Why Pray for the Dead?

By |2018-08-13T15:44:54+00:00March 22nd, 2017|Categories: Anglican Life|Tags: , , , , |19 Comments

“For all those who departed this life in the certain hope of the resurrection, in thanksgiving let us pray to the Lord.”

In Anglican worship, we don’t pray to the deadBut, we do  pray for the dead and we pray with the dead.

Many people have asked me why we do this. Most of the time they are asking because they were raised in traditions where you didn’t pray for the dead, let alone mention them in worship at all.  Except perhaps as historical examples. They have often been taught that the only reason to mention the dead in our prayers would be medieval superstition or necromancy.

And isn’t the eternal destiny of those who trusted in Christ already fixed? Aren’t they either with Christ for eternity or not?  Our prayers can’t change that, can they? What could they possibly need that they don’t have already?

This final question reveals more about our view of what happens when we die than it does about any necromancy.

Praying To the Dead?

We aren’t praying to the dead on Sundays. We aren’t listening to hear back from them either. We are praying for them. So its not medieval superstition or necromancy or anything remotely like that.

With Christ, and Yet Incomplete

We are assuming that while they are with Christ, and safe in him, they are still waiting on something with us. Huh?

Millions of modern American Christians are very confused about what happens when we die, and for eternity. Often they have been told that “we go to heaven when we die, and stay there for all eternity.” Worse, many have been taught that we become a spirit, or lose our body and remain only a spirit, for eternity.

This is wrong. Well, its half wrong, but half wrong is less than helpful and more than hurtful in this matter.

Resurrection and A Merger of Heaven and Earth

The Bible teaches in the Book of Revelation, Isaiah’s prophecies, (and many other places) that the final event is the Resurrection of the Dead, and the merger of heaven and earth. Heaven will come down to earth, healing and re-creating it and making all things new. We will rise to new life and live again on a new earth, an earth in which all things spiritual and heavenly are visible and surround us. In other words, we will see God everyday. He will no longer be hidden, but will be our constant light. And yet it is not time for that final Resurrection and New Earth/Heaven yet. Meanwhile, we wait here on earth, and we wait with Christ after we die.

So. When a person dies now in Christ, they go to be with him. While with him they are waiting. The most vivid place that this is described in Scripture is in the Book of Revelation. The Martyrs are saying “how long, O Lord??” This is a reference to Psalm 13, which speaks of crying out in death, yet trusting in the Lord.  Those who die in Christ are at peace, and yet are waiting. Their existence is not yet complete.

Paul says they wait with us for the Resurrection. A human being will never be complete without a renewed, Resurrected body walking on a new earth. We were made for that. That is who we are in our fulness.  So while they are at peace and rest in Christ, they long for the Resurrection with us.

When you think this way about eternity, praying for the Dead in Christ suddenly makes sense.

What do They Know and When do They Know it?

Do they know what’s going on here? For the purposes of this post, I can’t say exactly what they know and don’t know. I’m not sure how they sense what we experience here. Personally, I assume that they do in some way because the Martyrs of Revelation are pictured as being aware that injustice remains on the earth, and as crying out, praying, to the Lord to end it. And we also learn from the Epistle to the Hebrews that they surround us like a great cloud of witnesses. But we don’t know anything more specific than that, really.

However, what we do know is that we are One Body with those in Christ who have died. Christ is not divided between heaven and earth. He holds us all together, living and dead, in one communion of the saints. So in that sense, we are with them and they are with us.

With all of this in mind, it is right and good to pray for those who are “asleep in Christ.”  We are praying for them as they await his Resurrection, and that we might follow their examples of faith until that day too.

Some Do

In some Anglican churches, and in some private devotions, people do pray to the saints. Personally, I can understand that. The saints are alive, they are united with us, and they are our brothers and sisters. And it is a very ancient practice, and has been practiced by many faithful believers. And these folks are not praying to the saints, but are asking the saints to pray for them. However, I don’t think this should be practiced in public worship, or taught as a private devotion. We just don’t seem to have authority from Christ and the Scripture to teach this as doctrine.

Praying With the Saints

And that’s why I think its good that we Anglicans also pray with the saints by “joining our voices with Angels, and Archangels, and all the Company of Heaven.” We are praising and praying with the saints and angels every time we gather and every time we praise and pray, as they are the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us, spoken of in the Epistle to the Hebrews. They are very much alive, very much united with us, and very much praising and praying to God in Christ alongside us, in some mystical way.

So there you have this Anglican Priest’s reflection on praying for the saints.  What are your thoughts?

Note: This is an updated version of an original post which stated that “we don’t ask the dead to pray for us.” I was actually intending to say that we don’t pray to them based on their own powers, but some of us do ask them to pray for us to God based on their love for us and closeness to Christ. 

Greg is the founder of Anglican Pastor. He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.

19 Comments

  1. Ray Kasch March 22, 2017 at 10:54 am - Reply

    In terms of whether the Saints in glory know what is going on with us in this life I point folks to the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about His upcoming passion whereas His own disciples were still clueless. So not only do they know what is going on here I submit that they have a more comprehensive perspective. So thank
    God for their prayers.

    • Greg Goebel March 23, 2017 at 11:28 am - Reply

      Thanks Fr. Ray. I ended up muddling this part a bit because I was thinking of praying TO the saints themselves (Asking Joseph to watch over you as you travel), not so much about asking for their intercession. This helps clarify it. Thanks.

  2. Scott Knitter March 22, 2017 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    “We pray for [the dead] because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.” Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 862. Works for me.

  3. Lou Comus March 22, 2017 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    Christians are invited–commanded–to pray for things whose occurrence or non-occurrence have already been more or less settled at the time of prayer. We’re told to ask God to “give us this day our daily bread”, notwithstanding that this day’s daily bread is primarily contingent on yesterday’s bakery visit, last week’s flour, last year’s wheat harvest, and seasonable rains over the wheatfields months before that. Even the most predestinarian of Christians must acknowledge that Jesus commanded His disciples to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” And why? Because “. . . [E]veryone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” And, at the same time, we read in Ephesians 1:4-5 that the Father “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world”, and “predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ”. I submit that we are–on the Lord’s own authority–always praying for occurrences that, at the time of our prayer, have already been set in motion long before our prayers; and this notwithstanding that we’re assured that our prayers are heard and given effect by God.

    I think it’s therefore inescapable that Biblical Christianity assumes some kind of extratemporal efficacy to human prayers, such that the God to Whom they’re addressed can hear and, in some fashion, respond to that which has not yet, within the temporal realm, taken place.

  4. Lou Comus March 22, 2017 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Sorry–so, to continue connecting the dots, just as God seems not merely to tolerate, but to command, that we pray now for outcomes that can only occur if those outcomes were set in motion long before we prayed, where is the necessity for an exception in the case of prayers for the salvation of the dead? The objection that “by the time they’re dead, their salvation or damnation is already established” would seem to apply equally to bar, for example, my prayer that my kids were not among those killed in an accident I hear reported in the news. And, indeed, to the extent that the election of the saved before the foundation of the world is already an established thing, would not the same objection apply to praying the Lord of the harvest to send preachers that the unsaved may hear and, as a result, be saved?

    I suspect that the discomfort among some Protestants with prayers for the dead arises out of a discomfort with pre-Reformation practices of devoting massive resources to prayers (Masses, etc.) said to free the departed from Purgatory–with the violent reaction to such practices leading people to carve out a logically-uncompelled exception to the rule that prayers for things that have already been determined are entirely legitimate, and, indeed, commanded.

  5. Charles Wright March 22, 2017 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    Greg, a very good treatment of the subject!

  6. Joshua Bovis March 24, 2017 at 1:32 am - Reply

    Hi +Greg,

    I must confess that I find it very surprising that a fellow Anglican priest would endorse such a practice.I would have expected that as an Anglican Priest, your title would be “Why we are Not to pray for the dead”.

    Eight points:

    1. There is no Scriptural support for praying to anyone other than God. None.
    2.There is no Scripture support when it comes to praying to Christians who have died. None!
    3. To pray to dead Christians, (asking them to intercede for us) is to give them attributes that only God has. (If every Christian prayed to dead Saints, then those dead saints must have the ability to hear all the prayers of Christians at once – this is a quality only our Triune God has). 4. Only Christ intercedes for us.
    4. Praying to dead Christians may be an ancient practice, but this does not authenticate the practice. An old error whilst old, is still an error.
    5. The practice is inconsistent with the Anglican formularies.The practice was bound up with particular medieval Catholic doctrines and practices which the Reformers strongly rejected and Cranmer, having kept such prayers in the 1549 Prayer Book, removed them totally from the 1552 revision.The 1662 Book of Common Prayer is, of course, largely the text of 1552, but in one definite difference is in this prayer. Thus today, unlike in 1552, we pray:
    “And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of they heavenly kingdom”.
    The phrase ‘that with them’ is seized upon and taken by some to mean that we are praying for both us and the ‘departed’. But this is to distort the plain meaning of the English language ad the prayer.
    6. Whilst I agree that those who have died in Christ are not in Heaven,(Heaven being the place where soul and body is reunited again) but are in Hades (the place of interval), there is no need to pray for them.Those who are in paradise are walking with the King – enjoying the Lord Jesus, in his paradise with the wonderful joyous indescribable expectation of at a future point in time (when the Lord Jesus returns) of being inside the Father’s house, the place that has been reserved and prepared for them personally by the Lord Jesus Christ.
    Those who have died outside of Christ will be in the King’s prison segregated and separated from the Lord Jesus Christ and from his people and will suffer remorse and regret of knowing that the life that had on earth is over, and that there is no altering of their choice in life to reject the Lord Jesus Christ, and with that the horrifying, agonisingly indescribable expectation of a future point in time (when the Lord Jesus returns ) of being cast into the Father’s garbage tip, the place that has been reserved and prepared for the Devil and his angels.
    Thus praying for those whom have died does nothing to alter their destination. It is fixed at death. This is why Scripture is clear that we are to pray to God for the living.
    7. Whilst all Anglicans state their belief in the Communion of Saints, what we are saying is that we believe that the catholic (World-wide, universal) church is made up of a spiritual communion or fellowship of Christians, including those who are alive (sometimes referred to as “the church militant,” cf. 1 Cor. 12:1ff) and those who have died (sometimes referred to as “the church triumphant,” cf. Heb. 12:1).
    Those who have died in Christ are now with Christ ,whereas those who are alive in Christ on earth worship Christ by faith. What unites us is that both are in Christ and are part of His Church. This does not give us warrant to pray for them.
    8. How can such prayers be faithful to justification by grace through faith in Christ alone and the reality that “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9.27-28)?
    9. The practice of praying to the dead and/or for the dead is inconsistent with not only the Scriptures, the BCP but also with the 39 Articles. (see Article XXII)
    Article XXII
    Of Purgatory
    The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
    10. The Homily on Prayer also roundly condemns the practice of prayer for the dead

    So in essence, praying to the dead and/or for the dead, may be an ancient practice, but it has no Scriptural support, it is inconsistent with the Scriptures, the theology of the BCP, and the 39 Articles. In fact Scripture, the theology of the BCP and the 39 Articles make it abundantly clear that we are to not pray for the dead.

    Grace & Peace
    +Joshua

    • Greg Goebel March 24, 2017 at 7:46 am - Reply

      Thanks for responding. About 80% of these comments don’t seem to me to respond directly to what I’ve written so I’m not sure how to respond. I never advocated praying to the saints and I have several biblical references to praying for and with the saints, which you didn’t address here, making it difficult for me to respond. I did acknowledge that some Anglicans ask the saints to intercede for them, which I can’t say is wrong by which I also can’t teach myself. Would be happy to converse if you could critique my post rather than critiquing a wider doctrine that I’m not advocating for here.

      • Joshua Bovis March 26, 2017 at 5:16 am - Reply

        Hi Greg,

        Respectfully, I beg to differ. Your title implies that it is the Anglican norm to pray for the dead. The references in the Bible to pray for the saints is to pray for saints who have not died.

        “I did acknowledge that some Anglicans ask the saints to intercede for them, which I can’t say is wrong”.

        That is what concerns me. Your article leaves the door open for a practice which is not Biblical and practice which is not consistent with the Anglican formularies.

        “With all of this in mind, it is right and good to pray for those who are “asleep in Christ.” We are praying for them as they await his Resurrection, and that we might follow their examples of faith until that day too.”

        It is not right and good to pray for those who are asleep in Christ. And you have distorted the original prayer from the BCP on which you appear to have based your point. We are not praying for them, but for ourselves.

        As an Anglican Priest I find your post rather concerning.

  7. Joshua Bovis March 24, 2017 at 1:34 am - Reply

    +Greg,

    10 Points, not 8.

    Grace
    +Joshua

  8. Joshua Bovis March 24, 2017 at 1:51 am - Reply

    Sorry for the typos also, one cannot seem to edit comment.

  9. Joel C. April 17, 2017 at 1:47 am - Reply

    I think this can be cleared up by differentiating mediation and intercession. There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. Neither the Virgin Mary nor any other saints, dead or alive, can serve as a mediator for our salvation. However, as Christians we are called to intercede for others and there is no indication in the Scriptures that his command to intercede for the world ceases upon our physical death. On the contrary, we see clearly in Revelation that the saints are praying for those still on the world in an intercessory way. If we are one body of Christ, on earth and heaven (militant and triumphant if you will), and we have a mystical communion with one another through Christ in the Eucharist and the means of grace, it is perfectly logical and biblical for any Christian (dead or alive) to intercede for any other Christian (dead or alive), and it follows that if intercession is commanded, requesting intercession is permissible.

  10. danaduanecraft May 4, 2017 at 4:13 pm - Reply

    [Greg, I love your work. My reply pertains to the special circumstances/dangers of ministering within Central America. I pray that there are far more developed congregations in the States that can partake in this beautiful and profound practice. It has been interesting for me to read the other replies. Thus, here’s my two-cents-worth]

    Upon planting two Anglican congregations in the heart of a uniquely Central American form of Roman Catholicism at one extreme, and Neo-Pentecostalism/Neo-Pharisaism on the other, I can testify that the practice of praying for the dead is simply too risky to advocate for, regardless of whether or not it is practiced in a biblical way. Just as the practice of speaking in tongues ([γλώσσαις] Acts 2:4) or even Wesley’s perspective on perfectionism have played out far differently than one would envision. On paper, they each look very different than how they appear when lived out. Misinterpretations on Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth has been used by Pentecostals as a litmus-test on spiritual baptism. Methodism with all its richness and beauty, tragically, is inclined to give birth harsh legalists who believe that they can “save themselves” upon receiving just a little help from Christ Jesus. Praying for the dead would only provoke more idolatry and false worship of the dead. One only needs to see the explosion in those praying to Santa Muerte (Saint Death). The “Law of Diminishing Returns” apply applies here. There are too many theological hurdles and too many spiritual minefields to navigate for me to ever promote, or even mention, such an act as praying for the dead.

    When left unchecked, these doctrines are simply too dangerous to practice among a laity who have barely grasped the basic fundamentals of the Gospel message. Practices such as praying for the dead, within a Central America context, will only lead to a congregation of well-intentioned but lost Churches void of the ability and authority to righteously guide Her flocks.

    En Cristo,
    Rev. Dana Craft

  11. Christ Anglican Church November 3, 2017 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    All Christian prayer can be summed up with the words, “Thy will be done.” If the Father wants good things for the Church Triumphant, then we have prayed for the dead any time we have prayed those four words.

  12. Peter April 17, 2018 at 9:51 am - Reply

    Joshua, you have made certain points that need to be challenged. First, arguments from silence works both ways. Scripture does not also forbid the praying for the dead. Second, we pray for dead not for their salvation or to get them out of
    Purgatory (which is not biblical). We pray for the dead in paradise so that they will have increase in the virtues and the blessings they now have. Third, invocation of saints does not necessarily undermine the omnipresence and omniscience that belong to God If IOS is based on general knowledge and general intercession. That is the saints don’t have knowledge of all prayer requests and personally intercede for each individual. Instead, they have a limited general knowledge that their are those who have asked for their prayers, and they intercede generally for them. This does not require omniscience and omnipresence, indeed we on earth do that often. However, your concern is not without merit. I have been just as critical of RC apologists who have defended IOS in a manner which they ascribe to the saints what belongs to God. But their bad defense does not mean there can’t be a good defense. Fourth, the Anglican article on IOS spefically refutes the ROMAN Practice, not a blanket rejection of IOS. The homilies also were addressing the Roman error. Granted, the Roman error is still prevalent, and thus it makes sense pastorally not endorse a practice that is ripe for abuse . Yet, there has also not been an Anglican consensus of a blanket condemnation of all IOS . Both Anglo-Catholics and Anglo-reform tend to solidify their positions in manner that is not true to the more nuanced via media position that anglicanism has held on this issue.

  13. Teresa May 23, 2018 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    The bible is clear when they say don’t pray for the dead – any prayers once a person is dead is of no consequence – it doesn’t help or hurt and we shouldn’t do it – that’s what the bible says.

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