is no mention of some sort of Purgatory or any court of appeals. After death comes judgment.

The author to the Hebrews used this fact when he wrote in Hebrews 9:27, “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment….” The context here is telling us that Jesus died once for all sin. There never needs to be another sacrifice. His death was perfect for all the sin that it was meant to cover. But verse 27 is telling us that the efficacy of Jesus’ death for all sin is as certain as man’s death and judgment. He is assuming that we all understand the judgment to be the next step after death.

One other major thing needs to be mentioned in response to your question. God’s judgment of a person is for that person only. There is nothing anyone, except Jesus Christ, can do for someone else. A mother can’t love enough to cause the sin of her son to be erased from God’s memory. The only sacrifice for sin that is of high enough value to do away with God’s wrath is Jesus’ death. That’s what the book of Hebrews is about.

So, to answer your question, I would say a couple of things. First, where a person goes after death is totally dependent on whether he knew Jesus the Lord during his life on the earth. If he realized that he was living in rebellion against the Lord of Glory, but repented and turned to submit to Jesus as Lord of all, he will be in good standing with Jesus when they meet. If, on the other hand, a man spends his whole life living for “number one”, he will be given the opportunity to continue doing the same, throughout all eternity, in Hell. Essentially, the person who dies goes to wherever he spent his life preparing to go: whether to live with Jesus or to live in Hell.

Second, our rebellion is so severe (because it is against a holy God) that nothing short of God’s death could pay for it. So, Jesus came to earth as the perfect sacrifice to pay for our sin. He interceded for us because he is the only one qualified to do so. Nothing I say to God for another person will amount to anything in the eternal scheme of things. Only what we do with Jesus’ gift will make a difference to God in the area of eternal judgment.

Finally, taking all these things together, we can see that praying for a dead person would be futile at best and may indicate a lack of trust in God at worst. There is no need to pray for a person who has spent his whole life preparing for where he ends up. God already knows everything about our loved one. There is nothing we can add. His heavenly court case will not last long enough for our voice to be heard, and even if it were heard, our evidence would not be of the sort that could make any difference. When a man dies, he goes to the judgment. If he knows Jesus, he goes to Heaven. If he doesn’t know Jesus, he goes to Hell. No amount of praying after the fact will change any of this. Pray now while they are still alive. Pray now while God may still answer the prayer. Pray now while there is still hope. I hope this helps.

Pastor Lawyer


3 thoughts on “Prayer for the Dead

  1. In the last couple years I've been to more funerals and memorial services than I think I've been to in the rest of my life put together. And I never know quite what to do with the "mild" prayers for the dead that are always given on such occasions — things along the lines of "Receive your servant," "Grant him entrance to your presence," etc. I'm wondering if what C.S. Lewis wrote about in Letters to Malcolm (I think that's where it was) comes into play a bit. He said that we shouldn't worry so much about the timing of our prayers, because God is not bound by time. His example was something like this: if your brother was a soldier fighting a war in a distant land, and you heard there was a battle there three days ago, there's nothing wrong with praying for God's protection for him. If, however, you heard that he was killed in the battle three days ago, such a prayer would be wrong, because God's decision in the matter has already been made clear. But as long as it isn't clear it's OK to pray. (Lewis was, I am sure, clearer about this than I am being!)So I've decided that funeral prayers along those lines are OK. Even if the funeral's three days after the death, and the decision's already been made, if there's reason to have hope that the Lord did receive the deceased, go ahead and pray in faith that He does. If, however, the deceased's last words were rebellious, God-denying curses, then such prayers are probably foolish. It would also be foolish to continue praying for the deceased long after his death. If you've prayed, trust God, and let it go and leave it in His hands.One more story: a couple years ago, I was staying in a hotel when a charity worker brought in a family whose house had burned down the night before. They had lost three children. (I'm weeping again remembering the scene, but that's beside the point.) Another family staying in the hotel was attending the same conference I was. One of their young daughters later asked for prayer "for the children who got burned in the fire." Somehow I think that was the right instinct, too — to call out for God to have mercy on those little ones.Anyway, I generally agree that the way many in the world pray for the dead is foolish and faithless, but in a certain, very limited context, commending the dead to the Lord is reasonable and faithful. Sorry to spend so many words saying it!

  2. Valerie, as much as I want to agree with the sentiment of what you say, I'm afraid the Biblical evidence won't allow it (e.g. The rich man wanted desperately to be in Abraham's busom). The basis for God's accepting folks after death is their attitude toward Christ when they died? Whether or for how long our prayers will avail is no real factor when the results are based on justice (Besides what real difference is ther between 3 days and 3 years?). Thank you for writing.

  3. "The basis for God's accepting folks after death is their attitude toward Christ when they died?"No, I didn't mean it that way. I meant, if we have reason to hope that the deceased trusted Christ, we may pray that the Lord will receive him in accordace with His promises. But if he was rebellious to the end, then we should also expect God to keep His promises…which aren't very happy for the deceased." Let me borrow from Lewis again. He also said something along the lines of, our prayers don't change God, they change us. I think those funeral prayers are for the bereaved to be able to let go. "We can't hold on to Uncle Charlie, Lord…You take him. He trusted You, and now we trust You to keep Your promises to him and receive him into heaven." The difference between three days and three years isn't any difference in the dead person, and certainly isn't any difference in God, but there should be a difference in the pray-er.I also think there's a difference in liturgical prayer. Liturgy is often acting out things that have already happened. We ought to have confessed our sins often since last Sunday, but when we come together to confess corporately, don't we reenact that to some extent? I mean, it can't just be "Forgive me for the sins I've committed since I said my prayers two hours ago so I can be clean enough to make it through the service without getting struck by lightning," can it? Because there's a pretty good chance I'll sin even more before the service is over than I did in the past couple hours. I think a funeral liturgy is also, in part, a reenactment. We can't process death in the instant it takes to happen, so we stretch out the moment a bit.Forgive my fuzziness on this — I'm trying to think out loud and I've only got a vague intuitive sketch of what it is I'm trying to say. So thanks very much for the interaction as I process the question!

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