Praying for the Non-Christian Departed

[October 19, 2023]

Today is the feast of St. Varus, an Egyptian Christian martyr of the early 300’s. Orthodox Christians ask him to pray for our loved ones who have died, who had not come to Christian faith. A Christian woman, St. Cleopatra, recovered his body and buried it near Mt Tabor, near her village. Her young son John died, and she was devastated. She asked St. Varus fervently to pray that her son be raised from the dead and returned to her. Then she had a dream in which St. Varus was standing with John, both of them radiant and glorious in appearance, and John begged her not to have him sent back–he loved where he was too much. So that comforted her.

St. Cleopatra began asking St. Varus to pray for her deceased relatives who had not known Christ. So we Orthodox do that today, and here below is a link to the canon/hymn we can use.

It’s a controversial topic, of course. “It is appointed for man to die once, and then comes the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). We don’t know if it is possible for someone to turn, repent, and be saved after death. Maybe not. If you’re playing by that hunch and planning to come to Christ after death, you should rethink that plan.

“Choose this day whom you will serve” Joshua 24.15

And there are all the Scriptures about the Last Judgement, which say we will be judged for what we have done in this life.

“The Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” Jude 1:14-15

Also, if in the Orthodox view this life is a process of becoming more and more filled with the presence of Christ, then someone who’s lived 70 years far from him might not be in any shape to recognize or desire God after all that time. We know people who are contemptuous and mocking of Christian faith. That stance becomes who they are, like a dye moving through fabric. Wrenching them against their will toward a love of Christ would be an insult to their integrity.

So I am far from saying that those who rejected Christ in this life can be saved after their death by our prayers. Scripture gives that assurance nowhere, and it strongly suggests the opposite.

On the other hand–people just are going to pray for their beloved ones who have died. You can’t stop them. Anytime you are praying and such a loved one comes to mind, you can’t help saying, “Jesus, have mercy on them. Please, if it is possible, bring them to your light.” Even if, by your theology, you don’t believe that it actually is possible. But you can’t help it. If you love someone like that who has died, you keep on worrying about them, and so you talk about them when you pray. I pray a lot of “if it is possible” prayers.

I also think, or maybe just hope, that our prayers for departed loved ones might be somehow consoling to them, comforting. It seems like it would be, you know?

<<There is an interesting story about hell told by St. Macarius, a Christian monk who lived in the fourth century Egyptian desert. Walking in the desert one day, he found laying on the ground the skull of a dead man. He nudged the skull with his walking stick, and it began speaking to him. St. Macarius said to the skull, “Who are you?” The skull replied, “I was a pagan high priest; but you are Macarius, the Spirit-bearer. Whenever you take pity on those who are in torments, and pray for them, they feel a little respite.”

St. Macarius said to the skull, “What is this alleviation, and what is this torment?” The skull answered, “As far as the sky is removed from the earth, so great is the fire beneath us; we are ourselves standing in the midst of the fire, from the feet up to the head. It is not possible to see anyone face to face, for the face of each one is fixed toward the back of the other. Yet when you pray for us, each of us can see the other’s face, a little. Such is our respite.”>> []

A little respite. You can’t stop people from praying for the dead. It’s what love does. So we can pray, and perhaps comfort them, and have a bit of comfort ourselves.

The canon says:
<<Assuming boldness, O passion-bearer, ask of the King of heaven that He grant the joy of remission instead of dread punishment unto those who have met an evil end because of their unbelief, and whose hope of good things hath utterly perished because they have angered God; and having led them up from bitterness, preserve them in the mercy of the Master.>>

That’s our stance. It’s not that performing certain prayers a certain number of times will buy someone out of their miserable situation! That’s not any kind of Orthodox belief. It’s not presuming that our Lord will do as we ask (or even can–who understands such things?). The extent of our ignorance in these matters is unimaginable. But we ask anyway, because we love them. And Jesus knows all about love. So we let it rest with him.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.



  1. Dear Ms. Mathewes-Green: There’s another saint’s story (and one I know you know!), that of St. Perpetua, 3rd century, which includes her vision of her deceased younger brother. This dream-vision was given her during her imprisonment, wherein she saw her little brother, his face still ravaged by the cancer that had taken him away unbaptized. He appeared to be trying desperately to get a drink from water that was beyond his reach. Perpetua discerned that the Lord wanted her to intercede for him. “I prayed for him day and night, with tears and sighs that this favor might be granted me…” and in a later vision she saw “[my brother] all clean…and refreshed. I saw a scar where his wound had been…and the pool I had seen before…had been lowered to the child’s waist…and when he had drunk his full, he began to play as children do.” (“Perpetua’s Passion”, Joyce E. Salisbury) Perpetua, my patroness, seems always to have given me license to pray for at least *some* of the dead, though perhaps I presume to much.

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