Apologetics / Reflections Catholic Faith Prayers Praying for the Dead Traditions


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By Pastor Manny of DCF

There are some people who rejected the very concept of Purgatory primarily because they believed that one of our practices that have something to do with Purgatory is totally absent in the Holy Word of God. Obviously, they criticise us because we pray for the souls who are in need of purification in the afterlife. Imagine this, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, you have St. Paul praying for a person in order to be sanctified by God.

1 Thessalonians 5:23
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And, assuming that the concept of praying for the dead is totally absent and totally unscriptural, then it follows that a state where the souls are being purified in the afterlife does not exist. However, the problem with the Protestant’s assumptions is the fact that there is evidence, both implicit and explicit, that the prayers for the dead are Scriptural. I will start with implicit references to praying for the dead and the reality of an intermediate state that is being missed by some Christians.

1 Kings 17:17-20
17 Now it came about after these things that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.18 So she said to Elijah, “What do I have to do with you, O man of God? [a]You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance and to put my son to death!” 19 He said to her, “Give me your son.” Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He called to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, have You also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am [b]staying, by causing her son to die?”

In this passage, it’s clear that we have a woman who had a son, and she went to Elijah with her son. And, we can see that the son of the woman was dead primarily because of what we can see in verse 18 where she said that her son was put to death. And, we have to ask ourselves. What did Elijah do after he called to the Lord in verse 20?

1 Kings 17:21-23
21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, I pray You, let this child’s life return [c]to him.” 22 The LORD heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned [d]to him and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room into the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.”

What’s important to note here is how after we recognized the context that the son of the woman was dead in verse 18, 3 verses after, we have Elijah praying to the father for the dead in order for the child to return to life on verse 21. If the soul of the woman’s son was in hell, then praying for that person doesn’t help the child’s state.

If the soul of the woman’s son was in heaven immediately, then praying for that person is useless. The reason why Elijah’s prayer wasn’t useless was that there was an intermediate state known as Sheol (and I already discussed this in part 2 of my Proofs for Purgatory Series). However, some Protestants might say that this case is only unique in the Old Testament primarily because they believe that the righteous part of Sheol is vacant after Jesus Christ ascended. The problem with this reasoning is that the raising of the dead isn’t foreign in the New Testament even after the ascension of Jesus Christ.

Acts 9:36-38
36 Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas or Gazelle. She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him, “Please come to us without delay.”

From verses 26-27, it’s clear that you have a faithful disciple named Tabitha who was sick and who died. According to verse 38, they sent men to go to Peter in order for him to know what took place.

Acts 9:39-40
39 So Peter rose and went with them. And when he had come, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing coats and garments which Dorcas made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.

So, after Peter recognized that Tabitha died, based on verse 39, he followed their lead and you have another example of a holy man praying to God for Tabitha (dead) to rise. This is the same example that we have in 1 Kings 17. If it’s true that Acts 9 shows a parallelism when it comes to the miracle that took place in 1 Kings 17, then we also have to acknowledge that the soul of Tabitha wasn’t in hell nor in heaven. It must be an intermediate state. However, Protestants may argue that this shouldn’t be given as an example since the intention is different. We should agree that the intention of Peter’s prayer was different since it’s a miracle, but again, this is a proof that there is an intermediate state, and this is still a prayer for the dead (whatever the intention is). So, let’s look at what the Word of God has something to say when it comes to praying for the dead to be granted mercy and grace.

2 Maccabees 12:44-45
44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.[a]

It is expected for us to hear that they will claim that we shouldn’t pay any attention here primarily because this is not part of their Bible. They will say that this is not canonical, therefore; we shouldn’t follow what it says.

However, even assuming that their argument is true, they shouldn’t simply dismiss the facts because 2 Maccabees is historical in its genre, and the passage that describes the action of praying for the dead is stated in a descriptive manner, not in a prescriptive manner. It does not mention God commanding people to pray. Rather, it simply describes what the Jews were doing at that time. Other than this passage, we have another passage in the New Testament that implicitly describes how St. Paul, as a former Pharisee who believed in the resurrection of the dead, prayed for a dead man.

2 Timothy 1:16-18
16 May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiph′orus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, 17 but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me— 18 may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.

Here, what we can see are prayers of St. Paul to the household of Onesiph’orus and to Onesiph’orus himself. What we can establish here is that when St. Paul prayed to the household of Onesiph’orus, we have to recognize that Onesiph’orus wasn’t present with his family. If he is present on verse 16, then St. Paul; would be redundant because he prayed for him for the second time in verse 18. Another reason why Onesiph’orus wasn’t present is that in 2 Timothy 4:19, Paul greeted people individually, and then, the pattern changed by citing the household (a group) rather than an individual member. Also, we have to consider the tenses of the verb that Paul used for Onesiph’orus. He used past tenses by citing verbs like “refreshed”, “was”, “ashamed”, “arrived”, and “searched”. But, what’s actually great is that St. Paul used those past tenses of verbs after he prayed for his household to be granted mercy which implies that he was comforting his family. One of the strongest proofs that St. Paul prayed for the dead was when he differentiated the prayer for his family, and for Onesiph’orus. We know that St. Paul prayed for the family at that time because they were also greeted going back to 2 Timothy 4:19, and when he prayed for Onesiph’orus, he prayed that he might find mercy from the Lord on that Day ( a reference to the day of Judgment).

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