The practice of lighting candles for the dead may or may not have religious connotations. Sometimes, after a tragedy, people hold candlelight vigils or leave lighted candles at the scene of a person’s death. In these contexts the candles could simply be symbols of the brevity of life or pledges of the living to brighten a dark world. There is nothing wrong with lighting candles for such purposes. However, there are some churches that advise people to light candles for the dead, an action usually accompanied by prayers for the dead. This practice is clearly contrary to biblical teachings.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that lighting candles for the dead in correlation with prayer prolongs and amplifies the prayer and memorializes the deceased. The teaching behind candles associated with praying for the dead is the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. The idea is that, after death, some people exist in a state of misery between heaven and hell; Catholics believe that the prayers of people on earth can improve the lot of those in purgatory and speed up their journey toward heaven. However, the doctrine of purgatory is not found in the Bible; rather, it is based on Roman Catholic tradition.
The belief that candles hasten our prayers’ journey to heaven, make our prayers more powerful or effective, or add anything to our prayers is superstitious. Prayer is a conversation with our heavenly Father—a dialogue between two live, conscious, responsive beings who share the same Spirit. No candle can enhance this relationship.
There is nothing wrong with candles, per se. A lighted candle can provide beauty and symbolize our testimony in the world. However, candles are inanimate objects, with no power, strength, or mystical or supernatural abilities. Candles will not affect how God answers prayer, and they will certainly not assist in changing the destination of a dead person’s soul.
Lighting candles for the dead in order to help the dead to a better place is not biblical. It is natural to have a desire to pray in times of pain, suffering, and loss for loved ones and friends, but praying for the souls of the dead is of no value. Instead, the focus should be on the grieving friends and family members of the departed, as we offer compassion and practical assistance, showing Christ’s love in tangible ways.