A reader writes:
I was wondering if you have any article about prayer for the dead?
People are asking me different questions, because of the Evangelicals who say: What is the biblical basis to pray for the dead? As you know, bringing proofs from the book Maccabees is not enough,
Another connected issue, those in purgatory needs prayer to go to heaven, right?
The question was: What if two different people go to purgatory, one has a rich family, so they will keep praying and offering Masses for him, while the other is poor, and no body will -pay- and pray for him, so the poor man can stay -longer- in the purgatory, while the rich man can pass quickly to heaven.
How you answer these questions? What are our biblical grounds?
Not all questions can be answered in a way that offers Bible verses as evidence. In fact, not all questions can be answered at all. There are many things we human simply don’t know the answer to, because God hasn’t told them to us, and there are also many things in life that have answers that don’t involve the Bible at all, like how to solve the quadratic equation or where to find the gas station with the cheapest gas or how to make chop suey.
I think it is important to point these things out when dealing with the "Where is that in the Bible?" mentality.
It is also important to point out that, even when dealing with questions that do involve theology, we are Catholics and therefore do not need to provide answers within the confines of sola Scriptura.
As Catholics, we draw information from and our theology is shaped by not only Scripture but also Tradition, the formulations of the Magisterium, philosophy, human nature (i.e., natural law) reasoning, etc.
So, if you are dealing with Catholics who are being pestered by Evangelicals who are demanding that questions be answered on Evangelicals’ terms, it is important to remind the Catholics that they are not Evangelicals and should not slide into the mindset of Evangelicals of trying to answer everything from the Bible. That would cut them off from the other sources of information they have, and it would be as foolish as trying to do theology with just a quarter of what the Bible says rather than what the whole of the Bible says.
Just as we want to accept all of the Bible when we do theology, we also should accept everything that God has revealed to us for these purposes, and that goes beyond what is in the Bible.
An Evangelical might not accept that, but even he should agree to the principle of accepting all of God’s revelation, even if he disagrees about the extent of God’s revelation.
I therefore would question whether citing Maccabees is "not enough" as proof of prayer for the dead. It may not be enough for Protestants, because this book was removed from their Old Testament precisely in order to get rid of the passage dealing with prayer for the dead, but since this passage remains in the Catholic Bible, it should be enough for Catholics.
A Catholic thus might say to an Evangelical, "This passage is in my Bible. I accept it. So it is enough for me. It may not be enough for you because you do not find it in your Bible, but you should think about why that is: The reason is that your religious forebears took this passage out of the Protestant Old Testament precisely because they didn’t like what it said."
A Catolic might continue by pointing out that prayer for the dead was a practice rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition even before the time of Christ, as witnessed by the passage in 2 Maccabees, that Jews still pray for the dead today, and that the vast majority of Christians (i.e., Catholic plus Orthodox and other Eastern Christians) pray for the dead. It is only Protestants who do not.
Therefore, one could argue that if we accept that the Judeo-Christian tradition represents the line of religious belief that, in its broad outlines, is true and that God has worked with to shape, and if a particular practice is acknowledged by the great majority of this tradition, then it would seem that it should be those who do not accept the practice in question should have to argue for why it should not be accepted.
Thus ask the Evangelical: "What is your biblical argument that we should not pray for the dead? In particular, in view of St. Paul’s emphasis on Christian liberty, where is your biblical proof that Christians should not have the liberty to pray for their departed loved ones?"
They may respond by arguing that Jesus paid everything, that the saved are justified and have had their sins removed, etc.–all the standard stuff.
The standard stuff that Evangelicals say here is all true–God has provided salvation to the uttermost to the saved–but it ignores the question of how God has chosen to implement that salvation.
Human experience (along with the Bible) shows that when God saves someone, he does not instantly give the person all the benefits of eschatological salvation, including perfect sinlessness, freedom from concupiscence, the Beatific Vision, an augmented nature that will let us pass thru sealed tombs and enter locked rooms, etc.
It is clear, instead, that while God may have forgiven and justified us, he has chosen to implement the other benefits of salvation as a process. We see part of this process over the course of our lives, as he leads us to grow in holiness. We also have to deal with the consequences of our sins, even when they have been forgiven and will no longer cause us to be damned, as when we must pay back money we have stolen or repair harm that we have done.
This is part of God’s will for the process by which he brings us to heaven, even though it was his Son’s death on the Cross that paid for all of this.
We see part of the process by which God implements our salvation in this life. We do not see what he does in the next, where he may continue to implement it by a process or where he may implement the rest of it all at once (except for the resurrected body part, which we know is later on).
Either way, it is still rational for us to pray for our departed. We love them, and it is natural for us to ask God to help them and be kind to them. If there is a process that they must still undergo as their salvation is implemented, God can help them with that process. If it all happens in an instant, God can help them in that instant–even if the instant is already in the past from our perspective since God is outside of time.
Either way, it is natural for us to ask God to help those we love who have died, and if we do not do so then we either do not really love them or we are in the grip of a theology that asks us to do the unnatural rather than the natural.
It is the Evangelical’s theology that asks us to do something unnatural and to restrain our feelings of love and affection for our departed loved ones by not asking God to help them, and there is no solid basis in the Bible, or anywhere else, for asking this of us.
The reader also wrote: "Another connected issue, those in purgatory needs prayer to go to heaven, right?"
Actually, I wouldn’t put it that way. They don’t "need" prayers to go to heaven. They will go to heaven whether we pray for them or not. We merely ask that God help them as they do this, either by making the implementation of their salvation quicker or easier or in whatever way God knows that they need help. Our prayers thus may help them, but they don’t "need" them.
As to the case of a person with a rich family, this plays off anti-Catholic stereotyping that dates back to the Protestant Reformation whereby Catholic priests are depicted as trying to extort money out of the faithful by saying Masses for the dead.
Well, when a Mass stipend is $5 or $10 (or whatever the local limit is in the diocese), nobody is going to get rich off that. This is a red herring.
But let’s turn the question around and take money and death out of the picture: Suppose that there are two people who are sick, one of whom has a big family to pray for them and one of whom has nobody to pray for them. Which person will God heal more quickly, and if he does heal one more quickly than the other, how can that be fair?
The answer to the first question is that we don’t know who God will heal first. Prayer is not a magical incantation that produces results mechanically, the more it is done. Answers to our prayers are based on God’s choice, and God can choose to answer one more quickly than another. Our job is to do our part by building love for other and love and trust for God by praying.
We also know that God has special care for those who are in hard circumstances–like having nobody to pray for them–and thus he may heal this person first in spite of the fact that nobody was praying for them.
We also know that, ultimately, all healing is a gift of God and thus it is fair for him to give it to whomever he wants, so even if he does first heal the person with a big family praying for them, that’s his choice and the appropriate response on our part is to thank him for the healing.
All of this answers the parallel questions about purgatory: We don’t know who would have their purification completed first, it’s a matter of God’s choice; God has a special care for those with no one to pray for them; and being purified is a gift of God’s grace to begin with, for which our response should be thankfulness.