Would It Be Wrong to Light a Candle in Memory of a Deceased Loved One?


It depends.

Before answering the particular question at issue, we need to understand that a true Christian is not obligated to avoid a certain practice or conduct, only because pagans are engaged in it. We addressed this question in two previous Q&As, titled Should Christians Use Symbols which Are Used by Pagans? and Should Christians Wear Wedding Rings?” .

We pointed out the following in the Q&A on wedding rings:

“… we must be careful that we do not… prohibit everything, whether it is used in worship services or otherwise, only because pagans might have engaged in it. We addressed this issue in a recent Q&A, which answered the question as to whether Christians should use symbols which are used by pagans. Among other symbols, we discussed the symbol of the heart, certain symbols which are being used in sign language, the Star of David and the symbols of stars in general. We also pointed out that the mere fact that pagans and occultists attach a particular meaning and human interpretation to certain symbols should not compel a Christian to refrain from using these symbols. This same principle applies to wedding rings…

“Inasmuch as the Bible has to be our guide on whatever questions might arise, it is immaterial as to what superstitious meanings pagans and occultists may give to their use of wedding rings. Since the Bible clearly allows the wearing of wedding rings, pagan and occult interpretations are meaningless for us—as long as we do not wear wedding rings with a superstitious understanding of occult practices.”

This same principle applies to the lighting of candles in memory of a deceased loved one.

Even though not compelling, it is still interesting to note that this tradition has been used in Judaism.

The website of JewishBoston.com addressed the question: “Where does the custom of lighting memorial candles for the dead come from…?”

Rabbi Neal Gold responded as follows, especially addressing the annual memorial day of “yahrtzeit” — the yearly anniversary of a loved one’s death which goes back to Talmudic times:

“A Yahrtzeit candle should be lit on the evening of the anniversary (remembering that in the Jewish calendar days begin at sunset). If the anniversary falls on Shabbat or on a holiday, the Yahrtzeit candle is lit before the Shabbat/holiday candles. The candle typically will burn for 24 hours…”

We are also informed by another source that Jews light a Yahrzeit candle to remember someone who brightened our lives, stating that amid the sadness and gloom of mourning, light is a symbol of hope and of comfort. Mourners light a candle in honor of the decedent that burns for 24 hours. This ceremony is conducted on the anniversary of special family members each year to ensure that their memory is cherished. In addition, during services on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavu’ot, close relatives recite the mourner’s prayer, Yizkor (“May He remember…”) in synagogue. Yahrzeit candles are also lit on those days.

Even though the Bible does not say anything about an annual memorial of loved ones (or a “Yahrtzeit”), it is important for us to note that the lighting of candles is associated with it, as well as on other occasions in Judaism, without pointing at any pagan origin.

At the same time, we find in Scripture that mourning for dead loved ones and also remembering those who have died is very clearly not against God’s Will. We read in Genesis 37:34-35 that Jacob mourned many days for his son Joseph (who he thought had died). In turn, the Egyptians mourned for dead Joseph seventy days (Genesis 50:3-4). The Israelites mourned for Moses thirty days (Deuteronomy 34:8). A reference to a long-time mourning for the dead is also found in 2 Samuel 14:2-6. King David mourned for his dead son Absalom even though he had betrayed him (2 Samuel 19:2-4). We read that Israel will mourn for Christ and His death, when they realize why Christ died, “as one mourns for his only son, and… as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).

As we will see, since we are allowed to mourn over the death of a loved one, we most certainly are allowed to express our good memories of him or her and our hope in his or her future life.

It is true, of course, that lighting a candle is applied in Catholicism and paganism. Candles burning in a Roman Catholic church are thought to continue the prayer’s petition long after he/she has left the church. But to ascribe power to candles is unbiblical. On the eve of All Souls’ Day in Ireland, families lit a candle in the window to guide the souls of the dead back to their old homes. Candles are lit for the dead as a way of symbolizing their rebirth and transition. This is equally unbiblical, as man does not possess an immortal soul which continues to live when a person dies.

This brings us to the question as to whether a Christian would be free to light candles in memory of a deceased loved one, as long as he does not do it with the wrong understanding of ascribing power to the candle or believing in an immortal soul concept.

We know that in Old Testament times, candles played an important role even in worship services. We read about the golden lampstand with seven lamps (Exodus 25:37), and the lamps had to burn continuously (Exodus 27:20-21). In the New Testament, Christ often used the symbol of light to express His love and concern for the world, and we are told that we are the light of the world and that we are not to light a lamp (or a candle) and put it under a basket. New Testament Christians would light candles at the beginning of the Sabbath, as they would do in the evening of every new day (remember, they did not have any electrical lights). In addition, Christ refers to entire churches as “candlesticks.”

There is rich symbolism in the act of lighting a candle on behalf of a loved one, if we combine with it the contemplation on the promise that one day our loved one will rise from the dead and that we will see him or her again.

We read in Proverbs 20:27 that every human being has a spirit, which is the “lamp of the LORD.” The Authorized Version says that the human spirit is “the candle of the LORD.” Ecclesiastes 12:7 tells us that when a person dies, his or her spirit goes back to God in heaven who gave it (compare Zechariah 12:1). God preserves the human spirit in heaven until He uses it for the resurrection of the dead person. We understand of course, that the spirit in man is not conscious while it is preserved in heaven. It is not a living soul, and we do not pray or communicate in any way to the human spirit or a conscious soul, when we think of a deceased loved one, by lighting a candle.

Nevertheless, in lighting a candle for a deceased loved one, we might think of the fact that his or her spirit (“the lamp of the LORD”) is preserved in heaven and that God has promised that one day, the deceased loved one will be resurrected and brought back to life. We read in Hebrews 12:22-24 that in prayer to God, we come to the heavenly Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels, the general assembly and church of the first-begotten registered in heaven, AND to the “spirits of the just men made perfect.” But the promise of the preservation of the human spirit and future resurrections applies to everyone—not just to those who have been “made perfect” and will be in the FIRST resurrection. The overwhelming majority of human beings will be brought back to life in a SECOND resurrection (compare Revelation 20:5, speaking of the “first” resurrection, with Revelation 20:11-12, describing the second resurrection).

To light a candle in memory of a loved one would not be wrong with the understanding, as described herein. However, we do not advocate, nor will we follow the practice, of lighting candles in general church services—apart perhaps from a one-time special memorial service for a deceased loved one.

The comments herein are meant to constitute a permission and not a command. If someone would feel uncomfortable with lighting a candle for a deceased loved one at any time, he or she should not do it, because whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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