Friday, June 13, 2008

Do Passages Like Genesis 19 And Luke 16 Support Prayers To Angels And The Deceased?

Dave Armstrong recently posted an article on prayers to the deceased and angels. I've written on the subject before (see here, for example), and I won't repeat everything I've said in the past, but I want to comment on some of the issues addressed in Dave's article.

Dave doesn't cite any Biblical equivalent of the Roman Catholic prayers Evangelicals object to, because there is no Biblical equivalent. Rather, he cites some Biblical practices that are somewhat similar to the Roman Catholic practice, and he suggests that the former have implications for the latter.

I don't think many Evangelicals, if any, would argue that it's inappropriate to communicate with the deceased and angels in every context. For example, Dave cites Luke 16:19-31, in which a deceased unbeliever, a rich man, communicates with a deceased believer, Abraham. What Evangelical would deny that if one deceased person appears before another, the two can communicate? I doubt that any Evangelical would maintain that two Christians in Heaven wouldn't be permitted to speak with each other, since they had physically died. The rich man in Luke 16 is no longer living on earth, with all of the limitations and Divine commandments that apply to earthly life, and Abraham is within sight. That context is significantly different than a context in which a man on earth attempts to initiate contact, through prayer, with a deceased person whose ability to hear him he can't verify, sometimes not even knowing whether the deceased person is saved.

Distinctions like these aren't just made by Evangelicals. If a Christian from China visits Dave's church, and he speaks with that Christian while he's visiting, Dave won't assume that he can speak with that Christian through prayer after he returns to China. And when Dave wrote an earlier article discussing whether we can pray to Jesus, he didn't cite the centurion's conversation with Jesus in Matthew 8 or the disciples' conversations with Jesus in John 21, for example, to justify the practice of praying to Jesus. It seems that Dave understands that there's a relevant difference between speaking with Jesus in a context like Matthew 8 or John 21 and speaking with Him today, while He's in Heaven.

Yet, Dave repeatedly disregards such distinctions when citing Biblical passages about the deceased and angels. For example, he cites Matthew 17:1-4 and 27:50-53, even though those deceased believers had returned to life on earth, yet he doesn't cite passages like John 21, in which people speak with Jesus after He returned to life on earth, in order to justify prayers to Jesus. Maybe Dave will begin appealing to passages like John 21 in that context, but his apparent failure to do so in the past suggests to me that he's aware of and agrees with distinctions such as the ones I've made above.

If the people of Biblical times had practiced prayers to the deceased and angels, we would expect to see that practice reflected in the Biblical record. We wouldn't expect angels to have to initiate contact with people on earth before we saw people on earth speaking to angels, for example. Why didn't Saul pray to Samuel rather than attempting to contact him through a medium? The people of the Bible would speak with the deceased or angels if the deceased or angels manifested themselves in some manner, but they wouldn't attempt to initiate communication through prayer to a being who gives no indication of being available for contact.

Dave often makes comments such as:

"Saints in heaven are aware of earthly events."

"Angels are aware of earthly events to an extraordinary degree, being super-intelligent beings."

He claims that deceased believers are "perfectly aware of affairs on earth".

But the deceased and angels can be aware of some events on earth without being aware of every event. Angels have limitations in understanding and interacting with events on earth (Daniel 10:13, 1 Peter 1:12). Passages like 1 Kings 8:38-39 and Revelation 2:23 suggest that only God thoroughly knows the human heart, and 1 Kings 8 is addressed specifically to the context of prayer. We would need some further warrant before concluding that the deceased and angels are aware of people's thoughts and speech. Angels are messengers. They're sent to perform particular tasks. Different angels work in different parts of the universe. The fact that an angel is "aware of earthly events to an extraordinary degree" in the earthly context he's sent to address doesn't suggest that he would be aware of a prayer in the heart of a child in some other part of the world, for example.

The Bible addresses thousands of years of human history in a large variety of contexts. There are hundreds of Biblical examples of prayers offered to God. There are many Biblical examples of people interacting with the deceased and angels if they leave the earthly realm (in Heaven, in visions, etc.) or if the deceased or angels manifest themselves in the earthly realm. But we're never encouraged to attempt to initiate communication with the deceased or angels through prayer. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and others who believe in praying to the deceased and angels do so millions of times every day, and their behavior leaves many and explicit traces in the historical record. How likely is it that there would be no such traces in the Biblical record if prayer to the deceased and angels had been a practice of the people of God in Biblical times?

Or, if we're to believe that it's an appropriate practice that didn't develop until post-Biblical times, then why should we consider it an appropriate development? Nothing in Dave's article leads us to the conclusion that the deceased and angels are appropriate recipients of prayer. Dave doesn't want us to speak with an angel who has appeared to us on earth, as in Genesis 19. He doesn't want us to speak with an angel who appears to us in a vision, as in Zechariah 2. He doesn't want us to speak with deceased believers who return to life on earth, such as the ones in Matthew 27. He doesn't want us to speak with Abraham if we see him in the afterlife, as in Luke 16. Dave wants those of us who are still in this life on earth to try to initiate communication with the deceased and angels through prayer, often when the deceased and angels aren't known to have entered the earthly realm and without our knowing whether the deceased are saved. There's a significant difference, and Dave's article doesn't do anything to bridge the gap.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post Jason. I agree with everything you said. The way those passages were used reminded me of doctored photos of the Loch Ness Monster...

    I thought this one was interesting:

    Jeremiah 15:1 Then the LORD said to me: "Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go!

    What makes this statement hypothetical is not Moses and Samuel's unwiliness to intercede, but the fact that they are dead.

    God be with you,