Why do we pray for the dead?

edited July 2011 in Faith Issues
In heaven there is no need for Mercy and in hell there is no hope for Mercy. So why do we ask the Lord to response their souls, if we believe that after death all is done and dusted. Can our prayers for them change God's judgement?


  • + Irini nem ehmot,

    On Prayers for the Dead
    August 17, 2010 By Fr. Moses Samaan

    In the Ortho­dox Church, it is com­mon to hear lita­nies and prayers for the dead. In these prayers, the Church as the Body of Christ exist­ing in time man­i­fests the rela­tion­ship between our tem­po­ral life in this world and our eter­nal life to come. There is no dis­tinc­tion between the Church here in the world and the Church in the next life; they are in per­fect com­mu­nion and har­mony with each other.

    “For this rea­son, those of us in this world ben­e­fit from the prayers and inter­ces­sions of the saints and the right­eous who have pre­ceded us. The reverse is true, as well: those who have pre­ceded us into the next life may ben­e­fit from our prayers in this world.

    St. Athana­sius of Alexan­dria spoke about this say­ing, “As it hap­pens with wine inside a bar­rel which, when the vine­yard blooms in the field, senses it and the wine itself blos­soms together with it, so it is with the souls of sin­ners. They receive some relief from the Blood­less Sac­ri­fice offered for them and from char­ity. So, when we offer Divine Litur­gies and char­i­ta­ble deeds in the name of those who have departed, their souls rejoice if they were right­eous and receive some relief if they were wicked.


    Why does the Orthodox Church encourage its members to pray for the dead? Some would say that such a practice is at best superstitious, and perhaps even heretical.
    The Scriptures very strictly forbid any attempt to summon the spirits of the dead, or to try to engage them in conversation (see for example Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6, as well as 1 Samuel 28). But knowing that our Christian parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends live on with Christ after they die, and remembering the great unity that we still have with them as fellow-members of Christ's Body, the Church finds nothing in the Scriptures that would prohibit Christians from expressing love for and maintaining a sense of fellowship with those who have died. And what better way do we have to express our love than to pray for them?4 Someone might object, "If they are already in heaven, how can they possibly need our prayers? Their eternal destiny is already settled!" Very true! One's eternal destiny-whether one spends eternity in heaven or in hell-is determined by how one believes and lives in this life. The Orthodox Church does not claim that prayers for someone who died in opposition to God can save that soul from hell, since the Scriptures clearly teach that there is no chance for repentance after death (Luke 16:19-31, Hebrews 9:27, etc.). While firmly believing this, the Church still teaches that prayer for the dead in Christ is helpful to them. Why? Because in the Orthodox view, sanctification is seen not as a point-in-time occurrence, but as a process which never ends. As Saint Paul says, "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18, RSV). And in 1 Corinthians 1:18, which the King James Version translates as "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God", the phrase "which are saved" in the original Greek is sozomenois, which means literally, "who are being saved". For this reason, Orthodox Christians look upon salvation itself as a dynamic process, a continual growth in holiness, purity, and closeness with God which continues even in heaven. Since we are created beings, and God alone is Uncreated, how can we imagine that men and women will ever fully comprehend God or be totally filled with His Holiness, His Uncreated Life? He is infinite Love and infinite Holiness: those with Him in heaven are blessed to grow in this Love and Holiness infinitely. There is another aspect to this ongoing process of sanctification. Christians of all ages have realized, in their struggle against the sinful impulses of the flesh and the temptations of the devil, that when we commit sin, we inflict wounds upon ourselves: "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Of course, Orthodoxy also considers sins to be the breaking of God's commands, which requires repentance and asking His forgiveness. But the Church realizes, from long pastoral experience, that serious sin cripples and deadens our souls, and distorts the image of God in us. Sin can leave long-lasting scars even after God's forgiveness is granted and accepted. The effects of sustained sin-our own, and that of others-do not simply vanish when we accept God's forgiveness, though this remission of our guilt is certainly the crucial first step towards total healing. Only through an ongoing life of faith in Christ do we gradually become cleansed and healed, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, from these wounds of sin. This happens as we gradually become more and more suffused with God's light and love-as we ever more completely partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Just as this process is never completed in anyone's life while on earth-no one becomes sinless-it is the Orthodox understanding that sanctification continues on, in some way, into the world beyond-especially in the beginning stages of the next life. The Church believes that our prayers for the departed can help them in this process of healing and purification. There is yet another dimension to this question. Not only do our prayers help the departed, but praying for them helps us as well. It keeps their remembrance alive in us, helping our hearts to stay warm and full of love towards them. It gives us a way to experience a sense of their presence, since prayer is far more than simply the making of requests. It keeps them before our eyes as living examples of Christian faith for us to emulate. Prayer for the departed also gives us another way to continue in the awesome privilege of participating in God's ongoing work of the salvation, sanctification, and glorification of every soul whom He draws to Himself (Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 1:3-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:11,12). And a vivid remembrance of those living with Christ in heaven can more thoroughly and deeply assure us that there truly is life after death, which can help diminish any fear of death which we may have. We can see, then, that our prayers for the departed help preserve and increase the unity between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven-which helps both aspects of the Church. As a contemporary British Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware, says, "lust as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another's prayers, so they pray also for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them. Death cannot sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church together".5

  • Thank you for the link, that was very helpful!  ;D

  • i know this might sound very stupid, but could someone dumb it down for me?
  • I would recommend reading "The Soul after Death" by Father Seraphim Rose.  He discusses this in his book, in a very detailed and clear manner. 
  • [quote author=joseph.vandenbrink link=topic=11889.msg142016#msg142016 date=1311783809]
    I would recommend reading "The Soul after Death" by Father Seraphim Rose.  He discusses this in his book, in a very detailed and clear manner. 

    Many Eastern Orthodox find this book by Fr Seraphim debatable in parts.

    By all means read it but find something else from your own tradition to read as well.
  • [quote author=aidan link=topic=11889.msg142019#msg142019 date=1311785278]
    [quote author=joseph.vandenbrink link=topic=11889.msg142016#msg142016 date=1311783809]
    I would recommend reading "The Soul after Death" by Father Seraphim Rose.  He discusses this in his book, in a very detailed and clear manner. 

    Many Eastern Orthodox find this book by Fr Seraphim debatable in parts.

    By all means read it but find something else from your own tradition to read as well.

    While many EO find this book debatable, they find it such because they do not know what the Fathers taught about the soul after death--especially our father among them, St. Anthony the Great. 
  • We pray for the dead so that we can remember that our own death is inevitable.

    please pray for me
  • The barrier between living and dead has been eliminated due to the Resurrection of Christ. Those who are departed are just as much with us and just as much a part of the Church as those who we see living on this earth. There is no longer any separation. And so not only do we pray for them, but they also pray for us; in the same way that you might ask your friends to pray for you and in turn pray for them so also do we pray for each other without concern for the separation of death.

    When we pray for either the living or the dead we use the same prayer: "Lord have mercy", to express our desires. We do not know what to pray for even for those with whom we live because only God knows what is best for our salvation, and so we say "Lord have mercy". Likewise we do not know the needs and concerns of the departed, but God does and trusting in His knowledge we say, "Lord have mercy"

    We do know that, like all of us, those who have departed require forgiveness of sins, and that they look for a "place of rest" in the bosom of Christ and so we make this petition, that God will provide these things, but again as for specifics about how this should happen we simply conclude with "Lord have mercy".
    Some of the confusion might occur in that most Protestant confessions teach that the judgment after death determines the eternal state of the soul. Not so, according to the Tradition and teaching of the Orthodox Faith. The particular judgment immediately after death only determines the state and "residence" of the soul in the spiritual world and that judgment is based on who our spiritual "friends" are. Do we have more converse with angels or demons? Do we devote ourselves more to the saints or to sinners? Are we attached to the world or to the Kingdom of God? Do we act like Satan or Christ? Whatever we are like, there we are placed in the spiritual world. And the demons are diligent in attempting to demonstrate that we are tied to them and not to Christ and so any and every unconfessed sin, no matter how seemingly small and insignificant is brought out by them as accusations against us and the angels on the other hand counter this accusation by a description of our righteous deeds which indicate our change of heart and life. But do not confuse this particular judgment and temporary disposition with the eternal disposition of the soul to be determined at the Great Judgment. Then, the soul being reunited with the body thanks to the general resurrection, each person will be judged by God Who sees within either the spark of grace or none and those who have that spark will be brought into the Kingdom of God and those who do not will be cast into outer darkness - finally and eternally. So you see that when we pray for the departed, we do so knowing that the final judgment has not yet occurred and while we don't know what the exact needs of the departed are, we can simply lift them up to God calling out for His mercy.

    Orthodox  Christians pray for "such souls as have departed with faith, but without having had time to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance".

    The tomb of the Christian Abercius of Hieropolis in Phrygia (latter part of the 2nd century) bears the inscription: Let every friend who observes this pray for me, i.e. Abercius, who throughout speaks in the first person.

    The inscriptions in the Roman catacombs bear similar witness to the practice, by the occurrence of such phrases as:

        * Mayst thou live among the saints (3rd century);
        * May God refresh the soul of . . . ;
        * Peace be with them.

    Among Church writers Tertullian († 230) is the first to mention prayers for the dead, and not as a concession to natural sentiment, but as a duty: The widow who does not pray for her dead husband has as good as divorced him. This passage occurs in one of his later Montanist writings, dating from the beginning of the 3rd century. Subsequent writers similarly make incidental mention of the practice as prevalent, but not as unlawful or even disputed (until Arius challenged it towards the end of the 4th century). The most famous instance is Saint Augustine's prayer for his mother, Monica, at the end of the 9th book of his Confessions, written around 398.

    An important element in the Christian liturgies both East and West consisted of the diptychs, or lists of names of living and dead commemorated at the Eucharist. To be inserted in these lists was a confirmation of one's orthodoxy, and out of the practice grew the official canonization of saints; on the other hand, removal of a name was a condemnation.

    In the middle of the 3rd century we find St. Cyprian enjoining that there should be no oblation or public prayer made for a deceased layman who had broken the Church's rule by appointing a cleric trustee under his will: "He ought not to be named in the priests prayer who has done his best to detain the clergy from the altar."

    Although it is not possible, as a rule, to name dates for the exact words used in the ancient liturgies, yet the universal occurrence of these diptychs and of definite prayers for the dead in all parts of the Christian Church, East and West, in the 4th and 5th centuries shows how primitive such prayers were. The language used in the prayers for the departed is very reserved, asking only for rest and freedom from pain and sorrow. We may cite the following from the so-called Liturgy of St James:

        Remember, O Lord, the God of Spirits and of all Flesh, those whom we have remembered and those whom we have not remembered, men of the true faith, from righteous Abel unto to-day; do thou thyself give them rest there in the land of the living, in thy kingdom, in the delight of Paradise, in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our holy fathers, from whence pain and sorrow and sighing have fled away, where the light of thy countenance visiteth them and always shineth upon them.

    Public prayers were only offered for those who were believed to have died as faithful members of the Church. But Saint Perpetua, who was martyred in 202, believed herself to have been encouraged in a vision to pray for her brother, who had died in his eighth year, almost certainly unbaptized; and a later vision assured her that her prayer was answered and he had been translated from punishment. St. Augustine thought it needful to point out that the narrative was not canonical Scripture, and contended that the child had perhaps been baptized.

    -Answered by Father John F.
  • + Irini nem ehmot,

    [quote=2 Maccabees]Chapter 12

    12:1 When these covenants were made, Lysias went unto the king, and the Jews were about their husbandry. 2 But of the governors of several places, Timotheus, and Apollonius the son of Genneus, also Hieronymus, and Demophon, and beside them Nicanor the governor of Cyprus, would not suffer them to be quiet and live in peace.

    3 The men of Joppa also did such an ungodly deed: they prayed the Jews that dwelt among them to go with their wives and children into the boats which they had prepared, as though they had meant them no hurt. 4 Who accepted of it according to the common decree of the city, as being desirous to live in peace, and suspecting nothing: but when they were gone forth into the deep, they drowned no less than two hundred of them.

    5 When Judas heard of this cruelty done unto his countrymen, he commanded those that were with him to make them ready. 6 And calling upon God the righteous Judge, he came against those murderers of his brethren, and burnt the haven by night, and set the boats on fire, and those that fled thither he slew. 7 And when the town was shut up, he went backward, as if he would return to root out all them of the city of Joppa.

    8 But when he heard that the Jamnites were minded to do in like manner unto the Jews that dwelt among them, 9 He came upon the Jamnites also by night, and set fire on the haven and the navy, so that the light of the fire was seen at Jerusalem two hundred and forty furlongs off.

    10 Now when they were gone from thence nine furlongs in their journey toward Timotheus, no fewer than five thousand men on foot and five hundred horsemen of the Arabians set upon him. 11 Whereupon there was a very sore battle; but Judas’ side by the help of God got the victory; so that the Nomades of Arabia, being overcome, besought Judas for peace, promising both to give him cattle, and to pleasure him otherwise.

    12 Then Judas, thinking indeed that they would be profitable in many things, granted them peace: whereupon they shook hands, and so they departed to their tents.

    13 He went also about to make a bridge to a certain strong city, which was fenced about with walls, and inhabited by people of divers countries; and the name of it was Caspis. 14 But they that were within it put such trust in the strength of the walls and provision of victuals, that they behaved themselves rudely toward them that were with Judas, railing and blaspheming, and uttering such words as were not to be spoken. 15 Wherefore Judas with his company, calling upon the great Lord of the world, who without rams or engines of war did cast down Jericho in the time of Joshua, gave a fierce assault against the walls, 16 And took the city by the will of God, and made unspeakable slaughters, insomuch that a lake two furlongs broad near adjoining thereunto, being filled full, was seen running with blood.

    17 Then departed they from thence seven hundred and fifty furlongs, and came to Characa unto the Jews that are called Tubieni. 18 But as for Timotheus, they found him not in the places: for before he had dispatched any thing, he departed from thence, having left a very strong garrison in a certain hold. 19 Howbeit Dositheus and Sosipater, who were of Maccabeus’ captains, went forth, and slew those that Timotheus had left in the fortress, above ten thousand men.

    20 And Maccabeus ranged his army by bands, and set them over the bands, and went against Timotheus, who had about him an hundred and twenty thousand men of foot, and two thousand and five hundred horsemen.

    21 Now when Timotheus had knowledge of Judas’ coming, he sent the women and children and the other baggage unto a fortress called Carnion: for the town was hard to besiege, and uneasy to come unto, by reason of the straitness of all the places.

    22 But when Judas his first band came in sight, the enemies, being smitten with fear and terror through the appearing of him who seeth all things, fled amain, one running into this way, another that way, so as that they were often hurt of their own men, and wounded with the points of their own swords. 23 Judas also was very earnest in pursuing them, killing those wicked wretches, of whom he slew about thirty thousand men.

    24 Moreover Timotheus himself fell into the hands of Dositheus and Sosipater, whom he besought with much craft to let him go with his life, because he had many of the Jews’ parents, and the brethren of some of them, who, if they put him to death, should not be regarded. 25 So when he had assured them with many words that he would restore them without hurt, according to the agreement, they let him go for the saving of their brethren.

    26 Then Maccabeus marched forth to Carnion, and to the temple of Atargatis, and there he slew five and twenty thousand persons.

    27 And after he had put to flight and destroyed them, Judas removed the host toward Ephron, a strong city, wherein Lysias abode, and a great multitude of divers nations, and the strong young men kept the walls, and defended them mightily: wherein also was great provision of engines and darts. 28 But when Judas and his company had called upon Almighty God, who with his power breaketh the strength of his enemies, they won the city, and slew twenty and five thousand of them that were within,

    29 From thence they departed to Scythopolis, which lieth six hundred furlongs from Jerusalem, 30 But when the Jews that dwelt there had testified that the Scythopolitans dealt lovingly with them, and entreated them kindly in the time of their adversity; 31 They gave them thanks, desiring them to be friendly still unto them: and so they came to Jerusalem, the feast of the weeks approaching.

    32 And after the feast, called Pentecost, they went forth against Gorgias the governor of Idumea, 33 Who came out with three thousand men of foot and four hundred horsemen. 34 And it happened that in their fighting together a few of the Jews were slain. 35 At which time Dositheus, one of Bacenor’s company, who was on horseback, and a strong man, was still upon Gorgias, and taking hold of his coat drew him by force; and when he would have taken that cursed man alive, a horseman of Thracia coming upon him smote off his shoulder, so that Gorgias fled unto Marisa.

    36 Now when they that were with Gorgias had fought long, and were weary, Judas called upon the Lord, that he would shew himself to be their helper and leader of the battle. 37 And with that he began in his own language, and sung psalms with a loud voice, and rushing unawares upon Gorgias’ men, he put them to flight. 38 So Judas gathered his host, and came into the city of Odollam, And when the seventh day came, they purified themselves, as the custom was, and kept the sabbath in the same place.

    39 And upon the day following, as the use had been, Judas and his company came to take up the bodies of them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen in their fathers’ graves. 40 Now under the coats of every one that was slain they found things consecrated to the idols of the Jamnites, which is forbidden the Jews by the law. Then every man saw that this was the cause wherefore they were slain. 41 All men therefore praising the Lord, the righteous Judge, who had opened the things that were hid, 42 Betook themselves unto prayer, and besought him that the sin committed might wholly be put out of remembrance. Besides, that noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forsomuch as they saw before their eyes the things that came to pass for the sins of those that were slain.

    43 And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachms of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection: 44 For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. 45 And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.
    (Emphasis mine)

    2 Maccabees provides scriptural precedence for praying for the dead.
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