Question # 21 – Is there any example or command for people of God to pray for the dead so that sins unrepented of and unforgiven while these people were alive could be forgiven because of the prayers and good deeds of the living relatives?
Answer – From the 39 books from Genesis to Malachi, there is no command, no inference, no example of living people of God who offered prayers and assigned good deeds, donated a large sum of money to atone for the sins of relatives who are consigned in the uncomfortable section of Hades. None whatsoever.
It was the belief among the Jews that Malachi closes the inspired books. Malachi was the last prophet who received revelation from God about 430 B.C.. Then came the silent years of about 370 years until God resumed giving His message by means of dreams and visions in the year 1 A.D., first, through the temple priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist (Matt. 1 & Luke 1), and also through Joseph and Mary by the angel Gabriel.
The practice of praying for the dead appears to have started about the time of the Maccabees. The Greeks in Syria were in control of Palestine from the time of Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. until 168 B.C.. The Jewish people were being forced to observe Greek religion and culture. A Helenizing team went to a town west of Jerusalem where a priestly family settled and this team wanted to indoctrinate the Jews. Mattathias, head of the family and his sons (Judas, Jonathan, John) killed the Greek representative. Subsequently, Judas Maccabeus led the Jews in expelling the Seleucids of Syria from Jewish territory.
During this Jewish revolution headed by the Judas and Jonathan, thousands of Jews died in battles. The following apocryphal book records the first practice of praying for the dead:
2 Maccabees 12:39-45, “On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchers of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead, they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (Revised Standard Version, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha)
The seven Roman Catholic Church apocryphal books are added to the Old Testament. These are dated after the book of Malachi and before the book of Matthew. Jerome, who was appointed by Pope Damasus, translated the 39 Hebrew books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament, considered the seven apocryphal books as “books of the church” and did NOT consider them canonical. It was only in the year 1546 C.E. in a church council that the Roman Catholic Church made the apocryphal books as “deuterocanonical books” or second canon. Evidently this late canonization was a reaction to the violent European Reformation which started in Germany by the Dominican priest, Martin Luther, on October 31, 1517, when he nailed at the cathedral door his 95 theses. Martin Luther strongly opposed the practice of selling indulgences. That is calling the people to drop money into a collection box paraded around town assuring them that the people’s relatives who are still in Purgatory would jump out from there and transfer into Paradise when enough money or good deeds are done which are dedicated to that dead relative.
New Testament Teaching
The general belief of evangelicals about sin and death is based on Hebrews 9:27-28 which reads, “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
In the Christian era, an individual must have a personal faith in Christ and personally repent of his sins and be baptized for the forgiveness of trespasses. If there is no personal faith and personal repentance and obedience during a lifetime and a person dies, he would be judged and his soul is taken into the uncomfortable section of Hades. That is the picture given in Luke 16:19-31. There is no possibility of transferring into the comfortable section of Paradise even with prayers, candles, good deeds offered on the sinner’s behalf. That is the teaching of Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:36-40; Romans 10:9-10; Acts 22:16.