Fr. Stephen Freeman: On Praying for Everyone (in heaven and hell!)

Gethsemani Impressions 6 (2017)

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.”

26 thoughts on “Fr. Stephen Freeman: On Praying for Everyone (in heaven and hell!)

  1. “….It shows us what a true child of Abraham looks like.”

    Although I agree with the interpretation of the text beforehand, this last sentence I find a little perplexing. If Lazarus is the model for a true child of Abraham, and nothing is said about him, either his actions or beliefs, and he himself does and says nothing in the text, and all we are offered to commend him is the description of his abject need, then the vast majority of the rest of us, you and me included, CM, are not true children of Abraham, since we do not share his abject condition. Even Jesus was not as helpless and inactive as Lazarus.


  2. It’s more that the God some of them serve is less kind, not every individual. Wade is obviously a wonderful man – can we say the same of those such as Piper & his followers?


  3. It’s interesting that in this parable, Lazarus does nothing, quite literally. He neither does any good deed, nor does he profess any belief in God, Jesus, or anything else; he just lays impotently at the gates, outside the circumference of human care. Yet he ends up at peace in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man does not. In order to interpret the text as implying a teaching about the actual existence of hell, defined as eternal/unending conscious torment, we must beforehand accept its plain affirmation that the poor and helpless get to “heaven” simply by virtue of their poverty and helplessness, their not being included in the blessings of life on earth, as the text says outright. It’s interesting that there are so many more intent with proving the existence of hell (eternal/everlasting conscious torment) from this text, than with taking to heart its affirmation about the love of God for the poor and helpless, the rejected and outsiders, and its plain warning to the wealthy and all those who have material blessings in this life. It seems to me that any literalism in approaching this text must start with its plain teaching of what Liberation Theology calls God’s “preferential option for the poor”; if you can get past that with your soteriological orthodoxy intact, you are welcome to find a teaching about hell in it too.


  4. The way our courts and culture treat underage children who commit adult acts is despicable and show how much without mercy our hearts have become. They are still children with children’s ways of thinking, even if those ways are causing them to commit terrible crimes. Trying 14-year-old children “as adults” was unheard of at one time in this country. Now we consign them to adult punishment and torment, some for a lifetime. Children who are put away into cages for life, in a system that will corrupt them, abuse them, and move them further away from redemption. This is hell.


  5. “In examining the Lukan context to Jesus’ parable and its cultural and sociological implications, the purpose of the parable clearly serves as a harsh polemic against the Pharisees for their hypocritical attitudes of their wealth and blatant ignorance of the poor in their midst. Furthermore, when considered against the background of extra-biblical parallels, it is revealed that the other purpose of the parable is not to provide the reader an eschatological revelation of Hades, but rather, to point the reader to the sufficiency of the Scriptures to show how to love the poor and needy in our midst. Complementary to the voices of the OT prophets, the parable reveals that the kingdom of God does not function as an exclusive club for the elite, but one that opens wide the doors to the outcasts, the poor, the orphaned and widowed. It shows us what a true child of Abraham looks like.”


  6. is very interesting that compassion for those who, to all appearances, would go to a ‘hell’ can be seen in Christian people . . . . . and that is something to be commended, this compassion, this feeling for another human of our own kind who sinned ‘to the max’ by all appearance;

    BUT we are told that only God can judge, only God sees into the heart of a human person

    in our own country, there was a theory that maybe Ted Bundy headed for Florida, hopeful of being caught and executed so that ‘it would all end’ . . . . was there something in him that he could not ‘control’ that made him do all those murders? was he that sick in his mind, or brain? was there some part of him that KNEW he had to be stopped and sub-consciously helped him towards Florida as a final destination? We don’t know.

    There are some poor little children who commit terrible acts of brutalizing little animals and tormenting smaller children, and when they are put into treatment, the psych professionals turn to neurologists with questions about ‘is there some physical explanation for the evil shown by these little ones’? Is there something wrong with the way their brains are wired?
    At least these questions are now being asked. . . . . . At least some answers may be found that will help explain the evil acts people do that are so far beyond anything we can understand. a contusion, a tumor, a swollen artery in the brain? some malformation that ‘explains’ ‘why’ because we cannot make sense of this evil in children so young . . . . were they abused terribly as infants?

    when we say ‘only God knows the human heart’, it is something we say, but many of us hurry to judgement and condemnation and WHY?

    do we want to put that person ‘away’ from us in a ‘hell’ where they can’t remind us that we are their own kind and are also capable of evil deeds? like driving a ‘stake’ through the heart of a suspected ‘vampire’, do we consign to ‘hell’ those we cannot accept as ‘human’, like us?

    some thoughts

    I like the idea of having hope for all who who live and lived and will live in the future. . . . . I like the idea of praying for the dead, as I’m Catholic, sure, but in the Body of Christ, we may be more connected to all of humanity through the Incarnation when He took our poor humanity to Himself to heal it. We are all connected through Him.


  7. there is a kind a ‘grace’ given to humble people that enables them to express ‘kindness’ that comes in the form of self-giving service to others

    there is a kind of grace that enables Christ-followers to stand up for innocent people who are being persecuted, but this is a costly grace:
    Wade Burleson had stood up for many people who were being persecuted and it cost him and he is a Southern Baptist evangelical Christian pastor

    so I don’t know that evangelical people are ‘less kind’ from Wade’s witness to Christ, no

    if there is some ‘bigger movement’ at foot, maybe it’s that people have begun to listen to one another and to try to understand what may have been mis-understood in the past? ‘come, Holy Spirit, . . . ”



  8. I understand there’s Orthodox speculation that parallels Lewis in this regard.

    If you’re able to grow out of it (like that one of TGD character), it WAS Purgatory. If you never grow out of it, it IS Hell.


  9. “Somehow I refuse to believe that any of us, good or bad, are outside the scope of God’s love that he offers to us through Jesus Christ. After all the scope of that love is beyond our comprehension, deep and wide, and unwilling that any should perish. And that love extends into the deepest and darkest hell that we can imagine.”

    + 1


  10. I also read this yesterday & was moved, as well as drawn to ask some questions. I’m frequently reminded these days of how much kinder the ancient Christian faith is, that that which grew out of the Reformation.

    And I know I’m not alone in thinking this – I had a very very surprising conversation with a guy today who came through my Church Youth Group many years ago about how many of us are discovering the limitations of evangelicalism, particularly in its handling of Scripture amounting to Bible worship quite often, the arrogance of some leadership & so on, & rediscovering the riches of the ‘hidden’ 1500 years that came before the Reformation, that most of us had never heard of. It seems quite a few people are moving into what I would term Classical Christianity & looking to the creeds & theological consensus/interpretation of the Scriptures for fresh (renewed?) understanding of the essentials of the faith. Much of which is much more positive to our humanity & lives here on earth, as well as seemingly, to our futures.

    I wonder if this is a bigger movement than I know.


  11. calm down, JB

    we are here now and the fact is that we are AWARE of ‘being’ and want to know something of how this came to be and why and what will become of us . . . there are ‘reasons’ for these questions we harbor, as they are a part of our humanity, and for some reason that has to do with our ‘survival’, we harbor these questions that seek answers we cannot yet fathom

    small steps, JB, small steps


  12. Thanks for posting this. I read it yesterday and was deeply moved. One thought I had was that if I mention any of this to evangelical friends and family, I would be labeled a liberal, even though it is a very ancient way of thought.


  13. I talk to my deceased brother some times. Not because I have any real expectation that he’s hearing me but because it makes me feel a connection with him. I’m not sure anyone would really regard this as a prayer. But it is from the heart and it does make me feel better. He was neither a devil or a saint. His life was the same admixture of foolishness and wisdom as most other people who have lived on this earth.

    One of the Church Fathers is quoted as saying that one of the chief delights of heaven is watching all the sinners burn in Hell. All I can say is that I would not wish to spend eternity with someone who thinks like that.

    The only people who go to Hell are the ones who believe in it. And they’re already there.


  14. “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. ”

    Some of the most disturbing conversations I’ve heard have happened near the end of a person’s life or after their death, sometimes after the funeral when family and friends gather one last time. And it revolves around the subject of that person’s salvation. “Do you know if he were saved or not?” These can be very anxious conversations, depending on the background of those involved. And in one case I actually heard the pastor preaching a young man’s funeral engage in such speculation. Little comfort to the family, and a warning to those listening.

    I’ve always refused to engage in such conversations because they involve unloving speculation and gossip. Sometimes they even wonder if perhaps the person was saved recently, secretly, and just remained quiet about it. It’s tempting to just stop the talk and say to the group: “Let’s pause for a few moments and pray for him.”

    Somehow I refuse to believe that any of us, good or bad, are outside the scope of God’s love that he offers to us through Jesus Christ. After all the scope of that love is beyond our comprehension, deep and wide, and unwilling that any should perish. And that love extends into the deepest and darkest hell that we can imagine.


  15. As it is written , let it be said, Is not hell separation from God? If a person does not believe in God, than like the guest invited to the wedding feast in the Bible , they made a decision not to take the invitation. I do not want to gnash my teeth as I do not know how but do not want to find out. I am sure if I gnash my teeth I will need a new crown.

    The old timey hymn Blessed Assurance to me is aimed at the people the deceased has left behind, the person believed they had Blessed Assurance that would be with God and are letting the living know that is what they believed.

    I do agree that our views on heaven and hell are all over the place and everyone tries to fill in the blanks, sort of like when people try to place a name on the 3 Wise Men for some reason.

    If we do not believe in the concept of being eternally with God , the we have to learn all the lyrics to Peggy Lee’s classic song “Is That All There Is?”, which I have read is on her tombstone.


  16. Read this article by Fr. Freeman yesterday and found it thought provoking. Also found it interesting in the comments how much energy was spent on what prayers were appropriate to be said for the non-Orthodox deceased.


  17. Yes, I like Lewis’ treatment of the subject. He also touches on that and prayer for the dead in “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.”


  18. More seriously, I like how Lewis’ handled “Purgatory” in the Great Divorce, specifically how he undercut both Protestant and Catholic preconceptions.


  19. *incoming satire alert*

    But, the logic of the theology! Surely logical implications must take precedence over mere sentiment and Catholic flubdubbery!


  20. My parents were nominally Christian at best; their lives were uninformed by any talk and probably any thinking about Jesus Christ and their relationship to him, or any expression of Christian hope. They were a little superstitious, but mostly secular and irreligious. And my relationship to them was a deeply troubled, alienated, and unfinished one at their deaths. But none of that has stopped me from praying for them in the decades since they passed. It would be a strange and inhuman religion that would ask the living to forget and abandon care for their dead loved ones and family, as if they never existed, on the basis of belief that they are damned. In this respect, much Protestantism is strange and inhuman, and I say that as a thoroughgoing Protestant.


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