One of the surprising thing about the question of prayer for the dead is the almost complete lack of any direct reference to the topic in the Scriptures. One of the passages which has sometimes been cited as evidence for the practice of prayers for the dead is 2 Timothy 1:16-18,
May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiph’orus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me — may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day — and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.
It seems that from the Greek grammatical structure, the consistent reference to Onesiph’orus in the past tense, is normally employed in reference to someone who is already dead. Thus, it seems that Onesiph’orus is already dead and that St Paul just prayed that “the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day”, effectively a prayer for the dead. It is evident however that there is no explicit mention of the fact that Onesiph’orus is actually dead, although interestingly enough, the great Evangelical John Scott considered it a distinct possibility, but denied that verse 18 is a prayer for him, but rather merely an expression of hope. But this seems to me patently absurd as there can be no doubt that the most natural reading of verse 18 is that it is a prayer.
Regardless, it seems clear to me that the Scriptures does not directly one way or another prohibit or promote the practice of prayers for the dead. Which simply means that this issue has to be decided at the theological level rather than at a direct Scriptural level.
The Theological Issues Involved
Part of the theological case against prayers for the dead is due to one’s theory of what happens to us after we die, and also due to one’s theory of salvation. There can be no doubt that in the period of the Reformation, prayers for the dead were closely associated with the doctrines of purgatory that an imperfectly sanctified Christian who has died suffers in a place of torment and has their sins “burned off” before they can reach paradise, and that prayers for the dead “eased” their sufferings and shortens their time in purgatory. And of course it helps to invoke the great “treasury of merits” of the saints to help them too.
While the Reformation may have rightly rejected many of the distortions and exaggerations caused by the lay practice and common conceptions (or misconceptions!) of the doctrines of purgatory and treasury of merits, but the question becomes whether to eliminate prayers for the dead along with those excesses may not simply be tossing the baby out along with the bathwater. It is interesting to note that in the Lutheran Confessions, Philip Melanchthon in his The Defense of the Augsburg Confession may have raged against the idea of the Mass as a mechanical work and prayer done by the priest to “merit” the salvation of the dead, but yet he did not reject prayers for the dead outright, saying,
…we know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not prohibit; but we disapprove of the application ex opere operato (by virtue of being done) of the Lord’s Supper on behalf of the dead.
Epiphanius testifies that Aerius held that prayers for the dead are useless. With this he finds fault. Neither do we favor Aerius…
Thus, it is evident that we shall need to investigate two distinct theological issues: (1) Prayers and Salvation, (2) What happens after we die.
Praying for Someone’s Salvation?
While one may rightly reject the idea that praying for someone’s salvation “merits” that person’s salvation, in so far that everyone is saved, not by any human merit, but on Christ’s merits, but such an understanding has nevertheless not prevented anyone for praying for the salvation of others. The question is, whether that prayer can be extended even to the dead?
Perhaps a Reformed argument would go something like this: Salvation is only through faith in Christ, when we pray for the salvation of someone, it is identical to praying for someone to have faith. But the dead cannot come to faith in God, and so cannot be saved. Therefore, there is no point praying for the dead.
Before criticising this argument, it is important to note what I think is the theological truth which this argument is trying to hold to: That salvation by definition means communion and fellowship with Christ. There is no other meaning of salvation, or for the matter, heaven, we are not saved by “going to heaven” or by some direct contact with some generic God outside of Christ. Given the fact that trust and love are essential virtues for communion with Christ, therefore it is correctly inferred that it is impossible to have communion with Christ, or be “saved” without trust or love for Christ.
But here we question the necessary premise to make the argument: The dead cannot come to faith in Christ. Really? 1 Peter 4:6 speaks of the gospel being preached even to the dead, and here in 1 Peter 3:18-20 we read,
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey…
So it seems an entirely plausible interpretation that as a matter of fact, the gospel can in fact be preached to the dead, and that the dead can be brought to faith in Christ. I realise of course that the interpretation of these passages are controversial and difficult (although I think it is only “difficult”, not because of the semantics but simply because it causes headaches for Evangelical theology!), but I submit that there is hardly a “most compulsive theological case” to be made for ruling out the possibility that the dead cannot come to faith in Christ and therefore be saved.
Thus, it seems to me that this is the correct attitude to take: We who live in faith reconciled to God are assured of God’s redeeming love for us by the ministry of the Church in Word and Sacrament administered to us, but for the rest who do not exhibit any faith, we do not know, nor do we judge the state of their souls nor do we assume God’s judgement seat and presume to take God’s place to pass judgement on their salvation or damnation. Instead, as people who live in the light of God’s redeeming love, we extend that same hope of salvation to the dead, and just as we appeal to God’s love for ourselves who do not deserve salvation, likewise we do not presume that we are more worthy than the dead, but also appeal to the same redeeming love for the dead, and commend them to the mercy of God, in faith, trust and hope in the Christ’s victory over death.
But then there arises the difficulty of praying for the dead of other Christians. A Reformed argument would go something like this: Those who are Christians are assured of their salvation. Thus, when they die, they will go to heaven. Ergo, there is no need to pray for them. Of course, while I am tempted to throw out the whole nonsensical presumption of the “assurance of salvation” thing, but nevertheless, I think a case can still be made for praying for dead Christians friends even within these constrains.
Even when our fellow Christians are alive and exhibit all the fruits of faith (although one should never presume to know the state of the soul of anyone else but one’s own!), nevertheless, we still do out of love and care for our fellow Christians, pray for them and ask God to have mercy upon them, bring them to everlasting life and commend them to the grace of God, etc. And from the perspective of the Christian, he or she still, no matter how “pious” the person may seem on the outside, or how “assured” one may be about one’s salvation, one still does ask for prayers to be made for oneself, never presuming on God’s grace or love, but always living in dependence on God’s grace and mercy for his/her own state of salvation, and therefore requests for prayers to be made for themselves. It seems to me that the meaning of this prayer practice holds true, even after the Christian is dead, we still do believe that the Christian will be brought to everlasting life by God’s grace and mercy, and so out of love for them, we commend the Christian to the Lord’s mercy, and from the dying person’s perspective, he/she knows that after he/she dies, he/she will only be saved by the grace and mercy of God, and will likewise ask that prayers be made for oneself after one’s death, for God to have mercy upon oneself and bring one to everlasting life.
But then here an interesting objection arises: After death, the soul immediately goes to the Judgement and either gets justified and goes to heaven, or gets condemn and goes to hell; don’t pass go, don’t collect 200 points in the treasury merit of the saints, etc. So since right after death the soul flies straight to the judgement, then, well, there isn’t really any point praying for them is there? Their fate has already been decided even before you can open your mouth for them! There is no need to pray that they be “brought to everlasting life” after they’re dead, since they have already arrived once they’re dead. To this issue, we now turn.
After Death Theories
This theological issue is definitely much more trickier to handle and enters into a highly speculative realm. What happens right after we die? I believe this Anglican blogger has got it essentially right when he says,
Scripture is relatively obscure about what exactly happens to us in the moments between our death and our entry into the Kingdom. All we know for sure is that we will be brought before the Great Judgment Seat of Christ.
I think this truth alone should silence the objections to the ancient and venerable practice of praying for the dead, which objections are based on a sole single theory of what happens right after we die, namely, the theory that right after we die we are immediately brought to the Judgement and our fate decided. This theory alone I hardly need to point out, is nowhere near the level of a “most compulsive theological case”.
There are however two other widespread and respectable theory or doctrine concerning the state of the Christian after death. I would call them respectively the purgatorial view and the sleeping soul view. First for the purgatorial view.
The Painful Purge of our Sins
When one strips away all the medieval excesses and exaggeration and mechanical “treasury of merits” interpretations, there seems to be a plausible idea at core of the idea behind purgatory which is worth considering, to quote from the Holy Father’s Spe Salvi,
Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves … Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God … if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, seems to have a similar idea when he wrote in his book Tokens of Trust,
… death is a nakedness to which we must all come, a spiritual stripping, as we are confronted by God. The identities which we have made, that we have pulled around ourselves like a comfortable dressing-gown or a smart suit will dissolve, and what is deepest in us, what we most want, what we most care about, will be laid bare. We are right to feel apprehensive about that, and we are wrong to brush away the sense of proper fear before God’s judgement, however much we dislike the extravagent or hyterical expressions of it that have charactersied some ages of Christian history… there is a proper adult awareness of the fact that nakedness before God will hurt, because truth does hurt. Think of all the moments when you have realized, ‘I’ve been deceiving myself, I don’t understand why I did that, I did more damage than I allowed myself to know’- these are painful times. Even more painful are those moments when someone else sets out to show you to yourself and you want to hide, you want to shut them up. The Eastern Orthodox liturgy asks for ‘a good answer before the terrible judgement seat of Christ’. It is worth praying for, in the knowledge that such a ‘good answer’ can only be provided by one who has promised to be our advocate the truth in person.
N.T. Wright commenting on the Pope’s remarks says,
Anyone familiar with the origins of the European Reformation will be fascinated by Benedict’s rejection … of the late mediaeval idea of purgatory as a chronologically extended period. Instead, drawing on 1 Corinthians 3, we find that it is the encounter with Christ himself that is ‘the decisive act of judgment’, and that indeed ‘our defilement . . . has already been burned away through Christ’s passion’. The power and pain of Christ’s love meets us in ‘a transforming moment’ of judgment and salvation. Several questions remain in the way Benedict works this out; but if a Pope had said this loud and clear in Germany in, say, 1517, the entire course of European history would have been different.
One may question whether N.T. Wright has correctly interpreted the Pope. But be that as it may, it seems that an ontological transformation of ourselves after we die, is necessary for perfect communion with Christ and his people, whether or not it is a “chronologically extended period”, and it seems to make good sense that such a radical change in our personality, being confronted by the truth about ourselves and God, “purging” us of our sinful mindsets or habits or thinking, or as Williams puts it, the “stripping” off of our fantasies about ourselves and being confronted by the uncomfortable and unpleasant truth about ourselves, will involve some sort of suffering and pain.
Naturally a “purgatorial” after death view gives intelligible content and meaning to prayers made for those undergoing this ontological transformation and change in their persons. I am personally somewhat undecided about this, but in fact do lean towards an alternative view, the sleeping soultheory, which make good sense to me too, to which I now turn.
Christian mortalism or “sleeping soul” is the theory that the soul is not “naturally” or inherently immortal, and that between the period of physical death and the general resurrection, the soul is “sleeping” or unconscious. There are of course many biblical references to the idea of death as a “sleep”, which would become too complicated to plow through all of them. Suffice to say, “sleeping soul” theories have always existed in the church, but its orthodoxy, or lack thereof, has never been definitely settled or pronounced upon, although admittedly the tradition of the Church has always leaned against it because the “sleeping soul” theory wil make the practice of the intercessions of the saints problematic.
Curiously enough, the sleeping soul theory became rather popular during the initial phases of the Reformation, no doubt as a reaction against both the exaggerated purgatory views and its practices and also against the intercessory prayers of the saints. William Tyndale argued against Thomas More in favour of soul sleep
And ye, in putting them [the departed souls] in heaven, hell and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection…And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good a case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?
Luther himself was probably one of the vocal advocates of soul sleep,
As soon as thy eyes have closed shalt thou be woken, a thousand years shall be as if thou hadst slept but a little half hour. Just as at night we hear the clock strike and know not how long we have slept, so too, and how much more, are in death a thousand years soon past. Before a man should turn round, he is already a fair angel.
For Christian mortalism, the emphasis is not so much upon the “cleansing” of the soul but upon the resurrection. I believe that the important truth which soul sleep theories emphasize is that our “spiritual” selves are intricately bound to our “physical” selves, and that the former has no content without the latter, i.e. we are not disembodied ghosts floating around, in purgatory or otherwise. To live in Christ is to live the “raised” and resurrected life. And perhaps it also avoids the uncomfortable idea that we contribute to the “sanctification” of dead Christians by praying to God to “ease” them through the fires and sufferings of purgatory. In fact, it even avoids the may be uncomfortable idea of a suffering and pain caused by our ontological transformation, by simply positing that we receive our new identities or being by a resurrection fiat. In contemporary times, soul sleep has its advocates in the Lutheran Church and in the Anglican Communion, particularly in N.T. Wright whose theology has a very strong and heavy emphasis on the resurrection.
It is clear however that on the “soul sleep” theory, prayer for the dead makes sense, that we commend them to the mercy of God and pray to God to show his love and grace to them by raising them to the resurrection of salvation and acquitting them at the Judgement.
Yet I can’t get over the nagging thought that there is something right about the purgatorial view, the idea of the process of ontological transformation, painful or not. We definitely have to be changed in order to be able to live in the perfect communion with God and in perfect charity with his people. But yet I am also convinced that there cannot be in any sense a life apart from the resurrected or bodily life. Is it possible to hold both of them together?
I think Luther does in fact give us a way towards a synthesis. In a passage often attributed to him (rightly or wrongly), he writes,
“A man tired with his daily labour…sleeps. But his soul does not sleep (Anima autem non sic dormit) but is awake (sed vigilat). It experiences visions and the discourses of the angels and of God. Therefore the sleep in the future life is deeper than it is in this life. Nevertheless, the soul lives to God. This is the likeness to the sleep of life.
So in a sense, the “sleeping soul” is not exactly completely unconscious, but is exists more in adreaming state, which to be sure is a sleep, but it is not an unconscious sleep but in a dream. Even more intriguing is the suggestion of experiences of visions, and discourses of the angels and of God in these dreams. Could these fragmentatory visions of the divine reality and communion, flashes of the beautific sight, be the process whereby the Holy Spirit inspires in the sleeping dead, the ontological transformation and reordering of our minds, in preparation for the bodily resurrection? This seems to me to be completely reasonable, and definitely far less painless than the lucid fires of purgatory, it is a true “easing” of one’s way into the resurrection and a preparation for the Judgement after one emerges transformed and enlightened by the truth by these visions and ready to face the Judge without fear and with confidence in Christ. These “dreams” of the dead could interestingly enough, be the means whereby Christ “preaches the gospel to the dead”, and grant unto them visions and dreams of himself and his love, and reorder their minds to faith.
Conclusion: Death Cannot Separate us From the Divine Word
It seems clear that the case against prayers for the dead are made on the basis of rather abstract, convoluted and elaborate theological theories and doctrines with hardly any universal assent or following, rather than any actual Scriptural proof, which theological cases as I’ve hoped I have proven, are hardly “compulsive”. Even John Wesley himself, the first key figure in English Evangelicalism, advocates its practices,
‘Tis certain, Praying for the Dead was common in the second century:’ you might have said, and in the first also (replied Wesley); seeing that petition, ‘Thy Kingdom come.’ manifestly concerns the saints in Paradise, as well as those upon earth.” “Praying thus far for the dead, ‘That God would shortly accomplish the number of His elect, and hasten His Kingdom,’ you will not easily prove to be any corruption at all.”
I believe it to be a duty to observe to pray for the Faithful Departed.
Fundamentally I think there is a deeper theological point to be made from Romans 8:38-39:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The reasoning I think is rather simple. Death itself does not pose a barrier to the love of God nor separates us from it; it is therefore legitimate to ask for an application of God’s love and grace for the dead. Being dead does not place a person beyond the pale of God’s love.
The divine Word did not overcome death so that we may be struck dumb with no words of prayer or hope for the dead. It is precisely to overcome death whereby the hope of the Gospel was revealed. What separates us from the love of God is not death but sin, and even then, sin is overcome by divine forgiveness. Therefore, the dead are not beyond the pale or hope of the Gospel, but the dead are more especially the hope of the Gospel, that death is not the final word for the Word has triumphed over it. Prayers for the dead are therefore not only permissible, but it is intrinsic to the Gospel which proclaims the victory of the Word over death, which Word cannot and should not be silenced, but be enacted in prayers for the victims of death.
We commend unto thy mercy, O Lord, all other thy servants, which are departed hence from us, with the sign of faith, and now do rest in the sleep of peace: Grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, that at the day of the general resurrection, we and all they which be of the mystical body of thy Son, may altogether be set on his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice: Come unto me, O ye that be blessed of my father, and possess the kingdom, which is prepared for you from the beginning of the world: Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only mediator and advocate.