In the question Absolution for a daughter an answer was posted that started by saying:

The Rites of the Church do include prayers for the dead. It's not possible actually to absolve sins after death, but the dead are effectively helped by the prayers of the living.

(emphasis added)

There is Biblical support that supports the idea of death sleep:

The dead do not know anything:

For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing, And they have no more reward, For the memory of them is forgotten.

Ecclesiastes 9:5

The dead cannot do anything:

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

Ecclesiastes 9:10

The dead cannot praise God, or hope in His faithfulness:

For the dead cannot praise you; they cannot raise their voices in praise. Those who go down to the grave can no longer hope in your faithfulness.

Isaiah 38:18

There is no mention of God by the dead:

For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?

Psalms 6:5

Jesus mentions that Lazarus, who was at the time dead, was simply sleeping:

11 These things He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.”

12 Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.” 13 However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.

14 Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.”

John 11:11-15

Paul says that those who sleep, or died in Christ, simply wait for His return and their resurrection.

13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.[b]

15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In light of these texts, and many others not shown, what is the Biblical support which Catholics might adduce for praying for the dead or that our prayers help them in any way? And if so, does it contradict the texts presented? How would a Catholic convince a sola scriptura Protestant?

  • 4
    In which Bible? Catholic and Orthodox Christians find Biblical support for it in 2 Maccabees, which they regard as an inspired text and part of the Bible per se; but Protestants do not regard this as an inspired text - they're looking at a different set of Biblical texts. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 14:02
  • 1
    It also depends on what you understand under "dead". "Our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" Mark 12:27. Which means people who passed away are alive more than us and we say they are dead? They can see us dead but they know we are church militant.
    – Grasper
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 15:35

4 Answers 4


Catholics and Orthodox do not subscribe to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which is the doctrine that says that the only source of authoritative teaching is Sacred Scripture. Instead, we rely on Apostolic Succession to show that the doctrines we hold onto are those that the Apostles taught, by tracing the teachers and the teaching in an unbroken chain back to the Apostolic era. Regarding the specific issue of praying for the Dead, we have both the Sacramentary of Serapion and a Homily from St. John Chrysostom attesting to the antiquity of the practice already in the Fourth Century.

However, since the question asks for specifically Scriptural support for prayers for the Dead, the most important passage is the end of 2nd Maccabees 12:

39 And upon the day following, as the use had been, Judas and his company came to take up the bodies of them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen in their fathers' graves.

40 Now under the coats of every one that was slain they found things consecrated to the idols of the Jamnites, which is forbidden the Jews by the law. Then every man saw that this was the cause wherefore they were slain.

41 All men therefore praising the Lord, the righteous Judge, who had opened the things that were hid,

42 Betook themselves unto prayer, and besought him that the sin committed might wholly be put out of remembrance. Besides, that noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forsomuch as they saw before their eyes the things that came to pass for the sins of those that were slain.

43 And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachms of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection:

44 For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead.

45 And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.

Here, part of Judas Maccabeus's army died fighting the Gorgias, military governor of Idumea. It was found that those who died had kept Jamnite idols, which is a sin. However, they had fought for Israel and to defend their homeland, so the people prayed that the Lord might forgive them this offense so that they might be raised when the Resurrection came. As verse 44 says, "for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead." But because he hoped for the Resurrection, it is not vain to pray for them.

Of course, your argument is that prayer for the dead is vain because they are all asleep. In fact, the doctrine of Mortalism (sometimes known as "soul sleep") is postulated exactly to justify the vanity of praying for the dead, or of intercessory prayer by the dead. But there are passages in Scripture where we see the dead specifically not sleeping. Particularly, in the passage of the Transfiguration (Mt 17:1–13; Mk 9:2–13; Lk 9:28–36) Moses and Elijah are standing together with Jesus and talking.

Mt 17:3 And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

Mk 9:4 And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus.

Lk 9:30–31 And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: 31 Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.

Also, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31), the deceased are shown awake and concerned about things on Earth:

23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

In Revelation, too, nowhere are the dead in Christ described as sleeping. Particularly, the twenty-four Elders in Revelation 4:4.10–11:

4 And round about the throne [were] four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.

10 The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

11 Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

In the Psalms, a few references to the state of souls after death, for example:

Ps 16(17):9–11 Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. 10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. 11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence [is] fulness of joy; at thy right hand [there are] pleasures for evermore.

In conclusion, there are many different positions on the nature of the soul and their destination after death in the Old Testament; and in the New Testament, the wide use of the verb κοιμάω "to sleep" to stand for θνῄσκω "to die" causes a misunderstanding (which unfortunately Luther was party to, which caused it to become a widely-held opinion among Protestants) that death is a literal sleep. This was not taught by the primitive Christian communities, as any review of the praxis of these communities will attest.

  • Thanks for your answer. The problem with the text from 2nd Maccabees is that it is apocrypha, therefore it holds to weight to a protestant as, to them, it is not considered Biblical canon. Further, Moses and Elijah are alive. Elijah never died, and Moses resurrected, according to Jude. The 24 elders, are not specified as dead men, or even human for that matter. And Psalms is definitely not a good example, as the word here is Sheol, translated as the grave. This is also evident by the phrase before that, "my flesh shall rest in hope." And this is also a Messianic prophecy. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 20:32
  • Your one good argument here is the Rich Man and Lazarus. Nevertheless, this quickly falls apart as well if you take it as a parable, as Jesus was talking directly to the Pharisees, and showing them that even though Lazarus would come back from the dead they would not listen. And they didn't instead they tried to kill Lazarus and then killed Jesus Himself. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 20:34
  • 2
    @jlaverde: You're pleading specially. If you ask "which Scriptural support do Catholics use to justify praying for the dead" and then disqualify what we do use as "not really talking about it", you're not quite so much wanting to find out as much as just trying to show us up as "unBiblical" and "wong-headed." And this is not a good fit for this site.
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 10:53
  • To be scrupulously fair to @jlaverde, the question is now asking about how Catholics justify it. It wasn't originally, but the original version didn't fit the on-topic form. It is interesting that the question may hinge on what is actually Biblical; I'm not sure how the site copes with that sort of disagreement. Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 12:46
  • 1
    I actually agree, but since we Catholics don't subscribe to Sola Scriptura, this is not actually a problem at all for us. The strongest argument for praying for the dead from a Catholic point of view is that this is what the Church has always done. Of course, this is not what was asked, and thus it is not what I answered.
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 16:25

In regard to your final question of:

How would a Catholic convince a sola scriptura Protestant?

That's probably "off-topic" since you gave this a catholic tag instead of a protestant tag. I think you need to flip that since it seems like "what would be the scriptural support for prayer for the dead under the Protestant Canon" is your real question. So, I'll try to answer it even though you added the catholic tag. To convince a Protestant, you would need to stick to what the Protestant views as Canon. The only reference that I was able to find was 2 Tim 1:16-18:

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me-—may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus.

Though this is not a foregone conclusion, it has been argued since he is talking about the household of Onesophorus, rather than Onesiphorus himself, that Onesiphorus was likely dead...and Paul seems to give a prayer, "may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day!"

If the assessment is correct, then you could assume that prayers for the dead are definitely not a wrong or sinful thing to do. This is also supported at least by Lutheran's who teach:

... we know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not prohibit; but we disapprove of the application ex opere operato of the Lord's Supper on behalf of the dead (wikipedia)

My own personal view as a protestant is that I have prayed for my grandmother many times. She was abusive to my mom and was totally messed up. She is now dead, but when she comes to mind, I do often pray that God will have mercy on her because I think she had been messed up by her own abuse. I hope that she finds God's mercy...


There are a few scriptures which come to mind regarding doing things for those who have died.

The first is Isaiah 8:19 (KJV):

19 ¶ And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?

[Emphasis added.]

The second is 1 Corinthians 15, especially v. 19 and 29 (KJV):

19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

29 Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

The next would be John 5:25-29 (KJV):

25 Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.

26 For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself;

27 And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.

28 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice,

29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

[Emphasis added.]

There is also 1 Peter 4:6 (KJV):

6 For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

The last one that readily comes to mind is Romans 14:7–9 (KJV):

7 For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.

8 For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.

9 For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.

[Emphasis added.]

From these verses, we can conclude:

  1. We, the living, are to seek God regarding the dead.
  2. We should have hope in Christ after this life.
  3. Work, including baptism, can be done in this life in behalf of those who are dead.
  4. The dead are capable of hearing the voice of the Son of God.
  5. The gospel has already been preached to the dead (and there is no indication that this instruction ceased at the time of the writing).
  6. Christ is the Lord of the dead.
  • None of these really talk about praying for the dead, though. Your first verse is talking about something that God prohibits. Now why would God prohibit something that is good? Your next 3 verses are talking about the resurrection of the dead, not dead spirits without bodies. 1 Peter 4:6 is a good one here, nevertheless look at the word tense used. the gospel was preached also to them that are dead. This could also be talking about those that were living before, but are NOW dead. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 20:42
  • The last verse is not really showing anything about the state of the dead, nor whether we should pray for them. It simply states that Jesus is Lord of both those that have died and those that live. They are good arguments, nevertheless, not solid. Thank you for taking the time to answer though. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 20:45
  • Your stated question was "Is there Biblical support for..." not "Does the Bible expressly require...*. None of the passages you cite say a thing about refraining from the practice, they only hint the practice may have no effect. The first verse speaks of God's prohibition on seeking the dead through a medium other than God. Your next point seems to indicate you believe there are dead spirits with bodies. Regarding the last verse, why would the dead need a Lord? As Daniel 5:23 alludes to, there is a reason God is not the Lord of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood; they need no Lord.
    – Tavrock
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 21:07
  • @jlaverde Out of curiosity, how would you write that the gospel was preached to those that are dead if your intent was to convey something other than "the gospel was preached before they were dead."
    – Tavrock
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 21:10
  • 1
    Don't forget that the NIV puts a Protestant slant on things. Now doesn't appear in the Vulgate, nor in the original Greek. The verse might be ambiguous; the NIV resolves the ambiguity by inserting a word which matches the interpretation of its editors. More rigorous translations leave the ambiguity. Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 11:11

Praying for one another

I'm not sure if Sola Scriptura Protestants are fans of connecting dots between parts of the Bible, but it it clear to anyone reading the Bible, that in a very literal sense of scripture there are lots of instances of people praying for each other

...when Abraham prayed, God healed Abimelech and his wife, and his handmaids, and they bore children.

Gen 20:17

And far from me be this sin against the Lord, that I should cease to pray for you

1 Kings 12:23

Now therefore pray for us, for thous art a holy woman, and one fearing God

Judith 8:29

Peter therefore was kept in prison. But prayer was mde without ceasing by the church unto God for him

Acts 7:5

The Communion of Saints

That the living and the dead are in communion with one another is something I believe Protestants believe. It's in the in the Apostle's creed, which we hold in common.

Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners; but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God

Eph 2:19

And, I think when anyone thinks of the Body of Christ as St. Paul puts it

So we being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another

Rom 7:5

doesn't exclude those who die in Christ from His body.

Praying for other members of the communion of saints

Praying for those in Heaven is not going to get them any more in Heaven, perhaps someone believes that it will, I don't know - that's probably not important. But, what about those who die and don't go to Heaven. Well, you probably have to believe in Purgatory for that to matter, but for the sake of this post, lets consider praying for the healing of an uncle with Alzheimers who was raised a Lutheran but spent most of his life living like a pagan.

We, Catholics and Protestants should not reject these people:

May no one remain indifferent to these our brothers and sisters. The Church looks with respect and affection on those who suffer from this affliction and urges the entire human family to accept them, giving special care to the poorest and most abandoned.

St. John Paul II - General Audience - April 4, 2001

We've established that Catholics and Protestants both share an interest in praying for each other. And there's no harm in praying for a person's healing so that they might be saved. And the living and the dead share a spiritual bond. The choice to pray for a person really doesn't whether or not the person is dead. If they're in Heaven, great - if they're in Hell, well not so great - if they're somewhere else "paying the last penny", hopefully your prayers are put to good use.

One thing I've never read in the Bible is to not pray for someone.

*Biblical references in this post are inferred to be the Catholic interpretation of scripture by virtue of appearing under the same subhead in A Texutual Concordance of the Holy Scriptures, Published by TAN Books

  • 1
    You say "that the living and dead are in communion with one another." This is, in fact, the very crux of the matter. What exactly do you mean by this phrase and can this be backed by Scripture? Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 12:24
  • @jlaverde - Hebrews 12:22-23 would be a good example. Hebrews 12:1 would probably also be relevant.
    – guest37
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 1:31

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .