A New (?) Biblical Argument Re: Prayers for the Dead

Thursday, February 12, 2004


From my upcoming book (Sophia Institute Press: April 2004): 95 Bible Verses That Protestants Ignore: 

Acts 9:36-37,40-41 (RSV): “Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas . . . 37 In those days she fell sick and died . . . 40 But Peter . . . knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, ‘Tabitha, rise.’ And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and lifted her up. Then calling the saints and widows he presented her alive.” 

This passage – in relation to prayers for the dead – was suggested to me by my wife, Judy, as I was writing the preceding section. It had never occurred to me before; I don’t recall ever hearing such an argument made, and I was quite excited at the “apologetic” possibilities contained in this passage. 

I readily grant that the example is unusual, because of the uniqueness of praying to raise someone from the dead (as distinguished from a prayer which aids someone in purgatory rather than bringing them back to the earth); also, I agree that the apostles had extraordinary powers of healing, so that this is not exactly a “normative” state of affairs (though even great miracles like these have been claimed through the years: I have an entire book about it). 

Nevertheless, it seems utterly indisputable that here St. Peter literally prayed for a dead person, as far as that goes. When the Bible tells us that he “prayed,” it was obviously for the purpose of bringing her back to life (and she was dead when he prayed it). It’s possible also that he might have prayed something like, “Lord, if it be your will to keep her, so be it; your will be done, but if she can be brought back to her grieving family . . . “ Either way, he is undeniably praying for a dead person, which Protestants say is not permitted, and supposedly not recorded in the Bible. 

Furthermore, we have another familiar example of the same thing: Jesus praying for Lazarus, just before he was raised by the Lord: “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me” (John 11:41-42). There is no recorded prayer at the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43). 

Protestants would no doubt argue in reply that this was the Lord Jesus and an even more unique case, but we are commanded to imitate Him (including in prayer; e.g., the Lord’s Prayer), and it remains an example of prayer for the dead. The Bible informs us that the disciples raised people from the dead (Mt 11:5, Lk 7:22) and that Jesus told them that they would be able to, and should, do so (Mt 10:8). So they went out and did it, with (presumably) the use of prayer for that end. Thus, they prayed for the dead. We have an example of Peter doing just that. 

John Calvin challenged Catholics concerning prayers for the dead: “I ask them, in turn, by what word of God, by what revelation, by what example, is this done?” (in McNeill, Institutes, III, 5, 10). I have just offered two examples recorded in two Bible passages (in addition to Onesiphorus). 

If dead saints are not too far “out of reach” to be prayed for and raised from the dead back to earthly life, then I submit that they aren’t too distant for us to pray for their souls while in purgatory (assuming – as Catholics do on several biblical grounds – that there is such a thing). As Jesus would ask the Pharisees, “which of these two things is more difficult to do?” Matthew Henry comments: 

"By prayer. In his healing Eneas there was an implied prayer, but in this greater work he addressed himself to God by solemn prayer, as Christ when he raised Lazarus; but Christ's prayer was with the authority of a Son, who quickens whom he will; Peter's with the submission of a servant, who is under direction, and therefore he knelt down and prayed." 

There we have it. It is inescapable logic: 

1. Peter prayed for Tabitha and Jesus for Lazarus, that they be raised from the dead. 

2. In order for such a prayer and miracle to occur, the person prayed for must be dead, by definition. 

3. Therefore, Jesus and Peter both prayed for the dead, and such a thing is recorded in the Word of God. 

John Calvin in his Commentaries, writes at length about St. Peter’s prayer (later stating that he also “speaketh unto a corpse”), citing a precedent (Aeneas, from the preceding context of Acts 9:32-35): 

"When he healed Aeneas he brake out into these words, without making any stop, Aeneas, Jesus Christ make thee whole. But as the operation of the Spirit is not always alike and the same, it may be that though he knew the power of God, yet he went forward unto the miracle by degrees." 

Calvin later graciously directed the reader (and jogged my own memory) to yet another biblical account of prayers for the dead: that of Elijah, as recorded in 1 Kings 17:17-24: 

“Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s soul come into him again.’ And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.” (17:21-22) 

It is only fitting that Calvin’s query, “by what word of God, by what revelation, by what example, is this done?” should be answered by himself in another of his own works. We have only added the names of our Glorious Lord Jesus and St. Peter to the list of those who are shown praying for the dead in Holy Scripture, as confirmed by Protestant commentators, who (despite all) are convinced that no such thing exists in Scripture.

Until someone can explain to me how it is possible to pray to raise a person from the dead without simultaneously praying for the dead (i.e., that same dead person), then I will insist henceforth that the practice of praying for the dead is explicitly taught and shown by literal example in both Testaments. 

Furthermore, these acts would probably not have occurred but for the prayers. God has power over life and death and is entirely sovereign, but He involves human beings and incorporates their prayers into His Providence. None of these people came back to life until they were prayed for. 

Thus it is God’s will and an entirely scriptural practice to pray for the dead. If it were not God’s will for men to pray such things, He would not have honored the prayer.and the person wouldn’t have been raised (1 John 5:14-15). Therefore, to rule out this practice is impossible, if we are to be true to the Bible. 

Protestants might still, however, have a certain comeback to this argument. This was pointed out to me by my friend and fellow apologist, Steve Kellmeyer. I cite his words (with permission) from private correspondence: 

"I can see only one counter-argument to your novel and powerful "praying for the dead" argument. A Protestant might well argue that the only kind of prayer for the dead which is permitted is a prayer intending to raise the dead back to physical life. The argument would assert that since all three indicated instances -- Elijah, Jesus, Peter -- prayed for restored physical life and were granted this physical life, that the power and intent of such a prayer would be implicitly restricted to just this, by Scripture. 

"The counter, of course, is clear: examples of physical healing which corresponded to examples of spiritual healing: "Which is more difficult, to say, "your sins are forgiven" or to say, "pick up your mat and walk"? [Luke 5:17-26] That is, Christ often used physical healing to point to His ability to accomplish an inner spiritual healing {Lk 5:24]. So, if we are allowed to pray for spiritual healing (which we are) or for physical healing (which we are) we would implicitly be permitted to pray for the healing of souls in purgatory, since this healing is really what God wants. 

"This in turn might be countered by the Protestants' denial of our ability to do this. They might charge that these raisings from the dead are indeed pointing to a deeper spiritual reality -- they point to the fact that God can save us when we are "dead in our sins". They do not point to the possibility that we are to pray for the actual healing of a dead person from the effects of his own sin, since judgement is meted out at the moment of death, and a person's final position is irrevocably fixed at that moment. Indeed, they would point out that none of the three raisings indicate that the people in question were healed of their sins. At this point, the argument threatens to get bogged down (both sides arguing past each other), because its suppositions reside in a doctrine neither side explicitly mentions. 

"The problem is the doctrine of total corruption. Anyone who believes in it can't entertain the idea of "walking wounded". Either you are alive in Christ or you are dead in your sins, but you are never alive and wounded in your sins. So, any argument which implicitly or explicitly describes "walking wounded" will be rejected by the consistent theologian of total corruption. That's why both purgatory (the place for the wounded soul) and this argument (novel and excellent as it is), will still be viewed with great suspicion." 

I agree with Steve’s speculation as to probable Protestant replies to this argument. Like most of Christian theology, the question at hand is highly interrelated to other biblical and doctrinal aspects, within an overall self-consistent framework (whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox). Thus, it must be accompanied by further distinct arguments for purgatory, penance, and the nature of justification in order to fully succeed and to be convincing to a Protestant, who comes to the discussion with an initial hostility to any notion of the intermediate state, or purgatory. 

To follow up once again, however, I would point out that the “line” between heaven and earth, or the afterlife and earth (including purgatory) is not so rigid and absolute as many seem to assume. This was shown in my previous mention of dead saints who came back to earth (Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration, Samuel, the two “witnesses” of Revelation, and the many people who came out of their tombs and walked around Jerusalem after Jesus’s death). It’s true that those events were a result of God’s decree and not men’s prayers, but nevertheless, they prove that the “line” is not absolute. Whatever God can and does do, is proper for men to pray for. 

A certain “middle ground” or “intermediate state” between salvation in heaven -- never to be undone or reversed --, and earthly existence, is a fact, which is illustrated precisely by these instances of raising the dead; a miracle – accompanied by prayer -- performed by Elijah, our Lord Jesus (twice), and St. Peter. 

Under a strict Protestant eschatological interpretation, a person dies and is then immediately judged and granted eternal life in heaven or eternal damnation in hell. This conclusion is often bolstered by citing Hebrews 9:27: “. . . it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment”. But it is merely assumed (without any logical necessity flowing from the text itself) that judgment is instantaneous upon death. 

For instance, one could write, “it is appointed for men to graduate from high school once, and after that comes college”. There is no requirement that the event “after” is instantaneous simply because it immediately follows something previous to it. But even the supposed “immediate” is not a grammatical or logical necessity, for the phrase “after that” doesn’t require it. One could write, for example, “it is appointed for all Lutherans to be baptized once, and after that comes confirmation”. Confirmation is after baptism, but by some 10-12 years in most cases. 

So then, what of these four people who were dead and came back to life? Obviously, they were in some sort of intermediate state which was neither an earthly existence nor an irrevocable commencement of the sentence of hell or the unfathomable blessings of heaven. The Protestant has no choice but to grant that, even if these cases are deemed rare exceptions to the otherwise ironclad rule. 
Therefore, there is such a notion as an intermediate state, at least in some cases (however rare). This is the fundamental presupposition behind purgatory, and so the very actuality of these miracles is itself an establishment of a key tenet of purgatory (which in turn, is rejected out of hand by Protestants, causing them to automatically denounce prayers for the dead). One senses a certain self-contradiction starting to creep up in the Protestant perspective, upon closer inspection. 

This brings us back to an earlier point: if indeed it is possible for a person to be in this intermediate state and to be brought across the great line between life and death (which has to do with earthly bodies, but not souls, which are eternal in any case), by prayer, then it seems equally plausible and possible, to cause a person to advance in purgatory as a result of prayer, following the principle laid down by Jesus when He said that it is easier to say “your sins are forgiven” (a purely spiritual occurrence) than to physically heal a man. 

In other words, if we can pray and raise a dead body back to life, and across the line from the afterlife to earthly life, we can also pray for the same person’s soul in the afterlife. One is no more implausible or plausible than the other. If Protestants demand biblical examples of praying for the dead, we have provided them. Even if they are “exceptional cases” this is not fatal to the argument. All miracles are “exceptions” by definition. Raising the dead was certainly an exception to routine, humdrum everyday life, yet Jesus told His disciples to go do it (Mt. 10:8). 

If we can pray for a dead man to come back to life, it seems only likely that we can pray for their soul as well, since the first prayer presupposes an intermediate state wherein that soul (without a body) is neither in heaven nor hell, from which there is no end or exit (as far as it is revealed in Scripture). 

If a person can be so aided in the earthly direction, why couldn’t they be aided in the heavenly direction, and who can deny whether there might be gradations or processes in the journey from earth to heaven, involving duration, according to Thomas Howard’s statement above, that “the Bible does not vouchsafe us much light on how, much less when, our stories reach completion in the realm beyond death”?