Prayer for the faithful departed and the invocation of saints have been long cherished beliefs and practices of the Christian Church. It was only by the 16th century or afterwards that any significant objection to these practices was raised. In fact, among the early Protestants, the ground of such objection was not mainly doctrinal, but historical. It was true that many superstitious and immoral tendencies had crept in the Roman Church in connection with these practices –for example, sale of indulgences even for the dead and the abuses in the veneration of the relics of saints. Hence, it was necessary to check such dangerous tendencies. There was only one criterion for the Reformers to test the validity of any belief and practice, and that was the Bible. Anything not explicitly commanded in the Bible, was thus rejected. As a result, even without a thorough investigation to the Biblical and theological basis, the practices of praying for the departed and the innovation of saints were thrown out. Reformers failed to understand that these were not just rituals, but expressions of the Christian faith, well founded on the Bible and the Christian tradition
Generally speaking, while the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox (both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) consider these as fundamental to the life of the Church, the Protestants (excluding a number of Anglicans and Marthomites) reject them. Let us try to discuss briefly, why the Protestants reject them, and why we uphold them.
Prayer for the faithful I departed
Mainly there are two objections to the prayer for the departed. The stated of the departed is such that they will not be benefited by any prayer. They are in a state of “silence”, awaiting the last Judgment. At the last Judgment, the only criterion will be the life on earth. Hence, they are not going to be benefited by our prayer. There is no scriptural basis for this practice.
Regarding the state of the departed, we disagree with them. The faithful departed are not entering to an “eternal rest”, or “a peaceful sleep”, but into “an active life in a wider horizon beyond time and space. Let us see the Biblical references that support this fact.
John 11: 25, 26 -”Jesus said to her (Martha), “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” A believer in Christ shall never die. He still lives in Christ, even if departed from this earthly life.
Philippians 1:23 – “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” St. Paul here prefers a departed! life with Christ to a bodily life here on earth. In 1 :21 he says “to die is gain”. This naturally implies that St. Paul was hoping for a rejoicing life with Christ, not an inactive sleep, after departure.
All the references to the Church in the Bible testify that the Church includes not only the living but also the departed. (According to Ephesians 1 :23, 4:4, and Colossians 1 :18,24,3:15, Church is the Body of Christ. According to Ephe. 5:22-27, Church of the Bride of Christ. According to Ephe. 2:19-22, 1 Cor. 3:16-17, 6:19, Mathew.16:18 and John 14:2, Church is the Temple of God. Church is not a spatio temporal institution. If Christ lives beyond time and space, His body and Bride, the Church, also must live beyond time and space. All the faithful are thus united to Church and Christ, beyond time and space. Hence the ordinary death separates from Christ or from the Church no believer. The faithful departed are still in the Church. In the Eucharist service and on the other occasions of Church’s worship, the departed are also worshiping with us.
According to Ephe. 2:20-22, the Church is being built up “on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets.” Apostles and prophets are no more on the earth. But they are still the foundation, being alive in the Church.
Hebrew 12:22-24, narrates the blessed state of the members of the Church. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel”
The presence of the Spirits of just men assures us the continuing active presence of the departed in the Church, the worshiping community. Also, the references to such presence are further seen in Hebrews 12:1, Revelation 7:13-17.
In Rom. 8:38, 51. Paul says that death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This could be considered as a hint to the continuation of life in the love in Christ, even if departed from this world.
According to Rom. 12:4-5 and 1 Cor. 12:12-26, life in the Church is similar to the life of the organs of one body. Since death does not cancel Church membership, it also does not prevent the mutual responsibility to pray for each other.