Hebrews 12:1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.
The writer to the Hebrews had just finished his amazing summary of Old Testament saints, who had endured such hardships, based on their testimony that God had spoken to them, which became the trigger for faith and action. Using this, he applied the lesson to his then present time. In doing so, he referred to the Olympic Games, where a vast concourse of people met to watch the events, as indeed they still do today.
He said, in effect, “You are surrounded by all these worthies, and many others as well, within a huge heavenly open-air theatre, watching your progress in the arena of life down here, urging you on by their prayers, that you also may become a part of that august company, “the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.” (verse 23) Consider all aspects of your earthly walk as though you were partaking in the Olympic Games, cast off all unnecessary attachments to the world, have done with the sins of your youth, and reach out for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil.3.14)”
This is indeed a timely lesson for today’s Christian youth, those just entering the life of faith, having heard the words of their Saviour and Lord. But in this article I would like to concentrate on the “great cloud of witnesses”. It is yet another part of our great heritage in Christ that has almost been forgotten. I believe it is time for the church to investigate the matter afresh. Here then is a brief history lesson.
Some time ago I wrote about the “State of the Dead” (WP79), affirming my belief that the spirit “flies away” and is conscious in the presence of the Lord and other believers. This was to reject the dispensationalists’ teaching about “soul sleep.” Here we see a great cloud of witnesses, who are far from being asleep. They are watching our progress from a higher vantage point. They constitute the “general assembly and church of the firstborn” amongst whom there are some spirits who are “just men made perfect.” It is my considered opinion, as it was in the early church, that these saints are not just spectators, but enter into the contest by praying for those of us “down here”, that we should be encouraged in our “wrestling against principalities and powers of darkness” and although the battle may be strong, in the end, “having done all things, to stand.” (Eph.6.12-13)
It is a great comfort to know that, even in circumstances of great privation, perhaps even in solitary confinement for one’s faith, there is no such thing as loneliness. The cloud of witnesses is always there, in addition to the constant help of the Holy Spirit.
In the early church there was a recognition of this, and furthermore it was considered a “two way process”. Even as they prayed from the Higher Place, so the pilgrims on earth prayed for them, that they may eventually become “just men made perfect.”
Now I know I shall be treading on dangerous ground. Many evangelicals would be enraged to hear that we might “pray for the dead”. “It’s a heretical Roman Catholic dogma with no Scriptural warrant,” they will say. But I would ask my readers to bear with me whilst I quote from a number of sources to learn about this long forgotten custom and practice.
“The Lord give mercy to the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain, but when he was in Rome he sought me out very diligently, and found me. The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day; and in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well.” (2 Timothy 1:16-18. It is considered by most commentators that Onesiphorus had either died, or been martyred, and Paul was praying for him. He mentions his ‘house’ again in 4:19, but there is no mention of Onespihorus himself.)
“In regard to the practice, “Prayer for the dead”, it must be remembered that the future was, throughout this [early Christian] period unclouded by the gloomy speculations of theologians. The state beyond is plainly viewed in the Catacombs with serene cheerfulness, as a continuation and development of the present spiritual life.” (History of the Christian Church, by Foakes-Jackson, Appendix B, page 612.)
“There are many such references in the inscriptions of the Catacombs, some of which may be assigned to the 2nd century. And there is a continuous tradition of such prayers in the ancient Liturgies, in which prayers are offered for those who rest in Christ that they may have peace and light, rest and refreshment; that they may live in God (or, in Christ); that they may be partakers of the joyful resurrection, and of the inheritance of the Kingdom of God. It is clear that such intercessions date from the beginning of the 2nd century, and that they represent quite faithfully the general tenor of the teaching of the ApostolicChurch on the Future State. . . . . The central thought of the Apostolic Church with regard to their relationship to the faithful departed is summed up in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the words, ‘Ye are come . . . to the spirits of just men made perfect,’ also described as a ‘great cloud of witnesses.’ They are living and they are interested in both our faith and conduct, and the least response of our loyalty to them will naturally find expression on our prayers for their peace and progress.” (Taken from an article on Prayer, in Hastings’ Bible Dictionary, by A.E.Burn. Volume 4, page 258)
“On the proper day of the year we make our offerings for the dead and for the ‘birthdays’ [of martyrs]” (Translation of Tertullian’s ‘Oblationes pro defunctis, pro natalitiis, annua die facimus.’ De Corona Mil. 3.4 XXXVIII A) It was because of this practice that in later years books were written such as The Roman Martyrology, and The Greek Martyrology, where catalogues of saints were listed, together with brief mentions of their works, and their ‘birthdays’, i.e. the day of their martyrdom.
Tertullian, (A.D. 160 – 215) in de Monogamia 10, describes a Christian widow as one who “prays for his [i.e. her husband’s] soul, and requests refreshment for him in the meanwhile, and fellowship in the first resurrection, and she offers [sacrifice] on the anniversaries of his falling asleep.” Notice here particularly that Tertullian uses the expression “falling asleep” of one who is far from being unconscious of his surroundings in the heavens. Hence the expression is used only from the viewpoint of an earth-bound observer. The dead body of a person looks very similar to that of a sleeper.
“It is possible that such prayers [for the dead] arose out of the confused ideas over the consequences of postbaptismal sin, which caused much debate in the church of Tertullian’s time. One suggested solution to this problem was the idea of purgatorial discipline after death, which was discussed at Alexandria in the early 3rd century and spread in the West through the powerful advocacy of Augustine and Gregory the Great. Meanwhile, at Jerusalem in the mid-fourth century the Eucharist came to be regarded as a propitiatory sacrifice which could be offered on behalf of both the living and the dead.” (Dictionary of the Christian Church, p.797, article on “Prayers for the Dead” by John Tiller.)
In later times, the Roman Catholic Church instituted November 2nd as “All Souls Day,” on which special prayers were to be made for the dead. This came about, according to tradition, in the following way. “A pilgrim, returning from the Holy Land, was compelled by a storm to land on a rocky island, where he found a hermit, who told him that among the cliffs was an opening into the infernal regions through which huge flames ascended, and where the groans of the tormented were distinctly audible. The pilgrim told Odilo, Abbot of Cluny [in mid-France] of this; and the Abbot appointed the day following, which wasNovember 2nd AD 993, to be set apart for the benefit of souls in purgatory.” (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, page 32, article “All Souls’ Day”.) A rather fabulous story, which reminds us of a more recent concoction about the Russians drilling into the earth, mentioned in WP95.
“In England, Cranmer’s second Prayer Book (1552) abolished all prayers for the dead, but a thanksgiving for the faithful departed was added to the intercessions in 1662. . . . A form of prayer to include the unfaithful departed has been incorporated in the 1971 Series 3 Order for Holy Communion.” (From John Tiller’s article, mentioned above.)
“Apparently I have been myself guilty of introducing another red herring by mentioning devotions to saints. I didn’t in the least want to go off into a discussion on that subject. There is a clear theological defence for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead?” (C.S.Lewis, “Letters to Malcolm”, Chapter 3)
“Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him? . . . . . It will be answered ‘To pray for them presupposes that progress and difficulty are still possible. In fact you are bringing in something like Purgatory.’ Well I suppose I am. Though even in Heaven some perpetual increase of beatitude, reached by a continually more ecstatic self-surrender, without the possibility of failure but not perhaps without its own ardours and exertions – for delight also has its severities and steep ascents, as lovers know – might be supposed.” (C.S.Lewis, “Letters to Malcolm, chapter 20)
Many of C.S.Lewis’s thought patterns on Christian themes were introduced through George MacDonald’s writings. “I have never concealed the fact that I regard him [MacDonald] as my master; indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” In respect of the subject now under discussion, the major quote comes from MacDonald’s book, “Thomas Wingfold, Curate” 1876. In this book we find a conversation between Polwarth, a stunted individual, plagued by asthma, but full of vital faith, and Leopold, a dying man. Here is the section in which the subject emerges. (Chapter 33. ‘The Bloodhound’, page 449)
L. “I wonder what I shall do the first thing when I find myself out – out, I mean, in the air, you know.”
P. “It does seem strange we should know so little of what is in some sense so near us! that such a thin veil should be so impenetrable! I fancy the first thing I should do would be to pray.”
L. “Then you think we shall pray there – wherever it is?”
P. “It seems to me as if I should go up in prayer the moment I got out of this dungeon of a body. I am wrong to call it a dungeon, for it lies open to God’s fair world, and the loveliness of the earth comes into me through eyes and ears just as well as into you. Still, it is a pleasant thought that it will drop off me some day. But for prayer – I think all will pray there more than here – in their hearts and souls I mean.”
L. “Then where would be the harm if you were to pray for me after I am gone?”
P. “Nowhere that I know. It were indeed a strange thing if I might pray for you up to the moment when you ceased to breathe, and therewith an iron gate closed between us, and I could not even reach you through the ear of the Father of us both! It is a faithless doctrine, for it supposes either that those parted from us can do without prayer, the thing Jesus Himself could not do without, seeing it was His highest joy, or that God has so parted those who are in Him from these who are in Him, that there is no longer any relation , even with God, common to them. The thing to me takes the form of an absurdity.”
Let me conclude this little study with a personal word of reflection and an incident of very recent occurrence, of a sort that had hitherto never transpired in my Christian experience. For some years now I have been in the habit of praying for certain Christian friends who have departed this life, as and when I feel the Lord is bringing them to mind. In doing so, I have felt a warmth of fellowship across the dimensional divide, and it has helped me to focus on the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us all the time. I can wholly concur with Lewis and MacDonald, that to be denied the practice of such prayer would create an artificial barrier between heaven and earth that God never intended.
A short while ago a very dear Christian friend of near fifty years standing, died suddenly, and I felt a distinct loss. That was quite a natural reaction. Almost immediately the news was telephoned through by his daughter, I went to prayer on his behalf. I did so as an automatic response to the fact of his death, but also for quite a different reason. This friend had been a vigorous defender of “soul sleep.” He never expected to wake up until the resurrection. We had discussed the matter on numerous occasions, and had always concluded with a stalemate, though in a very friendly manner. I knew that he would now find himself in acute embarrassment as his spirit went to be with the Lord. It would be a shock to his system. He would need to adjust, and to adjust rapidly. I knew that he needed my prayers. I asked the Lord to send angelic assistance to him, gently to re-orientate his frame of reference, so that he would have joy in his newfound environment. Afterwards, I felt distinctly that my prayers had been answered.
A few weeks went by. From time to time I continued to pray for my friend. And then, one night, just as I was settling down to sleep, I had a most intensely brilliant vision. There before my eyes, in the darkness of the room, was my friend’s face. It was bright, and he was smiling broadly, in fashion such as I had witnessed many times before. I watched, entranced, wondering whether the Lord was about to convey something to me. But to my utmost surprise, my friend spoke to me. “Hello, Arthur! So you were right after all. I’ve been learning a thing or two since being here!” At this point, I sat up in bed and said, “Lord, this is not allowed! What’s happening?” But the Lord spoke gently to me. “Fear not. [. . .] asked permission to speak to you and I have granted it. Please hear what he has to say.” The only other message that followed was – “The Lord has asked me to pray for you. And now I must go.” And the vision slowly faded, as his face still wore that same winsome smile.
The reason for my interjection was based on the belief that we are not allowed personal contact across the dimensional divide, but our fellowship must only be by prayer, each way. Hence the shock to my system. And by telling this tale, I am not advocating that any child of God should try to make trans-dimensional contact. I believe the Lord allowed this to happen to me for a very specific purpose, and maybe by relating the occurrence here, it will help someone who reads these lines. I sincerely hope so.
But above all, I respectfully urge those who have read this article to re-asses their thinking about prayers for the dead. I believe it to be just another of those areas of belief that the devil has delighted in shutting down to the detriment of true fellowship between members of the “church of the firstborn”, both here and there. My wife and I would very much value any comments or experiences from our readers on this question. Please write to us.