Is Ancestor Worship for Christians?
by Mick Gillman
“Ancestor Worship, reverence granted to deceased relatives who are believed to have become more powerful spiritual beings or, less frequently, to have attained the status of gods. It is based on the belief that ancestors are active members of society and are still interested in the affairs of their living relatives.” according to the Microsoft Encarta. Most people know that the ancestor worship plays a major role in the lives of millions of people, especially Confusianists, 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 “universal phenomenon,” says a Nigerian professor of religious studies. The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia reads about Ancestor Worship: “Ritualized propitiation and invocation of dead kin, based on the belief that spirits of the dead influence the fate of the living.”
Thus, in the home of a devotee of ancestor worship – a Buddhist living in Southeast Asia – you may see a small alter on which a picture of the deceased relative is prominently displayed. Here too you may also smell the burning incense or hear the chanting of prayers and the clapping of hands. Frequently, the devout place food or arrange flowers on the alter 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 of those 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 living. They remain “spiritual superintendents of family affairs,” says Professor E Bolji Idowu, in his book African Traditional Religion – A Definition. There is almost nothing that an ancestral spirit may nit be called upon to grant or avert. Thus the ancestors are regarded as “factors or cohesion in African family,” and according to The New Encyclopedia 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 of such faith? Sierra Leonian theologian Harry Sawyerr admits that African 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 death of the body. Long before Confucius or Buddha, a wise man of pre-Christian times wrote: “The living are conscious that the will die; but as for the dead, they are conscience 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 48:10, 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 or veneration or sacrifices performed by living descendents. 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.”
What Hope for Dead Ancestors?
Does this mean, then, that there is no hope of being reunited with the 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 shape the life of an Okinawan woman who worshiped her ancestors. She explains: ‘My outlook in 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? 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 are 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 One alone who can make possible a joyous reunion with dead relatives. – Revelation 20:12, 13