The Custom of Praying for the Dead
It is practiced both in Christendom and in the Orient. Does God approve?
ALONG the Bay of Bengal Hindus kneel in the pounding surf praying for those in heaven, purgatory or hell. They believe prayers will hasten reincarnation of the dead, who once more can try to reach Nirvana, spiritual reunion with Brahma.
No less devoted is the Buddhist family in whose home you may see a shelf bearing wooden tablets that contain the “heavenly names” of the dead. The names are revealed by Buddhist priests, who will say masses to happify the departed.
A strong family solidarity is noted between the Chinese and their ancestors. Many Chinese believe the dead wander in purgatory for two years and must be assisted into heaven. Ancestors are said to depend upon the prayers of the living to renew family ties. Elaborate funerals and memorial services are conducted to insure that the dead become friendly spirits rather than hostile demons. In return for these oblations the dead are expected to promote the good fortune of the living.
In Jewish households the familiar Kaddish prayer is recited for eleven months following the death of a loved one, as well as on the “Yahrzeit” or anniversary of death. Some say that, strictly speaking, Judaism knows no prayers for the dead, that the Kaddish praises God and does not mention death. Yet there are Jews who do believe that prayers can assist their dead into heaven. The Kaddish was originally a teacher’s doxology that evolved into a prayer for use at the burial of scholars. To avoid embarrassment it was later deemed appropriate for all Jewish funerals. In time some Jews credited it with the power to redeem loved ones from the supposed sufferings of Gehenna.
The Protestant world generally minimizes prayers for the dead. They consider prayers for those in heaven unnecessary; those for the damned, futile. That is why Protestant prayers for the dead are usually limited to the funeral service, where a clergyman is careful to commend the soul to heaven—a stratagem designed to put both the living and the dead at rest. Annual memorial services may occur afterward in honor of the dead.
More closely related to the Orient are Roman Catholic prayers for the dead. Catholics believe in a heaven, hell and purgatory and a Chinese-like family solidarity called the “communion of saints.” This threefold spiritual unity embraces the “church militant” on earth, the suffering souls in purgatory and the “church triumphant” in heaven. A sincere obligation is felt by many Catholics toward the suffering souls. This sense of duty is expressed by the poet: “What if to fault of ours those pains be due, to ill example shown, or lack of counsel true?”
Devout Catholics believe their least good work, shortest prayer and slightest mortification can vicariously assist the souls in purgatory into heaven. The entire month of November with its All Souls’ Day is particularly dedicated to prayers and masses for the dead. The sacrifice of the mass is said to be the most prevailing. According to the Society of St. Paul, however, many Catholics “forget that, as St. John Chrysostom says, at the moment when the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered the angels present fly to open the prisons of Purgatory and to execute all that God has been pleased to grant. They forget the consoling statement of St. Jerome that when the Holy Sacrifice is offered for a soul in Purgatory, it ceases to suffer during the time Holy Mass lasts.”
A few Catholic theologians have suggested that prayers unwittingly offered for souls who, unknown to the living, are among the damned, might possibly bring some temporary easing of torment. Other Catholic theologians consider this notion rash and unwarranted, but the church has never reprobated it. Catholic theologians do agree that purgatory will not endure beyond “the last day.” By what means God will quickly cleanse the remaining stains of souls still in purgatory at the end of the world is a mystery. Notwithstanding, Catholics generally find comfort in the belief that, as Cardinal Gibbons put it, “the golden link of prayer unites you to those who ‘fall asleep in the Lord,’ and that you can still speak to them and pray for them!”
A BIBLE CUSTOM?
The earth-wide devotion rendered the dead would lead one to suppose the custom is based on the Holy Scriptures or is at least in harmony with them. This is not the case. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge declares without hesitation that “no Old-Testament passage can be quoted in favor of the custom.” The Catholic Encyclopedia concedes there is “no clear and explicit Scriptural text in favour of prayers for the dead” in any of the sixty-six Bible books mutually recognized by Protestants and Catholics.
Catholics say belief in purgatory naturally implies the utility of praying for the dead. Practically the sole textual authority is said to come from the episode related at Second Machabees 12:39-46, where Judas Machabeus is reported to have sent silver to Jerusalem “for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection.” The report concludes: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”
Can it be said Judas was requesting masses for souls in purgatory? He was a Jewish patriot; the slain were Jews, not Chinese or Catholics. His concern for the dead idolaters was that God would forgive their sin and grant them a resurrection. This is explicit in verse forty-four: “For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead.” Important also is the comment of The Jewish Encyclopedia: “The reference to such offerings is, however, without parallel in Jewish literature, and nothing is otherwise known of such offerings being made at the Temple in Jerusalem.”
Pertinent is the fact that Jews and early Christians rejected the books of the Machabees as apocryphal or spurious. Neither Jesus nor the apostles quoted from them. Of the four books of Machabees—some say five—even the Catholic Bible contains only two. Jerome, hailed by Pope Pius XII as “the greatest Doctor in the exposition of the Sacred Scriptures,” warned: “All apocryphal books should be avoided; . . . they contain much that is faulty.”
Those who ignore that warning should at least take note of the inspired books of the Bible whose genuineness is recognized by Catholics and Protestants. Solomon says the dead cannot be either friendly or hostile. He writes: “As for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . Also their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished.” (Eccl. 9:5, 6) The apostle Paul agreed with Moses’ statement that at Adam’s creation the “man came to be a living soul.” (Gen. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:45) Life as a soul is far different from possessing an “immortal soul,” which is not a Biblical term. On the contrary, the prophet Ezekiel writes: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezek. 18:4) The Christian writer James confirms this in saying: “He who turns a sinner back from the error of his way will save his soul from death.” (Jas. 5:20) Next to God, Christ is identified by Paul as “the one alone having immortality.”—1 Tim. 6:16.
Many cannot resist the temptation to say that death in the above instances refers only to the body, not the “soul.” Jesus warned that God “can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna,” from which extinction none will ever receive a resurrection. (Matt. 10:28) This also contradicts the theory that souls can be prayed from Gehenna into heaven. Of man’s death the psalmist truthfully wrote: “In that day his thoughts do perish.”—Ps. 146:4; Ps. 145:4, Dy.
The custom of saying repetitious prayers was singled out by Jesus for censure: “When praying,” he cautioned, “do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words.” (Matt. 6:7) Jesus did not teach the living to pray for the sins of the dead. He did teach that God purposed to resurrect, along with the righteous, those amenable to righteousness who through ignorance had led sinful lives. “The hour is coming,” he said, “in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28, 29) There God’s Son called our attention to the true hope of countless dead.
When thoughts of those who sleep in death rush into your mind and you recall their ways and fond personality, remember this: If your imperfect memory can recreate them, how much easier will God’s perfect mind and almighty hand bring them back from the memorial tomb. Let that wonderful promise move you to offer to Jehovah God an earnest prayer of thanks for his loving provision of the resurrection hope.