Can We Pray for the Dead?

Many Christians will pray for the souls of their departed. In fact, there is an entire theology built around the practice. Can we pray for the dead? What does the Bible actually say about the issue? What about the Church Fathers?

Is Praying for the Dead Biblical?

Despite the good intentions of Catholics, Scripture offers absolutely no support for the practice of prayers offered for the dead in hell or in a purgatory state. Scripturally speaking, once someone dies, they no longer have an opportunity for salvation. 

If you have not accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior in this life, you have absolutely no opportunity to do so in the next, nor will your punishment be mitigated by prayers of the living. The dead go on to face immediate judgment (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). It is perhaps helpful to consider the parable of Christ often referred to as the Parable of the Wealthy Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-21).

In the story, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that there are two distinct realms in which the souls of the dead exist. One is a place of reward, a Paradise. The other is a place of torment and suffering, where souls are separated from the Lord eternally.

In the parable, Christ makes no room for a third estate, nor of the idea of the prayers of the faithful offered for the dead as being efficacious in any way whatsoever. The Church Father, Tertullian, wrote:

“That allegory of the Lord . . . is extremely clear and simple in its meaning . . . [beware lest as] a transgressor of your agreement, before God the judge . . . and lest this judge deliver you over to the angel who is to execute the sentence, and he commit you to the prison of hell, out of which there will be no dismissal until...”

Dionysius the Areopagite wrote:

“The bishop...does not offer prayers for the unsainted dead.” 

The only exceptions were prayers offered in memory of those who died in the Faith; those who were known to have lived holy, exemplary lives.

“Let us pray for our brethren who are at rest in Christ” (Apostolic Constitutions).

The Apostle Paul appears to have prayed for a deceased saint named Onesiphorus. (2 Timothy 1:16; 1:18; 4:19)

Tertullian wrote:

"As often as the anniversary comes around, we make oblations for the dead as birthday honors."

And finally, the Canons of Hippolytus mention prayers being offered for the departed saints during the Liturgy.

This was not to procure salvation for them, nor to lessen any suffering since they were understood to be with Christ. Instead, it was simply a prayer for their honor and memory and to bless them.

It might be a comforting thought to believe that you can pray your deceased friend or relative out of hell and suffering, but it is a false comfort, as it is not found in the Word of God in any way.

We can certainly pray for the relatives and friends of the deceased as they grieve. Such prayers are in conformity with Scripture and are an act of charity and mercy — a means whereby you love your neighbor as yourself. 

Likewise, the idea that we can do good works in this life in order to lessen our sufferings in the spirit world is not biblical. Every sin we commit in this world, every rejection of the still small voice of the Holy Spirit urging us to avoid the occasion of sin and to live a holy life will be held against us when we die.

The decision we make here and now, in this life, will determine our eternal destiny, either to enjoy the presence of God and His saints eternally, or suffer the pain, sorrow, and torments of hell with the fallen angels, spirits of the Nephilim, etc. (Ezekiel 18:20).

There is no middle ground, no place for those who were somewhat good, but somewhat sinful, no place for those who did not give themselves to Jesus Christ while alive. Once you die, you will face immediate judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Notice what the author of Hebrews says here.

He makes it very clear that when you die there is no longer anything you nor anyone else can do to influence your eternal destiny. You now stand there either justified by the merits of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which you embraced while living, or you must answer for every single sin all on your own, with no advocate to defend you.

There are no second chances. Christians have the blessed assurance of an Advocate being there for them at their judgment (1 John 2:1). Jesus Christ, Himself stands as our advocate at our judgment, so long as we have been faithful and repented of our sins with the full sincerity of our hearts, seeking His will, not our own will.

Seek Salvation Now

If you are truly concerned about your eternal destiny and have any doubt as to your fate, I strongly urge you not to believe you can rely on the prayers of your loved ones to avoid the punishment for your sins. Your Heavenly Father created you to have a loving relationship with Him for all eternity.

Unfortunately, due to the sins of our first parents, Adam and Eve, sin entered the world, and death came with it. Whereas humanity was created in complete innocence, now depravity was found in us, and that depravity is passed on from generation to generation, rendering us all susceptible to sin.

And whereas we were created to be eternal beings, now we all experience old age, disease, and death. Death is of two types: physical and spiritual. Spiritual death means we are eternally separated from our Heavenly Father due to our many sins. This is an insurmountable chasm between God and man.

No mere human could possibly overcome it. However, God loved you so much that He gave His only begotten Son to take upon Himself the punishment for every single sin you have ever or will ever commit. This makes it possible for us to be declared innocent again.

However, physical death still exists. So, Jesus Christ rose again from the dead, overcoming the curse of death and also making it possible for all of us to be raised again bodily, in glorified bodies like His, knowing no corruption.

In this way, the Lord God has provided the only way whereby we can escape hell and eternal separation from Himself. In order to benefit from all of this amazing work, you must do so here and now. You cannot wait until later, cannot trust that someone can pray you out of hell.

In Summation

Only you can accept the offer of salvation, and it can only be done in the here and now. There are many religions, many voices out there who will tell you that you can be reincarnated, that God is love and love would never allow someone to be punished eternally, along with a whole host of lies, all designed to keep you from the only true way to be saved. You can certainly gamble your eternal destiny based on the world. But consider what is at stake: eternal life in Paradise, or eternal punishment in hell? This is the choice before you. Jesus died on a cross and rose again for you. Sadly, there is no other way once you have died.