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  • Writer's pictureReader Paul Fowler

Why do the Orthodox pray for the dead?

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

The short answer is that they are not dead|: . Mark 12:27; Luke 20:38-Jesus makes it very clear here that God is not God of the Dead but He is God of the Living. From this we conclude that those who die In Christ, at least, are still alive-that is that they are sentient beings and aware of their surroundings.

C.S.Lewis in his wonderful book: The Screwtape Letters makes this statement: “The Church is like a mighty army with banners through space and time.” What Lewis is telling us that the Church is not just those who are on earth but it also includes those who have died in the Faith.

The question is: what happens to a person between them dying and Christ’s Return?

1 Thess 4 vv 13-18

We do not know exactly what happens in the afterlife-to those who are “asleep in Jesus”. There is no Scriptural text or Patristic teaching that tells us. But we do have evidence from Tradition that we pray for the dead and that we can help the state of those who have fallen asleep that in the last judgement God may pardon their sins. However this is accomplished, we do not know. 

In the wider world of Christianity, there are, it seems to me, three main ideas of what happens to the soul after death and before CHrist’s Return

Soul Sleep  This idea is mainly found amongst Protestants The idea, fundamentally is that when a Christian dies the soul goes into  a deep rest until the Day of Judgement.

Purgatory Despite what people think The Idea of Purgatory is not exclusive to Roma Catholics. In fact in pre-Reformation was a doctrine of the Church of the West

Orthodox Church is not dogmatic on what happens after death;-we just do not know

The Western idea of Purgatory is that the departed sinners are cleansed of their sins by their own temporary sufferings in a temporal cleansing fire after death. In the Orthodox understanding suffering after death cannot help the departed soul-the time for cleansing sufferings is this life, not the next. The departed soul cannot help itself-only the prayers and alms of those  still in this world, that is the loving sacrifices of members of the Church on earth, can help.

The teaching on Purgatory is part and parcel of a rationalistic, systemized teaching on merits and indulgences which is foreign to the mysterious and evangelical spirt of Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy, how prayer and sacrifice help the departed is a profound mystery of God’s mercy to man and the power of man’s love for his fellow man, not a clear cut system of God’s justice and man’s merits

There are passages of Scripture that do address this question. In particular 2nd Maccabees 12:38-45 we find a very clear example of prayer for the dead and in the Wisdom of Sirach it says: “Give graciously to all the living; do not withhold kindness even from the dead” (Sirach 7:33).

Possible Problem?

For those of us who became Orthodox as part of our spiritual journey we know that 2nd Maccabees is not in most Protestant Bibles, but it was included in the 1611 King James Bible-that is the first edition. It has been considered to be part of Scripture by the Church since the time of the Apostles (see Canon 85 of the Holy Apostles) —

To all you Clergymen and Laymen let the following books be venerable and sacred: Of the Old Testament, the five of Moses, namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; the one of Jesus of Nave (commonly called Joshua in English); the one of Judges; the one of Ruth; the four of the Kingdoms; two Paralipomena of the Book of Days; two of Esdras; one of Esther; three of the Maccabees; one of Job; one Psalter (commonly called the Psalms in English and also in Greek); three of Solomon, namely, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs; twelve of the Prophets; one of Isaiah; one of Jeremiah; one of Ezekiel; one of Daniel; outside of these it is permissible for you to recount in addition thereto also the Wisdom of very learned Sirach by way of teaching your younger folks. Our own books, that is to say, those of the New Testament, comprising four Gospels, namely, that of Matthew, of Mark, of Luke, and of John; fourteen Epistles of Paul; two Epistles of Peter, three Epistles of John; one of James; one of Jude; two Epistles of Clement; and the Injunctions addressed to you Bishops through me, Clement, in eight books, which ought not to be divulged to all on account of the secret matters they contain) and the Acts of us Apostles.

Despite the lack of dogma on the subject,  there are ideas going around especially concerning toll houses So what is a toll house? A toll house is a point, one of several points that a soul goes past after death. There are demons and angels there who argue whether or not you should be allowed to pass. Each Toll House represents  a certain sin. But Toll Houses are not purgative. They are more of a debating chamber between Angels and Demons. Neither are they dogma, they are just an idea.. 

What does Orthodoxy think may happen?

There are three types of souls post death

  1. Those who have fully repented-saints

  2. Those who have never repented-they go to Hell

  3. The rest of us.

Have we repented enough of our sins? Our benchmark is Mary of Egypt. She was a nymphomaniac to use a modern expression. She could not help doing what she did, but she was still called to account. And at a young age-probably late teens-and spent forty years in the desert repenting. The fact that God made it impossible for her to receive communion during those forty years kae su realise how serious wa sher repentance. The question we should ask ourselves is this:  how does my repentance compare with Mary of Egypt. I will leave the answer to you.

We pray for those who have died in faith until they are recognised as saints or Jesus returns.

We do not pray for saints but ask them to pray for us.

Mark of Ephesus (Council of Florence) said that we believe that by prayers, liturgies and alms giving we can help those who have departed in faith to throw off anything we have not repented enough of.

St. John of Damascus wrote that those who have departed, unrepentant, and with “an evil life” cannot change their destination from hell to heaven by the prayers of anyone (“On Those Who Have Fallen Asleep in Faith, 21 PG 95,268BC, referenced in “The Mystery of Death,” by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, p. 432.) St. John Chrysostom likewise speaks of those who are where it is not possible to receive cleansing, and who are outside of the Kingdom of God, but who may receive some consolation by our prayers (Homily “On Not Mourning Bitterly Over the Dead”, PG 60,888-889, referenced in “The Mystery of Death, p. 432-434),

 St. Macarius of Egypt tells the following of himself: "Once, while travelling across the desert, I found the skull of a certain dead person lying on the ground. When I struck the skull with a palm branch, it spoke to me and I asked it: 'Who are you?' The skull replied: 'I was the chief priest of the idols and pagans who were in this place; and you are Macarius, the Spirit-bearer. When you, taking pity on those who suffer in torment, pray for us, we sense a certain relief.'" The elder asked him: "What is the relief and what the torment?" And the skull said to him: "As far as heaven is above the earth, so much is there fire beneath us, and we ourselves stand from head to foot in the midst of the fire. None of us can see another's face, for the face of each of us sees the back of someone else. But when you pray for us, then each of us sees in part the face of another... This is our relief!" The elder began to weep and said: "Unhappy the day on which this man was born!" The elder further inquired: "is there not some other, more terrible torment?" The skull answered: "Beneath us there is a torment still more terrible." The elder asked: "And who is to be found there?" And the skull replied: "As we did not know God, we are shown a measure of mercy, but those who knew God and turned away from Him (of course with false wisdom in matters of faith and with a careless life)—they are beneath us." After this, the elder took the skull and buried it in the earth.

Non-Orthodox Christians

For many of us a big question

Met Anthony of Sourozhwas asked this question and he simply said, “Leave it to God”

One of the Optina Elders was Leonid who died in 1841. The father of one of his disciples, Paul Tambovtsev, had commited suicide. The loving son was deeply grieved by this and poured out his sorrow before the elder.: The elder answered, "Entrust both yourself and your father's fate to the will of the Lord, which is all-wise, all powerful. Do not tempt the miracles of the All-high, but strive through humility to strengthen yourself within the bounds of tempered sorrow. Pray to the All-good Creator, thus fulfilling the duty of the love and obligation of a son." Question: "But how is one to pray for such persons?" Answer: "In the spirit of the virtuous and wise, thus: 'Seek out, O Lord, the perishing soul of my father: if it is possible, have mercy! Unfathomable are Thy judgements. Do not account my prayer as sin. But may Thy holy will be done!' 

Pray simply, without inquiring, entrusting your heart to the right hand of the All-high. 

This private prayer for use in one's own room at home, given to this disciple by the Elder Leonid who was experienced in the spiritual life, can serve Orthodox Christians as an example or paradigm of prayer for some non-Orthodox persons close to us. One can pray in the following manner:

"Have mercy, O Lord, if it is possible, on the soul of Thy servant (Name), departed this life in separation from Thy Holy Orthodox Church! Unfathomable are Thy judgments. Do not account this prayer of mine as sin. But may Thy holy will be done!"

Suicide: suicide is a sin against God-only God has the right to end a life, and so we cannot pray for the soul of someone who has committed suicide. But, many people who commit suicide are not of sound mind, and God has compassion on them. 

Unless there is unambiguous evidence that the person deliberately and purposefully acted in that way, it is better to exercise compassion and pray for a person who committed suicide.  God can and does walk with a person far closer to the edge of death than any of us can, we can only hope that someone, however poor their mental health is, responded to the call of God even at that last moment.

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