In my last entry I wrote about praying for the living with regard to their salvation. This is a fairly obvious, uncontroversial, but still under-practiced thing. Today, I’m going to write about something quite controversial–praying for those who are already deceased.
Praying for the dead and having masses said for the dead is an established practiced within Catholicism. These are mostly in connection with the belief in Purgatory, which is something rightly rejected since the Reformation by all Protestant churches. That is what makes the following statement which can be found in the the Lutheran Confessions, The Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV The Mass, paragraph 94 kind of shocking:
We know that the ancients spoke of prayer for the dead, We do not forbid this, but rather reject the transfer of the Lord’s Supper to the dead, ex opera operato.
What could possibly be the point of praying for the dead? Is it merely a way to facilitate the grief process, like “talking” to a dead person at their grave? Certainly prayer for the dead has not been encouraged or taught in the Lutheran Church, at least, never in my presence. But might there be some reason to consider it, and if so, under what constraints?
First, lets talk about constraints. The Bible has strong prohibitions against trying to seriously communicate with the dead (e.g. seances, ouija boards, etc.) Though this might actually be possible, it deals in the power of Satan. Also note, we have little to no knowledge about the conditions of many who have died. They still exist somewhere. Christians don’t believe in non-existence. If they are in Heaven, and we are quite certain of this based on the signs of faith demonstrated during their life, then I can’t see that they would need our prayer. We don’t use prayer to say to Jesus, “Say Hi to grandpa for me.”
What about those who are potentially among the damned? There is neither a biblical exhortation, example or prohibition on praying for the damned. Therefore it is “not banned”. The “ancients” spoke of prayer for the dead, because they had an understanding that Sheol/Hades is not the same thing as what we typically mean when we speak of Hell. Our concept of Hell is a post-Judgment Day event. (To read more on this see my AfterDeath blog here and here) The early Eastern Christian Church in particular understood Christ’s descent into Hell and especially 1 Peter 4:6 as extending Christ’s saving work to those dead and unsaved. Most Protestant churches either officially or unofficially interpret Hebrews 9:27 as stating that a person’s fate is sealed at a person’s death rather than at Judgment Day. Take a look at this section and decide for yourself, is it really saying that?
If the “ancients” are right, then there you go–a reason to pray for the dead.