Should We Pray for the Dead?
II Samuel 12:21-23 documents the tragic death of King David’s little son. His passing is evidently connected to the misbehavior of his father, a moral crime for which David paid the ultimate price. As the little boy was struggling for his life, father David was actively engaged in the process of fasting, mourning and intercessory prayer. While David experienced conviction of sin that resulted in the acknowledgment and repentance of his actions, the consequence of his depraved behavior was unremitted. The child died. David’s servants were confused by his radical change in behavior following his son’s demise. They did not understand why David discontinued fasting, mourning and praying. To their unknowing David said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live. But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me."
David’s refusal to pray for his deceased son brings us to the conversation of praying for the dead. Many have wondered if the questions posed by David’s servants following the lad’s expiry implies that the king should have prayed for his deceased son. Does the Bible teach that we should pray for the dead?
Based on a single verse found in II Maccabees 12:46, decreed by the Council of Trent, Roman Catholicism teaches it is a healthy and hallowed duty to pray for the dead to be freed from their sins. Catholic.org lists almost fifty different prayers to be offered on behalf of deceased people. But, is this scripturally credible? Are their any passages of the Bible outside the Apocrypha that substantiates such a claim? II Maccabees was a second century writing added to the Catholic Bible in A.D. 1546 in response to the Reformation that condemned such practices. There is an undeniable connection between the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and praying for the dead. The idea is that praying for the dead will release the sufferer from the pain of purgatory. There is no basis for this belief, however, discovered in the Bible.
Not one example is found in the Bible where believers prayed for the dead. Not one. Ironically, Catholic authorities admit that there is no explicit authorization for prayers on behalf of the dead in the sixty-six books of canonical Scripture. If such a practice had efficacy it most assuredly would be expressed in Scripture. Believers would have been encouraged to participate in such an activity. Conversely, the Bible teaches there is no hope beyond death. Hebrews 9:27 makes this transparently clear by saying, “it is appointed unto man once to die, THEN comes the judgment.” This verse evidences the fact that no modification in one’s spiritual condition can be accomplished following death. The dead cannot change their state, nor can the prayers of the living alter the outcome of the those who have passed.
Finally, Jesus Christ serves as the ultimate authority on this subject, as He well should. There is no evidence He taught praying for the dead was a worthwhile practice. If benefits could be derived from such an exercise, the futility Jesus articulates in John 8:21 makes no sense whatsoever. Upon visiting the gravesite of Lazarus and instructing the removal of the tombstone, Jesus prayed for the audience standing close (John 11:42), but not for Lazarus himself (John 11:35). This miracle narrative concretizes the fact praying for the dead is wrong. If it had any merit, Jesus would have assuredly incorporated the practice at that particular time.
Death is the ultimate finality, and no amount of praying by the living will reward a dead person of the salvation they have rejected in their lifetime.