Praying for the Dead

An individual dies and social media is flooded with sentiments about prayers for the deceased and their family members. Without doubt, it is altogether right and in keeping with a spirit of true Christian charity to pray fervently for the family members of one who has passed away. Any number of prayers can and should be offered to God on behalf of the those grieving the loss of their loved one. If the deceased and his or her family members are believers, they need other Christians to be praying for the comfort of the Gospel and the promise of the resurrection. If the family members of the deceased are unbelievers, they need us to be praying for them to come to know the saving grace of God in Christ. They may also need our prayers for their relational and material needs. However, it should strike us as strange to read statements--such as, "Praying that God will have mercy on him or her" or "May God grant that he or she may rest in peace"--made by professing Evangelicals about an individual who has recently died. It could be that such sentiments are merely tongue in cheek. However, we ought not consider this to be an insignificant matter. The Scriptures lack the slightest hint of support for any notion of intercession on the part of one believer for another postmortem. This is also a matter upon which the church has spoken early and often. 

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck explained, 

"The Reformed rejected this intercession for the dead on the ground that their lot was unalterably decided at death. The fact is that neither the Old nor the New Testament breathes a word about such intercession...Intercession for the dead, therefore, has no basis whatever in Scripture, as Tertullian for that matter already recognized. For after he had discussed various church practices, including sacrifices for the dead (De corona militus, ch. 3), he added in chapter 4: 'If, for these and other such rules, you insist on having positive scriptural injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer"...Since, then, intercession for the dead cannot stand the test of Scripture, the question concerning its utility and comfort is no longer appropriate. All the same, these two things are hardly demonstrable. For though it seems a beautiful thing that the living can help the dead by their intercessions and make up for the wrong they have perhaps done to them during their lifetime, in fact this church practice takes Christian piety in a totally wrong direction. It gives the impression that--contrary to Matt. 8:22--caring for the dead is of greater value than love for the living; it credits one's own works and prayers with a meritorious, expiatory power that is effective even on the other side of the grave and benefits the dead; it is based on and conducive to the doctrine of purgatory, which, on the one hand, especially among the rich, fosters unconcern and, on the other hand, perpetuates the uncertainty of believers; and in the minds of Christians it weakens confidence in the sufficiency of the sacrifice and intercession of Christ."1

The Westminster Confession of Faith could also not be any clearer about the state of a person at death. In the chapter, "Of the State of Men After Death, and the Resurrection of the Dead," the Divines wrote, 

"The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption:a but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none" (WCF 32.1).

Since there is no purgatory, no holding place for the spirits of men and women upon death, and no soul sleep, there is no reason for a practice of intercession on behalf of those who have died. No amount of textual sophistry on the interpretation of passages such as Luke 16:19-31, 1 Cor. 15:29, or 1 Peter 3:18-20 can overpower the clear teaching of Scripture that when a man or woman dies, his or her spirit goes immediately to heaven or hell. Both the Old and New Testaments set forth a litany of examples of believers burying their loved ones, yet there is not the slightest intimation that any prayers were offered for them. John Calvin, in his polemics against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding purgatory and prayers for the deceased, wrote, 

"When, therefore, my opponents object, that it has been the practice for thirteen hundred years to offer prayers for the dead, I, in return, ask them, by what word of God, by what revelation, by what example it was done? For here not only are passages of Scripture wanting, but in the examples of all the saints of whom we read, nothing of the kind is seen. We have numerous, and sometimes long narratives, of their mourning and sepulchral rites, but not one word is said of prayers. [Scripture relates oftentimes and at great length, how the faithful lamented the death of their relations, and how they buried them: but that they prayed for them is never hinted at.] But the more important the matter was, the more they ought to have dwelt upon it. Even those who in ancient times offered prayers for the dead, saw that they were not supported by the command of God and legitimate example. Why then did they presume to do it? I hold that herein they suffered the common lot of man, and therefore maintain, that what they did is not to be imitated. Believers ought not to engage in any work without a firm conviction of its propriety, as Paul enjoins (Rom. 14:23); and this conviction is expressly requisite in prayer. It is to be presumed, however, that they were influenced by some reason; they sought a solace for their sorrow, and it seemed cruel not to give some attestation of their love to the dead, when in the presence of God. All know by experience how natural it is for the human mind thus to feel."2

The Scriptures teach us that of all the things about which we should care the most in life, our religious practices and prayers are of utmost importance. Jesus often rebuked religious leaders for their unbiblical customs and prayers--whether on account of a lack of divine institution, truthfulness or sincerity. In keeping in step with the teaching of Scripture and the practice of biblical churches, I would strongly assert with Calvin and Bavinck that though "it seems a beautiful thing that the living can help the dead by their intercessions and make up for the wrong they have perhaps done to them during their lifetime" we "ought not to engage in any work without a firm conviction of its propriety."

1. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 638.

2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997).