“Henry was such a good man. He is in Heaven with Aunt Rosie right now, smiling down on us.”
“Oh yes, don’t weep for him, he’s in God’s arms, no longer suffering.”
“His race is run and his crown is won – the only sorrow is for the ones that are left behind.”
How many times have we heard something along these lines? Well, how many funerals have you been to? This is typically the comfort we hear given to the bereaved. They are to picture their loved one rising straight to heaven, borne by angels, to eternal peace. People hasten to give examples of the person’s saintliness to bolster this view. If the person had a rather salty wit then humor is injected, the person having taken a prominent seat in Heaven to give everyone a good dose of laughter.
Some people have just as assured a permanent destination, in the eyes of the world, but in the “other direction”. You know, Hell. But it only seems to hold people like Stalin, Hitler, maybe even that mean old man down the street who always yelled at your kids. Hell must be awfully small. Check any cemetery: they’re full of saints. In the words of the (possibly fictional) little girl to her mother, “Mommy, where are all the bad people buried?”
[side note: You never see sympathy cards printed with anything other than these assurances. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if they expressed reasonable doubt? Ok, back to seriousness.]
Now, there may be expressions of outrage by this point (my specialty). How can we suggest that dear old Uncle Henry might not be in heaven?
It is necessary to inject here some historical background. Back in the “unenlightened” Middle Ages (but beginning well before that), the Roman Catholic church had a practice of saying masses for the soul of the deceased. Typically people left money in their wills for such a purpose and family would supplement this. Such a fund (which might include land – especially for building chapels – and lavish altar appointments) was called a “chantry“. Thus, the dead would be rescued out of Purgatory by the prayers of the faithful. This is oversimplifying it, but that’s the gist of it anyhow. Today masses are still said for the dead in the RC church but the chantries are no more, because…
…Along came the Protestant Reformation in England:
When Henry VIII initiated the Reformation in England, Parliament passed an Act in 1545 that defined chantries as representing misapplied funds and misappropriated lands. The Act stated that all chantries and their properties would belong to the King for as long as he should live. Along with the dispersal of the monasteries, the act was designed to help Henry relieve the monetary pressures of the war with France. Because Henry did not live long after the act’s passage, few chantries were closed or given over to him. His successor, Edward VI, had a new Act issued in 1547, which completely suppressed 2,374 chantries and guild chapels; it also authorized inquiries to determine all of their possessions. Although the act called for the monies to go to “charitable” ends and the “public good,” most of it appeared to have gone to Edward VI’s advisers.
So you had a double whammy: the extinction of the chantries and the theology of the Reformation itself which championed “justification by faith alone”. So, you ask, why does this matter? Well, it’s not only nature that abhors a vacuum.
The common unacademic folk…will replace [the idea that humans are in need of God’s mercy for salvation] in their own minds with the assumption that since the recently departed Mary Smith doesn’t need masses said for her soul – the government has just declared this and has sequestrated all the assets of all the chantries – ergo if we love Ms Smith we need to be convinced that her good deeds outweigh any sins. It becomes psychologically important to shy away in our minds from the disturbing consequence that, if this is not so, then she is, er, in Hell. Moreover, if there is no Purgatory, then she is already in Heaven … or Hell.
Amazingly, there is actually a word for this: Pelagianism. Pelagianism doesn’t date back to the Protestant Reformation however. Like most heresies, it’s as old as the hills (the 4th-5th century hills anyway). What is it? Basically it denies original sin and ascribes total free will to humans who are saved by their own efforts, not by the mercy of God. This may not be exactly what the reformers had in mind, but that was the practical result. It became such a popular and unquestioned way of thinking that even today, some Catholics who do pray for the souls of the deceased and have masses offered for them unconsciously espouse it. However, in those cases, it is really more a matter of unexamined beliefs rather than a deliberate embrace of heresy. Anyway, you’re more likely to hear this from Protestants.
So what about the Orthodox Church? From the OCA website:
Orthodox Christians pray for the dead so that the Lord will have mercy on their souls, that He will grant them eternal rest “in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” that He will extend His unfathomable love upon them, and that He will receive them into that state “in which there is neither sickness, nor sighing, nor sorrow, but life everlasting.” Saint Paul clearly teaches that those who have gone before us are still members of the Body of Christ, the Church. And it is the duty of the members of the Church to pray for one another. Just as the living continually beseech God to have mercy on them and may rightly offer prayers to God on behalf of their living spiritual sisters and brothers as well as request prayers on their own behalf from others so too we have the duty to pray for all members of the Body of Christ, even those who have departed this life and still “belong to Christ.” One will find that the early Christians, surrounded as they were by death as a result of official persecution on the part of the Roman Empire, took great care to honor the dead, to bury them with great care and reverence - to the point of offering the Eucharistic celebration on their graves, which is one of the earliest indications of the veneration of their relics! - and to remember them especially on the anniversary of their deaths which were seen as “birthdays” into eternal life. In asking God to have mercy on the souls of the departed, we also ask God to have mercy on us who are still in this life, and we recognize that we too shall die. All members of the Church, living as well as faithful departed, cry before the throne of God, “Lord, have mercy on us.”
Now, let me say unequivocally that no one has the market cornered on getting into Heaven. I’ve had street evangelists ask me, “if you died today do you know for sure that you would go to Heaven?” The answer being, of course not. By the same token, I can’t judge the eventual resting place of any soul. Just because you’re (fill in the blank) doesn’t mean you’ve got a “get out of Hell free” card in your back pocket. Everyone has to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, trusting in the mercy of God.
“Fire and water do not mix, neither can you mix judgment of others with the desire to repent. If a man commits a sin before you at the very moment of his death, pass no judgment, because the judgment of God is hidden from men. It has happened that men have sinned greatly in the open but have done greater deeds in secret, so that those who would disparage them have been fooled, with smoke instead of sunlight in their eyes.”-St. John Climacus
Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and His love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.—St. John Chrysostom
[The meat of this post (except for the Orthodox bits) is taken directly from Fr. Hunwicke’s post on “The suppression of the chantries”. I’ve tried to make it more comprehensible to those (like me) without a doctorate in medieval theology. He really makes a fantastic point and I encourage you, if you’re brave, to read the original article.]