The Bible’s Viewpoint
Is Ancestor Worship for Christians?
MOST people know that ancestor worship plays a major role in the lives of millions of people, especially Confucianists, Buddhists, and Shintoists. But were you aware that ancestor worship is woven into the fabric of African life too? As a matter of fact, the threads of ancestor worship can be seen in almost all religions, maybe even yours. It is “a universal phenomenon,” says a Nigerian professor of religious studies.
What is ancestor worship? Perhaps your understanding of it agrees with this definition: “Ritualized propitiation and invocation of dead kin, based on the belief that spirits [of the dead] influence the fate of the living.”—The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia.
Thus, in the home of a devotee of ancestor worship—a Buddhist living in Southeast Asia, for example—you may see a small altar on which a picture of the deceased relative is prominently displayed. Here too you may also smell the burning of incense or hear the chanting of prayers and the clapping of hands. Frequently, the devout place food or arrange flowers on the altar for the benefit of their dead relative.
Move to another continent, and you will find that many African people “live with their dead.” In sub-Saharan Africa the general belief is that communion and communication are possible between those who are alive and the deceased. “All of us Africans feel that our deceased parents and other ancestors are close to us,” says a leading African theologian of the Protestant faith.
In much of Africa, dead ancestors are still regarded as heads of the families or communities to which they belonged while they were living. They remain “spiritual superintendents of family affairs,” says Professor E. Bọlaji Idowu, in his book African Traditional Religion—A Definition. There is almost nothing that an ancestral spirit may not be called upon to grant or avert. Thus, the ancestors are regarded as “factors of cohesion in African society,” and according to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, veneration of them promotes “familial solidarity.”
In Western lands—such as France or Canada—churches, chapels, or shrines are dedicated to saints, who could be called hero-ancestors. Prayers from the lips of the devoted are recited before silent statues. Or on bended knees with outstretched hands, devotees offer gifts to gilt icons. True, adherents of the religions of Christendom would bristle at the idea that their display of devotion is ancestor worship; but the Buddhist, the Shintoist, or the devout African smiles. He knows that the veneration shown by these “Christians” is not much different from his own acts of adoration.
On What Is Ancestor Worship Based?
The core of ancestor worship is the belief in the continuing existence of the dead through a surviving element of the human person. It is “faith in the immortality of the soul,” according to the Ugandan Catholic writer Damian Lwasa. How solid is the basis for such faith? Sierra Leonian theologian Harry Sawyerr admits that Africans who claim “that their ancestors are alive in the spirit do so without any concrete evidence.”
Actually, according to the Bible, there is no spiritual part of a person that survives the death of the body. The Creator himself says: “Look! All the souls—to me they belong. As the soul of the father so likewise the soul of the son—to me they belong. The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) Scientists and medical personnel have found no evidence of any conscious, living part of humans that survives the death of the body.
Long before Confucius or Buddha, a wise man of pre-Christian times wrote: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) Earlier, Job said: “An earthling man expires, and where is he? His sons get honored, but he does not know it.” (Job 14:10, 21) Thus, the dead cannot serve as ‘spiritual superintendents of family affairs.’ At death one “cannot take along anything at all.”—Psalm 49:10, 17-19.
Think of this: Do dead ancestors eat the good food offered them? Does not the fact that the food is left untouched indicate that the dead are powerless? Furthermore, dead ancestors cannot be aware of veneration or sacrifices performed by living descendants. Being nonexistent, they cannot be interested in their former family or intervene in its affairs. The Bible says: “They have no portion anymore to time indefinite in anything that has to be done under the sun.”—Ecclesiastes 9:6.
What Hope for Dead Ancestors?
Does this mean, then, that there is no hope of being reunited with dead loved ones? Not at all! People long ago separated by death will be united again when they are brought to life in the resurrection. “The hour is coming,” Jesus promises in the Bible, “in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out.”—John 5:28, 29.
This hope of a resurrection helped reshape the life of an Okinawan woman who worshiped her ancestors. She explains: ‘My outlook on life changed. Becoming a follower of Jesus Christ has helped me to be more loving to my living relatives and to others.’ Is not love for living parents far more reasonable than veneration of dead ancestors? (Ephesians 6:2, 3) She continues: ‘When I observe the loneliness of aging parents and grandparents today, I am very thankful that I learned to show real love and respect for my parents while they were still alive.’
In addition, for Christians the most serious objection to ancestor worship is that it represents a course of rebellion against God’s plain command: “You must not have any other gods against my face . . . because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.” (Exodus 20:3, 5) So instead of worshiping dead relatives, heed the Bible’s counsel to worship Jehovah, the One alone who can make possible a joyous reunion with dead relatives.—Revelation 20:12, 13.
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“As for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5