Dear Pastor Lawyer,
Should people pray for the dead?
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.