On Praying for the Dead, and the Unchangeability of the Past

We must pray for the dead. But only for the repose of their souls; not their salvation. 

This, notwithstanding the fact that one often hears it said: 

But for God there is no past, present, or future — only the Eternal now — and He immediately sees all things spread out before Himself. 

Perhaps God, foreseeing the future prayers and sacrifices of a certain person, will grant the salvation of a soul who died long before those prayers which God there foresaw; therefore, we should indeed pray for the salvation of those who died long ago.”  

Although the first sentence is correct, the second sentence does not follow from it. 

When we pray for the salvation of one who has already experienced his Particular Judgment, we are neglecting the purpose of supplication. Supplication — that is, prayer of petition — is always and only offered under the presupposition that so offering can at least possibly change the outcome of what we are praying about. But what has already finished transpiring in the past is absolutely impossible to change. Aquinas was correct in affirming that not even God can change the past. (Summa Theologica I, q. 25, a. 4) Therefore, we ought not offer supplication directed toward the outcome of something that has already happened.

(Nota bene: this does not “limit” God; it is not some sort of a defect of His Omnipotence. God is reason, as Pope Benedict XVI taught. Therefore, what is contrary to reason, contrary to the laws of logic, is simply not a valid description of God. The fact that God cannot, for example, make 2+2=5, or make a square triangle, is not a limitation; it is a perfection. The fact that I could — if I so foolishly chose — assert that two and two make five is an imperfection of mine; it is a consequence of the fact that I am not yet confirmed in grace.)

We pray for the repose of the souls of the dead because we realize that offering these prayers can either shorten their stay in Purgatory or alleviate their sufferings in Purgatory. 

But what are we doing when we pray for the salvation of one who has already died?

We are doing one of two things:

  1. Praying that something that already happened does in fact happen, or;
  2. Praying that something that has not happened does in fact happen.

1) is useless; there is no more point in praying that than in praying for 2 plus 2 to make four. It’s already the case, and neither you nor anyone could possibly alter it if you tried. 

2) is a contradiction, and it makes no more sense than praying that 2 plus 2 makes five. It is not the case, and neither you nor anyone could possibly make it so if you tried.

Either way, we are doing something silly.

When something good happens to you, what is your immediate reaction? Hopefully, it is to praise, bless, and thank God. Only would someone with a mental impairment or someone who is not thinking clearly immediately react by begging God that it happens — it already happened, so why pray for it to happen?

Suppose a certain soul died long ago and went to Heaven. Suppose that, now, you feel compelled to pray for that soul’s salvation on account of the line of reasoning presented at the top of this article. What exactly are you fearing might happen if — perhaps out of laziness — you choose not to offer these prayers? 

That this soul might lose his salvation? Well, that is a heresy: it is a dogma that all souls in Heaven will remain there forever.

That he might fail to have his damnation reversed? That, too, implies a heretical stance. It is also a dogma that all souls in hell will remain there forever. 

What has been said is, I think, sufficient to make the point. But much more can be said. 


If we must pray for the salvation of those who have already been judged, then what else must we do?

When a given conclusion requires the admission of a certain premise, then we cannot simply decide that this premise will only be permitted to support the conclusion we have in mind. We must, instead — if we wish to be honest and truthful — allow that premise to generate whatever other conclusions logically flow from it. 

Now, supposing that one should pray for the salvation of another who has already had his particular judgment requires admitting the following premise:

 God’s foreknowledge means that future prayers may be necessary for the accomplishment of a certain event, therefore we even now should pray for the accomplishment of things that have already been fully accomplished in the past under the possibility that their accomplishment was only achieved due to the prayers we are about to begin praying

Indeed, there is no possible justification for praying for the salvation of one who has already had his judgment except by virtue of admitting that premise. Therefore, we must consider, what else does that same premise compel us to do?

If we should pray for the salvation of one who has already had his particular judgment, then it follows we should also pray for a desirable outcome in an infinite number of other supplications as well. If we are going to begin praying that events which have already completed in the past do turn out a certain way, then we cannot arbitrarily limit that form of praying to prayers for salvation. 

Consider what precedes, and perhaps even surpasses, salvation itself: existence. God passed over an infinite number of possible human beings in order to create you out of nothing. If, therefore, we are going to pray for past events to happen, then what is by far the most important thing for you to pray for is your own creation. You must incessantly beg God to create you. But if something feels off about praying that you are created (as, I suspect, will rightly be the case for just about everyone); if it just feels a little silly and feels like it is not the best use of your time, then whatever problem inspires that feeling also applies equally to praying for the salvation of one who has already experienced his particular judgment. And that is just one example of many. If we should offer prayers of supplication for past events to turn out a certain way, then we must immediately devote ourselves to praying that:

  • God will choose to create the Universe instead of simply ever remaining infinitely perfect and blessed in Himself
  • The Blessed Virgin Mary will give her “Fiat” upon the Annunciation, thus allowing Redemption to commence
  • Your parents are not killed in a car accident before you are conceived
  • Nuclear war does not break out in 1983

I’m not merely considering purely academic hypotheticals here. I have actually read testimonies of people in the “yes, we should intercede for the past” crowd who boast that they still pray every day for the conversion of St. Augustine. My goodness! God gave us intellects for a reason: so we can use them. You do not need to pray for St. Augustine’s conversion! It already happened (thank you, St. Monica!). Nothing and no one can “un-happen” it. It stands exactly as it is, and always will stand exactly as it is, no matter what prayers you do or do not offer. Do not waste your time with things you should know, if only you took a few moments to think, are silly. Now, thanks be to God in His great goodness — no sincere prayer is wasted, and I am not claiming that there is any moral fault in people offering silly prayers like these. But still, we should direct our prayers in accordance with the best possible intentions for them. 

Now, I am not seeking to relegate the past to irrelevance. Far from it! Praying in relation to the past is extremely important. Although this has always been true, it is particularly true and important in light of Jesus’ revelations to the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta, wherein we learn of our calling to do “The Rounds,” which are a form of mystical prayer in which we spiritually “go around” all of God’s words — past, present, and future — and glorify God on their behalf. 

But take note of what I said: we are glorifying God on their behalf. The Rounds, when done in relation to things in the past, are prayers of glory, adoration, praise and thanksgiving. Not prayers of petition or supplication!  


Notice as well that I said in this article: “one who has already experienced his particular Judgment.” I was not being wordy; the choice of saying that instead of saying “one who has died” was deliberate, because I must confess that it is possible for God to suspend the passage of time for a soul, immediately at the moment of death, so as to await further prayers and sacrifices for that soul’s salvation. I have no idea if God ever does this, but it’s certainly possible. I would go even further and say that it may even be likely that, in the earthly time immediately following someone’s apparent death, the actual time for that soul may be quite different, and we should certainly continue praying for that soul’s salvation until death is absolutely and unquestionably obvious (e.g. a body beginning to decay); people are wrongly proclaimed dead all the time, and so-called “brain death” determinations are particularly prone to error. 

In this case, however, we would not be praying for something that is already passed to transpire a certain way. We would, rather, be praying for something that is happening or has not yet happened to transpire a certain way. If, therefore, you feel you must pray for the salvation of someone who is already dead, then only do so on account of the possibility that this soul has not yet finished experiencing its Particular Judgment. 

Now for some other considerations relevant to this issue.


Trust in Jesus

Jesus desires the salvation of each soul (including your own spouse, children, parents) infinitely more than you do, and you must trust that He has done everything possible to secure each soul’s salvation at the moment of death, and only allowed that soul to nevertheless choose eternal damnation if there was no other possibility

If one is so twisted, obstinate, and perverse to reject and blaspheme even the utterly superlative efforts that Jesus makes at the very moment of death, for each person who dies, in order to secure his salvation, then neither would your prayers have any effect on that soul’s salvation. (Looking forward, we must assume that our prayers are essential for the salvation of many souls. Looking backward, we mustn’t.) 

And from this position of trust, we must believe that if salvation for a given soul who has already died were even possible, Jesus would have secured it, and we must then proceed simply to pray for the deliverance of that soul from Purgatory. 

I know that this disappoints some Catholics, because they feel like they are doing such a greater thing by praying and sacrificing for a soul’s salvation than they are by praying and sacrificing for the blessed repose of a soul. Too many Catholics feel like praying for the souls in Purgatory is some boring, timid, and more or less un-heroic thing to do. It is utterly imperative that we, dear Faithful, eradicate this horribly erroneous notion from our minds. 

Far more people, I believe, are in Purgatory than most of us recognize. And the deepest levels of Purgatory are, in some ways, not much different from hell itself. If we had any idea what the purging souls suffer, how much God loves them and how much they love Him, and how powerful our prayers on their behalf can be, then we would never again be slack in zeal in praying and sacrificing for them. 

I am not “putting God in a box.”

Some may be scandalized by what I have written here; supposing that I am “putting God in a box” by saying even He can’t change the past. But I am not doing so. God can do absolutely anything that is a thing. He is omnipotent. 

Suppose you really want to pray for a past event in hopes that it could change. Well, although not even God can change that, He could nevertheless very easily do something essentially equivalent to changing the past. He could annihilate the universe, re-create it, and re-do its entire History up to the present moment almost exactly as History as we know it transpired, with the single exception of changing that particular past event that you wanted to pray about. This sounds ridiculous; but, in truth, it wouldn’t even be slightly difficult for God. 

However, I’m quite confident God would never do that. Why? Well, again, not because it is too “out there” or “difficult” — anything that is a thing is easy for God. Rather, it is because doing so would imply imperfection on the part of God. It would imply that He is like us weak creatures who constantly need to re-do and re-try things, because we never get it right the first time. God isn’t like that. He is always exactly the same, and He is always almighty and perfect and infinite. From the beginning of time, His plan for the universe was and is perfect, and nothing and no one can thwart this plan. So please, if something already happened in the past, just stop fretting about it. Instead, trust that it was part of God’s perfect plan on account of His permissive Will (which, even when it allows things He doesn’t specifically want, nevertheless only does so when God knows a far greater good will come that could not have otherwise come, except by allowing the thing in question), give God your Fiat, and proceed to direct your supplication to the present and the future. 

Let me offer a day to day example, even if it is a bit silly. I confess one of my greatest primordial fears to you: that, when the garbage truck has left after taking my trash each week, half of the garbage will remain; still stuck in my trash can. Terrifying, I know.  (Cut me some slack. With 4 children, two of whom are still in diapers, and a lot of work to do on my house and property, I cannot afford to have garbage left in the can each week; I really need all of that space available for the upcoming week’s garbage!)

Anyway, when I am walking down my driveway each week to fetch the (hopefully empty) cans, I find myself each time offering a little prayer: “Please let all of the garbage be out of the can.” Now, one might accuse me of contradicting myself here. He could say: “Wait, Daniel. The garbage truck already left.  Either it did, or it did not, take all of the trash. Why on earth would you pray that all of the garbage is gone, then? Are you trying to change the past?

No, I am not trying to change the past. When I offer that prayer, what I’m effectively praying for is simply the following: “Please, if any garbage is left in the trash can, then miraculously take it out of the trash right now and transport it into the garbage truck that is already who knows where; or perhaps even directly into the landfill!” That might sound ridiculous and outlandish; but it wouldn’t even be the slightest bit difficult for God to do. He could very easily do so instantaneously and invisibly without anyone ever noticing. So why not ask? 

Though this example is silly, my purpose in sharing it is just to emphasize that my goal with this post is not to try and cause people to abandon all sorts of prayers of supplication for fear of being guilty of erroneously praying for the past to change. Prayers you might be tempted to think of as changing the past, God could have plenty of other ways of fulfilling without actually needing to change the past. 

Maybe you are about to open up your email, but you are dreading having to sort through the amount of spam or pointless messages you may have received since you last checked. There’s nothing wrong with saying a quick prayer that you will not have problematic emails in your inbox; even if they were already sent and had already landed in your inbox, God could very easily simply remove any problematic messages from your inbox without you or anyone ever needing to know. (Not even protonmail or two-stage verification can stop Him, in fact!) And if any of these problematic emails were sent by people expecting a response, He could intervene to help them not think again about the fact that they were expecting a response! 

We could go on and on with similar examples. Instead of doing so, just know that all I am saying here is that, if something is patently absurd and obviously contrary to reason, we should not pray for it — but, on the other hand, don’t suppose that you need to have some specific plan in your mind for how exactly your prayer would be answered by God before you dare to speak it, for fear of asking for something absurd. Do not be scrupulous about it. No sincere prayer is ever wasted, anyway. 

For those interested in a more jargony philosophical exposition, I will say the following:

No effect is greater than its cause. It is a fallacy to seek to deduce conclusions pertaining to a metaphysical reality from the premises of an epistemological limitation. 

We cannot, in other words, defer to our own lack of knowledge about some objective fact about reality and pretend that this deficiency in our own knowledge can itself justify assertions that would necessarily contradict what logic can conclude about that objective fact pertaining to reality. 

What that means in the present inquiry is that we cannot insist that our own lack of knowledge regarding how a certain soul’s Particular Judgment transpired (the epistemological limitation) justifies treating the outcome of this already completed judgment (the metaphysical reality) as in and of itself subject to that very epistemological limitation itself. The metaphysical reality is superior in every way and it is in no way subject to what is inferior to it.  

Do you, for example, while reading a novel — printed with ink on paper — ever find yourself praying that the plot will turn out a certain way simply because you do not yet know how the plot will transpire? If so, you may not be doing anything sinful, but you are doing something rather silly and you are wasting your time. In fact, praying that the story will turn out a certain way the first time you read it is no less silly than praying that the story will turn out a certain way the second time you read it, when you already know the story’s ending — the mere fact of the epistemological imitation (i.e, that, the first time reading the story, you did not know the plot), does not mitigate the silliness of praying a prayer of petition for something that is already passed (in this case, the story has already been written, printed, and set before you). Your knowledge of reality, or lack thereof, does not alter reality itself. 

Let’s suppose you do feel silly praying thus on the second read-through of the novel, when you already know the ending (could anyone fail to feel silly about that?), but you do not feel silly praying thus on the first read-through when you do not know the ending. This would testify to nothing other than the fact that emotion is often completely irrational. But when emotion contradicts reason, we must always side with reason. Such prayers are no less misguided when offered on the first read-through than they are on the second read-through. They have ontologically identical moral and spiritual worth: namely, none

This entire matter is reminiscent of what certain physicists seek to do with the “Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” Under certain interpretations of this principle (i.e. those of Neils Bohr, against whom Einstein rightly debated this point), a given particle actually isn’t — in reality — one thing or another, but only becomes one thing or another upon observation. Before observation, the HUP insists that reality itself is truly affected by our own lack of knowledge (“measurement”) thereof.

Now, a sane person looks at this and says, “Okay… well, that’s not actually what it means, then. What physicists must actually mean when they say this is merely that, practically speaking, we cannot successfully ascertain whether the particle is ___ or ____; not that the particle actually itself isn’t ___ or ___.” This is basically what Einstein rightly said to Bohr. 

Unfortunately, this sane person is mistaken; because he made the mistake of assuming all modern scientists are sane. 

Now, it is radically and by definition beyond the realm of possibility for empirical science to make such a claim. For an empirical-scientific approach to proceed from the premise:

 “we do not know ____, and each time we strive to ascertain the reality of _____, we arrive at an impasse” 

to the conclusion:

 “_____ must not merely be for some reason beyond our present instrumentation’s observational grasp, but must actually itself be fundamentally indeterminate.”

… is for empirical science to completely misunderstand its own nature, scope, foundation, and limitations. 

This is really rather straightforward, but one rarely finds modern physicists acknowledging it, since they are too caught up in the minutiae of their experiments and equations to take a step back and consider the absolute bedrock logical constraints of the scenario. The problem, as I also mentioned in Appendix 3 here, is that too often modern science detaches itself from reality in its very premises, but still pretends that the conclusions which follow nevertheless themselves successfully describe reality. 

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. When I hear of people advocating for praying for past events (mostly the salvation of a soul who already had his judgment) merely because we do not yet know the outcome of them, and because God (being outside of time) sees our prayers in advance– what I see is a theological co-opting of Bohr’s interpretation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which has wreaked such havoc in empirical science, detached it from reality, and borne absolutely no good fruit. This understanding of the principle has done nothing to advance our understanding of reality, it has done nothing to contribute to the advancement of science, and it has done nothing to contribute to technological advancement. When, theologically, we succumb to similarly unreasonable arguments, we risk the same fate. 

Consoling the Sacred Heart of Jesus

There is another objection one may pose:

“But consoling the Sacred Heart of Jesus and offering Him reparation is extremely important. His Passion, however, is already completed in the past — why, then, under your argument, would we bother to offer this reparation and consolation if it cannot change the past?”

The answer to this objection is simple: in one sense, Jesus’ Passion is already completed in the past — but in another sense, it isn’t. It is in accordance with that latter sense that we must indeed console the Sacred Heart of Jesus and offer Him reparation. 

Jesus’ Passion, being an eternal and Divine act, is still in act, even though Christ’s flesh is in Heaven and thus immune to suffering and what He did physically and temporally 2,000 years ago is already over and unchangeable. We don’t, for example, pray for a mitigation of suffering for the martyrs who already died, because their passion was a temporal thing, and  is already completely done. But Christ’s Passion isn’t actually completely done until the end of time.

Another sense in which Christ’s Passion continues — and thus remains the legitimate object of our reparation and consolation — is on behalf of His body (the Church — especially victim souls). A couple helpful quotes from Jesus to Luisa illuminate this reality:

 “My daughter, I make use of you in order to continue my Passion.  Since my glorified body can no longer be capable of suffering, by coming into you, I make use of your body just as I used mine during the course of my mortal life, to be able to continue to suffer my Passion, and therefore to be able to offer you as living victim of reparation and propitiation before Divine Justice.”  ….

“I continue my Passion in you for the good of souls – not mystically, but really; and this is a great relief for Me, as I collect the true fruit of my Cross and of the Eucharist.” …. 

“My daughter, everything that was done by Me is eternal. My Humanity was not to be suffering for a time, but for as long as the world is world. And since my Humanity in Heaven is no longer able to suffer, I use the humanities of creatures, making them share in my pains in order to continue my Humanity on earth; and this, with justice, because when I was upon earth I embodied all the humanities of creatures within Me, in order to save them and do everything for them. Now, being in Heaven, I diffuse my Humanity, my pains and all that my Humanity did for the good of corrupted souls in them, especially in those who love Me, so as to say to the Father: ‘My Humanity is in Heaven but also on earth, in the souls who love Me and who suffer.’ Therefore, my satisfaction is always complete; my pains are always in act, because the souls who love Me stand in for Me. So, be consoled when you suffer, because you receive the honor of standing in for Me.”

For similar reasons, we must offer reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Physically, she too is in Heaven and thus cannot suffer in that sense. Mary, unlike her Son, is not by nature Divine, but she nevertheless lived perfectly and fully in the Divine Will, and thus her acts participated in eternity. Additionally, she is the mother of the Church and the mother of each one of us, therefore our sorrows are her sorrows, so for a similar reason that Jesus continues His Passion in the Church, so too does Our Lady do so in a related sense.


Through praying and living in the Divine Will, we can “re-do” the past so as to repair its relation to eternity, but the objective acts of the past themselves remain unchangeable. Consolation and reparation can pertain to the relation of a past event to eternity. How a given event actually transpired, though (e.g. whether a soul was saved at its Judgment), is not about the relation of an event to eternity: it is about the event itself; therefore, any prayer — in the Divine Will or otherwise — offered with the intent of changing that event, is not a prayer that should be offered.