The idea of praying for departed saints (or asking for their prayers) for many today is a rather controversial one, and no doubt keeps many people from taking either the Roman catholic or Orthodox church seriously. Since this seems to be a major stumbling block, I thought it would be helpful for myself, and perhaps for others, to simply outline what talking to “dead people” is really all about. Is it Biblical? Is it historically grounded in the life of the Church? Is it good for the Church and her people? Let’s look a little closer. (I must warn, this post is longer than my usual.)
While I have arguably demonstrated elsewhere that the Protestant canon of the scriptures is both inaccurate and historically untenable, that isn’t the main purpose of this present writing. So, for the sake of this discussion, I will try to focus primarily on scriptures found within their canon (but I’ll include some others later on, as well, for a broader perspective).
One of the most striking passages related to this subject is found in the apostle Paul’s second Epistle to Timothy, where he writes (1:16–18):
The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day.
When looking at this passage carefully, it can be seen that St Paul is in fact praying that the Lord would have mercy on Onesiphorus on the Day of Judgment, with the implication that he is already dead. This is typically argued from the standpoint that St Paul prays for the household of Onesiphorus separately from the man himself, and later in this same Epistle during his “farewell” remarks, he writes “Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus” (4:19). Some commentators, such as Reformed pastor Matthew Henry, have argued that this simply means Onesiphorus was with St Paul at the time, and so he was greeting their entire household in his absence. However, St Paul says in this same chapter: “Only Luke is with me” (4:11), and then asks to have Mark sent to him as well. No mention is made of Onesiphorus individually except in the context of praying for his salvation “in that Day.”
Not surprisingly, there are many ways that evangelical scholars attempt to avoid coming to the conclusion that St Paul is praying for the salvation of a dead person. In fact, some will admit that Onesiphorus is dead, but will then say that St Paul is merely expressing a “nice thought” about him, and not formally “praying for” him. This, however, demonstrates a somewhat odd view of prayer. We are to always be in a state of prayer as Christians (Philippians 4:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17), and prayer is little more than talking to Christ, as if He were standing right here with us; a nice thought for Christ is a nice prayer to Christ.
On the other hand, I did discover that many evangelical scholars — rather reluctantly in most cases — concede that St Paul is in fact praying for a dead person’s “salvation” in this epistle. Most of them will downplay this reality, but they do admit that it is the most probable explanation available.
For example, Alfred Plummer says of this passage:
Certainly the balance of probability is decidedly in favour of the view that Onesiphorus was already dead when St. Paul wrote these words [...] he here speaks of “the house of Onesiphorus” in connexion with the present, and of Onesiphorus himself only in connexion with the past [...] it is not easy to explain this reference in two places to the household of Onesiphorus, if he himself was still alive. In all the other cases the individual and not the household is mentioned [...] There is also the character of the Apostle’s prayer. Why does he confine his desires respecting the requital of Onesiphorus’ kindness to the day of judgment? [...] This again is thoroughly intelligible, if Onesiphorus is already dead.
The Expositor’s Bible (ed. W. Robertson Nicoll), “The Pastoral Epistles,” pp. 324-326
Later in the same section, Plummer concludes that since “according to the more probable and reasonable view, the passage before us contains a prayer offered up by the Apostle on behalf of one who is dead, we seem to have obtained his sanction, and therefore the sanction of Scripture, for using similar prayers ourselves.”
Another evangelical, Anglican scholar J.N.D. Kelly, writes of this passage:
On the assumption, which must be correct, that Onesiphorus was dead when the words were written, we have here an example, unique in the N.T., of Christian prayer for the departed [...] the commendation of the dead man to the divine mercy. There is nothing surprising in Paul’s use of such a prayer, for intercession for the dead had been sanctioned in Pharisaic circles at any rate since the date of 2 Macc 12:43-45 [...] Inscriptions in the Roman catacombs and elsewhere prove that the practice established itself among Christians from very early times.
A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, p. 171
And finally, Philip Schaff (an evangelical Presbyterian) writes:
On the assumption already mentioned as probable, this would, of course, be a prayer for the dead. The reference ot the great day of judgment falls in with this hypothesis [...] From the controversial point of view, this may appear to favour the doctrine and practice of the Church of Rome.
The International Illustrated Commentary on the New Testament, Vol. 4: “The Catholic Epistles and Revelation,” p. 587
There are some other commentaries that share the same view (e.g. Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, Vol. 3, p. 376 ; J. E. Huther, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to Timothy and Titus, p. 263; etc.), but there’s no need to reference them all here. Sufficed to say, this is not a “novel” or “strange” interpretation of this passage, and is one that finds its place not only in the antiquity of the apostolic Church and early Church fathers, but also among recent, evangelical scholars as well.
Another topic worth considering is that of the “consciousness” of both the departed Saints and martyrs in heaven (i.e. in the presence of God or Paradise, and not in Hades awaiting the final judgment with the bulk of departed humanity). In other words, are they aware of what’s going on here on earth while they’re in heaven? After all, if they aren’t able to observe what happens here on earth, how could they possibly not only join us in worship but also pray for us or be aware that we’re petitioning them to pray for us in the first place? Scripture is apparently not silent on this particular issue, either.
For example, in the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus is recorded as saying: “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (15:7) and again, “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (15:10). It seems that Jesus believes both the people and angels in heaven are aware of what occurs on earth, and are not radically separated from what occurs.
Elsewhere, the apostle’s Epistle to the Hebrews seems to argue for both the presence and awareness of the saints in heaven with the saints-in-training on earth. After an account of the faith of many Israelites and prophets who went before us in Chapter 11 (nearly identical to accounts found in Wisdom of Solomon, Ch. 10, and Wisdom of Sirach, Chs. 44-50, not to mention making references to the Assumption of Moses), the apostle Paul writes: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of faith” (12:1-2). The description here of running a race and being surrounded by such witnesses (literally “martyrs” in Greek) is similar to that of a Greco-Roman hippodrome or olympic race. In this case, the spectators are the Saints who have already “finished the race,” and they are there with us, cheering us on to the end (and no doubt, through their prayers).
The worship of the Church as described in Hebrews is the worship of the Saints of all ages, along with the angels in heaven. We are in no way disconnected or separate from one another — and especially in the context of prayer or liturgical worship. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than Abel” (12:22-24). It is in both liturgical worship and prayer that we are most present with the Saints and angels worshipping in heaven, whose union with Christ is even greater than that of our own (at present), having “finished the race” and with their “spirits … made perfect.”
The body of Christ is one, and it makes little sense to believe that we cannot fully commune and interact in a meaningful way — especially in the context of worship — with the holy Saints and martyrs departed from this life and registered with Christ in heaven. In fact, they are to be looked upon most of all as examples of faith to follow, knowing that they finished the race and did not fall away in the end. Again, St Paul writes: “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (13:7). If someone only looks to those still alive on earth as an example of faith, it could certainly be the shipwreck of their souls, as people in this life will always disappoint us and many will even tragically fall away from the faith itself. However, with the Saints faithfully departed, we know that they finished the race, endured to the end, and are saved; imitating their faith and sanctity is certainly a “safe bet.”
This does not, however, discount the importance that Orthodox Christians are to place on submitting to our Spiritual fathers here on earth, and especially those to whom our souls and bodies are entrusted (Heb. 13:17). There must be a proper balance between our veneration of those departed from this life and a submission to those given to us by Christ to watch over our Spiritual lives while still running the race that is set before us.
However, even in contexts other than worship or prayer, the saints in heaven are aware of what occurs on earth.
For example, upon his return to earth, Samuel rebukes Saul for his conduct while he was dead and gone, saying “You did not heed the voice of the Lord nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek. This is why the Lord has done this to you today” (1 Kingdoms 28:18 LXX). He even goes on to predict for Saul what was going to occur the next day, having knowledge of this already (perhaps because heaven — and God — are outside of time). In a similar manner, during the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus Christ, the holy prophets Moses and Elijah speak to Christ about his pending crucifixion, intimately aware of what was happening on earth at the time they were made present to both him and the apostles with him (Luke 9:31).
Again, since the Body of Christ is one, it only makes sense that we are intimately and uniquely “connected” to one another in a way that is often beyond description. We are to suffer with one another (Hebrews 13:3), pray for one another (Hebrews 13:18), and worship alongside one another (Hebrews 12:22-23, 28) — whether on earth or in heaven.
Finally on this point, we read in the apostle John’s Apocalypse that the martyrs are aware of the passage of time on earth and what has or has not transpired there, as they lament “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). And later, it is written: “And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand” (8:2-4).
Besides being a vivid description of the late-apostolic liturgy, this passage indicates that the prayers of Saints are presented to God. In order for this not to include the prayers of “dead people,” we’d have to also say that they are not Saints. Who would sanely speak of a Christian in heaven as being something other than a Saint? They are the Saints of Christ who dwell in the presence of the Lord and continually worship and pray to him on behalf of the entire world.
Aware of the fact that Protestants reject the Orthodox-Catholic “canon” of scripture, I will nevertheless share just a few passages from the other books that appear to presuppose a similar view of departed saints, as is found in the passages previously.
In the wonderful book of Tobit, the archangel Raphael says (ch. 12):
Now when you and your daughter-in-law Sarah prayed, I brought the remembrance of your prayer before the Holy One. When you also buried the dead, I was likewise present with you. Then too, when you did not hesitate to stand up and leave your dinner so as to depart and care for the dead, your doing what is good did not escape me; but I was with you. Now God sent me to heal you and Sarah your daughter-in-law. I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who report the prayers of the Saints and who enter before the glory of the Holy One.
There are a few important things to note from this short revelation.
First, the “seven holy angels” (the seven archangels, as also enumerated by 1 Enoch) who bring the “prayers of the saints” before the “Holy One” — before Christ himself — are mentioned here just as in the Apocalypse. Secondly, the proper care for the dead is lauded as something good and worthy of praise, presumably including prayers for the departed (Raphael was there present for his ceremony for the departed). Thirdly, if only saints still alive can bring prayers before Christ through the ministry of these seven angels, then those who are already in heaven are not Saints, which makes no sense at all. They are the “spirits made perfect,” according to the apostle Paul, already in the presence of God. If we are “one body,” then they are certainly involved in both prayer and worship alongside us here on earth, as the scriptures apparently teach; what we find in Tobit we also find in the scriptures cited previously.
Another passage related to this topic, outside of the evangelical canon, is located in 2 Maccabees. In this example, Judas and his army are retrieving the fallen bodies of men who died in battle. They came to find that the men who perished in battle had been wearing Jamnian tokens (idols) underneath their tunics, which was of course forbidden by their Law, being tantamount to idolatry. And so, “the reason these men died in battle became clear to everyone” (12:40). In response to this, Judas and his men “turned to supplication and prayed that the sin they had committed might be completely blotted out” (12:42). Judas instructed his men to not repeat the mistakes of these fallen soldiers and to remain committed to God, and they then took up a collection of two thousand silver drachmas “and sent it to Jerusalem to present as a sin offering” (12:43), showing mercy towards their misguided and fallen comrades.
What is said next, is most striking (vv. 43–45):
In doing so, he acted properly and with honor, taking note of the resurrection. For if he were not looking for the resurrection of those fallen, it would have been utterly foolish to pray for the departed. But since he was looking to the reward of splendor laid up for those who repose in godliness, it was a holy and godly purpose. Thus he made atonement for the fallen, so as to set them free from their transgression.
What we can learn from this story is that the reason one would pray on behalf of a “dead person” is because of the hope of the resurrection and the necessity all men have of continued sanctification and perfection of spirit, even in the afterlife. It also teaches us to rely upon the mercy of God — even for those who have perished — knowing that it is in his hands alone to grant mercy. We also learn that atonement does not require “punishment” in order to take place (as the Old Testament teaches in numerous places, e.g. Phinehas), but that’s another topic altogether. The most faithful of Hebrews did not see prayers for the dead as something blasphemous, superstitious, or forbidden, but indeed as something of “holy and godly purpose.”
Finally, there is also a precedent set for the prayers for the dead — along with asking the departed saints to pray to Christ on our behalf — in early Church history. The Roman catacombs of the 1st and 2nd century, for example, are replete with inscriptions, asking for Christians on earth to pray for those who are in heaven, and vice versa. It is no trouble to find numerous quotations from the earliest Church fathers on this issue as well. I will provide just a few examples of this, but there are too many to list all in one place. For example, the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles states (Book 8, secs. 4 & 41):
Let us pray for our brethren that are at rest in Christ, that God, the lover of mankind, who has received his soul, may forgive him every sin, voluntary and involuntary, and may be merciful and gracious to him, and give him his lot in the land of the pious that are sent into the bosom of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, with all those that have pleased Him and done His will from the beginning of the world, whence all sorrow, grief, and lamentation are banished.
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in AD 350 says:
Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, Apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition; next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep; for we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out.
For I know that there are many who are saying this: ‘If a soul departs from this world with sins, what does it profit it to be remembered in the prayer?’ [...] [We] grant a remission of their penalties [...] we too offer prayers to Him for those who have fallen asleep though they be sinners. We do not plait a crown, but offer up Christ who has been sacrificed for our sins; and we thereby propitiate the benevolent God for them as well as for ourselves.
23 [Mystagogic 5], 8, 9, 10
In his Testament, St Ephrem of Syria (AD 373) requests:
Lay me not with sweet spices: for this honor avails me not; Nor yet incense and perfumes: for the honor benefits me not. Burn sweet spices in the Holy Place: and me, even me, conduct to the grave with prayer. Give ye incense to God: and over me send up hymns. Instead of perfumes of spices: in prayer make remembrance of me.
This offering of both incense and prayers for the departed is exactly what the Orthodox Church does to this day with the Trisagion for the Dead.
Saint Epiphanius of Salamis says of the deceased:
Useful too is the prayer fashioned on their behalf, even if it does not force back the whole of guilty charges laid to them. And it is useful also, because in this world we often stumble either voluntarily or involuntarily, and thus it is a reminder to do better.
And finally, Saint John “Chrysostom” writes (AD 392):
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice [Job 1:5], why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.
Homilies on First Corinthians, 41:5
So it can be seen, then, that prayers for the departed is not something novel and late-invented by a corrupt Church, but has been among God’s people since even before the days of Christ, continuing on without interruption into the new age of the resurrection Church. After all, as Judas Maccabees said, it is because of the “hope of the resurrection” that one would even seek to offer these prayers.
In conclusion, it is important to note what all of this does not mean, since there can be abuse of this practice.
First, we are not to pray to the Saints in the sense of asking them to perform “cheap” miracles apart from Christ. Someone with hesitancy to accept the petitions to saints and angels might be thinking of a friend who prays to a Saint only to help them find their lost car keys or in some other relatively trivial circumstance. In my humble opinion, this is a superstitious abuse. The point of petitioning the Saints is to request that they pray to Christ on one’s own behalf, and for the sake of their healing, salvation, or sanctification. They are not magical charms; they are the righteous departed of the body of Christ.
Second, all that pertains to our petitions of the Blessed Ever-Virgin and Theotokos Mary pertains to all the Saints as well. Mary is not a “Deity” that we invoke to save us apart from Christ, nor is she our redeemer. She humbly made the way for the Redeemer to enter this world through the Incarnation, and the subsequent redemption of mankind in Him — but she is not the Redeemer in any sense herself. She was the first Saint and Christian to be filled with the Holy Spirit and serve as the temple of God, prior to the formation and growth of the Church. We should neither undermine Mary’s role in redemptive history nor erroneously over-play her place as a Saint and the Birth-giver of God (Theotokos). We ask Mary to “save us” through her intercessions to Christ on our behalf, and nothing more (but also, nothing less). Just as the apostle Paul prayed for the salvation of Onesiphorus, we ask Mary and all the Saints in heaven to pray for our salvation as well, knowing that they have finished the race set before them and are in a more intimate and realized union with Christ in heaven — in the very presence of the Lamb (Rev. 14:4-5) — than we are, at present, here on earth.
Third, the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints and the right practice of interceding for and asking for the intercessions of deceased Saints is not an espousal of, nor is it dependent upon, a doctrine of Purgatory. I don’t believe in Purgatory, and neither does the Orthodox Church; in fact, it was a major doctrinal division between the Orthodox churches and the see of Rome in the 15th century and earlier. While there is certainly a time for both temptation and repentance at the hour of one’s death (i.e. the aerial toll-houses, which are clearly a part of Orthodox tradition), this is not one-and-the-same with Purgatory, nor is it in any sense as critically developed as a doctrine.
In the end, I hope that this exploration has served to help someone in their concerns over the intercession of/to Saints, and that it has done more good than harm for anyone that stumbles upon it. There is much more that could be said, and I am not equipped to really go much further on this topic than I have presently, so please forgive me for whatever is lacking. However, I hope it has at least given us all something to think about, consider, and meditate on, knowing that this has been an accepted practice of the Church for over 2,000 years (and even into the time of the ancient Judæans).
As such, this topic needs to be addressed with both reverence and care, out of a love for Christ and his holy Church.
For Saint John the prophet, forerunner, and baptist; for the holy, glorious, and most honorable apostles [...] whose memory we commemorate today; and for all Your saints, through whose supplications, O God, visit us. Remember also all who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life. And grant them rest, our God, where the light of Your countenance shines.
The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great