by Kuriakos Tharakan Thottupuram, Ph.D., D.D.
The Departed Are Not Sleeping.
There is an erroneous assumption among Protestants that the departed are either silent or inactive until the second coming of Jesus. However, Orthodoxy does not find this as a cogent position based on the Holy Scriptures or on the apostolic and patristic traditions of the holy Church. St. Paul clearly emphasizes that both the living and the departed equally have to please God. “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him” 2 Cor. 5:9). In order to do the deeds that please God, one needs the grace of God. In order for the departed to receive the grace of God, they definitely need the help of prayers. Yes, it is a sin of omission when we do not pray for our departed. In order for them to grow in grace as brethren in faith and as members of the same body of Christ of which the departed are also members, we have a spiritual duty to pray for them.
Orthodox theology finds another very sound evidence in the bible that the departed are not inactive and spiritually sleeping members of the mystical body of Christ. All Christians believe that Christ went down to Sheol to preach the Gospel to the sinners. We read in 1 Peter 3:19-20: “ … He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient…” What does this verse imply? Does it mean that the departed souls are spiritually sleeping? If they have an alert faculty to listen to the preaching of Christ, indeed they are not inactive or sleeping. We believe that Jesus preached to them the Gospel of reconciliation. Do not we pray for the conversion of physically living people who are disobedient to God? If so what is the justification for not praying for the departed who can still have the opportunity of more fully transforming to Christ? Yes, Christ is still interceding for them before His Father. If conversion was still possible for the departed spirits a day after the His sacrifice on the cross, how can we emphatically affirm that they do not merit conversion now, two thousand years after His sacrifice on the cross? Yes, we should pray for their transformation. It is a sin of omission to forget our departed brethren while we pray. Yes, there may be people who are still hard hearted, and not willing to repent. We do not know who they are. Of course, our prayers do not benefit them. However, Christian charity demands us to pray for everyone regardless of his / her aptitude for repentance, because we have no way of prejudging anyone’s destiny.
Ultimate Deification at the Time of Christ’s Second Coming
All Christians believe in the final transformation we are going to receive. According to St. Paul, we will be clothed with incorruptibility. Orthodox theology calls it deification, in other words, we will become God-like. When is that going to happen? Definitely not now. St. Paul says that it will take place during Christ’s triumphant second coming to judge humanity. In the General Epistle of St. John we read: “… but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3”2). It is only reasonable that we pray for all regardless of their earthly or departed status, until Christ returns.
The Departed Percieve Our Spiritual Exercises for Them
As we know, our prayers are efficacious for all even though they are not aware of our prayers for them. But the truth is that the departed are aware of our encounters with God on their behalf. We read in the Gospel that Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ, when He and His apostles were praying on Mount Tabor and when He was transfigured. Recently a Pentecostal pastor argued with this writer that the departed souls are not absolute beings like God and hence cannot listen to our prayers, because they do not possess universal presence. This was in reference to prayers to saints. However, the presence of Moses and Elijah indicates that the departed do really understand our desires and prayers. St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews (12:1) indicates that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” in reference to the departed souls. If the departed are around us, it definitely proves that when we pray for them they are also praying to God for us. To pray for each other is the basic act of charity in the Christian religion. Since they observe us, it is important that we should not do anything that disappoints them, but do everything that pleases them. What else is more pleasing to them other than praying for them?
Heaven Is the End-point of Our Deification
If heaven is the end-result of our deification, hell is the end-result of our inability to come out of our sins. It is the transformation of our life that determines our redemption. Salvation is definitely a gift of God, but we have to merit the gift of salvation through our deeds which are pleasing to God. The blood of Christ is the ultimate source of our righteousness. But it is repentance and the subsequent virtuous life that grant us righteousness. In fact, repentance and the subsequent virtuous life are the pillars of deification. The process of deification is a deliberate and vigilant activity. Our free will can lead us to our destruction or our salvation. But we have to use our free will to progress in greater closeness with God, in restoring the original image of God in us. This is the pursuit of deification.
Whether visible or invisible, or living or departed, we are all parts of the body of Christ. The nerve that connects all these parts of the body is prayer, which is ultimately hallowed by the prayer of Christ, the head of this body, “that they all may be one.” How could we establish the oneness of the parts of this body if we do not pray for our departed souls and if the departed do not pray for their brethren still struggling on earth?Yes, praying for the dead is a noble and charitable Christian act. It is a practice based on Scriptures and on the genuine tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church