Why pray for those who've already died? The question is brought up whenever we interact with folks from Protestant traditions and, I must say, was one of the first and most obvious issues I had to confront. I say "obvious" because, in reading the writings of the Church Fathers during the Roman persecutions, I was struck both by the number of references to an intermediate state of the dead as well as the detail given to the nature(s) of said state. My upbringing was one where, when a person died, they either went to live forever with Christ in perfect bliss in Heaven, or to die forever in the flames of Hell in utter agony. This idea of a "holding pattern" or "waiting period" was utterly unknown to me, so when I heard of a distinction between the two Greek words αδης (hereafter "Hades") and γεεννα (hereafter "Gehenna") which was based on a view of things which had at its center the Second Coming and Last Judgment, I was very intrigued, and not a little disturbed. Indeed, Dr. Carlton says, those two terms were made completely interchangeable by the time of the Medieval Period in the West. Hades was (rightly) seen as a place of punishment and torment, as was Gehenna, so both words were translated as "Hell" (this is also the unfortunate case in many of our liturgical translations in Orthodox parishes in the West). Rather, our understanding was that Hades referred to the state of the dead prior to the last Judgment, where those united to Christ began to feel the joy of God's presence, and the damned began to feel the dread and pain of their coming doom, yet neither group of people was understood to be in their "final place" precisely because the Last Judgment had not yet taken place. Said final place for the damned was what was called "Gehenna," or the lake of fire. Put simply, it is for this reason--that the dead are now in Hades, and not yet in Gehenna--that we pray for the dead.
Questions immediately arise at this point: Why would we pray for the dead if those in Hades already feel their inevitable doom? What difference would it make if those in the West (e.g. Tertullian, Cyprian) began early on to apply punishment to Hades if those therein already felt the effects of their sealed fate? Wouldn't the dead in Hades only have the inevitable delayed for a bit instead of thrust upon them, and therefore wouldn't prayer for the dead still be useless and (more importantly) a slap in the face of God's sovereignty in light of their fixed destiny?
Dr. Carlton waits until the fourth podcast to say this, but I think it bears saying outright: this life is the period given to us for repentance; postmortem repentance is not scriptural according to the Fathers. However, we do not rule out the possibility of a change of the state of a soul in Hades because a change could take place there based on events that happened in his/her life on Earth. Father Thomas Hopko has recently commented on predestination on the most recent broadcast of the Illumined Heart, saying that, yes, God foreknows and predestines some to be saved and others damned, but it is a predestination that is done from outside time, whose completion is, in a sense, already done (for God sees the whole span of time), and is a predestination that we, to a degree, influence now with our own prayers and actions, time-bound though they be. The same, he has said elsewhere, applies to our prayers for those in Hades. Our prayers for them are simply for God to do what He will do with them--for He sees what will/has become of them already--and we ask Him to comfort them, in whatever state they're in, knowing that our prayers in this life do reverberate in the eternal. In a nutshell, Dr. Carlton says that the so-called "problem" with prayer for the dead is the exact same "problem" some people have with prayer for the living: If God has already planned out His divine will in this world which He will bring to pass regardless of humanity's actions, what is the purpose of praying for the salvation of individual people or humanity in general? Are we asking God to override a man's free will? Are we asking Him to "change His mind" regarding what He has planned for us? Certainly not, and neither are we asking Him to do any such thing for souls in Hades.
We are, however, following the injunction of the apostles to pray, regardless of the outcome, for all members of the Body of Christ, which we believe are united one to another, even in spite of death. The connection of the people of God across the barrier of death is seen as being passable in the Old Testament (certain endings of Jeremiah show him praying for the people of Israel, and Judas Maccabeus prays "because of the Resurrection of the Dead" for the souls of possibly idolatrous fallen soldiers), after which it is expanded upon in the New Testament (Revelation shows angels and elders carrying the prayers of Christians on earth before the throne of God, and St. Paul, praying for comfort for the household of Onesiphorus, a man he references only in the past tense, asks that God might grant this possibly departed soul "mercy...in that Day" of Judgment (2 Tim 1:18)). While St. Paul's reference is definitely inconclusive--Onesiphorus could very well still have been in this life when St. Paul wrote--we need look no further into the patristic era than the martyrdom of one of the great Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius of Antioch, for confirmation that this belief was accepted and practiced in the early Church, for the account of his martyrdom shows him appearing to his flock, post-martyrdom, "embracing [and] praying for [them], and...dropping with sweat, as if he had just come from his great labor, and standing by the Lord." In spite of the firm belief that this life is the one given to us for repentance, the Church has never felt any contradiction in praying for those who await the second coming from beyond the grave.
Why do we insist on an intermediate state of the Dead if the departed are outside time? Would it not be redundant to speak of a "waiting" period? Are we not contradicting ourselves here? We have, however, a hint in Revelation 6 of the "timeless waiting" spoken of by Father Tom. St. John writes:
"I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, 'How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?' Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed."Even though those martyrs are in the presence of the Lord--among the righteous dead--they are clearly not in a state of final bliss, for they are painfully aware of the fact that judgment has yet to be exacted on the unrighteous. More than that, they petition the Lord to act on behalf of those who still remain on earth. This is, to us, a beautiful example of the communion of the saints that not even the cruelest of deaths--that of a martyr--can sever.
Why not just have an instantaneous meting out of rewards and punishment, of salvation and damnation, right at the moment of death? We would say that, were this to happen, such a system would have no need of a resurrection of the body, nor of a Last Judgment; to said way of thinking, all the judging that would need to be done would have already been done at the moment of the separation of soul and body. This is an immensely troubling problem for the Orthodox, as any attempt to portray the separation of soul and body as "natural," desirable, or anything other than horrible and "the last enemy" of mankind (1 Cor. 15:26) amounts to a denial of the significance of the Logos' incarnation. There must be an intermediate state of the dead prior to the General Resurrection, because that Resurrection and subsequent Judgment is the consummation not only of Christ's Incarnation as the God-Man, but of the creation of the whole Cosmos.
God, it must be said, created the world with the Incarnation in mind. Knowing that man would separate himself from the Source of all Life, thus bringing death upon him as a natural consequence of his freely chosen action (rather than as a punishment from an offended God), the Holy Trinity saw from before man's creation that the only way for man to be truly united to Them would be to send the Son to become one of mankind and, thus, all humanity. We say in the Creed that He was made "anthropos", or human, not just "male" or "a man". This affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of the psychosomatic union that is a living human being is the very thing that is affronted by the appalling mockery that is death, for it seeks to put asunder the very thing that God joined together and, indeed, appears to do so to one not looking through eyes of faith. For us, to say that upon the dissolution of this union of soul and body a person immediately receives his eternal reward (thus making permanent said separation) is tantamount to saying that a human soul can be everything he was created to be without his body. Most religions treat death as this very thing: a "liberation" of sorts from this "fleshy prison" that flies the soul off to incorporeal, Ideal parts unknown and, perhaps unwittingly, consigns this current existence to an unfortunate "halfway house" we must endure before being granted the reward of "real life"--that is, "the life beyond."
In his book, O Death, Where is Thy Sting? Father Alexander Schmemann calls the above heresy on the carpet, saying that "Christianity is not concerned about coming to terms with death, but rather with the victory over it." Furthermore, he continues:
"When Christianity speaks of the resurrection of the body, it does not speak about the vivification of bones and muscles, for bones and muscles and the whole material world, its whole fabric, is nothing more than certain basic elements, in the end--atoms. And in them there is nothing specifically personal, nothing eternally mine.And it is because of the reality of this communion--established beyond time yet still to be consummated at the end of it--which we "remember" in our Sunday Liturgy, having ourselves been brought out of time and "Remembering...all those things that have come to pass for us: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of the Father, and the second and glorious coming," that allows us to add our prayers for the eternal memory of those already-departed souls whose destiny is eternally foreknown yet influenced by prayers from all ages and who are nonetheless joined together with us in the Eternal Now of the Kingdom.
"Christianity speaks about the restoration of life as communion, it speaks about the spiritual body that over the course of our whole life we have developed through love, through our pursuits, through our relationships, through our coming out of ourselves. It speaks not about the eternity of matter, but about its final spiritualization; about the world that finally becomes truly a body--the life and love of mankind; about the world that has become fully communion with life."
Dr. Carlton recounts a story from the Desert Fathers in which Abba Macarius, upon finding a skull in the desert, inquires of the skull as to its identity. The skull answers that it was a pagan priest who is now in Hades, where all the souls in that very full place are tied back to back, so they cannot see one another. "However," the pagan priest continued, "when you pray for us, we begin to see each other just a little." Our prayer for those waiting for the Resurrection and Judgment asks that God grant them "memory eternal"--that is, that they not be lost to αδης, the land of forgetfulness where the Rich Man in the parable had no name, bur rather that they be sheltered in Abraham's bosom, in the presence of Abraham's Lord, remembered by God and all the righteous as was the beggar Lazarus--whose name was known even by the doomed Rich Man--in anticipation of the coming Day on which the last Enemy will be destroyed through a final, permanent reunion of souls and bodies and on which men will finally feel, in all its "reckless, raging fury," the Judgment of Love that will be the resolution of an existence-long dissonance for those who have loved His appearing, and the fire of γεεννα for all those who are yet determined to resist Him. Such a love, given as it is from an Incarnate Judge, can only be fully received, one way or another, by those in the flesh. Until the time of that universal reunion, however, we all wait--some under the altar, others yet in the arena of this life--still united by a Love stronger than death and (as Fr. Schmemann says) in "loving Christ, [loving] all those who are in Him" and "loving those who are in Him, [loving] Christ...it is truly our love in Christ that keeps [the departed] alive because it keeps them 'in Christ,'" that they might receive "times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19) instead of "everlasting destruction" from that same presence "and from the glory of His power" (2 Thess. 1:9).
May the souls, then, of all the faithful departed (+) rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them--and upon us--until the Day when Christ Himself will be our Light.