The Orthodox Pages


































Question 20

Can memorial services and praying for the dead transfer them from Hell to Heaven?  


Answer to Question 20


Why do we pray for the departed? Why does the Orthodox Church encourage its members to pray for the dead? Death does not cause a spiritual separation between the dead and the living, for Jesus is still the Lord of both groups. Together, these two groups, the Church in heaven often called the Church Triumphant and the Church on earth called the Church militant, comprise the one, whole, undivided Church, which Saint Paul calls The body of Christ (Eph.1:22, 23). The love which knits together in perfect unity these two aspects of Christ's Body prevails forever, for “love never fails” (1 Corin. 13:8). As Saint Paul also says:

“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”. (Rom. 8:38, 39).


The Church is not only the visible congregation worshipping here on earth, but also the invisible congregation of the saints and the angels worshipping in heaven. The Church visible on earth lives in complete communion and unity with the whole body of the Church of which Christ is the Head. Our departed family members and friends are also members of this one body and just because they have crossed over to the other side doesn’t mean that they cease to exist or are no longer members of the Church of Christ. If we were to believe such a thing, then all our hopes of the future life and the Resurrection would be lost.


Our Christian parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends live on with Christ after they die, and remembering the great unity that we still have with them as fellow-members of Christ's Body, the Church finds nothing in the Scriptures that would prohibit Christians from expressing love for and maintaining a sense of fellowship with those who have died. What better way do we have to express our love than to pray for them? Now some Protestants might object and say, “If they are already in heaven, how can they possibly need our prayers? Their eternal destiny is already settled!” This is very true! One’s eternal destiny-whether one spends eternity in heaven or in hell-is determined by how one believes and lives in this life. The Orthodox Church does not claim that prayers for someone who died in opposition to God can save that soul from hell, since the Scriptures clearly teach that there is no chance for repentance after death (Luke 16:19-31). The passage from Hades to Paradise is impossible for those who sinned very severely and did not confess their sin before departing. But for those who sins were minor this pathway is not definitely closed, given that in the future judgment each one’s place, either in heaven or in hell, will be decided permanently. The prayers of the Church are able to help some souls to be saved after their death, but before the resurrection of the body, for the torments sinners suffer after death are temporary and will only become permanent after the Last Judgment. Thus, the opportunity is given to the faithful of the Church, in love to strengthen the reposed by their prayers. Alone the dead cannot be helped, however, with the love of others “all things are possible.” 


The Church, firmly believes that prayer for the dead in Christ is helpful to them because in the Orthodox view, sanctification is seen not as a point-in-time occurrence, but as a process which never ends. As Saint Paul says, “And we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corin. 3:18). And in another place St. Paul says: “For preaching of the cross is foolishness to them that perish; but unto us who are being saved it is the power of God”, the phrase “who are being saved” suggests that we are continually being saved. For this reason, Orthodox Christians look upon salvation itself as a continual growth in holiness, purity, and closeness with God, which continues even in heaven. Holiness is rarely achieved or completed in anyone's life while on earth - no one becomes sinless. It is the Orthodox understanding that sanctification continues on, in some way, into the world beyond. The Church believes that our prayers for the departed can help them in this process of healing and purification.