Why do we pray for the departed? Will our prayers change their final destination?

February 1, 2018

Why do we pray for the departed? Will our prayers change their final destination?

We are happy to kick-off a new means of interacting with our viewers, where you get to vote on which question you would like an answer to.   God willing, this vote will happen on a monthly basis and will take place on our Coptic Orthodox Answers Facebook page.

Today, we pray, by God’s Grace, to answer the first question you chose which is: “why does the Church pray for the departed?”

Now, to appreciate this Church practice, we need to begin by deepening our understanding of the Eucharist.

Let’s jump right to it!

So, we hear often that we are members of the Body of Christ. St. Paul indeed mentioned it a few times including in Colossians 1:18. St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, also explains how to be in this Body of Christ (which is the Church) where he says: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.”

In a nutshell, he is saying this bread that we eat in the liturgy is the Body of Christ and this cup that we drink from is the communion of the blood of Christ. Then he declares: “we, though many, are one bread and one body because we partake of that one mystical bread.  So, we are all united in Christ’s body.

Now, we need to ask ourselves, is Christ’s Body outside of time or inside of time? In other words, who is in Christ’s Body? Is it only the people that are alive on earth right now at this specific instant? Of course not!   Christ’s Body includes all those who were baptised and continued partaking of the Eucharist whether they lived in the past, are living in the present or will be living in the future!

That is why St. Paul after naming a long list of saints that kept the faith, in Hebrews 11:40 & 12:1, he says that these saints should not be made perfect apart from us, who are still struggling with endurance against sin.  In here he is linking both those saints in heaven and those still on earth and says that we are perfected together. They are not made perfect apart from us.


This is also confirmed in the liturgy of St. Basil as we pray the following: “Make us all worthy, O our Master, to partake of Your Holies, (which are the Body and Blood) unto the purification of our souls, bodies, and spirits, that we may become one body and one spirit, and may have a share and inheritance with all the saints who have pleased You since the beginning.” So, there is a unity between the persons in the Body of Christ and this unity is independent of time. This unity is above time. It is continuous between us and them in Christ who is above time.

Having understood this, now we can start answering our question.

So now, we understand that there is a link between heaven and earth in Christ. And if there is a link, there is communication. But still, why do we pray for them? Will our prayers change their fate?

This is when the understanding of God’s foreknowledge is crucial. God is outside of time. And since He is outside of time, He knows what we will choose to do prior to us doing it.
Let me give you an example. Imagine someone drawing a triangle.  This person starts from point A and goes to point B and C and finally to point A again. Now, while she was drawing her brother recorded her. Now imagine that you are watching this video for the 5th time. You have already seen a few times the motions she is going through. The next time you watch this video, do you know how the person will draw her triangle? Yes, you do.   In this example, the person drawing the triangle is inside of time and, in her free will, she is drawing the triangle as it pleases her. You, the one watching her video, is, in a sense, outside of time and you therefore “foreknow” what she will be doing.  In other words, none of her actions surprise you or take you off guard!


The prayers for the departed is understood in the same way. To us when we pray for them, we are inside of time, but God already foreknows our prayers before we even pray them. Think about it. Since God already foreknows all of our prayers for the departed, He has taken all of these prayers into account prior to committing His judgment on this person. Let me conclude with an example: Let’s say that Person X will depart tomorrow. We will meet and pray his funeral in 3 days. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say God will judge this person tomorrow when he departs.  Will God take our prayers into account when He pronounces His judgment on this person? Yes, He will because He foreknows our prayers. He doesn’t say “oh I received a new prayer now, what will I do?” That’s not how it works. This prayer is already taken into account in His judgment. Therefore, as we pray for each other here on earth that God may have mercy on us, it is a beautiful practice to continue praying for the departed as well that God may have mercy on them.


Remember know your faith, live your faith and teach your faith

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