Fr. Stephen Freeman: On Praying for Everyone (in heaven and hell!)
At his fine blog, Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Freeman makes some important remarks to those of us who are of Protestant or Catholic faith on matters related to the afterlife.
The topics of heaven, hell, purgatory, hades, life-after-death, the judgment, etc., are not among my favorites. There is a particular reason for this: everybody thinks they know more about this than they do and most people assume the Church says more about this than it does. Much of the problem, I think, lies in the fact that we torture the faith into geographical shapes, when it belongs in relational dynamics. That is to say, we think that describing heaven and hell (and other such terms) along with the rules for how they work (as places) somehow states something important and explains life-after-death. This is not only not true, but terribly misleading. It has also been a problem within Christianity for a very long time.
The debates between Protestant and Catholic, beginning in the 16th century, often centered on the rules for life-after-death (generally subsumed under the notion of how we are “saved”). That debate tended to press Christians into saying more and more about what they did not know, and forced institutions into hardened positions of dogma where no dogma belonged. Orthodoxy is neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor did it take part in the debates of those centuries. As a result, many things that are treated as hard and fast matters of assurance and dogma by Western Christians are simply not found in a definitive manner within the Orthodox faith.
Fr. Freeman goes on to say, for example, that Protestants and Catholics would never think of praying for someone we think to be in “hell.” Heaven and hell are described only in terms of finality. The Catholics, of course, hedge this with purgatory. But we think of heaven and hell as “places” where the doors, for those who enter, are shut and are locked for eternity. Thus, the common question in the evangelical church, “Where will you spend eternity?” That is understood to be one’s fate at the moment of death — you go “somewhere” and that’s that. Your fate is sealed. There is no further opportunity to change places.
This begs the question of the terms associated with “heaven” and “hell” in scripture, and to what they refer. Suffice to say here, as Fr. Freeman mentions briefly in his article, that there are several terms, that people do not fully grasp the variety of images these terms evoke, and that the point of all the terms is not to point to definite geographical places but to describe in metaphorical terms our human condition and fate in relation to God and this present life.
Nevertheless, Fr. Freeman says, the Orthodox pray specifically for those in “hell,” because the point is relational and not geographical. “The point isn’t the place or its name, but loss of communion with God and the torments associated with it,” he writes. Noting that Jewish writings and the teachings of the early Church about the afterlife are notoriously “messy” and non-systematic, hard and fast definitions and inflexible, zero-sum game thinking miss the point.
What the Church preaches is not a doctrine about places, but a doctrine of our relation and communion with God. If place-names are used, they are a matter of convenient imagery rather than a description of the topography of the larger world.
So, he continues, the Church prays. We pray to the God who is Lord everywhere and for all time, for this life and the next. We believe that he wills good for all, even for those who have passed from our sight and dwell in realms that we must (or should) admit are beyond our understanding and experience. And, I might add, whose fate lies beyond systematic explanation in our sacred scriptures.
Fr. Freeman specifies some of the prayers the Orthodox pray for the departed. Faithful or not, the Church intercedes for them, praying that their sins may be forgiven and that they may know rest. Even a prayer like this is lifted up: “Visit the bitter destitution of souls far removed from You; O Lord, have mercy on those who hated the truth out of ignorance, let Your love be to them not a burning fire, but the cool delight of Paradise.”
I concur, and will so pray. And as for me, I find it good to keep in mind Paul’s words about God’s ultimate purposes when I consider the destiny of those who pass from this life: “For God had allowed us to know the secret of his plan, and it is this: he purposes in his sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him” (Ephesians 1:10, Phillips).
How I wish the Spirit would expand all our imaginations so that our prayers might be so conjoined with Christ’s Lordship that they transcend this earthly plane to encompass those in heaven, those on earth, and even those under the earth (Philippians 2:11)!
…Prayer is the consistent and unending response of the Orthodox believer to the death of anyone. We trust in God who is our salvation. Jesus has revealed to us the love of God and done everything that is necessary for the salvation of the whole world. There is nothing lacking. Our prayers do not add to what Christ has done. Rather, they unite our hearts to what He has done and offer to God, with groaning, the prayer of Christ for all: “Forgive them.” If this is not the prayer of our heart, then our heart has become estranged from God, at least in that matter.
But our hope is not in places, nor in mechanical operations of salvation. Our hope is in Christ who has done all that we could possibly ask or think. When we pray, our thoughts should be towards Him, and the infinite goodness of His mercy. The priest stands at the altar, and the people join Him in the union of their lifted hearts. He presents the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, made present on the altar in the Body and Blood of Christ and prays, “On behalf of all and for all.”