By Bethany Verrett, Crosswalk.com
False religions have always been common. Some people worship the natural world around them, while others create myths and legends to which they adhere as the truth. Some worship their ancestors, looking back at past generations and honoring their spirits as protectors, benefactors, and guides. Rather than looking around the world and seeing the hand of God, they see a world their ancestors walked, and only from their predecessors can they receive true wisdom and guidance on how to survive in the world.
Through the centuries, many cultures have practiced the worship of ancestors in various forms. Whether they call it honoring the ancestors or worship, it is placing deceased family members in the place of God, committing idolatry and violating God’s law.
The Bible is clear that only God is worthy of worship and praise, and Christians have a calling and a responsibility to share the Gospel with the people of the world who are still deceived by the practice of ancestor worship.
What Is Ancestor Worship?
The worship of ancestors has been a common practice across multiple continents and cultures, and it looks different depending on which practice someone is studying. But there are common links. It is usually a series of rituals, behaviors, and beliefs that venerates deceased family members.
While religions that involve ancestor worship often honor living family members, they usually do not worship them until they have died. Often there are common threads in the beliefs and practices, though they differ from group to group. Often, religions like this are centered on tribes and ethnic identities, and they only honor their own people. Their origin myths will usually be about the origins of their ethnic group, and the veneration of ancestors is required for someone to pass on into the afterlife, which will look different depending on the population. Another common thread across many, but not all, ancestor worship practices is the ability of the deceased to possess a shaman, a family member, or an object.
In African countries, ancestor worship is often synthesized with other types of spirit veneration like animism as the basis of many tribal religions. People groups like the Seereer of Senegal venerate the Seereer people who came before them. On the island of Madagascar, over 20 million people practice the same religions they’ve practiced for centuries or millennia, which involves ancestor worship.
Some form of ancestor worship or veneration can be found in cultures across Asia, from China, to India, to Laos and Cambodia. They will often make offerings to their ancestors as a way to keep them happy and to honor them appropriately. Cultures in places like Mongolia or Thailand will conduct rites to help a deceased ancestor move into the next life, where they can become a type of guardian spirit for the family.
Ancient European cultures such as the Gaul’s, the Nordic people, and the Celts had forms of ancestor worship as well. While they died out for a long time, some are making a return as interest in ancient religions is on the rise.
These descriptions are broad and are meant to give a general idea of what ancestor worship looks like globally. It is not an exhaustive study in how ancestor worship manifests in each specific culture.
While certain Christian denominations practice veneration of the saints, it is different than the practice of ancestor worship, as they pray to them to intercede to God on their behalf. They do not grant the saint the authority of God. The saints are also not related to the individuals who venerate them, unlike the religious practice of ancestor worship.
While it is a practice that denominations do not agree on, it is not the same kind of practice being examined here. It is a practice that is controversial among believers, with Catholics and Orthodox Christians believing it is part of their faith, and Protestants and Evangelicals believing it is an inappropriate practice.
Why Doesn’t God Want Us to Worship Our Ancestors?
God wanted people to exist in family structures, which is why He designed men and women to need one another to procreate. He also wants one man to take one wife, and to raise their children together in the fear and admonition of Him. It is good to try and have a positive, healthy relationship with one’s family as much as possible.
However, there is a distinction between honoring one’s family members when they are alive with appropriate deference, and ascribing to them characteristics that belong to God whether they are alive or not. When God was establishing the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai after they left Egypt, He gave them the ten commandments. More than one of the commandments make it clear that God prohibits behaviors tied in with ancestor worship. He said,
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:3-6).
Ancestor worship involves the worship of other gods, not necessarily just the ancestors, and the creation of a false idol. Some cultures even go so far as to create images or venerate objects in the place of a deceased loved one.
For many cultures that worship or venerate their ancestors, a big part of that worship is so the living can help the dead get to the afterlife, or so the dead will help them in life and to get to the afterlife. God is clear, “Jesus said… ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’” (John 11:25). Jesus is the only way to have eternal life in Heaven, and those who reject His offer of grace, forgiveness, and salvation will not. Ancestor worship offers false hope.
God does not want people to worship their ancestors because that act is a barrier between Himself and the sinner engaging in that practice. As long as they are looking to the dead for comfort and answers, they will never seek Him out or see His hand moving in their lives. It is sin to venerate anyone above the one true God, and the Lord wants everyone to come to Him, repent of sin, and have an eternal relationship with Him.
What Does the Bible Say about the Dead?
Ancestor worship focuses on people who are no longer alive. Time and time again, however, the Bible makes it clear the dead cannot intervene in the world, as they are no longer in the world and of it.
Jesus illustrated this in His ministry with the story of Lazarus and the rich man, recorded in the Gospel of Luke. In this story, Jesus explains that when a poor man named Lazarus begged for scraps, a rich man ignored him and showed him no mercy. When Lazarus died, he went to Paradise, called Abraham’s bosom in the story. When the rich man died, he went to hell. He begged Lazarus for a drop of water, but Abraham chided him saying, “...a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26b).
The dead are fixed where they are sent until the damned are judged or the righteous are reunited with their bodies on the Day of the Lord during the End of Days. Praying to them for assistance and venerating them as helpful guides is useless, because they cannot help.
The Bible strongly suggests – and it is generally accepted in most theology – that when someone interacts with or is possessed by a spirit they believe is an ancestor, it is most likely a demonic spirit.
Bible Verses about the Dead
The Bible does address the living’s relationship with the dead and show that God does not want people worshipping their ancestors. Some verses about this topic include:
Leviticus 19:31 - “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.”
Psalm 115:17 - “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence.”
Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 - “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.”
Isaiah 8:19 - “And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?”
Daniel 12:2 - “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
1 Thessalonians 4:14-16 - “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
1 John 4:1 - “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Prayer for a Friend Practicing Ancestor Worship
Millions of people around the world still worship or venerate their ancestors; they are lost and do not know the truth of salvation through Jesus Christ. Christians should share the Gospel with them when they meet someone engaging in this practice, and pray for them. It can be difficult to do this because ancestor worship is tied in with their ethnic and cultural identity, family ties, and expectations. Coming to them with love and compassion is important.
Here is prayer you can use as an outline to pray for someone you meet who may be practicing ancestor worship.
Thank you for reaching out to me, standing at the door of my heart and knocking, so that I can repent of my sins and accept Your free gift of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lord, my friend/family member is blinded by the lie of ancestor worship. They have false hope for their afterlife because they believe falsehood. Lord, help them to hear the good news of Jesus, and open their ears to the truth. Soften their heart, so they can hear Your Son knocking, and so the Holy Spirit can work. Give me the courage to share the Gospel with them, and help them to see that I am sharing the Gospel with love, and not because I hate them. Lord, nothing is more important than having a relationship with You. Help my friend/family member to get saved so they can know the true hope and peace found in knowing You.
In the name of Jesus Christ I pray,
Hageman, John and Erica Hill. The Archaology of Ancestors Death, Memory, and Veneration. Gainesville: The University of Florida Press, 2016.
Walvoord, John F. and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Old Testament and New Testament. United States of America: Victor Books, 1987.
Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/PeopleImages
Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.