Should Christians Pray for the Dead? (Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom)

I was invited to say a few words at a funeral recently. I was not very close to the family – which made it both an honor to be invited and also meant that I wast not involved in any of the planning of the ceremony. During the course of the service, many prayers were offered and many of them were directed towards the recently deceased. The helpless theologian I am, I couldn’t help but begin the mental conversation over this classic question:

Should Christians pray for the dead?

It’s vital to realize that this is a very personal and pastoral question, as well as a theological issue. While I was thinking this question over, I ran across the following thoughts about prayers for the dead from two classic Church Fathers:

Cyril of Jerusalem: “We pray for the holy fathers and bishops who have fallen asleep, and in general for all those who have fallen asleep before us, in the belief that it is a great benefit to the souls for whom the prayers are offered… In the same way, b offering to God our prayers for those who have fallen asleep and who have sinned, we offer Christ sacrificed for the sins of all, and by doing so, obtain the loving God’s favor for them and for ourselves.” [4th Century text on Eucharistic Liturgy]

John Chrysostom: “Let us help and commemorate them (the dead). After all, if the children of Job were purified by the sacrifice of their father (Job 1:5), why should we doubt that our offering for the dead bring them any comfort? … Let us not hesitate to help those who have died, and to offer our prayers on their behalf.” [Homily at the very end of the 4th Century]

What do you think about Cyril and John’s beliefs about the effects of prayers for the dead and the reasoning they offer for the practice?

What do you think: Should Christians pray for the dead?
Why or why not?

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5 thoughts on “Should Christians Pray for the Dead? (Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom)

  1. I am conflicted. One the one hand, recent formulations say that we are divisible into body and soul, but a Hebraic whole. If so, where are the dead? What is their state? Sheol? Sleeping? as Paul suggests? Do they suffer? or Are they in the blessed state of the Near Death visions of Light and Love? Are the dead merely dead? What to pray then? On the other hand, I had to set aside disbelief and pray for my deceased parents. My mother was depressed for much of her life, mentally disabled in her final years and very difficult to deal with. She left scares on our family. Yet my father remained a faithful husband seeing to her care to the end. I needed to put rest the pain with me and I believe the pain between them, that somehow continued after death. Contemplative prayer, empathetic forgiveness for my mother and intercession for her to find healing in the presence of God that was not possible in her life, brought me and I believe (hope) to her in time of rest. Finally, if we believe that God’s love in Christ extends beyond this time, this life, then yes, we can pray for the dead. We can as an act of love.

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  2. In the evangelical tradition I was raised in, this topic never came up at all that I can remember. I’m pretty sure it would have been viewed skeptically, however. If, as most evangelicals claim (and I’m admittedly painting with broad strokes here), you pretty much have one shot by “accepting Jesus” in this life, then prayers for the lost after death would seem pretty pointless. As for the “saved”–or perhaps better term is “the elect” since much of modern evangelicalism has a Calivinistic skew–they would seem to not have the need for intercessory prayer after death.

    It’s interesting, however, that I’ve heard Chrysostom quoted in evangelical churches. Not on this topic, but he’s generally viewed favorably. Probably because he was much more practical and less allegorical in his interpretation of Scripture. I’d be curious to see what other evangelicals would make of the passage quoted in this post.

    As for me, I’m not sure what to think. I have been reevaluating a lot of what I was taught, but have never really wrestled with this topic before. My view of the purpose of prayer is that it is not to change God but to change me. Admittedly, this sounds a bit deterministic at first blush, but I’ve taken a wider view that prayer helps me align with God’s values (love, sacrifice, mercy, grace, service), and not just with some predetermined plan for my life. So does praying for the dead fit into that view of prayer? I’m afraid I have more questions than answers.

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  3. There’s no rationale given, but I’ve always read 2 Tim 1:16-18, as a prayer for a (dead at the time of the letter) Onesiphorus. The author prays first for his family, then prays that he will find mercy on the day of the Lord, and then mentions good things in his life in the past tense. Those who (to avoid the implication of prayer for the dead in scripture) read it differently have never seemed very convincing to me.

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