'Praying for the dead'
You are probably aware from the news that, in our irreligious, even post-Christian society, at a time of mourning for example, the death of a member of the Royal Family or the death of a British hostage at the hands of terrorists a common practice in some circles is to light a candle and have a special church service to 'pray for the dead'.
Whilst we have to be especially sensitive to those living through the pain of bereavement, and also to obey the biblical injunction to 'weep with those who weep' (Romans 12:15), to be true to the Bible, we have to state that the practice of 'praying for the dead' has no biblical mandate at all. The Bible, by implication, could not actually be more opposed to the practice of praying for those who have now departed from this life to the next.
Giving thanks to God for a life lived, and praying for those who mourn is most certainly biblical. Praying for those who have died though is not. The souls of the dead are now in eternity. If they belonged to the Lord Jesus when they died they are now with Him in Paradise, and no prayers of ours can add to their bliss. Whilst those who died without Christ are sadly lost forever. The saving benefits of Christ's redeeming death at Calvary was not taken advantage of by them. Sadly, they are unforgiven and unfit for fellowship with God. They are now in hell, and no prayers of ours can ever pray them out of hell into heaven.
The reality of all this is, of course, stark. It does not fit our 'politically correct' age. But the Bible is stark. It divides humanity into the saved and the lost, the believer and the non-believer, those who belong to Jesus and those who do not, and those who spend eternity in heaven and those who spend eternity in a Christ-less hell. 'He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon Him' (John 3:36). 'He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life' (1 John 5:12).
The Believer's Eternal Blessedness
Consider that those who die 'in Christ' have no need for our prayers, because they are now with Him in heaven, and our prayers cannot add one iota to their current blessedness. 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord' (Revelation 14:13). The Lord Jesus assuredly promised the dying thief who turned to Him in repentance and faith: 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise' (Luke 23:43). Those who die 'in Christ' are 'with Christ which is far better' (Philippians 1:23). They are 'away from the body and at home with the Lord' (2 Corinthians 5:8). In the Father's house, they are saved, safe and supremely happy. Why are they there though? Not because of any personal merit, for the Bible is clear that, by nature, none of us merit heaven because we are sinners. No. The inhabitants of heaven are there because of the grace of God in Christ. The residents of heaven are there because of the death of Christ at Calvary a death which has procured their pardon and made them fit for fellowship with God. The death of Christ was an eternal sacrifice. Hence it saves eternally those who put their faith in the crucified Saviour. 'When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God' (Hebrews 10:12).
Christ's atoning death was a finished, final and all-sufficient work. Nothing can be added to it, for perfection cannot be perfected. And nothing can be taken away from it. Those who belong to Christ are eternally saved. Those who die in Christ are eternally blessed. Whilst we can thank God for them, and praise Him for the triumph of His saving grace in their lives, to pray for them casts aspersions on the all-sufficiency of Christ's redeeming work, when 'no works of ours are needed, to make Christ's merits more'.
The Unbeliever's Eternal Loss
Consider secondly, and soberingly, that it is pointless to pray for those who, as far as we humanly knew, have died without Christ, as sadly, the Christ-less are now in hell, separated eternally from God's love, light and life, and under His condemnation for ever. Their state is fixed, and cannot ever be changed by either their or our prayers.
In Luke 16 the Lord Jesus told of a certain, ungodly rich man in hell. In a parable in which He mentions both heaven and hell, he said that between the two places 'a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us' (v.26). Hell is a sobering reality which is both logical and theological. Consider that:
Heaven cannot be gained if Calvary is by-passed. When Christ died, He actually tasted the pangs of hell (Matthew 27:46) when He bore our sins in His sinless body, and God's righteous judgement upon them. By doing so, He procured the believer's right to heaven. But by implication those outside of Christ have no hope of heaven. A condemned hell is their lot, for without the Saviour they do not possess the only hope of salvation that there is.
This all gives point and urgency to the evangelistic task. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army allegedly reckoned that every preacher should take a short visit to hell. Such would surely revitalise any flagging evangelistic zeal. Evangelism is a vital link in the chain of salvation. Decisions in time affect where we spend eternity. The no-gobbledegook Gospel exhorts 'Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved' (Acts 16:31). Once our last breath has been taken, it is too late to believe, and the prayers of even the well-meaning will be of no avail. Hence 'Behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation' (2 Corinthians 6:2).
It is imperative to believe in Christ while we may, for eternity is near and, on the authority of the Word of God, there is a definite heaven to be gained and a hell to be shunned.
There is a city bright
Saviour I come to Thee
Till in the snowy dress
© Timothy Cross 2004 <http://www.twoedgedswordpublications.co.uk/Articles/Prayers_for_the_dead.htm>