“Grant Rest To Thy Servants” – Are You Praying For Dead People?
A seemingly less discussed source of controversy within Christendom is the topic of prayers for the departed. In fact, I had never even heard of such a practice until more recent years. I believe that this is primarily due to a gaping paradigmatic difference in the understanding of soteriology [doctrines of salvation] from East to West that eventually led to the dispensing of this historically Christian practice from the memory of contemporary low-church Western traditions. Within Protestantism and particularly the Evangelical movement, salvation is understood to be accomplished by grace alone through faith alone, and it consists of a particular event at conversion where the person invites Christ into their lives. Those who have undergone this experience are saved, those who have not are lost. While one should go on to follow God’s commandments, this “status” before God’s sight is wholly separated from one’s deeds or lifestyle because salvation is not something that can be earned meritoriously by being a good person. A believer’s “sanctification” into righteousness is another category altogether. People have until death to have this conversion experience and then they go to either Heaven or Hell, since “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” [Heb. 9:27]. Since salvation is believed to be by grace alone through faith alone, the classic Evangelical teaching is that there are two separate judgments – one for believers and one for unbelievers – and that scriptural references to a judgment of deeds is dealing with rewards in the afterlife for those who are saved; no one’s salvation, however, involves any judgment of works. With these presuppositions in mind, what then would be the purpose of praying for departed souls, when they have already met their fate, which was sealed at death, and are already in one of two places for eternity? And thus the practice of prayer for the dead was forgotten and even condemned. Since this practice is so closely tied to one’s beliefs on salvation, determining whether such prayer is legitimate or not will directly affect how we as Christians should understand and articulate the gospel itself.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Let us begin this study with a look at why the Church ever prayed for the departed in the first place. This practice does not originate with Christianity, but extends much further back to its Jewish roots, long before Christ’s time on earth. Had Martin Luther not removed books from the Old Testament in his Protestant canon (which is another topic entirely, on which I recommend this article), more Christians would know that, in the account of the Maccabean revolt in the early second century B.C., there is recorded the practice of prayer for the dead. It occurs when many of Judas Maccabeus’ soldiers were killed in battle and it was discovered that all those who had died bore “tokens of the Jamnian idols” on their person, which is purported to be the reason for their demise. The account records Judas Maccabeus’ response:
“He then took up an offering from his soldiers amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, and sent it to Jerusalem to present as a sin offering. In doing so he acted properly and with honor, taking note of the resurrection. For if he were not looking for the resurrection of those fallen, it would have been utterly foolish to pray for the departed. But since he was looking to the reward of splendor laid up for those who repose in godliness, it was a holy and godly purpose. Thus he made atonement for the fallen, so as to set them free from their transgression.”
It was in this struggle that the Jews regained occupation of Jerusalem, rededicating and purifying the Temple. This event was subsequently celebrated every year, today known as Hanukkah, with great candelabras and light displays, as well as extensive periods of supplications for the departed loved ones of those present. It was at this celebration in Jerusalem, a couple of centuries later, that a carpenter stood up to teach the people and claimed to be “the light of the world.” We know, therefore, that Christ Himself participated in corporate prayer for the deceased. This indisputable fact tells me that perhaps we should not insist on an oversimplified, emphatic delineation of a sealed fate upon death, using a sharp contrast of “saved” and “lost” categories. Even my Savior infers a bit of a grey area here; that there must be some hope for the departed such that we can in love take them in prayer before our loving Father in Heaven. The early Church recognized this practice as congruous with the New Covenant reality of fulfillment in Christ, and thus continued praying for their departed loved ones in anticipation of “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
THE INTERNAL NATURE OF SALVATION
Going back to how this issue reflects one’s understanding of salvation, the basic dilemma is that both a works-based model (you know, the medieval “this much alms gets you x amount of years out of purgatory” stuff) as well as a completely faith-based model of how one is saved fail to recognize the internal nature of salvation. Rather, they both treat salvation as some external Divine bestowal upon a person – be it a reward or a completely undeserved gift – as if we can be saved only by what we do or doctrinally affirm, entirely apart from who we are. A central distinction in the mind of the early Christian Fathers, (juxtaposed with what was described at the beginning of this article), is that salvation in Christ consists of a metaphysical transformation by the renewing of one’s mind, progressively continuing down the narrow path towards conformity to the likeness of Christ,. This is an intrinsic new birth from corruption to glory that results in being “filled with all the fullness of God.” [Eph. 3:19]. Christ told us that “the Kingdom of God is within you” [Luke 17:21]. Rather than receiving only a juridical decree of being legally exonerated, salvation entails returning to the image and likeness of God in which humanity was created, and becoming “partakers of the divine nature” [2 Pet. 1:4], with Christ leading the way as the very first human to live up to that potential. Christ is God by nature, but it has been granted to humanity to become adopted as sons of God by becoming united to and “abiding” in Him. At the last judgment, Christ looks at the sheep on His right and says, “Wow, you all truly love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself – you guys are just like Me!” And thus the intrinsic heart condition of both the sheep and the goats, and the immutability thereof, is what is so “final” about this judgment.
Since being conformed to this God-filled reality is the intention and desire of God for all people, it can only be concluded that death, suffering, Hell, and separation from God are the exact opposite reality: selfishness, ungodliness, insanity, degeneration of the mind, contempt for all that is good, and conformity to whatever is not the image and likeness of God. Therefore, more than just a Divine decree of disdain or banishment, eternal death is a progressive drifting away from one’s true, designed human nature of communion with God. Consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and recall the deeply rich metaphorical nature of Christ’s stories: The rich man is found in a place of personal torment with an uncrossable chasm between him and paradise, and even though he knows that his wretchedness and selfishness have prevented him from enjoying the other side, he still thinks only of himself; Lazarus is but a slave boy in his mind, to be sent to fetch some water and serve it to him. This great chasm is a reality engrained deep within the rich man’s own heart, a preoccupation with the love of self rather than embracing the selfless love of God. Thus Christ states that the reason people are condemned is because they desire nothing else:
“And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
Also the words of Saint John Chrysostom:
“If salvation is by grace, someone will say, ‘Why is it that we are not all saved?’ Because you did not will it. For grace, even though it be grace, saves [only] the willing, not those who are not willing. They turn away from it and constantly fight against it and oppose themselves to it.”
REFINED AND PURIFIED
Yet nowhere do we find in Scripture a strict denial of one’s ability to progressively come to choose the light rather than darkness after the expiration of the body and prior to the final judgment. We must recall that Christ did not say, “No one can ‘get into Heaven’ unless they ‘ask Me into their heart’ before their body dies.” What He actually said was, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This is because Christ is the means of cleansing and healing that all fallen creatures desperately need in order to return to communion with God. Everyone, not just non-Christians, must endure a refining fire in order to be restored from our infected condition and return to what we were designed to be. Consider the words both of St. Paul and St. John the Baptist:
“Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire,” [1 Cor. 3:12-15].
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire,” [Matt. 3:11-12].
The same fire baptizes both the chaff and the wheat. Christ Himself is this fire – this ‘hunka hunka burnin’ love,” if you’ll excuse me – which Peter James and John caught a glimpse of at His transfiguration, which is given to us for our refinement and healing from sin and death if we choose not to spurn such refinement. If we resist cleansing, the light will be painful. Christ Himself is the consuming fire of the coal taken from the altar of sacrifice by the Seraph and placed upon the lips of Isaiah the prophet for the healing and cleansing of his sin-ridden soul and body.
IF YOU WERE TO DIE TONIGHT, DO YOU KNOW FOR SURE . . .?
The preoccupation by contemporary Christians with “absolute assurance of salvation” is quite honestly a recent phenomenon that seems to center around an Americanized infatuation with guaranteed immediate gratification – as Bonhoeffer put it, Christians want “cheap grace.” It is as if there is a lack of assurance in God as all-merciful, all-loving, and desiring all to be saved, and therefore trust is placed in an abstract, juridical system that secures one’s fire insurance. Ultimately, the main problem with the “going to Heaven by faith alone” approach is that it reduces salvation to a mere change of location. As Father Stephen Freeman puts it:
“I do not hate, cheat, lie, and hurt others simply because I’m living in the wrong place, and my re-location to some ideal paradise will not, in-and-of-itself, make a difference in what must be changed. If you put me in paradise right now, with no change in me, then I’ll ruin the place for others in very short order.”
Why pray for the dead? Because we are implored that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men” [1 Tim. 2:1], and “in everything” to “let your requests be made known to God,” [Phil. 4:6] [emphases mine]. It is an incredible encouragement to know that we truly can do this. I conclude with my personal daily prayer for the departed souls on my prayer list:
“Into thy hands, O Lord Jesus Christ, I commend the souls of Thy servants, [insert names], and I ask that you may grant them rest in the place of Thy rest, where there is neither sorrow, nor sickness, nor sighing, but life everlasting. I ask also that You may grant that the remainder of our present lives be godly and sober, as we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; that we also may be counted worthy to enter upon Thy unapproachable Light to dwell with those whom we love but see no longer. That all of us, both living and departed, may be granted the grace and the strength to endure Thy refinement and purification, letting go of the sins and demons and passions that we cling to that hinder us from returning to Your image and likeness, so that we may become by grace and adoption what You are by nature; unto the hope of resurrection. For Thou art the resurrection and the life, and the hope, and the repose of all Thy blessed servants O Lord, and unto Thee do we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
1 2 Maccabees 12:40
2 2 Maccabees 12:43-45
3 cf. Fr. Josiah Trenham. “Rock And Sand – Orthodoxy and Reformed Theology Part 1.” Podcast. Ancient Faith Today with Kevin Allen. A podcast of Ancient Faith Radio. June 23, 2015. http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/aftoday/rock_and_sand_orthodoxy_and_reformed_theology
4 John 8:12
5 Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed
6 Romans 12:2
7 Matthew 7:14
8 Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 3:10; 21
9 John 15:4-5
10 1 Timothy 2:4
11 John 3:19
12 Saint John Chrysostom (+407) What the Church Fathers Say About . . . Vols. 1&2. Fr. George W. Grube [ed.] Minneapolis: Light & Life Publishing Co. p. 63.
13 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan. 1966. (Orig. 1937).
14 Father Stephen Freeman, “The Problem With Going to Heaven.” Glory to God for All Things. Ancient Faith Blogs. March 3, 2015.