Do not Pray for the Dead; But Prepare for Death

Thoughts for this day of remembering the dead

Should we pray for the dead?

“Please pray for the repose of his soul.”  This is a very common request that one reads in scores of obituaries that are published every day.  Accompanying that request may be a scheduled mass, or novena, for the deceased.  Behind this is the practice of praying for the dead.  This, of course, is rooted in the belief that, through prayers for the dead, there can be change in the course of the soul of the dead loved one.  If this is a valid hope, nothing can be more loving than to spend time praying for the departed.

Is there a basis for this hope in the Word of God?  The Roman Catholic Church, chief proponent of this practice, admits that this practice is linked with its notion of purgatory.  In the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia entry in “Prayers for the Dead,” it asserts: “Catholic teaching regarding prayers for the dead is bound up inseparably with the doctrine of purgatory and the more general doctrine of the communion of the saints, which is an article of the Apostle’s Creed.”  The practice of praying for the dead, by this assertion, stands or falls on the validity of the doctrine of purgatory. 

This is not the place to refute this belief in a purgatory.  Suffice it to say that this is what drove the Reformation of the 16th century which led to the division of Catholics and Protestants.  Catholic clerics used this doctrine to swindle the superstitious population of precious money on promise that the souls of their loved ones will spring from purgatory once the money rings on the coffer.

The Catholic doctrine of and practice of prayer for the dead is built on the sinking sand of lack of assurance.  This is contrary to the assurance of the gospel and salvation that saving faith brings about.  Lack of assurance is the fruit of salvation by human merit and works.  Whereas assurance grows out of the certainty of the saving work of Christ received by faith.  “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25 NKJ).  Salvation is not contingent on human works, but guaranteed by what Christ has accomplished.

The Bible teaches that death is the final closure of moral opportunity.  The time to be saved is now.  If salvation is not received now, there is no post-mortem salvation opportunity.  “It is appointed to men to die once, and after this, the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Prepare for a good death

The Puritans make a different emphasis that believers should be doing.  That is to prepare to die in a way that is glorifying to God.  This is, unfortunately, a well-nigh absent note.  It may be generally because we do not want to discuss such an unpleasant subject as death – even among Christians.  There is so much more amusement in life, that some are loathed to think of abandoning this in death.  This is unrealistic.

No matter how silent we may be about dying, and studiously avoid its mention, we will still die.  It is still the one appointment with providence that we cannot avoid.  For the Puritans, the way to prepare for death is not only that one is assured of his salvation.  It is, in the language of Paul, “with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20 NKJ).

Richard Baxter wrote the classic Dying Thoughts at a time that he was sick, and thought that he was dying.  The Lord spared him then, but he bequeathed to the Church an immortal plea for believers not only to be sure of heaven.  It is imperative that when we are close to death, we have a life and testimony that will point the living to the Lord we have served faithfully in our lives. 

Will the Lord be magnified in our dying?

The Intermediate State of the Dead in Christ

The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person.  But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).

A recent death in our Church generated much lament.  The brother was so young, and so actively useful in our ministries.  What is more, he had no known precondition.  This event drove me to refresh the subject of the intermediate state of the righteous.  It is compelling to think of an answer to the condition of one who dies in Christ, but before the consummation at the Second Coming of Christ.

Other subjects attach to this issue which are beyond the purview of  this article.  One may logically ask about the constitution of man – as body and soul (spirit).  Or one’s view of heaven, and its counterpart of hell, may be evaluated.  But they can only be assumed at this point, subordinate to the main question, What happens to the believer at death before Jesus’ return in triumph?

No Soul-Sleep

A view held mostly by fringe cults is that the soul is in a state of unconscious sleep, awaiting the end at Christ’s coming or the Judgment Day.  This notion sounds plausible because there are, in both Old Testament and New Testament, references to dying as ‘sleeping.’  It only takes a step to make the conclusion that the reference is to the soul.

Its main error is the rush to conclusion that it can refer to nothing else but the soul.  But some key references to ‘sleep’ as descriptive of death should lead to a different deduction.  The connection is made in Matthew 27:52: “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”  Here, those that are described as “fallen asleep” are explicitly “bodies of the saints.”  This is a difficult passage that does not now demand detailed exposition.  Suffice it to conclude that the figure of sleep for death is clearly that of the body.  Another reference is the death of Stephen with this conclusion: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60 ESV).  It only needs pointing out that Stephen expected welcome by Jesus to his spirit as he was dying.  And when he died, it was described as, “he fell asleep.”  Clearly, the spirit of Stephen was received by Jesus, but his body fell asleep.

The simple reason for this figure of sleep as reference to the body is the counterpart of the resurrection as being raised (as in being awakened) from death (sleep).  This is Paul’s corrective to the misconstruction of the Thessalonians who thought that the dead in Christ had missed out on the blessing of the Second Coming.  On the contrary, they will even precede those who are alive: “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14 ESV).

This error was so obvious that the young John Calvin wrote his first book in 1534 to refute soul-sleep.  Its title was Psychopannychia (Literally, “All-night-vigil of the soul”).  So obvious was the error that Calvin in his youth could easily demolish this notion.

No Death Wish

On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that such is the happy state of the soul of the righteous dead that their death should rather be celebrated than mourned.  This attitude is only a small step away to justifying death-wish.  But this is also wrong.

Death is not a good thing.  The biblical position is to regard death as the consequence of sin (Romans 5:12, 18; 6:23).  Adam, had he obeyed the test in the garden, was made to live in a confirmed eternal life.  But his sin has brought death – not only to him, but to all his posterity.  Therefore, death is considered an enemy – the last to be subdued at the end which is through the resurrection of the body (1Cor 15:26).

The believer’s death is still rightly to be mourned.  So the brethren, as they buried Stephen, “made great lamentation” (Acts 8:2).  One reason for this is that earthly fellowship with the dead is totally cut-off.  We may look forward to a reunion, and we do not mourn as those without hope (1Thes 4:13).  But we still rightly mourn.

That Paul asserts, “To die is gain” (Phl 1:21) is regularly misconstrued as a positive view of death for the believer.  But Paul does not say that death is gain.  But rather because of Christ, the event of dying (an evil in itself) can result for the believer something that can be counted as gain.  Note, however, that this is tempered by Paul’s assertion of desire (even preference) to live on and bear fruit of service (1:19, 24).

To look at death as itself desirable is inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about death.  Dying is not the blessed hope of the believer.  The Second Coming of Christ is (Titus 2;14).  There is still a rightful fear of death itself, but redemption should have delivered the believer from the bondage of this fear (Heb 2:14, 15; 2Cor 5:1ff).

“Far Better”

Paul does describe the state after-death of the believer as “far better” (Phl 1:23).  There is one reason that he consistently thrusts to prominence.  At the believer’s death, just like any dead person, his body begins to decay; but his soul/spirit is in the presence of Christ’s company.  His summary of the believer is “to depart and be with Christ” (Phl 1:23).  In another place, “absent from the body, but present with the Lord” (2Cor 5:8).  There can be no more explicit description of the believer’s condition beyond death.  The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person.  But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).  Other passages corroborate this.  To cite just one more, Jesus promised the penitent thief on the cross, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

It is right to describe the after-life of the righteous as “far better.”  It is so in comparison to this earthly life.  But in the redemptive plan of God, it is not yet the best.  Thus the souls in the intermediate state still express their longing for the day of consummation (Rev 6:10).  The best is yet to come.  And that is the reunion of body and soul at the resurrection.  This is now the Final State where the saints’ inheritance is not just heaven, but heaven and earth (2Pet 3:13).

Grieving and Solace

The foregoing thoughts will mean the mixture of grieving and solace when a beloved believer dies.  There will be pain from the poignant void left behind; but there will be anticipation for the reunion yet to come.  For as long as we have not crossed that dividing river of death, such will be the lot of brethren left behind on earth.  But make no mistake.  It is not the living to say goodnight to the dead in Christ.  It is those who have departed to be with Christ who must say goodnight to us who remain in this dark world of sin and death.