St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
872 N. 29th St. Boise, ID
an American parish of the Russian Orthodox Church
Prayers for the Dead - Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

The fate of man after death

Death is the inevitable end of all organic life on earth, including human life. But from the Christian point of view, the death of a person is not a normal or necessary phenomenon. On the contrary, human death is the result of the disobedience of our first parents. God warned Adam about the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: "For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen. 2:17). From Adam death was passed on to his descendants.

A man's death, however, is not the annihilation of his identity, but only the destruction of his physical shell. The words: "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19) refer to the human body. The soul of a person, as that which carries within itself the image and likeness of the Creator, is eternal: "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7). After its separation from the body, the soul continues to think, feel and act, but in another world, one unlike our material world.

What, then, happens to a man's soul after its separation from the body? Man is given life in order to learn how to believe, to do good, and to develop his talents. All of these things make up his spiritual riches, or, in the words of the Saviour, his "treasure in heaven." Death sums up the life of a person, and his soul must then come before God for an accounting, to receive its reward or punishment. But the judgment which follows soon after death is not yet the final judgment, because only the soul is being judged, without the body. About the existence of this preliminary judgment the Apostle Paul wrote: "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27). At the end of the world, after the universal resurrection of the dead, there will be the universal Last Judgment, at which God will judge all people simultaneously. Then each person will receive either eternal reward or eternal punishment with his or her resurrected body.

While a person lives, God gives him the chance to repent and correct his shortcomings. After death, the possibility of repentance is removed. Still, if a person dies and is not deserving of paradise, this does not mean that he is doomed to eternal torment. Until the Last Judgment, the torments of sinners in hell are temporary and can be relieved. Prayers for the dead always benefit them.

The necessity of praying for the dead

In order to appreciate the power of prayers for the dead, it must be understood that death interrupts only the physical contact among people; spiritual contact continues. This contact is realized through prayer. The Gospel teaches us that prayer, coupled with faith, has great power. In the words of our Lord, it can even move mountains. The Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles taught Christians to pray for one another.

Since prayer possesses the power of grace, it knows no boundaries and does not grow weaker with distance. It is the result of love, and, like a ray of light, it penetrates men's souls, uniting those who pray with God and with one another. An ancient story teaches a good lesson. Once St. Macarius of Egypt found a human skull while walking in the desert. When Abba Macarius touched the skull with a palm branch, a voice came from the skull. When the elder asked, "Who are you?," the skull answered, "I was a pagan priest and lived in this place. Abba Macarius, have pity on us who are in eternal torment, and pray for us, for your prayer brings us comfort." The elder asked, "What comfort comes to you from my prayers?" The skull answered, "When you pray for us, light appears, and we begin to see one another."

Thus, prayer joins our world with another world, where the angels, the saints and our departed relatives and friends dwell. Since the moment of the resurrection of Christ death has lost its former fatality; instead, it has become the beginning of a new life. Now, as St. Paul teaches: "Neither death, nor life...nor height, nor depth...shall be able to separate us from the love of God... For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living" (Rom. 8:38-39; Rom. 14:8-9). For this reason it is not only possible, but even necessary, to pray for the dead as well as for the living; for, according to the words of the Saviour, to God all are alive (cf. Lk. 20:38).