Is it biblical to pray for the dead?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Please help me understand the verse Revelation 5:8 What are the prayers of the saints? Who are these prayers for? Are these prayers for earthly saints? Or for people who have already died?

Answer: That’s an important question… and I will give you a response. But you’ve asked me to identify an element in the most symbolic book in the Bible… and the more symbolic something is, the more its interpretations can vary. Just keep this in mind as we go.

“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
(Revelation 5:8, ESV)

These particular prayers — and particularly as represented by incense in the context of temple imagery — should be understood to take the role of incense in the sentence, which is offering them up as a sweet aroma to God. Psalm 141:2 describes this aspect of prayer perfectly.

“May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2, NIV)

That being said, there are certainly different types of prayers — like prayers of supplication. This is the type most people are familiar with… because this is the type where we ask God for help! But there are other types, too… like the prayers of imprecation (Psalm 55:1-15) and prayers of intercession (Luke 23:34). But the fact that the prayers in this verse are not identified by type or in detail — and that they are together in an incense bowl — tells us that the author wants us to consider them collectively.

As such, this verse is aiming way above the “to whom,” “from whom,” “about whom” … or the “what” and “where” of these prayers. So, searching for such details would be futile… not to mention beside the point. The point is that God considers prayer-at-large as incense —  a sweet aroma to him. God established incense as a part of the sacerdotal system (and therefore as symbolism) in Exodus 30:1 when Moses built the Altar of Incense, and he continued the symbolism out into the eschaton, where your verse in question lives.

But your question still stands — who are these prayers for? Pretty much everyone. Since these prayers are the aggregate of all believers’ prayers throughout all time, they are about everybody and about everything that is consistent with God’s will. If you prayed for somebody’s salvation, that prayer would be in the bowl. If you prayed for the safety and relief of people after a natural disaster, that prayer would be in the bowl. If you prayed that God would conform you into the image of Jesus Christ, that prayer would be in the bowl.

But if you prayed that God would save or relieve someone who has already died… that prayer would not be in the bowl... and I think this is the issue you are most concerned is within the final part of your question. So, does this verse give credence to the tradition of praying for the dead? Not at all.

Don’t get me wrong, we should pray for those who are mourning the dead... that they use this sad milestone to assess their lives and to find salvation for themselves. But the dead have already sealed their fate… for good or for evil (Luke 16:19-31). There is no post-mortem plan of salvation. Now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2). After death, a person faces judgment… not opportunities for advancement (Hebrews 9:27).

(See article at

Since praying for the dead has no biblical warrant, doing so would be a waste of time... but it would not be just a waste of time: it would be a dreadful thing to teach and encourage. Praying for the dead teaches the wrong lessons about salvation — like that the death-then-judgment motif does not apply to us when this motif ties in critically with the “once and for all” aspect of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

“Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:26–28, NIV, emphases mine)

But perhaps the most critical problem concerning praying for the dead is that it insults Christ. Anyone who insists — in the face of Jesus’ completed work on the cross (John 19:30) — that the dead have recourse after death, has changed the terms of salvation in a way that disgraces Christ publicly (Hebrews 6:6).

As a final word, you handled the term “saints” correctly in your question. But the “tradition of men” (Mark 7:8) has morphed this term out of its biblical meaning in the minds of many who identify themselves as Christians — and so much so that it is often connected wrongly with prayer. Now, you used the term correctly; I understand you were referring to any believer in Jesus Christ, dead or alive. But note this well: the term “saint” implies parity, not hierarchy.

“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:7, ESV, emphasis mine)

 “Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34, NIV)

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NIV)

Some traditions use the term “saint” when referring to people of an elite holy class — so holy, in fact, that they encourage people to pray to them. But the Bible will have none of that.

“For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,”
(1 Timothy 2:5, NIV, emphasis mine)

So, even though your question tells me that you understand what the Bible tells us about how life after death works, the ubiquity of the idea that God wants us to pray for the dead could be the basis for some misunderstandings about Revelation 5:8.

I hope that this brief explanation has helped you more than it has confused you. God bless you.

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