The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we should pray for the “faithfully departed” in purgatory. According to Catholicism, our prayers help them during their time in purgatory, so that they can enter more quickly into the fullness of heaven. Why would they be in purgatory? The Catholic Church makes a distinction between two types of sin:
Two types of sin
Mortal sin is a “grave violation of God’s law” that “turns the person away from God”, and if it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell. E.g. Murder, adultery, theft
In contrast, venial sins (“forgivable” sin) are sins that are not so serious – they are still wrong, but not so serious – and these sins that won’t exclude us from heaven, E.g. loosing your temper or telling white lie. Pardon and purifications can be made for venial sins in this life through the sacraments e.g. baptism, mass and penance. However, if this purification is not achieved in life, venial sins can still be purified after death, which is called “purgatory”.
However, you might die before you could do your penance, or say confession, or attend mass, and therefore you wouldn’t go immediately to heaven, but to purgatory – where you will me made holy enough for heaven.
The Catholic Church gets this teaching from three places:
(1) The book of 2 Maccabees in the Apocrypha. Here Judas Maccabeus prays for dead soldiers.
(The Apocrypha is a collection of books written in time between the Old and New Testament. These works were not considered scripture by Jesus or the biblical authors and contain teaching inconsistent with the Bible.)
(2) Church tradition, the official teachings of the church over the years.
(3) The Church’s (mis)understanding of certain New Testament passages (E.g. 1 Corinthians 3)
Jesus’ death for sin
The Bible tells us that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sin, all our sin. Through faith in Jesus we are justified and receive the righteousness of Christ. Its 100% forgiveness and 100% right standing before God. Jesus paid the just price for all sin in the Christian’s life: past, present and future. Christians, as the writer of the book of Hebrews says, can “confidently enter the Most Holy place (God’s presence) by the blood (death) of Jesus.” (Hebrews 10:19) As Christians we are assured of our immediate entrance into God’s presence when we die.
This is why Jesus could say to the repentant criminal crucified next to him: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
This is why the apostle Paul could say: “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)
In the story Jesus told about a rich man and Lazarus, both men carried on living after the death, either immediately in the presence of God or in hell. There was no in-between state or place, no purgatory, and no crossing over. (Luke 16)
The statement of faith of the Church of England in South Africa, the 39 Articles of Religion, puts it this way:
Article 31: The one offering of Christ finished in the cross
Christ’s offering of himself on the cross, once for all, is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all sins…, both original and actual, and there is no other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Therefore the sacrifices of masses, in which it is commonly said that the Priest offers Christ for the living and the dead, to obtain the remission of their punishment or guilt, are blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.
Article 22: Purgatory
The Romish teaching about purgatory, pardons, the worship and adoration of images and relics, and also the practice of praying to saints, is a futile deception, which, far from being grounded in Scripture, is repugnant to the Word of God.
This is not to say that we don’t sin as Christians. But, when we do sin, the Bible commends us to confess our sins, turn away from those sins, and thank God for the forgiveness we have in Christ.
Should we pray for the dead? No.
We should remember them and treasure our memories. We can look forward to seeing those that have died again on the renewed earth if they and we are Christians. But our prayers can in no way help, guide or comfort them.