Monday, June 09, 2008

Attempts To Make A Biblical Case For Prayers To The Dead

The Biblical record gives us a lot of information about how the people of God in past ages lived in a large variety of circumstances, and prayer to God is mentioned often, whereas prayer to the deceased isn't mentioned at all. There are hundreds of passages on prayer in the Bible, covering thousands of years of history. In all of that context, we're never encouraged to pray to the dead. To the contrary, scripture condemns any attempt to contact the deceased (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Isaiah 8:19, 19:3).

The evidence from the earliest patristic sources is against the practice as well. Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian wrote treatises on the subject of prayer without encouraging prayers to the dead. Instead, they either state or imply that prayer is to be offered only to God. Origen in particular is emphatic on the point (Against Celsus, 5:4-5, 5:11, 8:26; On Prayer, 10).

I've addressed some of the arguments for praying to the deceased (Psalm 103, catacomb inscriptions, etc.) in previous posts. See, for example, here, here, and here.

In this post, I want to address some of the few New Testament passages commonly cited in support of the practice. As you think about these passages, ask yourself why advocates of praying to the dead have to resort to such argumentation.

Sometimes the Mount of Transfiguration will be cited, as if Moses and Elijah are recipients of prayers to the dead. But Moses and Elijah had returned to life on earth. No prayer is involved. And the only one who spoke with them was Jesus. Peter, James, and John didn’t speak to them. Even if we were to conclude, without good reason, that Jesus had been praying to Moses and Elijah, Jesus isn’t merely human. He’s also God. To cite His conversation with Moses and Elijah as justification for Christians to pray to the dead is to assume that anything Jesus did must be acceptable for Christians to do. But it’s possible that praying to the deceased, if Jesus had ever done such a thing, was done through His unique attributes as God. There would be no way for us to know.

Another passage commonly cited in support of praying to the dead is Revelation 5:8. But the elders in that passage are referred to as carrying the prayers, not as the recipients of the prayers. (The earliest patristic commentators on Revelation 5:8 refer to the prayers in that passage as being offered to God, not to the elders. We see this in Irenaeus [Against Heresies, 4:17:6-4:18:1], Origen [Against Celsus, 8:17], and Methodius [The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, 5:8].) Revelation 8:4, which uses similar imagery, refers to the prayers going to God. Just as the harps in Revelation 5:8 are likely used to play music to God, the prayers mentioned in the same passage most likely are directed to God, not to the elders. The elders are presenters of the prayers, not recipients of them. Similarly, when angels are referred to as carrying bowls of wrath (Revelation 16:2), we don't conclude that the angels therefore are the recipients of the wrath.

Furthermore, when other passages in Revelation allude to the prayers of Revelation 5, the most natural implication is that the prayers were addressed to God and were asking Him for justice on earth. This is documented by Richard Bauckham in his chapter on prayer in Into God’s Presence, Richard Longenecker, ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 252-271. As Bauckham explains, Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4, 9:13-14, and 14:18 have similar terminology and imagery. The phrase "golden bowl full" is used in both Revelation 5:8 and 15:7. It seems that the wrath described in 15:7 is in response to the prayers of the saints. In 6:9-10, we see the martyred saints asking God for justice. And the incense altar associated with the prayers of the saints in 8:3-4 is referred to again in 9:13-14 and 14:18 in connection with God's exercising justice on earth. It seems that the best explanation of the prayers in Revelation 5 and Revelation 8 is that they're prayers to God, asking for justice on earth. They aren't prayers to the dead.

And we ought to ask, given that millions of prayers are offered to the dead every day among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for example, how likely is it that, if the practice was accepted in Biblical times, all that we would be able to find to reflect that fact in the Biblical record would be possible allusions in passages like the Mount of Transfiguration and Revelation 5:8? If praying to the dead had been an accepted practice in Biblical times, we would expect it to be mentioned many times in many contexts, explicitly. But it isn't.

Catholics and Orthodox who discuss this subject often try to shift the topic of discussion and confuse categories. They'll enter a discussion about prayers to the dead and begin discussing prayers for the dead. They'll cite passages in the Bible and the church fathers regarding whether the deceased pray for us, even though the issue is whether we should pray to them. They'll cite passages about angels in a discussion about the deceased, as if the two are indistinguishable. They'll assume that Biblical passages associating an angel or deceased person with prayer in some way, such as Revelation 5, must involve prayer that's directed to that angel or deceased person as a recipient, even though the passage doesn't make that association. They'll assume that if a passage of scripture tells us that the deceased know about some events on earth, then all deceased believers must know about other events on earth as well, such as prayers that are offered to them.

Again, we should ask why these people so often resort to such argumentation. When they cite passages like Psalm 103, the Mount of Transfiguration, and Revelation 5, and they keep confusing categories and have to make a series of dubious assumptions in order to reach their conclusion, what does that sort of behavior suggest?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Lvka,

    If you want to post a comment, avoid the gratuitous vulgarity the next time around. You're a house guest here. Wipe your feet on the doormat before you come inside.

  3. avoid the gratuitous vulgarity

    Uhm, ... Your last three words from the previous comment ... weren't they by any chance a disguised vulgarity at least? >;)

    OK, jokes besides, my point still stands: Luther was enraged due to clerical corruption (C.C. from now on) and that's his (unbiblical) reason. And priests *DO* make a *LOT* more from the living than they do from the dead, so ... why doesn't Protestantism outlaw the prayers for the living also? :-\ (The living *DO* pay better than the dead, You know ... ) :-|

    You know ... they're called Shephards, and we're called sheep, and boy do they know how to milk and how to shear us! :-)

  4. LVKA,

    I didn't see your initial post before it was deleted. I don't know what you wrote. But in your second post, you write:

    "OK, jokes besides, my point still stands: Luther was enraged due to clerical corruption (C.C. from now on) and that's his (unbiblical) reason. And priests *DO* make a *LOT* more from the living than they do from the dead, so ... why doesn't Protestantism outlaw the prayers for the living also?"

    You might want to reread the last two paragraphs of my post. Prayers to the dead aren't the same as prayers for the dead.

    And Luther's alleged motives for opposing a practice aren't necessarily the same as the motives of later Evangelicals. My view of prayer doesn't have much to do with "clerical corruption".