Fr. Stephen Freeman on Praying for the Dead

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.  The post is entitled “You Have One Job – Pray – On Behalf of All and for All“.  It raises some important points on how Catholics and Protestants view the afterlife, and specifically the subject of praying for the dead.

The topics of heaven, hell, purgatory, hades, life-after-death, the judgment, etc., are not among my favorites. There is a particular reason for this: everybody thinks they know more about this than they do and most people assume the Church says more about this than it does. Much of the problem, I think, lies in the fact that we torture the faith into geographical shapes, when it belongs in relational dynamics. That is to say, we think that describing heaven and hell (and other such terms) along with the rules for how they work (as places) somehow states something important and explains life-after-death. This is not only not true, but terribly misleading. It has also been a problem within Christianity for a very long time.

The debates between Protestant and Catholic, beginning in the 16th century, often centered on the rules for life-after-death (generally subsumed under the notion of how we are “saved”). That debate tended to press Christians into saying more and more about what they did not know, and forced institutions into hardened positions of dogma where no dogma belonged. Orthodoxy is neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor did it take part in the debates of those centuries. As a result, many things that are treated as hard and fast matters of assurance and dogma by Western Christians are simply not found in a definitive manner within the Orthodox faith.

One surefire way to give most evangelicals a good hard case of the heebie-jeebies is to mention anything about praying for the dead.  Why?  Because much of the 16th-century debates that drove the Protestant Reformation centered around how to “get saved”–which of course has very strong implications concerning life after death and what that looks like.  This led the Church–both Catholic and Protestant–to make hard and fast definitions concerning heaven and hell and how those places work.  Much of this goes well beyond what the Bible actually says on the afterlife, and leads us to a conception of heaven and hell as geographical places that operate mechanistically:  it’s either one or the other when you die, and there is no possibility whatsoever of changing places.  As the tree falls, so it lies, for all eternity.  Consequently, there is no point whatsoever in praying for anyone who is in hell.  Catholics of course hedge this with purgatory, an in-between place that is neither heaven nor hell.

As a consequence, much in the way of evangelical preaching and/or personal evangelism (what many of us would call “witnessing”), is designed and intended to lead people to the question “Where will you spend eternity?”.  If you’ve ever wondered why that is, this is the reason.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong?  What if the primary driver for how the afterlife works is not geographical, but relational?  Nowhere does the Bible present a clear, systematic theology on the afterlife.  What we get instead is a variety of images, all of which point to a relational dynamic:  You are either with God, or you are apart from him.  You don’t want to be apart from him.  So the Orthodox pray for those in hell–because hell is a relational state and not a geographical place.  “The point isn’t the place or its name, but loss of communion with God and the torments associated with it.”  Freeman notes the messiness of how the Scriptures and early Church Fathers handle the subject of the afterlife, and says:

What the Church preaches is not a doctrine about places, but a doctrine of our relation and communion with God. If place-names are used, they are a matter of convenient imagery rather than a description of the topography of the larger world.

So we pray.  We pray to the God who is Lord of all and over all, over time and over eternity, this life and the next.  We believe that God wills good for all, including those who have passed beyond our sight and now dwell in realms beyond our experience, whose workings are unclear to us and–we must admit–we do not have access to the systematic theology on how said realms operate.

There is nothing beyond the reach of the Church’s prayers. This is true both in this life and the next. God is the God of all things, everywhere and at all times, and we can ask for anything of Him and make intercessions with boldness, trusting that He is good and that He wills good for us and for all.

Freeman goes on to illustrate some of the prayers used by the Orthodox for the departed.  Faithful or not, the Church intercedes for them that their sins might be forgiven and they might know eternal rest.  Even a prayer such as this is offered:  “Visit the bitter destitution of souls far removed from You; O Lord, have mercy on those who hated the truth out of ignorance, let Your love be to them not a burning fire, but the cool delight of Paradise.”

This prayer speaks to the heart of the relational dynamic of how the Orthodox understand heaven and hell.  There is no doubt that everyone is met with the love of God.  At issue is how that love is perceived–either as a burning fire or as a cool delight.  Thus the age-old Catholic/Protestant debates on heaven and hell and how to “get saved” are all a massive exercise in missing the point.

Instead, we pray. Prayer is the consistent and unending response of the Orthodox believer to the death of anyone. We trust in God who is our salvation. Jesus has revealed to us the love of God and done everything that is necessary for the salvation of the whole world. There is nothing lacking. Our prayers do not add to what Christ has done. Rather, they unite our hearts to what He has done and offer to God, with groaning, the prayer of Christ for all: “Forgive them.” If this is not the prayer of our heart, then our heart has become estranged from God, at least in that matter.

But our hope is not in places, nor in mechanical operations of salvation. Our hope is in Christ who has done all that we could possibly ask or think. When we pray, our thoughts should be towards Him, and the infinite goodness of His mercy.

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