Did Paul pray for the dead?

A couple of years ago, a fellow told me a story about his discussion with a Hasidic rabbi. “Do Jews believe in purgatory?” he asked. The rabbi waved his hand and said, “Yah, we have a washer and dryer too.” This common belief in purgatory also leads to the common practice of praying for the dead.

For example, Jews pray the El Malei Rachamim (God, full of Mercy): “God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the Divine Presence’s wings, within the range of the holy, pure and glorious, whose shining resemble the sky’s, to the soul of X son of X for a charity was given to the memory of his soul. Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect him forever, from behind the hiding of his wings, and will tie his soul with the rope of life. The Everlasting is his heritage, and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.”

Catholics likewise pray, “Eternal rest grant unto him/her, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him/her. May he/she rest in peace. Amen. May his/her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

Praying for the dead implies a belief in purgatory. After all, those in glory are in perfect happiness and have no need of prayers, and the damned cannot be helped by our prayer. Therefore, these prayers imply that the departed are not yet in glory and stand in need of prayers. But is this practice biblical?

In the Old Testament, we find prayers and sacrifices being offered for those who were slain in battle in Second Maccabees 12:44-46, which says, “... for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”

Although Second Maccabees is not considered to be Scripture by Jews and Protestants, it does, nevertheless, show that the practice of praying for the dead existed before Christ and its use is rooted in the belief in the resurrection.

Praying for the dead continued into the New Testament period. Indeed, it was further strengthened when we consider that all who are baptized are united in the one mystical body of Christ and mutually care for each other. As St. Paul taught:

“But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).

This bond of Christ’s love that unites all the members of his body isn’t broken by death (Roman 8:38-39).

But is there any New Testament evidence of someone praying for the dead? Yes. In an often overlooked passage, St. Paul makes one such prayer in 2 Timothy 1:16-18:

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“May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus because he often gave me new heart and was not ashamed of my chains. But when he came to Rome, he promptly searched for me and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day. And you know very well the services he rendered in Ephesus.”

Is Onesiphorus dead? It appears so. Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus’ family and the recounting of the good deeds that he has done in the past certainly suggests as much. But notice Paul’s last prayer: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.” Like the two prayers mentioned above, Paul prays that the Lord will have mercy on him. Praying for the dead is indeed biblical.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.