2 Samuel 12:21–23—Should we pray for the dead?

Problem: Based on a verse in 2 Maccabees 12:46 (Douay), Roman Catholics believe it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins. However, David refused to pray for his dead son. Does the Bible teach that we should pray for the dead?

Solution: There is nothing in inspired Scripture that supports the Roman Catholic doctrine of praying for the dead that they may be released from their sins. This conclusion is based on strong evidence from many passages. First, the only verse supporting prayers for the dead comes from the 2nd century b.c. apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees (see comments on 1 Cor. 3:13–15) which the Roman Catholic Church added to the Bible in a.d. 1546 in response to the Reformation that condemned such practices.

Second, the doctrine of prayers for the dead is connected with the unbiblical doctrine of purgatory. The prayers are for the purpose of releasing them from purgatory. But there is no basis for the belief in purgatory (see comments on 1 Cor. 3:13–15).

Third, nowhere in all of inspired Scripture is there a single example of any saint who prayed for the dead to be saved. Surely as passionately as many saints wished for their loved ones to be saved (cf. Rom. 9:1–3), there would be at least one example of a divinely approved prayer on behalf of the dead.

Fourth, the Bible makes it unmistakably clear that death is final and there is no hope beyond the grave. Hebrews declared, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Jesus spoke of those who rejected Him as dying “in their sins” (John 8:21, 24), which implies that there is no hope for sins beyond the grave.

Fifth, Jesus set the example in John 11 by weeping for the dead and praying for the living. Upon coming to His friend Lazarus’ grave, “Jesus wept” (v. 35). Then He prayed for “the people who are standing by ... that they may believe” (v. 42).

Sixth, the dead pray for the living (cf. Rev. 6:10), but there are no instances in the inspired Word of God where the living pray for the dead. The martyred saints in glory were praying for vengeance on the wicked (Rev. 6:9). And since there is rejoicing in heaven over one soul saved on earth (Luke 15:10), there is no doubt that there is prayer in heaven for the lost. But the Bible does not hold out even the slightest hope for anyone who dies in their sins (see comments on 2 Thes. 1:9).

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.