Why Pray For The Departed – Biblical Basis

Published by Jacob P Varghese on

We pray for the departed, for the same reasons as when praying for a living person! Prayer for the faithful departed, as well as the invocation of saints have been long cherished beliefs and practices of the early Christian Church and were expressions of the Christian faith, well founded on the Bible and the Christian tradition.

“Many are dismayed at the thought of praying for the dead. Can the destiny of the dead be changed if one prays for them?” If you believe that prayers for the living are a help to them, why should you not pray for the dead? There are two main objections to the prayer for the departed, raised by some denominations. One that the state of the departed is such that they will not be benefited by any prayer and that second that they are in a state of “silence”, awaiting the last Judgment. They add that they are not going to be benefited by our prayer and that there is no scriptural basis for this practice. 

Regarding the state of the departed, we disagree with them. The faithful departed are not entering to an “eternal rest”, but into ‘an active life in a wider horizon beyond time and space’. Let us see the Biblical references that support this fact.

Why cannot living individuals, pray for themselves? Why should, we pray for others? The reason is, Jesus has asked us to pray for others. (He did not say to pray only for the people alive!) The apostles also asked us to pray for others. Examples:

  • But I have prayed for you, Simon that your faith will not fail….. (Lk. 22:32)
  • Jesus said, forgive them Father! They do not know what they……(Lk. .23: 34)
  • ….I pray not only for them , but also for those who believe ……..(Jn. 17: 19-24)
  • I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Jn 11: 25, 26 -”Jesus said to Martha, A believer in Christ shall never die. He still lives in Christ, even if departed from this earthly life.
  • My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philip. 1: 23). St. Paul here prefers a departed life, with Christ to a bodily life here on earth. In Philippians 1: 21 he says “to die is gain”, implying that St. Paul was hoping for a rejoicing life with Christ, not an inactive sleep, after departure.

Praying for the dead is a custom and practice found in almost all the major religions. People pray for the dead and offer sacrifices for them. Hindus pray for their dead because of their faith in the rebirth and transmigration of souls. So does Muslims pray for the departed. For Christians this practice has been in vogue since the beginning of Christianity. And its base can be traced to the faith of the Israelites.

  1. In the 0ld Testament period, prayers for the departed and mourning were a common practice. (Dt. 34: 8, Num. 20: 29 ).
  2. Its base can be traced to the faith of the Israelites. The fact that the Israelites used to pray for and offer sacrifices for their dead is mentioned in the second book of Maccabees. “…. and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out” (2 Mac.12: 39-45). This is a clear pointer to the faith of the Jews, to the fact that the sins of the dead can be blotted out through prayers and supplications.
  3. God is merciful towards the dead also. “…..Blessed is the Lord, because he has not caused his kindness to cease from the living nor from the dead.” (Ruth 2: 20)
  4. Prophet, Priest Nehemiah prays for ancestors, who were dead and buried. “Look at me, LORD, and hear my prayer, as I Pray day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess that we, the people of Israel, have sinned. My ancestors and I have sinned” (Neh. 1: 6).  Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.’ – (Neh. 2: 5)
  5. In James 5:16 we read: “Pray for one another… The prayer of a righteous man has great power.” Is this prayer only for the living? Given that death does not disrupt the unity of Christ’s body, that is, those of us still struggling in this world and those who have already received their reward in the next, the answer is “No.”
  6. Psalm 115: 17 must be read with the following verse which says, “but we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore.”
  7. In Rev. 7: 13-17 we see the saints praying to God day and night in their departed status.
  8. The Believers in Christ have had the eternal life here itself (Jn. 3. 16) and they have no death (Jn. 11:26). We are not praying for the dead, but for the departed ones.
  9. The departed are with the Lord (Col. 3: 1)
  10. Around us as a cloud of witnesses and so they can hear our prayers (Heb. 12: 1, 22).
  11. We are seated in heaven (Eph. 2: 3 -7). even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with Him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.
  12. The Church, being the one and only body of Christ, has the blood circulation of prayer from which no part of the body is excluded (Rom. 12: 4-5; I Cor.12: 12 ..).
  13. In Matthew’s Gospel we read, “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” Matthew 12:32. This means that sins can be forgiven in the age to come – after death.
  14. Luke 23: 43 Jesus says to the repented thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” after the departure from the body. This is to be considered as nothing but an active state.
  15. Rom. 8: 38 – 39. St. Paul says that death or nothing cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord“. This could be considered as a hint to the continuation of life in the love in Christ, even if departed from this world.
  16. Even the wicked rich man in Hades prayed for his five brothers (Lk. 16: 28). The gulf between Hades and Paradise was bridged by the descent of Christ to Hades soon after His crucifixion (I Pet. 3: 18; 4: 6). Christ preached to the disobedient souls.
  17. 1 Cor. 15: 29 – The living received baptism , in lieu of/for the dead.
  18. 2 Cor. 5: 9This is why we are confident, and anxious to be absent from the body, and to be present with our Lord. Wherefore we endeavor, that whether present or absent, we may be pleasing to him.” – One can be acceptable to God even after death.
  19. 2 Timothy 1: 16-18, 4: 19 – St. Paul prayed for the departed Onesiphorus. It is most appropriate to pray for God’s mercy for our beloved, as indeed St. Paul did in the case of his friend Onesiphorus, who had apparently died while serving Paul in Rome: “may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day”. “That day” is a reference to the day when Onesiphorus stands our before Christ to give account for his service to God and mankind. So, we can always pray for the departed and ask our Lord to grant them mercy on the Day of Judgment. The form itself is that of the usual prayer for the departed.
  20. Eph. 2: 19-22The house hold of God is built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, with Christ as the chief cornerstone”.  So, the Lord’s household is the Church includes both living and the departed.
  21. 1 Peter 3: 19, 4: 6 After being made alive, He went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits“. “For, for this cause the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, and live according to God in spirit.” This clearly testifies to the fact that the departed souls are in such a state that they have the chance and possibility of correction.
  22. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10: 28). So the soul is alive after the bodily death.

Our memorial prayers also remind us of our own eventual death and our responsibility to prepare for it and to be ready for it. Trusting that God in His mercy will hear our supplications, we offer up prayers for our beloved dead. Love demands that we pray for them and leave the result to Him. Can the children forget their parents when they are buried? Is it possible not to pray for the loving departed? Love demands that we pray for them and leave the result to Him.

We have seen from the previous points that people who have died in Jesus Christ are blessed, conscious and that they live with Jesus Christ and praise Him. They are invisible to us, but can see us, because they are with Him. In the Lord’s sight, we as well as the dead are alive. All the faithful, are thus united to Church and Christ, beyond time and space. Thus, we pray for the dead who are still alive before God. It is a holy and pious thought to pray for the departed. It means that we are in communion with the saints living and departed as both belonging to one body of Christ, the Church. Any perfect prayers include the whole Church here and beyond.


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