Saturday, November 15, 2014

Should You Ask the Dead to Pray For You?
This post is the appendix to my book Praying Our Fathers: the Secret Mercies of Patriarchal Intercession. I explain in this appendix the scriptural basis for asking our departed loved ones and the saints and heroes of our Faith to pray for us. If you would like to know more about this book, you can also read the first chapter for free on my website.

Should You Ask the Dead
to Pray For You?

I will now describe from Scripture how the practice of asking the faithful departed to pray for us was a common and valid ancient practice and continues to be a source of spiritual blessing for us today.

I myself grew up in a Christian community that did not approve of asking the departed to pray for us. In the course of my scriptural and historical studies, I discovered that the practice had been largely misunderstood by us Protestants and was supported by both the Bible and early Jewish and Christian writers. I will present for you the arguments for and against the practice and let you make up your own mind.

If you are part of the Protestant tradition (as I also once was), your religious leaders will tell you that the practices I describe in this book are wrong. They may even tell you they are demonic. I will treat in this chapter all the various verses of Holy Scripture they are likely to quote as they attempt to refute my claims. And I will tell you why they are simply wrong.

But I do want, out of Christian charity, to tell you that your leaders assert what they do out of a concern for your spiritual wellbeing. They sincerely care for you and want you to avoid practices they believe are wrong. They are, however and unfortunately, defending a position that has cut itself off from the life-blood of ancient and historical Christian practice as it was passed down from Jesus to the Apostles. I will explain all of these things in this chapter.

Prayers for the Dead

I’ve focused on addressing the deceased and asking them to pray for us. But I have also mentioned the practice of praying for them in this book. The Western Church has tended to view praying for the dead as something primarily associated with helping our loved ones through a state of purification called Purgatory. The Eastern Church also prays for the dead but is inclined to describe prayer for the dead as simply an act of love for them. I will not address the wider topic of Purgatory here, but I do want to show readers not acquainted with the concept that praying for the dead is fully biblical.

In 2nd Timothy 1:16-18, St. Paul makes mention of Onesiphorus, who seems from context to have died. Here is what he writes:

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me. He was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he looked for me eagerly and he found me. May the Lord grant him mercy from the Lord on that day.

St. Paul here makes a simple prayer that God grant mercy to the soul of a loved one who has fallen asleep. And I make that same simple prayer for all my ancestors, following his example.

I have not quoted in this book any of the books that the Christian Church traditionally included in her Canon but which were removed by Protestant Churches at the time of the Reformation. If you are interested in seeing yet another defense of praying for the dead, see 2nd Maccabees 12:40-45.

The Argument Against Saint Intercession

The condemnation of Saint (and Ancestral) Intercession has historically involved the following claims.

1) Saint Intercession is wrong because we should only pray to God
2) We cannot know whether the dead hear our prayers
3) The practice is not described in the Bible
4) The practice is actually directly condemned in the Bible
5) We should not ask the departed to pray for us because we should have no mediator except Christ

I will demonstrate, from the Bible as my primary source, that none of these five claims are true. After addressing each of these claims directly, I will then explain why, in the end, we may safely accept the practice of Saint Intercession simply because the Historical Church practiced it. In the end, after all the biblical arguments, I will show that rejecting the practice of the Historical Church is a rejection of the Bible itself. And so, let’s look now at the claims against Saint Intercession.

1) Saint Intercession is wrong because we should only pray to God

When early Jews and Christians asked their ancestors to “seek mercies” on their behalf, they were not “praying” to them in the modern sense of that word.

Protestants in particular bristle at hearing people use the term “pray to saints” because the verb “to pray” has evolved in English to mean “speak to God.” And so on their ears the phrase “pray to saints” sounds like Catholic and Orthodox have made the saints into minor deities, which is not at all the case.

In older English, “to pray” merely meant “to ask.” Shakespeare repeatedly used the phrase “I pray thee” in dialogue between two humans, with the meaning simply of “I ask you.”[1]

Even so, clearly the verb “to pray” has now taken on a divine connotation, and that is why in this book I carefully describe asking the deceased to pray for us using exactly those words “asking the deceased to pray for us.”

And so, for the record, Saint Intercession is not prayer to a deity. There is One God. If someone’s understanding of English insists that the verb “to pray” means only “to talk to God,” then we do not “pray” to Saints! When we ask the departed to pray for us, we are doing the same thing as when we ask a living person to pray for us. A valid criticism would indeed involve whether that dead human can even hear the request for prayer. But it is not fair to condemn Saint Intercession on the grounds that it is turning the dead into gods.

2) We cannot know whether the dead hear our prayers

Before I do present biblical passages that tell us that the departed can indeed hear us when we ask them to pray for us, I would ask how do we know whether God even hears our prayers? We don’t. But we must have faith. My point is, it is a natural and comfortable impulse to speak to our beloved dead who have gone to sleep in the Lord. Is it really so easy to believe in God and to believe He hears our prayers, but then difficult to believe in a God who grants us, out of Love, a continual communion with those we love but have gone to their reward?

The faithful departed are not gods. They are not omnipotent or omniscient by their own nature, so the only way they can hear us ask them to pray for us is if God grants them this blessing.

Fortunately, the Bible teaches us quite clearly that God has indeed granted them this precious gift, which deepens the Communion of the Saints, both living and dead.

Those who condemn Saint Intercession claim that the Bible does not provide any evidence whatsoever that those in heaven can hear our prayers or know what is happening on the earth. Let’s see if this claim is true.

Scripture Teaches That
The Angels in Heaven Can Hear Us!

Consider the following.

Jesus said, “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

And so, the angels are indeed aware of what goes on in the human realm.

Here’s another verse that proves the angels are well aware of what happens on Earth:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in Heaven. (Matt 18:19).

Now, Jesus told us that those who have died will be “like angels in heaven.” (Matt 22:30) And so, if the faithful departed are like angels, and the angels clearly do know what happens on earth, then it follows logically that the faithful departed know what happens here as well.
While this logical argument is valid, it would still be nice to find verses in the Bible directly describing the faithful departed as being aware of the prayers of those still on earth.

Scripture Teaches That
The Saints in Heaven Can Hear Us!

In the Book of Revelation, we read:

Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones. (Rev 5:8)

The “holy ones” here is evidently referring to the prayers of the “saints” of the Church, at this period still a reference to all Christians, living or deceased. [2] So the prayers of the “holy ones,” visible to those in heaven, are the prayers of the living.

We also read in the Book of Revelation:

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a large amount of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar which was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel. (Rev 8:3-4)

The Book of Revelation further describes the early Christian martyrs as asking God when they would receive justice. They ask Him:

How long will it be, holy and true master, before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood upon the inhabitants of the earth? (Rev 6:10)

This passage implies that the early Christian martyrs, in the presence of God, are well aware that they have not yet received the justice they feel they are due. How do they know this unless the faithful departed are, by the grace of God, allowed to know what happens on earth?

Yet More Evidence

The Rich Man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his still living five brothers. Abraham replied:

They have Moses and the Prophets. Let them listen to them. (Luke 16:29)

Abraham in this parable is apparently well versed in the lives and activities of Moses and the Prophets, men who lived and served God hundreds of years after Abraham’s own life and death.

The Most Important Evidence of All That
The Faithful Departed Can Hear Us

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, St. Paul proves quite definitively that the faithful departed know what happens in the earthly realm when he teaches us:

Now I know in part. Then I shall know just as I also am known. (1 Cor. 13:12)

When St. Paul writes, “just as I am known,” he of course means just as God knows him. And if he is claiming that in the afterlife he will know “just as he is known,” he is indeed claiming that the faithful departed will enjoy secondary omniscience of the world they have left.

What I mean by secondary omniscience, is that the faithful departed know all, not by their own power, but by the power of God.

And so, Holy Scripture describes the Faithful Departed (as well as the angels) as being aware of the world they have left. We may confidently say that, if we ask one of them to pray for us, they know of our request. Again, the Faithful Departed are not gods. They know nothing of their own power. By the grace of God they are made aware of communications to them.

And so, the claim that the Bible contains no evidence whatsoever that the faithful departed know what happens on earth is quite clearly wrong.

And so, let’s examine the next claim against Saint Intercession.

3) The practice is not described in the Bible

Again, those who condemn Saint Intercession live in a world of absolutes. They are claiming the position that the Bible contains no reference whatsoever to addressing the angels or the faithful departed. And so, if we can find even one example of it in the Bible, this claim is disproven.

We read in Psalm 103:20:

Bless the LORD, O you His angels, you mighty ones who do His word.

One could argue that an address to the angels in the book of Psalms is purely poetic, with no theological implication to be implied. Indeed, we also read in Psalm 148:2-3 another invocation of angels but also of inanimate objects:

Praise Him, all His angels, praise Him, all His host! Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him, all you shining stars!

Once again we face the issue that those who condemn Saint Intercession start by claiming there is no reference whatsoever on a certain topic. And then, when an example is shown, then some might decide there must be some reason to ignore it and declare that this particular example doesn’t count.

The Faithful Departed Are Addressed
in the New Testament!

What if the Bible itself gave us an example of addressing, not just the angels, but the blessed departed of our faith?

Read the following from the Book of Revelation 18:20, which describes the scene after the destruction of Babylon:

Be glad over her, O heaven, O saints, apostles, and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her.

This a clear example in the Bible advocating a direct address, not of angels poetically, but of the faithful dead of the Church. The parallel between “O heaven” and “O saints, apostles, and prophets” makes it unmistakable that this passage is depicting a direct address to the departed heroes of our faith.

So, far from providing absolutely no evidence whatsoever that those in heaven should be directly addressed, the Bible abounds in it.

On to the fourth claim condemning Saint Intercession.

4) The practice is actually directly condemned in the Bible

This claim is true if, and only if, Saint Intercession, as it is practiced in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, is accurately described and then specifically condemned. In fact, the verses quoted by those who make this assertion are clear that they are not referring to Saint Intercession but something altogether different.

The Bible does indeed condemn the practice of necromancy, that is to say, consulting dead spirits in order to gain supernatural knowledge. This condemnation is found in Isaiah 8:19-20:

When they say to you, “Consult (דרשו; dirshu) the mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter.” Should not a people consult (ידרש; yidrosh) their God instead of the dead on behalf of the living?

The Hebrew original of this passage makes it clear that what is condemned is specifically the practice of “consulting” the dead, that is to say, seeking (darash) knowledge and information from them.

The Hebrew Bible elsewhere condemns any contact with other practitioners of black magic who presumably engage in the same forbidden practices (Ex 22:18; Lev 19:26; Deut 18:10-11).

But addressing someone who is dead, asking them to pray for us, is simply not the same thing as practicing necromancy, seeking information from the realm of the dead.

If merely speaking to the dead is the same thing as the necromancy condemned in the Bible, then Jesus Himself would be guilty of the sin of necromancy (and liable to execution by stoning, Lev 20:27).

At the Transfiguration, Jesus spoke with Elijah and Moses (Matt 17:3). Elijah had been assumed into heaven and was arguably not dead. But Moses died (Deut 34:5). And then Jesus spoke with him. If merely speaking to the dead, under any circumstances, is necromancy, then Jesus would a necromancer.

Look, he’s obviously not. And that’s the point. The assertion that asking the faithful departed to pray for us is the necromancy condemned by the Bible is simply not true.

So, let’s examine the final argument traditionally put forth as to why we should not ask the faithful departed to pray for us.

5) We should not ask the departed to pray for us because we should have no mediator except Christ

This claim stems from the same misunderstanding of the term “praying to Saints” we explored earlier. Let me state again. Saint Intercession is one human asking another human to pray for them. Granted, it is a living human asking a dead human to pray. But we discovered that the Bible itself explains why death should not prevent us from asking a loved one or a Saint from praying for us.

It is true that the Bible describes Jesus as the only Mediator between Man and God:

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all. (1 Timothy 2:5-6)

If one human asking another human to pray is a rejection of Jesus’ role as our sole Mediator, let’s call out those who are guilty of this error.

St. Paul himself, in 1 Timothy 2:1.

That’s right, just four verses before he declared that there is only one mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, St. Paul, a human, asked other humans to pray:

First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone. (1 Timothy 2:1)

The fact that St. Paul himself, a human, asked other humans to pray just four verses before the statement that Jesus is the only Mediator between God and Man should convince all readers that asking another human to pray has nothing at all to do with Jesus as Mediator.

Here are yet other verses in which he asked people to pray, thereby, some would say, rejecting the concept of Jesus as Sole Mediator which he himself asserted in 1 Tim 2:5-6:

Brethren, pray for us. (1 Thess 5:25)

Be steadfast in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving; and pray for us also.
(Col 4:2-3)

Again, my point is that St. Paul himself abundantly asks people to pray for other people. One human asking another human to pray for them is not a rejection of the concept that Jesus is the Sole Mediator between God and Man. A human asking a deceased human for prayer is no more a violation of this than the next candidate guilty as charged.

Moses. When the people of Israel sinned, and God sent snakes among them, they came to Moses and declared:

We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take away the snakes. (Numbers 21:7)

And Moses prayed for them. And then God declared:

Make a snake and put it on a pole. If anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will live. (Numbers 21:8)

Notice that Moses does not reply to their request for prayer that he should not be a mediator between them and God. And notice that God hears Moses’ prayer and grants the people grace within their punishment. God does not tell Moses that he will not hear his prayer because the people should have only prayed directly to him.

In other words, God does not at all reject the idea that one human should be the prayer intermediary for other humans. Whether the deceased can hear us is a separate matter I discussed earlier. But that the fact that someone is deceased does not somehow make asking them to pray for us a denial of Jesus’ unique mediation.

Safety in the Pillar and Base of the Truth

We’ve just explored the common criticisms of Saint Intercession asserted by those who reject the practice. And I started this chapter by running through those verses because I know that readers from communities that don’t practice Saint Intercession do need to see an alternative view of the passages quoted to claim that Saint Intercession is unbiblical.

But now I want to explain why all of that was ultimately unnecessary. The Church in the earliest centuries of Christian history supported and practiced Saint Intercession. I’ve shown that the Bible does not condemn this practice and contains verses that establish the possibility that those in heaven can hear us and would pray for us if asked. But there is an even more trustworthy way to confidently accept this practice.

It is a matter of historical record that the entire Christian Church in, say, the year AD 800 practiced Saint Intercession. If someone teaches that the Church should not practice Saint Intercession, they presumably believe that the earliest Christian Church did not practice it and that Saint Intercession crept into the Church’s practice as an error somewhere between the Day of Pentecost and AD 800. But the implication of that belief is that the entire Christian Church could fall into error. Let’s explore whether the Bible would allow us to hold that belief.

What does the Bible have to say
about the Church?

The word “Church” (εκκλησια: ekklesia) occurs numerous times in the Epistles, but only twice in the Gospels. Yet these two references from the Gospels tell us much about the nature of the Church which Jesus founded.

Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus responds:

You are Peter (Petros), and on this Rock (petra) I will build my Church. And the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18)

Jesus says here that the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church. He does not say here that the Church will remain in the truth by following the Bible.

If the Church did fall into horrible errors for centuries, how could we believe that the Gates of Hell did not prevail against it?

Where was Jesus during the centuries in which the Church supposedly taught the errors that Protestants believe were corrected only starting in the 1500’s? Why did the Germans in the 1500’s deserve to get the True Church restored and not the Italians in the 700’s?

Here’s the other use of the word “Church” in the Gospels. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus describes a scenario in which a Christian brother or sister is in sin. He says that first you are to tell them about their fault alone. And if they listen (and repent), then you have gained back your brother or sister. If they do not listen, you are to go back with two or three witnesses. And if they still do not listen:

Tell it to the Church; and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)

Notice here that Jesus describes “The Church” as something capable of having an authoritative opinion. According to Jesus, the process of confronting a sinful member of the community is not going to them and quoting the Bible. The Church, in Jesus’ description, has the ability to speak authoritatively. There is no way “The Church” could have this unless “The Church” has leaders authorized to decide and act for it.

And so, “The Church” that Jesus describes in the Gospels has the promise of victory over the Gates of Hell and the ability to speak with authority in the face of sin.

That’s a far cry from the error-ridden Church some believe existed for over a thousand years.

Through the Church...

I have stated in this book that I was raised in the Lutheran Church. After college, I attended a Lutheran seminary with the intention of becoming a Lutheran minister. But I discovered, in the course of my studies, two verses of the Bible that shook me to the core. They have to do with the Church and whether it is the Church or the Bible that has the authority to teach us how to practice the Christian faith.

I had committed myself while at seminary to the discipline of reading the entire Bible, a thing I had never done, even though I was a seminary student. I had finished reading the Old Testament, I had finished the Gospels, and had entered the Epistles of St. Paul. That’s when I stumbled on the following verse:

That the manifold wisdom of God may now be made known through the Church.” (Ephesians 3:10)

I can remember shaking my head, assuming, believing, even hoping that the original Greek of this passage somehow meant something other than what the English translation had said. I mean, if the Church is really the means through which the manifold wisdom of God is made known, well, that would mean the Church would have to be preserved in truth. That would mean that the belief of my Lutheran Church that the historical Church fell into many errors would be impossible.

I grabbed my Greek New Testament and took a look:

Through the Church
δια της εκκλησιας (dia tes ekklesias)

It was exactly what I feared. The Greek preposition δια (dia) simply means ‘through’, ‘by means of’. For instance, we read in John 17:20:

I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who will believe in Me through their word (δια του λογου αυτων; dia tou logou auton)

Through. By means of.

I expected the Bible to teach me that the manifold wisdom of God would be made know through the Bible! But instead the Bible itself teaches that it is made known through the Church!

I set this problem aside and went on with my life. And I continued my reading. And after just a few days, I stumbled on yet another land mine.

In my reading, I had reached 1st Timothy. And St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy the purpose of his letter was so that, in case he was delayed in making a personal visit: that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and base of the truth. (1 Tim 3:15)

I read these words and I was initially confused. What’s the pillar and bulwark of the truth here? It must be God, right? I mean, that would make sense. “The church of the living God, (who is) the Pillar and Base of the Truth.”

And then I suddenly realized that the original Greek of this passage would be clear as to who or what was that Pillar and Base. I knew from the English that the Greek for “Church” must be in the Nominative Case, since it was the subject of the verb “is.” And I knew that the phrase “of the living God” would be in what is called the Genitive Case. (Languages like Greek and Latin have special endings used to express the subjects of verbs and possession called the Genitive Case.)

And I knew that if God was the “Pillar and Base of the Truth,” the words for that in Greek would have to also be in the Genitive Case. But if they were in the Nominative Case, then they were describing an attribute of the Church.

I can still remember the scene. My hands were shaking as I reached for my Greek New Testament. I needed those words to be in the Genitive.

But they weren’t.

the church of the living God, the pillar and base of the truth. (1 Tim 3:15)
εκκλησια θεου ζωντος στυλος και εδραιωμα της αληθειας (ekklesia theou zontos stylos kai edraioma tes alethias)

Those words were in the Nominative Case, and so they were describing an attribute of the Church. St. Paul described the Church as the “Pillar and Base of the Truth.”

Does the Bible describe the Church anywhere else as being incapable of falling into error?

The Bible clearly teaches that the Church is the New Covenant described in the Book of Jeremiah. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes this clear when it quotes from Jeremiah as fulfilled in the Church:

I will make a New Covenant with the House of Israel (Hebrews 8:8, quoting Jeremiah 31:31)

And Hebrews explains that, in this New Covenant, the Church will be an institution in which the Truth will be instilled within the hearts of the believers:

I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts (Hebrews 8:10, quoting Jeremiah 31:33)

Jeremiah further describes the nature of this New Covenant community as being unable to turn away from God and falling into error:

I will give them one heart and one way. I will make with them an Everlasting Covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they will not turn away from me. (Jeremiah 32:39-40)

How can any Christian read these verses and then imagine that the Church could fall systematically into error for centuries?

And so, if the Church did not fall into error, what are the implications of this? Simple. The practices that may not have been openly stated in Scripture, but which emerged as universal Christian practice, things like prayers for the dead and asking the faithful departed to pray for us, are a part of the Christian tradition and are validated as proper to our Faith.

So, have no worries as you follow the love in your heart and speak to your beloved dead. The Bible does not forbid it. Indeed, the Bible supports it. The Church does not forbid it. Indeed, the Church from the earliest centuries practiced it and endorsed it. And the teaching of the Church is the pillar and base upon which you can confidently rest your faith.

[1] A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 3, Scene 1; Romeo and Juliet Act 3, Scene 1; Henry V Act 4, Scene 3.
[2] For instance, we read in 2 Corinthians 1:1, “Paul, an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints throughout Achaia.

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