Prayers for the Dead

Is there a Biblical teaching in praying for the dead? I recently discovered that three passages are cited in some Roman Catholic circles as irrefutable evidence of this: the raising of the widow’s son by Elijah; the raising of Lazarus by Jesus Christ; the raising of Tabitha by Peter. Before we begin, however, let’s review the Roman Catholic teaching regarding prayers for the dead, starting with a passage from the Catechism (specifically pertaining to the subject of Purgatory):

From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead. [Roman Catholic Catechism, 1032; source]

And from the Catholic Answers website, regarding prayer:

As the prayers themselves witness, the Church teaches us that we should pray not only directly to God, but also to those who are close to God, those who have the power to intercede upon our behalf. Indeed, we pray to the angels to help and watch over us; we pray to the saints in heaven to ask their intercession and assistance; we pray to the Blessed Mother to enlist her aid, to ask her to beg her Son to hear our prayers. Further, we pray not only on our own behalf, but also on the behalf of those souls in purgatory and of those brothers on earth who are in need. Prayer unites us to God; in doing so, we are united to the other members of the Mystical Body. [source]

We will first grant that most people, even Protestants or general non-Roman Catholics, pray for the dead in one way or another: we might pray that family members who died repented and put their faith in Christ before passing on; we might pray that we will see departed loved ones in paradise. The Roman Catholic belief, however, goes far beyond this: prayers for the dead are offered, along with other acts, in the hopes of freeing them from purgatory and giving them penance – that is, paying for the legal demands of the sins they committed. Traditionally, the most passage turned to for this doctrine is from the apocryphal 2 Maccabees 12:46 (although Eastern Orthodox interpret that as simply memorial prayers for the dead, sans justification) – however it would appear many today believe the three previously cited stories likewise teach this doctrine.

Now, let’s begin our review of the biblical stories cited, first with the raising of the widow’s son by Elijah:

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. And he cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. [1 Kings 17:17-22]

Let’s ask a few quick questions:

  1. Did Elijah’s prayers offer penance for the sins of the deceased boy?
  2. Were Elijah’s prayers in any way made in intercession for the justified status of the deceased boy?
The answer to all these questions is: NO. Elijah’s prayers were specifically for the raising of the boy from death onto life. It did not deal with his justification.

Now let’s review the raising of Lazarus…but I think it’s vital we review what Jesus said when news first came that Lazarus was ill.

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” [John 11:5-15]

Note two things:

  1. Christ purposefully waits a while, as if willingly permitting Lazarus to die.
  2. This waiting and permitting Lazarus to die was not empty, but for a purpose: so that the disciples may believe.

Already we see that something bigger is unfolding here. Christ is doing something meaningful with the raising of Lazarus.

Now let’s review what happens when Christ gets to the tomb, after Lazarus has been dead many days.

So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” [John 11:20-27]

This exchange shows the bigger significance of Lazarus’ raising. Firstly, Christ is affirming his messianic status. Secondly, Christ is connecting himself to the resurrection. That is, Christ is not outside of the resurrection and the life, but he, himself, is the resurrection and the life. On top of this, Christ presents to Martha the important knowledge that whoever believes in Christ shall live, even after death. Faith in Christ leads, even in this present time (for Christ states “everyone who lives and believes”), to eternal life. The whole point of the raising of Lazarus, therefore, was to demonstrate that Christ is the source of resurrection and life, and that belief in him will lead to eternal life even after death. Lazarus’s death and raising was a precursor for the death and resurrection of all those who believe.

Now let’s get to the final part, where Lazarus is raised.

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” [John 11:38-44]

Again, as with Elijah, let’s ask a few questions:

  1. Was Christ praying? No – he wasn’t praying, he was ordering. The Greek word for “come” (δεῦρο) is in the imperative – in other words, it’s a command. Last I checked, you didn’t make commands in prayer.
  2. Were Christ’s words offering penance for Lazarus’ sins? No, they weren’t. They were commanding Lazarus to come out, so that Christ may prove to the people there that he was indeed the resurrection and the life, and they would believe.
  3. Were Christ’s words in any way made in intercession for the justified status of Lazarus? No, they weren’t. See the previous point.

Therefore, the passage here is completely unrelated to the Roman Catholic doctrine concerning prayers for the dead. Quite frankly, taking a passage about the power of Christ and the role of God the Son in our resurrection and making it about something that can happen through us is a bit disrespectful towards God.

Now, finally, let’s examine the raising of Tabitha:

Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner. [Acts 9:36-43]

Let’s ask some questions similar to the ones we’ve asked before:

  1. Was Peter offering a prayer for Tabitha? No – similar to Christ, he was not giving a prayer, but an order. The word Paul uses (ἀνάστηθι) is in the imperative form – again, signifying clearly that it was a command demanding compliance.
  2. Were Peter’s words done for penance or to pay for the sins of Tabitha? No, not at all. They were an order for her to rise up.
  3. Were Peter’s words done for intercession for Tabitha while she lay in Purgatory? Again, not at all.

Before we conclude this post, it will be granted that many Roman Catholics admit these passages do not specifically teach the Roman Catholic doctrine pertaining to prayers for the dead, but nonetheless do present some form of prayers for the dead. This is, however, a fine example of straining gnats. As we demonstrated, at least two of these passages do not show prayers for the dead, but rather orders to the dead. The one passage which does contain some form of prayer for a dead person simply involved praying for their raising, and can hardly be used to justify a doctrine which attaches justification with prayer and penance. This latter point is especially important: we should be wary if someone, presenting an argument from a collection of scriptural passages, shows no sign that one could logically come to a doctrinal conclusion from said passages. The justification of the dead through prayers and penance could never be read from these passages, unless one chose first to read it into them. This, however, is eisegesis, not exegesis.

In short, none of these passages demonstrate the Roman Catholic doctrine pertaining to prayers for the dead. We should be very careful when any one (be it a Roman Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise) comes to us and attempts to read a large, well defined doctrine into a verse which, if graded on a scale of one to ten in regards to clarity, would barely surface a three. If it is not clearly found within the verses cited, then the verses are not speaking on the subject.

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