Does Scripture Teach Us to Pray for the Departed, and to Pray to the Saints?

All Saints Icon

All Saints Icon

In regards to prayer and the Saints, Catholics do two things to which Protestants tend to object:

  1. Praying to the Saints: Asking the Saints to pray for us, etc.
  2. Praying for the Saints: Praying for the dead, commending their souls to God.

Monday, I talked about some of the common Protestant arguments against praying to the Saints: particularly about how these objections tend to be rooted in faulty views of the afterlife. But I didn’t address what’s perhaps the most common objection to both types of prayers, which is some variation of “But where do we see that in the Bible?” We saw Monday that Scripture doesn’t condemn these prayers, but neither does it commend them … right?

So today, I want to look at the Biblical support for both prayer to and for the Saints. Is it true that Scripture is silent about praying to and for the Saints? And if so, would that Scriptural silence support the Protestant position?

I. Is Scripture Silent on Praying to and for the Saints?

In proving the Biblical case for these Scriptural practices, there’s an easy way and a hard way. Let’s address each in turn.

A.The Easy Way: Judas Maccabeus

The Second Book of Maccabees is completely straightforward about praying for the departed, and praying to the Saints. In 2 Macc. 12:43-46, some of Judas Maccabeus’ soldiers fall in combat. Although they’re fighting for Israel, the Israelites discover superstitious amulets on the fallen soldiers, and realize this is why they were allowed to fall. Maccabeus responds to this by praying for the dead, and offering a sin offering on their behalf:

He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.

You can’t get much clearer then that. The Bible tells us that he prayed for the dead, praises him for it, and then tells us that he thereby made atonement for them that they might be delivered from their sin. All of this is linked to the resurrection of the dead, which puts the author of 2 Maccabees ahead of the Sadducees when it comes to orthodoxy (cf. Luke 20:27).

A few chapters later, Maccabeus inspires his men before battle “by relating a dream, a sort of vision, which was worthy of belief” (2 Macc. 15:11). Here’s what he saw (2 Macc. 15:12-16):

Oni’as, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. Then likewise a man appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. And Oni’as spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.”  Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.

I’ve discussed this passage before, but for our present purposes, the important thing is that he’s conversing with two Saints, Onias and Jeremiah, and they’re interceding for him. Jeremiah in particular is described as “praying much” for the Jews and for Jerusalem. And it’s Maccabeus’ account of this vision that inspires the soldiers’ valor leading into their greatest battle (2 Macc. 15:17).

B. The Complication: Martin Luther

So both praying for the faithful departed, and praying to the heavenly Saints are expressly commended in 2 Maccabees. With Scriptural evidence this clear, how could Protestants possibly disagree? Simple. Modern Protestants generally don’t consider 2 Maccabees Scripture, because it’s part of the Deuterocanon (often inaccurately called Apocrypha).

That’s not entirely a coincidence. Protestants have pointed to the passages we’re discussing as reason to reject 2 Maccabees as Scripture. This argument doesn’t make a lot of sense from a Catholic perspective. Rather, it looks something like this:

  • Protestant: “Prayers for the dead and prayer to the Saints aren’t in Scripture!”
  • Catholic: “Sure they are. There’s prayer for the dead in 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, and prayers to a Saint, with explicit reference to the Saint’s ongoing intercession, in 2 Macc. 15:12-16.”
  • (Protestant removes 2 Maccabees from the Bible).
  • Protestant: “Look, prayers for the dead and prayer to the Saints aren’t in Scripture!”

I’m exaggerating a bit, but only slightly, because this really does resemble how Reformation history played out.

Before we go any further, I should clarify a bit of history that lots of people get wrong: 2 Maccabees was in everyone’s Bible at the time of the Reformation, and had already been declared canonical by the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Copts. During the Reformation, these Books were then removed by Protestants, although there was some initial confusion over which books they wanted in and out (for example, Calvin accepted Baruch as Scripture, while Luther rejected James, Hebrew, Jude, and Revelation). Initially, the Deuterocanonical Books were moved to an Apocrypha section in the back of Protestant Bibles, but they were eventually removed entirely.

This chronology is critical, if you’re going to avoid mistakes like Evangelical scholar Norman Geisler’s Catholic conspiracy theory. He thought the Church didn’t teach that the Deuterocanon was inspired until the Council of Trent (a common mistake), and concludes that “proclaiming 2 Maccabees canonical some twenty-nine years after Luther lashed out against prayers for the dead (in 1517) is highly suspect, especially since the book supported prayers for the dead.” This conspiracy theory is hindered by actual documented history, like the Council of Florence’s Bull of Union with the Copts from 1442, an ecumenical statement listing the canon of Scripture, including the “two books of the Maccabees.”

So, barring a time machine, Catholics didn’t add 2 Maccabees to the Bible in response to the Reformation. Instead, Protestants like Luther “lashed out against prayers for the dead,” Catholics pointed to 2 Maccabees in support of the doctrine, and Protestants removed 2 Maccabees. Now, Protestants like James Swan at Beggars All reject the idea that Luther’s eventual rejection of the Deuterocanon was based on his rejection of the Books’ teachings, since he thinks it would mean that “Luther is fundamentally dishonest and simply changed to the smaller canon to just pick and choose his theology.”

But Luther does exactly that with the Book of James. James wasn’t even a seriously disputed book in Christian history: you’d be hard-pressed to point to even a remotely-orthodox believer who denied James. But after Luther came up with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, his theology led him to choose a smaller canon. He’s clear about this in his 1522 Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude:

In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works. It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac; though in Romans 4 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15. Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works of Moses’ statement in Genesis 15. For Moses is speaking here only of Abraham’s faith, and not of his works, as St. Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. This fault, therefore, proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.

So Luther was very comfortable with the idea of removing Books from the Bible if they contradicted his interpretation of St. Paul. Whether or not Swan is right that this makes Luther fundamentally dishonest is irrelevant: the record shows that it’s true.

So the Bible at the time of the Reformation taught something Protestantism denied, and apparently for this reason, these parts were edited out of the Bible. Of course, if you remove the Books of the Bible that speak about prayers for the dead and prayers to the Saints, you can’t use “prayers for the dead and prayers to the Saints aren’t in Scripture” as an argument. It would be like firing every board member who disagrees with you, and then claiming you’re right because all of the (remaining) board members agree with you.

C. The Hard Way: Onesiphorus and Abraham

Having said all of this, there are references to prayers for and to the dead even within the Protestant Bible. They’re just less explicit than the ones that got removed. Here, I’m reminded of Msgr. Ronald Knox’s remark in The Belief of Catholics:

You must not say that no revelation would satisfy you unless the guarantee of miracle accompanied it, and then say in the same breath that you will refuse to accept any story of miracle precisely on the ground that it is miraculous. That is as if you were to invite your opponent to stab you with a pistol. If you will not have miracles, then you must be prepared to be satisfied without them.

Just as a skeptic can’t reject all evidence for miracles and then require evidence for miracles to be persuaded, Protestants cannot reject the canonicity of any passage explicitly describing the prayers in question, and then complain that the remaining evidence isn’t explicit enough. With that in mind, let’s look at two particular instances from the New Testament:

1. Onesiphorus and Prayers for the Dead

In 2 Timothy 1:15-18 (NAB), St. Paul writes to Timothy about a man named Onesiphorus:

You know that everyone in Asia deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus because he often gave me new heart and was not ashamed of my chains. But when he came to Rome, he promptly searched for me and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day. And you know very well the services he rendered in Ephesus.

This passage is a subtle one, because Onesiphorus is a bit like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense: it takes a while to realize that he’s already died. To see this, pay close attention to three things in the passage.

First, as the NAB footnotes explain, “Onesiphorus seems to have died before this letter was written. His family is mentioned twice (here and in 2 Tim 4:19), though it was Onesiphorus himself who was helpful to Paul in prison and rendered much service to the community of Ephesus.” The second mention is striking, since Paul doesn’t ask Timothy to greet Onesiphorus. Instead, he says: “Greet Prisca and Aquila and the family of Onesiphorus” (2 Tim. 4:19).

Second, all of Onesiphorus’ earthly actions are spoken of in the past tense. At first, this seems to be simply because Paul is recounting how Onesiphorus cared for him in his hour of need. But Paul goes on to praise “the services he rendered in Ephesus,” without referring to any services that he is rendering there or elsewhere.

Third, the one time that Paul speaks of Onesiphorus in the present (and future) tense is when he prays, “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.” In other words, Paul is praying for his soul, commending him to God in anticipation of the Final Judgment. And this prayer is distinct from Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus’ family a couple verses earlier. If Onesiphorus isn’t dead, why is Paul praying for him and his family separately? So all of this points to the fact that Onesiphorus had died, and that Paul is praying for his soul.

2. Lazarus and Prayers to the Dead

Jesus’ parable of “Lazarus and the rich man” takes place largely as a series of prayers that a rich man in torment, prays to Abraham, starting in Luke 16:22-24:

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; an in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.”

Abraham refuses the rich man’s request on two grounds: that he can’t (since there’s “a great chasm” between Abraham and the rich man, Lk. 16:26) and that he won’t (since the rich man already had his chance). The rich man then offers up an intercessory prayer to Abraham, praying that someone will go to visit his brothers to warn them against leading a reprobate life. Here, Abraham simply refuses, since they have the Scriptures and “if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead” (Lk. 16:31). The “great chasm” separating the rich man from Abraham seems also to separate him from his brothers, but it doesn’t cut Abraham off from those on Earth. Moreover, in light of the Resurrection, we should note that this refusal isn’t absolute. Someone does rise from the dead, “for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

There’s a lot to unpack in this parable: it’s one the clearest Biblical uses of “Father” as a spiritual title, it’s got an entire lingering question about just where the soul of the rich man is (if he’s in Hell, how is he praying?), and then it’s got the fact that Christ presents the rich man as praying to Abraham, and there’s not a hint that this is inappropriate. We don’t hear Abraham rebuking the rich man for crossing the chasm with his prayers, or saying that this detracts from God’s glory, etc. And again: this is true even for the prayers going across the “great chasm” separating the rich man from Abraham. So this serves as a proof, a fortiori, for praying to the Saints.

II. Would Scriptural Silence Support the Protestant Position?

Let’s say you’re not convinced: you don’t think 2 Maccabees is canonical, you don’t think Paul is clear enough, and Jesus is speaking in a parable. Does that mean that the Protestant position is right?

Not hardly.

Sola Scriptura Protestants tend to oscillate (generally unconsciously) between treating everything not explicitly mentioned in Scripture as permitted, and treating everything not explicitly mentioned in Scripture as forbidden. A half-millennium on, this is still a lingering problem for sola Scriptura. If you hold to Luther’s view that “whatever is without the word of God is, by that very fact, against God,” you’ve got an obvious problem: the restrictive principle itself isn’t found in the word of God, so it’s a violation of the restrictive principle to accept the restrictive principle.

But even accepting the restrictive principle, consider two facts:

  1. Scripture tells us to pray for one another and encourages us to take our sins and struggles to one another as members of the Body of Christ
  2. The faithful departed are still part of the Body of Christ.

Protestants tend to believe that (1) doesn’t apply to the deceased, even though Scripture doesn’t say that. Catholics are the ones taking the Scriptural teaching at face value here, going to our brothers and sisters in Christ without regard for whether they’re in our living room or before the Throne of God. Protestants are holding to two standards – one between us here on earth, another for our interactions with the departed – but this second standard isn’t actually Biblical.

Also, we’re not done with 2 Maccabees just yet. The story of the Maccabees is celebrated at Chanukah, which Jesus celebrated in John 10:22-23. This supports the canonicity of the two Books of Maccabees, as does the fact that 2 Maccabees 7 is referenced in Hebrews 11:35-37. Some people, even after seeing this, conclude that 2 Maccabees is historical-but-not-canonical. Even that’s a huge admission, though, since the history recorded is that God saved the Jews after the intercession of two Saints in Heaven.

By the way, the Jews still pray for the dead. You can read the Kel Maleh Rachamim prayer for yourself: it commends the soul of the faithful departed to the Lord.

Given all of this, think about what Scriptural silence would actually mean. Christ comes in to a culture in which there are Jewish prayers for the dead and prayers to the dead, and in which Judas Maccabeus is praised for his virtuous leadership (specifically including these two things). He celebrates Chanukah, tells a parable in which praying to a Saint is presented positively, and says nothing against these spiritual practices. Then you get to the New Testament period, and we see the author of Hebrews reference 2 Maccabees, again without any sort of indication that the Book is a mix of history and heresy.

Would any reasonable observer conclude from witnessing this that Christ and the Apostles were actually opposed to prayers for the departed and to the Saints in Heaven? Of course not. The results are exactly what you would expect. We see the earliest Christians like Origen (185-284), declaring that 1 and 2 Maccabees carry “the authority of holy Scripture.” And we see the early Christians praying to and for the Saints.

In doing this, the earliest Christians aren’t showing a disdain for Scripture. Quite the opposite: they evince a clearer understanding of what Scripture actually has to say on the subject, and they recognized that Scripture supports the practice of praying for the deceased, and praying to the Saints who have gone before us.

Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at [email protected].

  • Fabio Rocha

    Another good Scripture passage: Revelation 5:8

  • Dhaniele

    As far as praying for the dead goes, I feel the strongest argument is your one that mentions that Jews still pray for the dead. If there is something wrong with that, how is it that St. Paul never denounces this custom as he did with other things found in Judaism? Indeed, why did Jesus himself not denounce it? I think simple logic shows that this is one of the elements of continuity between Judaism and Christianity that is passed over in silence in the New Testament because there is nothing wrong with it, and indeed the commandment “honor your father and mother” would presuppose such prayers in any good family then and now.