This being All Souls' Day, I thought I would take a look at the practice of praying for the departed. This will be a little bit more polemical than most of my posts have been thus far.
According to the cheat sheet in the back of my Bible, there are a total of fourteen works of mercy. Seven are corporal: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, bury the dead; seven are spiritual: admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead.
It is commonly believed that prayers for the dead are derived from what are, inaccurately, called the Apocrypha. It is true that the only explicit Scriptural reference to prayers for the dead comes from a passage not accepted as canonical by most Protestants (Anglicans can go either way). II Maccabees, alluded to occasionally in the New Testament (e.g. Hebr. 11.35b, cf. II Macc. 7), is a literary account of the Jewish revolt against the religious persecution of the Seleucid Empire in the second century BCE. The relevant passage describes Judas Maccabee and his men, after a battle, performing the last corporal work of mercy (burying the dead) and combining it with the last spiritual work of mercy:
"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 [cf. Josh. 7]. So they 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. ... [Judas Maccabee] 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." -- II Macc. 12.40-42a, 43-45
Although the books of the Maccabees are not accepted by the Jews as Scripture, this does reflect the practice of some Jews at the time, and contemporary Orthodox practice: for nearly a year after their death, Orthodox Jews to this day pray for their dead.
The key is the mention of the resurrection. As St Luke mentions in Acts 23.6-9, "The Sadducees say there are no such things as resurrection, or angels, or souls; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three." It is a little-realized fact that, although He clashed with them on spiritual grounds more often than anybody else -- and perhaps not least because they were more widespread, numerically and geographically, than the other sects of Judaism -- Jesus and the Pharisees shared an overwhelming majority of their doctrine. The original premise of praying for the dead was a doctrine still accepted by both Protestant and Catholic Christians: that death is not the end, that the soul survives death and will receive bodily resurrection and judgment at the End, and that the worldly habit of talking about death as the end and the dead as the non-existent -- which has crept even into Christian usage -- is simply wrong.
Messianism aside, it was primarily the heart attitude of Jesus and 'the Nazarenes,' rather than dogmas, that distinguished them from the Pharisees; which is why St Paul was able to play the Pharisees off against the Sadducess, when the Sanhedrin was convened for the express purpose of condemning him. Though the book's status as canon was in dispute, this part of II Maccabees was probably written partly as a polemic against the Sadducee doctrine that humans have no souls and will not be resurrected -- doctrines found chiefly in literature written during the intertestamental period (e.g. I and II Maccabees, Daniel, Wisdom).
It is therefore, based simply on the historical data, more than possible that the earliest Christians did pray for their dead; for the reason that would have occurred to them not to do so, coming immediately from the Jewish matrix of the faith, would have been a denial of the resurrection, which was (well, and still is) heretical. This may be in the back of the mysterious reference to baptism for the dead in I Corinthians 15.
The standard Protestant reason for dissenting from this ancient practice is rather different. No Protestants that I know are conspicuous for resembling the Sadducees in this regard. For one thing, their beards are not nearly long enough, except maybe for my friend Nazim's. But the reason put forth by Luther, Calvin, and co. for rejecting prayers for the dead was twofold: first, when they determined that the Deuterocanonical books (I and II Maccabees et al.) were not Scripture, they no longer felt that there was Biblical support for the practice; second, they felt that the practice encouraged, or was even premised upon, a belief in Purgatory, which they rejected for similar reasons.
When I was a Calvinist I thought our grounds for rejecting the additional books of the Catholic canon were rather silly. Rejecting them on dogmatic grounds didn't make any sense to me -- surely we ought to settle what Scripture is first, and then derive our doctrine from that, rather than deciding what we think and then subjecting Scripture to our own litmus test of validity? And the argument that the Jews rejected them cut no ice either. After all, the amount of the New Testament accepted by the Jews is small; nay, negligible. Yet that had never stopped us from accepting it.
I think I still take that view. However, I have come to appreciate some of the arguments in favor of a Jewish Old Testament, even though I do not find them persuasive -- as, for instance, the point that to them were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3.1ff). But even taking that into consideration, if the Jewish people have the privilege of determining the contents of the Old Testament, then how much more ought they to have a say in how it is to be interpreted? And it is only the Orthodox Jews, who have maintained the two-and-a-bit-thousand-year-old practice of praying for the dead, who can be viewed as the heirs of the Judaism that existed in Jesus' time; Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism all have as much or more to do with the dialogue between Judaism and modernity as they do with the internal developments of the Jewish faith since Christ's day. Moreover, it is the Orthodox who are organically descended from, and most closely approximate, the Pharisees in particular: the Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots all perished within about a century of the Crucifixion, and the Samaritans can scarcely be regarded as the main current. As for the Alexandrian Jews, they were precisely the sect of Judaism that accepted the additional books which appear in the Catholic canon. So if we credit the Jews with the right to the greater act of determining the Old Testament canon, and therefore correspondingly with the lesser act of interpreting that canon, it hardly seems logical to rule out a practice that we originally got from them.
Now, about the connection between prayers for the dead and Purgatory. It must be noted that Purgatory is not part-time Hell, as most Protestants have been led to believe. The word in Latin literally means "place of cleansing," and that is just what the Catholic Church teaches about Purgatory. Those who die in the friendship of God, but who have not yet reached the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, as St Paul says in Ephesians, are purified, so as to be able to enjoy the vision of God, in which the blessedness of the dead consists. It is sometimes described as punishment, but it is not retributive. It is corrective; just as setting a broken bone is not retributive punishment for breaking it, but nonetheless will probably hurt.
It might be argued that Purgatory does not appear in the Bible. I am not so sure. Having accepted the doctrine for years simply on the strength of the Christian tradition, I was intrigued by this verse that I had never noticed, about a year ago:
"And some of those who are wise shall fall, to refine and to cleanse them and to make them white, until the time of the end, for it is yet for the time appointed." -- Daniel 11.35
Smack in the universally accepted part of Daniel. Reflections on I Corinthians 3.10-15 could be regarded as pointing in the same direction; and at least one major theologian of the primitive Church, Origen -- what makes it more piquant, he was a formidable scholar of Scripture -- regarded the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18.23-35) as a discourse on this same subject. In other words, whether the Bible speaks to Purgatory depends not so much on whether the Catholic or the Protestant canon of the Old Testament is correct, as it does upon what is the proper interpretation of various parts of the New.
But why make a fuss over praying for the dead in the first place? Sure, the Catholic Church lists it as one of the works of mercy -- but that's a didactic tool, not a set of demands. Well, I dare say that, if the dead can receive help from our prayers, they would welcome them. In the writings of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, a visionary of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is said that Protestants usually spend far longer in Purgatory than anybody else, not because they are any worse than Catholics (frequently the reverse is true), but because so few people aid them by prayer.
But, quite apart from the practical dimension, this is one of the points over which Catholic-Protestant ecumenical discussion has to take place. Catholics and Protestants can certainly cooperate over a pretty wide range of issues, but that is not the same thing as being united -- I pray that they may be one, just as We are one, Jesus said to the Father in John 17. Not talking about our divisions does not make them disappear. A lowest-common-denominator approach to Christian unity suggests contempt for the truth as such, and is inconsiderate of the feelings of those who treasure things that lie beyond the bounds of the LCD -- and, moreover, it implies that the Holy Spirit cannot be trusted to guide us into all the truth (John 14.26, 16.12-14). If we are serious about achieving Christian unity, we have to be willing to talk about the things that constitute obstacles to it.
Of course, that may seem abstract; not everyone is inclined to care deeply about the cause of reunion. Permit me to make a suggestion. We all acknowledge that none of us, except by Divine revelation, can know whether another person is saved. Might we not, then, pray that the dead have received salvation? After all, as long as we do not know whether something has happened or not, we may pray for it: once we do know, it falls into the category of God's known will, which is to be submitted to. But until that point, it makes very little difference whether the things we don't know are past or future; for all are known to God. Might we then, in consequence, take prayers for the final salvation of the dead, whether we believe in Purgatory or not, as a starting point for further discussion?