Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stump the Priest: Question 5- Why do we pray for the dead?

First, let us note that this question is about praying for the dead, not praying to the dead or praying through the dead, both of which are totally un-Anglican and un-scriptural.  The question is asking if it is efficacious and right that we should continue to commend our loved-ones in prayer to God after their death.

This question has a history going back to the earliest Christians. It was a huge point of contention during the Protestant Reformation over reaction to the doctrines of Purgatory, Indulgences and Masses for the dead.  Prayers for the dead logically require belief in an intermediate state between death and judgment at the Last Day, which sounds too much like purgatory to many Protestants.  Most Protestants today therefore believe prayers for the dead are a waste of time- It is either of no use to those destined for hell; or completely unnecessary for those destined for heaven. 

One problem is that we Anglicans have been all over the board on this question.   Article 22 of the thirty-Nine Articles of Religion formulated during the Reformation condemns prayers for the dead as “vainly conceived.”  But it was in the 1549 Prayer Book, removed in the 1552 book, absent in the 1662 Book, and reintroduced in Prayer Books of the later part of the 19th C.  In the most recent American Prayer Book the issue comes up in two places, the prayers at funerals, and the Prayers of the People in the Eucharist.

But what is really needed to explore this question is a clear theology (understanding) of death, heaven, hell and something called “The Communion of Saints.”  (The Communion of Saints refers to Christians throughout time gathered in Heaven as the Church Triumphant).  One of the problems the Church has had over the centuries (Anglicanism being chief among them, as demonstrated in the paragraph above) is a muddled and inconsistent belief on these matters.  This has happened because we have such limited scriptural details about what lies beyond the veil of death.  We can, however, start by looking at what scripture does tell us.  Here are scriptures related to what lies beyond death.

Luke 16:22-23     The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

Luke 23:43           Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

2 Cor. 5:10            For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

1 Peter 3:19           19By which also he (Jesus) went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

Rev. 6:9-11          When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ 11They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.

From some of these passages can we conclude that there is an intermittent period after death and before judgment during which sanctification (growth toward God) can possibly continue, and therefore prayers for the departed would be effective.  The Luke passages suggest not; I Peter and Revelation suggest yes.  The Luke passages suggest people who die are immediately judged; the 1 Peter and Revelation passages suggest there is an intermediate place, what Scripture calls Sheol.  The 1 Peter passage says Jesus actually went to such a place to preach to the souls departed. 

How do we decide?  How do we know?  Paul is definitely right in 1 Cor 13:12…For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
But what is perfectly clear in Scripture is that those who are “in Christ” will be raised up with Christ at the Last Day to new life in which all creation will be made new and at which time we will be eternally present with God, enjoying Him forever.  Otherwise, it may be necessary for us Anglicans to tolerate a bit of un-knowing and mystery in this matter.  CS Lewis never steers us wrongly; so, perhaps while we are still only “seeing through a glass dimly,” we can go where he has gone on this question:
 “Of course I pray for the dead.  The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me.  And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden… At our age the majority of those we love best are dead.  What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best is unmentionable to Him?  Even in Heaven some perpetual increase of beatitude (sanctification), reached by a continually more ecstatic self-surrender, without the possibility of failure but not perhaps without its own ardors and exertions…might be supposed.” (CS Lewis, Letters to Malcom,  pp. 107-109 ).

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