Why do we pray for the dead?
First of all, because they are not really "gone." They're elsewhere, certainly, but their souls have not ceased to exist. They can benefit from our prayers.
But they've gone to heaven or to hell, haven't they?
Some have gone to hell, yes, sadly. Some -- martyrs, and those who in some other way have been thoroughly cleansed on this earth, and babies and young children -- have gone straight to heaven. But the rest of us need a bath.
That's how I've always explained purgatory to my children. It's the bath we take -- the bath we'll want to take -- before we enter the Gates.
It's an explanation that works for a very young child, but also makes eminent sense to an adult. We die stained still by sin. We need a good scrubbing, don't we?
I ask my children to imagine a couple of different scenes: One is a day on which they stay indoors and read a good book. Not much effort in the tub that night. A bath is perfunctory. They could almost skip it and go straight to bed. But, wash your face at least, eh?
On another day, they play outside. In the mud. It spatters everywhere. And they're out for hours, so there are layers of muck and mess. That bath is going to take quite a bit longer, isn't it?
Then I explain that the sins on our soul when we die are like the dirt at the end of the day. How much dirt is there? How long will it take to get it off? How much soap will it require? And isn't it time to scrub away that scab on my knee?
When we consider that final bath, it helps us to examine how much effort we're putting forth in life to get clean and to stay clean. How long and involved do we want that bath of purgatory be?
C.S. Lewis first illustrated this point for me when he said:
Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?
On the traditional Protestant view, all the dead are damned or saved. If they are damned, prayer for them is useless. If they are saved, it is equally useless. God has already done all for them. What more should we ask? But don’t we believe that God has already done and is already doing all that He can for the living? What more should we ask? Yet we are told to ask.
"Yes," it will be answered, "but the living are still on the road. Further trials, developments, possibilities of error, await them. But the saved have been made perfect. They have finished the course. To pray for them presupposes that progress and difficulty are still possible. In fact, you are bringing in something like Purgatory."
Well, I suppose I am . . .
I believe in Purgatory . . .
Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the "Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory" as that Romish doctrine had then become ... The right view returns magnificently in Newman's Dream. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer "With its darkness to affront that light." Religion has reclaimed Purgatory.
Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, "It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy"? Should we not reply, "With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first."
"It may hurt, you know" —
"Even so, sir."
And we will thank our God, Who is so kind and so loving that He offers and allows us what our souls demand.