Why Pray for the Dead?
“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 dead. But, 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.
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.
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