Friday, February 27, 2015

Prayers for Deceased Christians: Why not?

In response to inquiries regarding last week's question about prayers for deceased Christians, this week's article addresses follow-up questions on that same topic:

Q:  If it is permissible for Christians and their churches to pray for their deceased fellow Christians, then why do so few churches do so?  Even though it’s not wrong to do, is it wise?

The reasons prayer for deceased Christians is so rare among churches are many, but a few stand out most prominently:  because of an incomplete view of eternal life, because of its abuse in the past, and because of the potential for it to cause confusion. 

We Americans have often had handed down to us a mythology that we merely “die and go to heaven,” and that the story ends there.  However, Scripture’s description of life after death is much richer.  Jesus and St. Paul describe Christians as at rest with Christ following death, but that it is not how they will stay forever.  Instead, they will be resurrected on the last day to live again in the body in a new creation free from this life’s sorrows and sufferings. 

Some who recognize this truth of the Resurrection of the Body have chosen to pray as an expression of their confidence that it will one day happen and they will be reunited in real, physical life with their fellow Christians who have died.  However, for those whose understanding stops with a heavenly rest, they would see it as useless or even profane to continue praying concerning those who already rest with their Lord, therefore they do not contemplate the possibility of doing so.

There is also a history of abuse of prayers for the deceased.  For example, at the time of the Reformation, one of the points of contention was concerning purgatory and the use of prayers, indulgences, or masses to advance the deceased person to a better state after death.  Even though both sides continued to use these prayers, the Reformers rejected both a belief in purgatory as well as the idea that prayers offered after death caused any change for the status of the deceased, while the Roman church defended both ideas.

Some have also mistakenly thought that a person who ended their earthly life destined for eternal punishment could still attain salvation after death through the prayers and offerings of the living.  This is an idea that has been almost universally rejected in Christian theologians in all times and places, but because of misunderstanding or influence from other religions, has occasionally crept into the minds of some Christians and the life of the church. 

Because of these abuses, many Christians after the time of the Reformation have chosen to exercise additional caution by avoiding this kind of prayer entirely.  Instead, they chose to limit their prayer to prayers which give thanks for the blessings that the Lord granted to the deceased or for the blessings that He gave to others through them. 

Fear of causing confusion to those who are unfamiliar with the church’s history and theology has also been cause for avoiding prayers for deceased Christians in the church’s recent life.  Because the visible, audible action of what is done in the church is often more accessible to the average Christian than the abstract words on the page of a theological explanation, Christians who place a high value on clearly communicating the truth about Jesus have often preferred the safer route of foregoing these sort of prayers over the risk of giving their fellow Christians or those outside the church the false impression that it would be possible to offer assistance after the fact to a condemned soul who had died. 

Paul writes twice in his first letter to the Corinthians that even when certain things are permissible among Christians they are not always helpful or wise, and that may be the case regarding the wisdom of engaging in this practice among Christians in our time and place. 

The wisdom of making use of this freedom by Christians will ultimately depend on the spiritual maturity of those within a given congregation and the presuppositions that exist in the community it serves.  It may very well prove that one pastor and congregation will determine to take up the challenge of safeguarding against abuse and confusion as they engage in this practice while another may conclude that these risks exceed the potential benefits and choose not to exercise their freedom to do so. 

Whether a given congregation or family determine to pray or not to pray, the key element when approaching this question is to properly understand the foundational Scriptural teachings about death, resurrection and salvation, and choose what will best communicate timeless truth into the particular time and place where they live and serve.  

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