Praying to Dead Folks

March 17, 2013 | 4 comments

In a previous post, I talked about the problem of how a saint in heaven could hear the prayers of multiple people praying to him at the same time. In his book, Answers to Catholic Claims, A Discussion of Biblical Authority, James White attempts to make that discussion a moot point when he says there shouldn’t be any of this praying to dead folks to begin with:

The Bible strongly condemns communication with the dead. It does not matter if those who died were good or bad, saintly or evil, there is to be no communication between the living and the dead. The only communication with spirit beings that originates with man that is allowed in Scripture is that of prayer to God and He alone.

Biblical texts like Deut. 18:10-11 and Isaiah 19:3—each of which condemns necromancy—are employed to say “communication with the dead” is condemned absolutely.

Actually, what is being condemned in these texts from Deuteronomy and Isaiah is conjuring up the dead through wizards and mediums, not praying to saints. The Church has always condemned this. Mediums attempt to conjure up spirits and manipulate the spiritual realm at will. This is categorically different from Christians asking for the intercession of their brothers and sisters in Christ. We do not “conjure up” or manipulate anything or anyone. True prayer—whether to God or the angels and saints—changes the pray-er, not the pray-ee.

If one says recklessly as Mr. White said, “… there is to be no communication between the living and the dead,” where does this leave Jesus? He is clearly guilty according to Luke 9:29-31:

And as [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.

According to Deuteronomy 34:5, Moses was dead. And yet Jesus was communicating with him and Elijah about the most important event in human history—the redemption. Obviously, Jesus does not agree with Mr. White.

FIRST CONTACT

There is another point to White’s argument that requires a deeper level of response. Notice, he said, “The only communication with spirit beings that originates with man that is allowed in Scripture is that of prayer to God and He alone.” This point taken alone would not exclude communicating with the dead in any context. It would only exclude such communication if contact originates from the earth dweller.

In one sense, it seems Mr. White, as well as our Protestant friends he represents by his statement, is stuck in an Old Testament mindset. It is true that we do not see Old Covenant faithful initiating prayer to the dearly departed, but this is to be expected because the faithful dead before Christ and the beatific vision afforded by him would not have had the power to either hear or respond to those prayers. Moreover, the Old Covenant People of God did not have the developed understanding of the after-life that only came with the Revelation of Christ.

Jesus Christ introduces a radical development the Old Covenant saints could not have imagined when he clearly initiates the communication with the faithful departed unlike anything we saw in the Old Testament. I say "clearly" because even Protestant Apologist Eric Svendsen seems to see it, though I'm not sure how cognizant he was of the rammifications of this statement he made about the Transfiguration in his book, Evangelical Answers: 

The transfiguration was an apocalyptic event choreographed directly by the Son of God to give the apostles a glimpse of his eschatological glory…

If Jesus “choreographed” it, then he initiated it. Some may say, “Well, he's God, so he can do that.” Yes, he is. But he is also fully man and we are called to imitate him. If Jesus initiated communication with the dead, there is no reason to believe followers of Jesus cannot do the same. This is precisely what we mean as Catholics when we say we "pray to the saints."

THE BIBLE SAYS SO

The New Testament presents to us very plain examples of the faithful on earth initiating communication with the saints in heaven. First, we have Hebrews 11-12. Chapter 11 gives us what I call the “hall of faith” wherein the lives of many of the Old Testament saints are recounted. Then, the inspired author encourages these to whom he referred earlier as a people who were being persecuted for their faith (10:32-35), to consider that they are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” encouraging them to "run the race" of faith set before them. Then, beginning in 12:18, he encourages these New Covenant faithful by reminding them that their covenant—the New Covenant—is far superior to the Old:   

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire … darkness … gloom … and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them…

But you have come to… the city of the living God… and to innumerable angels… and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven… and to… God… and to the spirits of just men made perfect… and to Jesus…

Notice, in the Old Covenant the faithful approached God alone and with trepidation. But in the New Covenant, the faithful have experienced a radical change for the better. “But you have come to … and to … and to … and to.”  In the same way we can initiate prayer and in so doing “come to” God and Jesus, we can also “come to” the angels and “the spirits of just men made perfect.” Those would be the saints in heaven. In the fellowship of the saints, we have the aid and encouragement of the whole family of God.

The Book of Revelation gives us an even better description of this communication between heaven and earth:

The twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints … the elders fell down and worshipped (5:8-14).

These “elders” are offering the prayers of the faithful symbolized by incense filtering upward from the earth to heaven. And because they are seen receiving these prayers, we can reasonably conclude they were both directed to these saints in heaven and that they were initiated by the faithful living on earth. We also see this same phenomenon being performed by the angels in Revelation 8:3-4:

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.

The bottom line is this: Both the faithful on earth and our brothers and sisters in heaven (and let’s not forget our “cousins,” the angels) are all acting just as Catholics would expect. Believers on earth are initiating prayers which the saints and angels in heaven are receiving. Is this the necromancy condemned in Deuteronomy and Isaiah? Absolutely not! This is New Testament Christianity.

 


Tim Staples is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, but he was not always Catholic. Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian...

Friends In High Places
Catholic Answers Director of Apologetics Tim Staples takes a stand against non-Catholic notions about Catholic devotion to the saints. Referring again and again to Scripture, he shows that only a Catholic understanding of this topic is in line with the Bible.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  bryan keeper - el monte, California

There is a problem, Moses and Elijah are not dead but alive.

31 But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, 32 I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. 33 And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine.

Versus

9 For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.

Who do we believe? Christ or Paul?

Matthew 7:15
15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

John 14:6
6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke, are all about Jesus only; the gospel. The other books are not.

15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

Christ is the only in between, no one else. No priest, saint, statue, angel, man, or woman, can save or help you. The disciples were sent to tell of HIS life, not the life of the disciples. Even when a man tells you about Christ, it's christ that does the saving, not the man but Jesus own WORDs. 4 books of near identical quotes saying the same thing, words spoken by GOD.

22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of MINE, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

Build your faith on Jesus "the sturdy rock" only and his WORDs alone. Only listen to him, read for yourself what he actually says and not what others tell you he said.

January 15, 2014 at 9:26 am PST
#2  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Bryan,

We don't believe either Christ or Paul, we believe both. There is a sense in which Moses is dead (see Deut. 34:5-7) inasmuch as death is the separation of soul and body, but there is a sense in which he (and all others who have died) do not die in that death represents the body "return[ing] to the earth as it was, and the spirit return[ing] to God who gave it."
Death is used in multiple senses in Scripture, this is why Jesus could say, in John 11:25, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." Jesus says we die and then says we don't die. Why? Because there is a sense in which "it is appointed for every man once to die and then the judgment" (Heb. 9:27). We all die (except for some small number of exceptions - I Thess. 4:16) in one sense, physically. Our souls are naturally immortal, as Eccl. 12:7, Luke 16:22ff, etc. indicate, so they, in a sense, never die.
And then there is spiritual death (or the second death as Revelation 20:10-15 describes it) from which Christ has come to free us. So we have to be careful to understand death as it is being used in Scripture.
Thus, St. Paul is not the false prophet that you claim.
Moreover, St. Paul agrees with you, as does the Catholic Church, that Jesus Christ is our "one mediator." In fact, you alluded to St. Paul in I Tim. 2:5 when you made that point. But we also understand that Jesus, the one mediator, empowered the Church to be able to speak for him (John 16:7-13, Matt. 18:15-18) so that if you reject those who Jesus sent (the Church, in Luke 10:16, Matt. 10:40, Matt. 16:18-19, 18:15-18, etc.), you reject Jesus. In fact, Jesus tells us the Church "will also do the works I do; and greater works than these will he do" (John 14:12). This is the principle underlying the truth that Jesus, our one intercessor (Heb. 7:24-25; I Tim. 2:5), doesn't exclude us from interceding; he empowers us to intercede. His mediation, or intercession, is unique because he is the only one who has the power to bring us to God in a strict sense. However, Scripture reveals him to have empowered us to be able to also bring people to God because of the fact that he works through us as members of his body.
Indeed, it is because St. Paul is a member of the body of Christ, and a very important one, that in rejecting St. Paul, you reject Jesus.

January 31, 2014 at 7:40 am PST
#3  Matthew Rogers - South Bend, Indiana

"If Jesus “choreographed” it, then he initiated it. Some may say, “Well, he's God, so he can do that.” Yes, he is. But he is also fully man and we are called to imitate him."

To issue here is the statement that Jesus initiated the transfiguration and thus the encounter with Moses and Elijah.
No where does it state that Jesus caused this to happen, ordered or commanded that He be transfigured. Rather, through His intimate relationship with the Father, Father-God chose to initiate the transfiguration and the subsequent interaction with the patriarchs.

John 5: 19 states "...the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing."

Furthermore, "And because they are seen receiving these prayers, we can reasonably conclude they were both directed to these saints in heaven and that they were initiated by the faithful living on earth."
This conclusion is not logical. There is no explanation to how or why the prayers were held *by the angels* (not the saints or elders). We only know they were and the angelic work in obedience to the Father to perform certain duties with them.
In no fashion were the prayers directed to the elders. By inference it is more logical to conclude that the prayers were directed to God and the elders/saints were in proximity to said prayers, not recipients of them.

Both of these said, my contention is that if we have direct, uninhibited relationship with God, through Christ and His Spirit, why go through a "middle man" (that being the deceased)?
Petitioning Saint Peter to aid my prayers in being acknowledged/received by God the Father or by Christ Himself is akin to asking the bailiff to pass your message to the Judge while standing in direct relationship with the Judge via the Advocate, that is Christ.
Why settle for indirect communion when Christ said "No man comes to (has relationship) with the Father, but through me"?
Is it not more reasonable to relate to the Almighty directly as He has given us both opportunity and means to do so?

February 3, 2014 at 10:38 am PST
#4  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Matthew,
So why would I ask you to intercede for me when Jesus Christ "always lives to make intercession for [me]" at the right hand of God, the Father (cf. Heb. 7:25)? Wouldn't that be a waste of time? The same time I spend asking you to pray for me, I could ask Jesus to pray for me!
It's not a waste of time, and it is not unbiblical either because God commands it, in verses of Scripture like I Tim. 2:1-2, James 5:16, and a host of other biblical texts. It's not a contradiction because as a member of the body of Christ, Jesus Christ works in and through you (Gal. 2:20). In fact, God loves to empower his people to minister to one another. He is not a Father who sees his children helping each other and then steps in between them and says, "Stop that! I am the only one who can help you!" Not at all. God loves to see the members of Christ's body effecting healing in each others' lives through the power of Christ at work in them.
Moreover, those who have died in Christ are more alive now than when they were on earth because death does not separate them from the love of Christ as Romans 8:35-39 says. They are still members of the body of Christ and we on earth need them, according to I Cor. 12:21ff.
Also, your use of John 5:19 is understandable given a surface reading of it, but it is in error.
This gets into a deeper discussion of Trinitarian theology than I can thoroughly accomplish here but I will make two points to perhaps start the discussion: 1. Whenever any person of the Blessed Trinity acts outside of the Godhead, all three persons act. Thus, Jesus does not contradict himself when he says, "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14:14) and "whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you" (John 15:16). This is why God the Father (or perhaps God the Son) can be said to have said, "The days come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant..." in Heb. 8:8ff (quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34), and yet, in Heb. 10:15ff, "the Holy Spirit" is said to have said the same words from the same text (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Thus, it is entirely biblical to say that God the Father initiated the events on the Mount of Transfiguration and that God the Son did the same. We have to say that; otherwise, we deny Christ's divinity.
2. The fact that "the Son can do nothing on his authority, but only that which he sees the Father doing" has nothing to do with whether or not Christ initiated the transfiguration. The Holy Spirit also "will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak," but that does not mean he is not God either. All three persons create, heal, inspire, speak, etc. though in their respective ways in accordance with their internal relations within God's inner life. Thus, it is entirely biblical to say the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit initiated, or "choreographed" the events on Mount Tabor.
Finally, when Rev. 8:4 says the prayers of the saints rose with the incense "from the hand of the angel" that is not literal. Prayers do not have corporeal being, nor do angels. In fact, angels don't have "hands" at all as pure spirits (see Heb. 1:14, Luke 24:39). The angels (and the elders of Rev. 5:8, which uses the similar language) possess and communicate these prayers intellectually, not in some kind of mechanistic way like a trash man dumping trash into a dumpster. The implication here is that both angels and men are receiving prayers and taking those prayers to God just as we see in Hebrews 12:19-24. Just as we approach the Father, and the Son in prayer, we can also approach "an innumerable company of angels" and "the spirits of just men made perfect."

February 7, 2014 at 8:42 am PST

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