Here is something I wrote on the subject awhile back. It comes from my book Mystery and Meaning: Christian Philosophy and Orthodox Meditations
(Sorry for the shameless self promotion
) PRAYERS for the DEAD?
First, it is imperative to understand that apostolic teaching and tradition is as divinely inspired as the Word of God. And far from contradicting the Word of God (The Bible), Church Tradition illuminates and clarifies the Scriptures so that we do not fall prey to subjective human interpretations. (Whatever one may think about Orthodoxy, there is far more consistency and unity of belief amongst Orthodox Churches than there is amongst the multitude of Protestant sects and cults. This is undoubtedly due to the Orthodox belief in the Divine authority of Apostolic Tradition as well as the Holy Bible.)
So the question at hand is whether or not it is appropriate to pray for the dead. Since Protestants hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura*, I will provide three biblical precedents – one from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament – each from books that all Protestants consider as canonical:
1. Moses prayed for Reuben after he had died. "Let Reuben live and not die." [Deuteronomy 33:6]
2. Peter prayed for Tabitha after she had died. "Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died: whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber. And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not delay to come to them. Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them. But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord." [Acts 9:36-42]
3. St. Paul prayed for Onesiphorus after he had died. “The Lord grant mercy to household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day…” [II Timothy 1:16-18]
Now since Protestants must concede the biblical basis for praying for the dead, they often resort to critiquing how and why we Orthodox pray for the dead. But it is arrogant and dangerous to judge the prayers of another, especially when those prayers are offered to God on behalf of others.
Prayers for the dead are one of the greatest forms of prayer; for they are not prayers for ourselves, but rather prayers of altruistic intercession. Our prayers for the dead are a profound act of faith. That we pray even for those who have departed from this earth is evidence that we trust in the Cross of Christ and hope in the inexhaustible grace of God. God is bigger than we think, the Cross is more powerful than we think, and divine grace is more abundant than we think. Where Protestants see death as the end of hope, we Orthodox see Christ as greater than death. And thus we pray even for those who have died, trusting that God surpasses our earthly limitations and our temporal mindsets.
One of the reasons I became Orthodox was its acceptance of divine mystery. Protestantism is the product of too much rationalism. The supernatural is not irrational, but there are mysteries that surpass mortal reason and transcend the limitations of human intellect.
God is not bound by space and time, as are mortal creatures. From our linear perspective death is final, and it would appear that physical death is the end of all hope. But why should we reduce sacred truths to our finite understanding? God transcends space and time, and He is Lord over life and death. By faith we pray even for the deceased, trusting that the power of God is greater than our mortal understanding.
Protestants profess a doctrine of "Sola Scriptura," but their own doctrine often trips them up. For example, Protestants may quote Hebrews 9:27 as an argument against praying for the dead: "It is appointed unto man once to die, and then the Judgment."
They will say that according to this verse no person can die twice, and thus prayers for the dead are futile. But didn't Lazarus die twice? And as we have seen above, so did Tabitha. Not to mention that the Bible tells us of the prophets who raised people from the dead. [Hebrews 11:35]
The point is that our Orthodox practice of praying for the dead will never be understood by those who hold to "Sola Scriptura." The doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" has produced thousands of Protestant sects and cults, each one claiming to be more biblically sound than the next. As Orthodox Christians we know that the Holy Bible is the Word of God, and that's why we dare not sift the sacred Scriptures through subjective human opinion. Rather we allow those who walked with Our Lord and were anointed at Pentecost to interpret its true meaning and guide us in its proper understanding.
So, we have established that there is both an Old Testament and New Testament biblical precedent for praying for the dead. We have shown how prayers for the deceased are based on selflessness and altruism. We have explained that praying for the dead is an act of faith, demonstrating our trust in the inexhaustible grace and mercy of God. And we have reasoned that it is better to defer to infallible divine mystery than to rely on our own fallible human understanding. So if Protestants choose not to pray for us when we die, then so be it. But let us nevertheless pray for them- both in life and in death."O death where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?"
[I Corinthians 15:55] *The doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” was first promoted by Martin Luther and provides the foundational source of Christian authority for Protestants. Sola Scriptura means “Scripture alone,” and thus Protestants claim that the Bible is the only true source of Christian authority. Protestants reject apostolic teaching and tradition, which is the historical and original source of true Christian authority.
by Gebre Menfes Kidus