Should Christians pray for the dead?

October 14th, 2015

One of my favorite scenes from the Back to the Future film trilogy happens in the third installment when Doc Brown and Marty are trying to figure out a way to use a locomotive to push the DeLorean on a railroad track to get the car up to a speed of 88 miles per hour so they can return to the year 1985 from 1885.

Doc Brown: It's perfect, a nice long run that goes clear across the bridge over the ravine, you know, over near that Hilldale housing development.
Marty McFly: Right, Doc, but according to this map, there is no bridge.

(Cut to Doc and Marty looking out over the ravine.)

Marty McFly: Well, Doc, we can scratch that idea. I mean, we can't wait around a year and a half for this thing to get finished.
Doc Brown: Marty, it's perfect, you're just not thinking fourth-dimensionally!
Marty McFly: Right, right. I have a real problem with that.

Actually, a lot of us have a real problem with thinking fourth-dimensionally, especially when it comes to theology and issues connected to time and eternity.

We tend to think of the events in our lives happening in a linear fashion, in sequence, like scenes from a movie. So we imagine those who’ve died being in heaven or hell (or some intermediate place, depending on our theology) and we think of their existence running concurrently with ours. When five minutes pass here, the same amount of time passes there, and so on.

But what if that’s not the the way things really work? What if the departed are somehow outside of time or they’re in a dimension where time works differently?

Hold that thought...

When the subject of praying for the dead comes up, most Protestants (including the one writing this article) have a tendency to eschew such prayer. This is likely in part because of the practice’s historical association with the Roman Catholic Church and the doctrine of purgatory. Sure, we’ll pray for someone as a spiritual send-off at a funeral, but after that, praying for the dead just gets weird for Protestants, especially evangelicals.

Could this be one of those areas where we’ve been so logical and cautious that we’ve missed out on something that’s potentially a good thing?

To be clear, all Protestants haven’t rejected prayer for the dead. Martin Luther wrote:

As for the dead, since Scripture gives us no information on the subject, I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: “Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.” And when this has been done once or twice, let it suffice. (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, Vol. XXXVII, 369)

Not a ringing endorsement of the practice, but certainly permissible.

Philipp Melanchthon wrote in his Apology to the Augsburg Confession (Article XXIV, 94):

Now, as regards the adversaries' citing the Fathers concerning the offering for the dead, 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 of the Lord's Supper on behalf of the dead.

Even John Wesley didn’t disapprove of praying for the dead:

Wesley taught the propriety of Praying for the Dead, practiced it himself, and provided Forms, that others might. These forms, for daily use, he put forth, not tentatively or apologetically, but as considering such prayer a settled matter of Christian practice, with all who believe that the Faithful, living and dead, are one Body in Christ, in equal need and like expectation of those blessings which they will together enjoy, when both see Him in His Kingdom. (John Wesley in Company with High Churchmen, 84)

Wesley himself wrote:

“I believe [myself] it is a duty to observe, so far as I can… to pray for the faithful departed.” (John Wesley, ed. Outler, 12-13).

(This is from a short manuscript written by Wesley regarding his views on liturgy. It may or may not have been penned after Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. Albert Outler seemed to think it was written when Wesley was in Savannah in 1736 and 1737, although at least one source dates it 1741.)

Beloved author and devout Anglican C.S. Lewis had this to say:

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him? (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 107)

One could argue that a moderate approach to praying for the departed — the kind of prayer perhaps practiced by C.S. Lewis or John Wesley — isn't a strange doctrine at all but rather something that has been common throughout much of Christian history. 

So let’s assume that prayer for those who have departed is permissible. The $64,000 question for me is: Does it do any good? Do those who’ve died need our prayers?

Now this article isn’t about purgatory, but it’s hard to avoid at least touching on the topic at this point in our discussion.

Most Protestants reject the Catholic concept of purgatory, although some don’t throw the doctrine out entirely. One of the more prominent Protestant scholars discussing purgatory today is United Methodist evangelical Jerry L. Walls, author of Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation and Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most. A few years ago, Dr. Walls published an article at First Things titled “Purgatory for Everyone,” a good introduction to the doctrine, with an emphasis on purgatory’s connection to sanctification. No matter where you stand on the topic, Dr. Walls’ article is well worth your time.

It should also be noted that some who say they’re against purgatory, when pressed, will tell you they actually do believe in some kind of intermediate state where people go when they die. For example, John Wesley, who retained the Anglican article denouncing purgatory in his Methodist Articles of Religion, also believed, according to Dr. Ted Campbell, in an “intermediate state between death and the final judgment where believers would share in the ‘bosom of Abraham’ or ‘paradise,’ even continuing to grow in holiness there.”

So if Wesley was right, and we can grow in holiness in Paradise, doesn’t it seem possible, even probable, that our prayers can benefit those who’ve passed on?

Here’s where we must think fourth dimensionally, but rather than visualizing a not-yet-built bridge across Clayton Ravine in Back to the Future, we’re picturing a place in another dimension, possibly outside the confines of our own time, where believers from all of history exist, waiting for the final judgment.

What’s happening there? Are they praying for each other and for us? How much (if anything) do they know of what’s going on here? And if time is somehow tracking differently here and there, what effect do their prayers have? What effect do ours have?

Then there’s retroactive prayer, the idea that we can pray regarding a situation that has already happened, especially something in which the outcome is unknown to us. Suppose, for example, you go for a medical test and it takes a few days to get the results back from the lab. Is it useful to pray for a good result, or is that a waste of time? I’d say that since God isn’t bound by time, prayer can still be effectual. It seems to me that a God with whom all things are possible can even alter the timeline if he wants. Changing a health condition and a test result ex post facto are a piece of cake for him.

This concept, of course, creates all sorts of possibilities (and potential problems) for prayer. Let’s say I have a friend or relative who passed away years ago and I’m unsure of the state of their soul at the time of their passing. Would it be pushing the envelope to pray that this person had received Christ and knew God’s peace when they died? I’m not completely sure, but under certain circumstances, why not? Such prayer, however, would need to be Spirit-led, or it could quickly give way to superstition and obsession.

Prayer at this level also requires a different kind of faith, and odds are, it won’t be answered in a conventional, objective way, at least for some time. That’s why we must be careful with it, lest we allow it to displace the important praying we’re doing for people and situations in the here and now. But, approached in a balanced and proper way, it’s an interesting (and fun) practice to to think about and explore.

There’s a wonderful doctrine in Christianity called the Communion of Saints. Many of us have repeated that phrase for years in the Apostle’s Creed without thinking a whole lot about what it means. Simply put, it’s a community made up of all past, present, and future Christians.

In Luke 20, Jesus says that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob “isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.” (Luke 20:38 CEB)

We’re all part of this community of believers, and we’re all alive in Christ. Doesn’t it seem appropriate to pray for others in the community, even across time and space?

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