It may surprise some readers of this magazine to learn that the practice of praying for the dead has a very long history in the Christian tradition that can be traced as far back as the third century A.D. The great father of the early church, Tertullian, who has contributed so much to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, wrote in A.D. 211 about the practice of offering prayers and the Eucharist for the deceased on the anniversaries of their deaths. And in the fifth century, Augustine alluded to the practice when he wrote about the common practice of remembering the departed ‘at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ’. The practice is rigorously observed in the Roman Catholic Church, while a number of the ancient liturgies –those in Syriac, Armenian, Coptic and Greek – testify to its prevalence in the Eastern Churches. Prayers for the dead are also found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Roman Catholics appeal to 2 Maccabees 12:40-46 as the ‘scriptural’ basis for this practice. This passage tells the story of Judas who discovered among the bodies of the brethren who had perished in the battle against Gorgias the idols of Jamnia, which the Jews were forbidden to worship. Upon this discovery, Judas ‘blessed the just judgement of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden’. He then gathered the people of Israel to pray for forgiveness for the departed brethren who had sinned against God. The passage ends with these words: ‘It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins’. In 2 Maccabees, belief in the resurrection of the dead provides the theological rationale for praying for the dead: ‘For if he [Judas] had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead’ (12:44). Although the Roman Catholic Church considers 2 Maccabees as canonical, the Reformers classify it as an apocrypha and therefore do not accord it with the same authority and status as the other canonical books of the Bible.
The practice of praying for the dead is further undergirded by the doctrine of purgatory, whose origins can also be traced to the second century. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), ‘All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven’. The doctrine of purgatory is alluded to in the writings of the early Church Fathers, including Tertullian. Prayers offered for the souls of the dead in purgatory may shorten the process of purification and hasten their entry into heaven. The Reformers, however, rightly rejected the doctrine because it has no support from the Bible at all. Evangelical theologian Millard Erickson is therefore right to say that the rejection of purgatory is that which ‘distinguishes Catholicism and Protestantism in general’.
The practice of praying for the dead in the Roman Catholic Church led to the marking of All Soul’s Day, the day of remembrance for friends and loved ones who have passed away. All Soul’s Day must not be confused with All Saint’s Day, which precedes it. While All Saint’s Day is purposed for the commemoration of the saints of God, known or unknown, who are already in heaven, All Soul’s Day shifts the focus on the souls that are undergoing purification in purgatory. On All Soul’s Day, the clergy recite the Office of the Dead while the faithful offer prayers and alms for the dead. All Soul’s Day became a universal festival through the influence of Odilo of Cluny in A.D. 998, who commanded the Benedictine Houses in his congregation to observe it annually. The practice soon spread to the other Catholic communities. Today, Catholic Churches all over the world celebrate All Soul’s Day on November 2 (or November 3, if the 2nd is a Sunday). Initially, the Reformers rejected the practice because of its association with the doctrine of purgatory and praying for the dead, but a number of Protestant churches today observe it.
The prevalence of the practice of praying for the dead in the Western and Eastern Churches has made it especially difficult to critique it, not to mention reject it. But although the practice has a long and venerable history, there is very little biblical or theological justification for it and must, for this reason, be rejected. As mentioned earlier, for Protestant Christians, 2 Maccabees could not be considered as a canonical text, and therefore does not possess the requisite authority to inspire a doctrine. In similar vein, the doctrine of purgatory must be rejected because it has no scriptural basis whatsoever.
I therefore concur with the Reformer John Calvin who maintained that the practice of praying for the dead is ‘an error’. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote: ‘For over thirteen hundred years it was the approved practice to pray for the deceased. All ancients fell into error; it was something human and therefore what they did must not be imitated’ (3, 5, 10). But the most straightforward rejection of the practice comes from the pen of Martin Luther. In the Small Catechism he wrote: ‘We should pray for ourselves and for all other peoples, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead’. Then citing Hebrews 9:27 Luther continues: ‘Since individuals are judged by God immediately after their death and enter either heaven or hell, there is no reason to pray for them. Those in hell cannot be helped by prayer, and those in heaven have no need of our prayers’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.