Monday, July 31, 2006

Praying for the Dead

One of the reasons I'm writing some of this down is that I know when I come out of Wycliffe, some people are going to accuse me of changing my views. I want it to be clear before I go in what my views are, so we can see if that's true or not. And one of the areas I disagree with classic evangelicalism on is the area of praying for the dead.

Praying for the dead and Purgatory

I guess the problem started a long time ago when some Roman Catholics started teaching about Purgatory as a real place, where many people went when they died. If you'd been pretty good, you were only there for a short time, and if you'd been bad, you were there for a much longer time, basically working off your sin and being purified. And afterwards, you got to go to heaven. I know that isn't what the current Bishop of Rome teaches about Purgatory, but that's what people used to believe.

There then got to be lots of beliefs about how you could reduce your time in Purgatory, and churchy people started using it as a way to motivate other people to do what they wanted them to do. So if you went to certain places, or went on pilgrimage, or gave your money to the church, they might say that it reduced the amount of time you were in Purgatory.

One of the most common beliefs about this was that if you prayed for someone who was already dead, it could reduce their time in Purgatory. So people used to go to silly lengths to get people to pray for them after they died. As I understand it, the school I used to go to (and teach at) was set up by someone who wanted there to be lots of people praying for him (and his parents) after he died, so they wouldn't have to spend so long in Purgatory. That was the reason.

There were several big problems with this idea about Purgatory and praying for the dead:

  • The Bible didn't teach it at all - it was an idea that people had made up much later
  • It actually went against what the Bible taught. We don't have to go through a literal Purgatory - if we're Christians then Jesus has already taken our sins and paid for them. We don't have to do it again.
  • It suggests that we can somehow impress God. But we already owe him everything! Giving something which is already his doesn't make up for the bits we haven't given in the past. We can never pay off our debt to God. So it's just as well that Jesus has paid it.
  • God is not a slot-machine God. Just coz we pray for people, doesn't mean it automatically makes their situation better.

Because of this, the Reformers really really objected to the idea of Purgatory (and therefore also praying for the dead and being able to "get time off for good behaviour"). And because people like Luther and Calvin objected to it, for very good reason, today's evangelicals, who really respect Luther and Calvin, they also reject it.

The Problem

But there's a big problem with this. The problem is that praying for the dead didn't start with people who believed in Purgatory, and most people who pray for the dead today don't do it because they think it will reduce their time in Purgatory.

The other argument I have heard used against praying for the dead goes something like this:

The situation of people who are dead depends on their relationship with Jesus when they were alive. We can't do anything to change that, so there's no point praying for them.

I started really thinking about this, when I realised that that argument didn't work, and that there could be good reasons to pray for the dead.

Time and again in the Bible, we see that God promises something, then the response of the people is to pray that that promise would be kept. We see it, for example, with Daniel. God had promised that his people would be exiled to Babylon for 70 years. Daniel realises this when the 70 years are nearly up...

It was the first year of the reign of Darius the Mede, the son of Ahasuerus, who became king of the Babylonians. During the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, was studying the writings of the prophets. I learned from the word of the LORD, as recorded by Jeremiah the prophet, that Jerusalem must lie desolate for seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I wore rough sackcloth and sprinkled myself with ashes.
Daniel 9:1-3, NLT

Does Daniel think it will change anything? Probably not - God always keeps his promises. So why does he do it? Because he wants to show that he trusts God. He wants to be part of what God is doing, and the way to do that is by humbling ourselves and asking him for what he has already promised. It's also good because it means changing the direction we are thinking in and acting in, and making it the direction God is thinking in and acting in. It is saying that he recognises that what God wants is what he wants. It means that after it happens, he will not be caught by surprise, but will be praising God and recognising that God is faithful.

So how does this affect praying for the dead? Well, God has promised that when Christians die, he will take them to be with him. So what should be my response? Praying for Christians, when they die, that God would take them to be with him.

It is also hugely useful pastorally. If someone I cared about died, I'd really want to talk to God about it and about them. I'd really want to trust God - that he knew what he was doing and that he'd look after them. And I'd want to express that trust in God in prayer, praising him for his promises and praying that he would keep them, just as he has always kept them.

I don't see a problem with that kind of praying for the dead. In fact, I think it seems a good and healthy thing to do.

Much later edit to add this quote from NT Wright in For all the saints (source):

'May the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory'. Amen to that. Amen, too, to the peace, consolation, and gradual assuaging of grief that comes from thus leaving those who love in the safe and sure mercies of the loving Creator and Redeemer.


DFH said...


Surely the basic reason why Protestants don't pray for the dead is that there is simply no Scripural example of or precedent for it?

After my mother died in 1971 and my father died in 1984, I never felt the slightest inclination to pray for them like I did while they were alive.

Surely the gospel delivers us from worrying about the fate of our ancestors? Your post would hardly help someone from S.E. Asia who was in bondage to ancestor worship!

Best regards,

John said...

Oh, I don't worry about the fate of anyone. I trust God for it. I can see that pastorally, people might worry, just as pastorally people doubt. And the correct response in both cases is prayer.

And as far as I know, Biblically, one of the ways to trust God for something is by praying for it.

There are plenty of other prots who pray for the dead...

You know, I can't think of a single Scriptural example of praying for the individual conversion of another person. But we both agree it's right.

Timothy Davis said...

Pastorally, you need to pray that God will help you deal with the death and trust that He is looking after them. Does any believer have doubts that god isn't looking after their dead believing friends and relatives?

John said...

I see no reason why Satan should not assail Christians in that way - making them doubt whether all their faith was in vain.