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Prayers for the Dead


Most Protestants believe prayer for the dead is a waste of time. It is said to be either of no use to those destined for hell, or completely superfluous  for those going to heaven, as they go there immediately after death and need no intercession on their behalf. The true nature of things is discussed below.


What happens to Christians after they die?


The condition of the soul in the period between death and the final judgement after the Second Coming of Christ is known as the intermediate state.


Although in terms of dogma the Anglican and Eastern traditions maintain a reverent agnosticism in this area due to the relatively small amount of information given in divine Revelation, there is general agreement that the intermediate state is one of purification and growth of the soul for those who die in the Lord imperfectly sanctified. A significant minority of Eastern Orthodox (Ware, 1983:258-260) and probably the majority of Anglo-Catholics believe this process involves some suffering, not in order to pay off some external debt of punishment still owed, but for the sake of internal holiness; "because the Lord disciplines those he loves . . . for our good, that we may share in his holiness . . .[Discipline] produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:6a,10b,11b). According to Romans 8:17, "we share in [Jesus'] sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory".


It seems evident from 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 that God's disciplinary judgement is still relevant for his people who have died. When we compare this with 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Hebrews 9:27 , we see that there is an aspect of this judgement which does not wait until the intermediate state is concluded at the Second Coming and Final Judgement, but occurs when we leave this body. Otherwise, for example, those destined for Heaven and those destined for Hell must share the same intermediate state, a notion which is contrary to reason and Scripture: in particular Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-26).


So, you believe in Purgatory, like Roman Catholics?


Yes and no. The primary difference between the common (mediaeval) Roman way of thinking about the intermediate state and Anglican/Eastern conceptions is the difference between retributive punishment and formative discipline respectively. The former "involves no change in the [internal] state of the dead" (to quote St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica Suppl. Q. 71, A. 2 cf. Suppl. Q. 13, A. 2, Reply Obj. 1) but only deals with an extrinsic deficit  — related to sins forgiven but not expiated (!) — which must be paid, but not necessarily by the person owing the debt, since a man can pay another's debt by undergoing voluntary suffering. He can not change another's interior disposition by his suffering (although he can change his own). Plainly, this Thomistic underpinning of Roman purgatorial theology "explains" how the prayers of the living can benefit the dead, yet it also undermines the sufficiency of Christ's satisfaction for sin on the Cross by a dubious distinction between the eternal guilt dealt with by Jesus' sacrifice and a finite punishment God demands we pay. And it reduces this aspect of salvation to a niggardly mathematical transaction unrelated to the inner man. In contrast, the Scriptures say:

            “I forgave you all that debt because you besought me” (Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor, Matthew 18:32)

            God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:19a)

            In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace. (Ephesians 1:7)

            [God] forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13b-14)

            [Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:14)


(It is only fair to note, however, that even the “retributionary” aspect of discipline for Christians is seen by St Thomas Aquinas as qualitatively different from the punishment of the unforgiven (S.T. II(1) Q87 A6). Indeed, he sees the acceptance of such discipline by Christians as proceeding from a virtuous desire and decision of their own to conform to justice and make amends: in other words it is a voluntary act of love. This, and the renewed emphasis by Roman Catholics on the transformative nature of Purgatory, indicate that any differences between Catholics may now be merely verbal.)


But if the ‘Purgatory payment’ is misleading, why pray for the dead?


Jesus has paid our debt fully. And by the very same act he has changed who we are, purifying and regenerating us: but this reality is actualised progressively. "We are becoming what we are". This is the basis for an orthodox understanding of the intermediate state.


The important idea which must be stressed is that the Protestant conception of the intermediate state as a static existence, a happy holding pen for souls automatically perfected at death by divine fiat, has no biblical justification. That spiritual growth can take place after death, at least until the Parousia, is implied by Philippians 1:6. Indeed, can creatures such as ourselves who are finite yet the image of God ever stop growing and increasing in blessedness? Apparently not, for "we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18). The process associated with the intermediate state is essentially healing, cleansing and growth, and only incidentally (if at all) involves suffering. Complete sanctification and ever-increasing glorification are absolutely necessary; purgative suffering, where it exists, is only relatively and conditionally so. This is why ancient, traditional prayers for the dead are somewhat vague and concentrate on the positive rather than the negative. It is also why the most popular Anglican name for the intermediate state is Paradise, not Purgatory. We pray for the Christian dead because they are part of the Church and God is still working on them, as he is on us. There is no reason to suddenly exclude them from our loving intercession at their death, our fellowship of prayer, or to assume we can not be part of the process of their ongoing sanctification, in the same way we are meant to be a part of the ongoing sanctification of those Christians still with us.


Is there any evidence of prayer for the dead in the Bible?


Yes. In 2 Timothy 1:18 St Paul prays for Onesiphorus, that "he may find mercy of the Lord in that day", 'that day' or 'the day' being a common way for the Apostle to refer to the Second Coming of Jesus and the Final Judgement. There is some debate over whether Onesiphorus was dead at the time Paul wrote this, since, while he is never explicitly said to be dead, Onesiphorus is referred to in the past tense only, and greetings are sent to his "household", not him personally, at the end of the letter. Nevertheless, the point is that St Paul prays for a mercy to be bestowed on him at a time which is indisputably after the man's death. A practice associated with the idea that the dead could be spiritually benefitted by the actions of living Christians is mentioned without reproof by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Also, 2 Maccabees 12:44 commends praying for the dead, and notes its intimate connection with faith in the resurrection.


Indeed, every time Christians pray the ancient prayer for Jesus' return, "Come, Lord Jesus", we are praying for the final judgement and general resurrection, which even the blessed dead feel incomplete without, as shown in 2 Corinthians 5:4 and Revelation 6:10. Therefore, even this prayer is a prayer for the benefit of the dead, as well as us. And note how we pray here for something which we are promised will happen anyway. God delights to do his will through our cooperation, even if he would do it without that cooperation. That is sufficient answer to the objection that we should not pray for blessings for the dead which they would receive anyway.



Invocation of Saints


Another area of Catholic practice which disturbs Protestants is asking the Christian dead for their prayers. They contend that addressing any spirit other than God is unbiblical and occultish, that the blessed dead have no duties to perform at all but are simply at rest, and that they could not hear us anyway. I deal with these objections below.


Is it permissible to address beings in heaven other than God?

Yes. Biblical authors do in Psalms 103:20-22 & 148:2 and possibly in The Song of the Three Young Men 64 in the Apocrypha.


Is there any evidence the "heavenly hosts" (hosts = armies) addressed in the Psalms can now be taken to include human saints as well as angels?

Yes. Revelation 19:14,19 cf. 17:14 & 2 Timothy 2:3. See also Matthew 22:30 & Luke 20:36.


Even if we can address those in heaven in some way, how do we know that this address is anything other than rhetorical, that is, do we know they can ever hear us?

Yes, they are, to some extent, aware of us and what we do and say. Hebrews 12:1 compares the blessed dead to spectators surrounding us, who are compared to athletes, as in an amphitheatre. The prayers of Christians are presented "publicly" before the throne of God in the midst of the heavenly assembly, which includes the blessed dead, in Revelation 8:3 cf. 6:9 & 7:9,15. Paul charges Timothy with God, Jesus and the elect angels as eyewitnesses to the oath in 1 Timothy 5:21. Fundamentally, if God wants them to pray for us (see below), obviously He must communicate whatever they need to know to do that.


What reason do we have to believe those in heaven pray for us?

2 Maccabees 15:12-16 shows us it happening. (If you can’t accept this testimony because it comes from the Apocrypha, at least remember that this book is an accurate reflection of Jewish thinking around the time of Christ, and that He never contradicted this belief, though He corrected many others forthrightly. The same is true of prayer for the dead.) Ephesians 4:16 says the whole Body of Christ is mutually supportive and constructive or edifying, every part contributing. The Church Militant on earth is not the whole Church, so the dead in Christ must do what they can for the Body, and what they can do better than anyone (Zechariah 13:9 cf. Wisdom 3:1-8, James 5:16) is pray. Revelation 5:9-10 cf. 7:9-15 & 20:4-6 show us that the priesthood of all believers does not cease at their death. According to these same Scriptures, their activities, once in the heavenly temple, are reigning with Christ (including over the earth!) and serving God constantly: the roles are categorised as priesthood, judgement and kingship. This is reflective of their participation in Christ's ministry, and obviously can not exclude intercession for believers on earth. To suppose that the blessed deads' ministry consists only in the worship of God, with no attention to His continuing salvific action and building up of His Kingdom on earth, is to ignore the clear implications of these Scriptures. In the Old Testament we see the function of judges and kings to be not so much assessing guilt and punishing vice, as acting for the deliverance of the faithful who are oppressed (Judges passim, Psalms 43:1, 67:4, 72:1-4, 75:7). That part of the very essence of priesthood is prayer to and service of God on behalf of others is abundantly clear from Exodus 28:12 and Hebrews 7:24-25.


The validity of asking the Saints for their prayers certainly seems to logically follow from all the above, but why is it not taught explicitly anywhere in the Scriptures?

The Old Testament had very little explicit teaching on any aspect of an "after-life", including the resurrection. Some Old Testament authors seem to imply there is nothing beyond the grave except, perhaps, a shadowy existence (Psalm 6:5, Ecclesiastes 9:10). The New Testament was written in the Apostolic Age, when the Church enjoyed explosive growth and expected the Second Coming of Christ to occur at any moment. Under these circumstances, it was extremely unlikely the role of the blessed dead would be much reflected upon, since Christians expected to join them soon at the Parousia and most Christian intercessors were living ones! It was only when the Church had generations of Christians who had passed on and, particularly, Christian martyrs behind it, that three important things happened. The Church Militant became the minority portion, a historical as well as an eschatological mentality developed, and Christians saw they might be "in it for the long haul". These new circumstances encouraged deeper reflection upon the implications of Apostolic Tradition for Christians who had died. Only then could prayers for or to these fellow members of the Body of Christ develop.

Other Tracts

Does God exist? Who is God? (Includes discussion of Hawking's cosmology)

What about Jesus?

Conversion:Why should I?

The Church: What is it and where does the ACC fit in?

Tradition: A dirty word?

The Papacy: "Is the Pope a Catholic?!"

The Eucharist: The New and Living Way

Mary: Do you fulfil her prophecy?

Salvation, Faith and Works

Calvinism and Christianity

The Gifts of the Spirit and Confirmation

History of the English Church

Ministry in the Church

Environmentalism and Christianity