Dialogue Regarding Prayer for the Dead and the Bible

Dialogue Regarding Prayer for the Dead and the Bible December 21, 2015
The Raising of Lazarus, by Sebastiano del Piombo (c. 1485-1547) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

This exchange occurred on my Facebook page (which is public; therefore I can cite it here). I’ve added a few additional replies that were not in the original “discussion.” I think it is very helpful to illustrate how not to argue any theological point, since my opponent uses many of the classic evasive and obscurantist, obfuscatory techniques of folks who don’t appear to be interested in an open, mutually respectful  dialogue. His words will be in blue.

Here are the passages (RSV, as throughout):

2 Timothy 1:16-18  May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiph’orus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, [17] but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me — [18] may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day — and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.

2 Timothy 4:19 Greet Prisca and Aq’uila, and the household of Onesiph’orus.

The “discussion” proceeds upon my opponent’s response to this.
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Is that the only example you can find in the N.T. of prayers for the dead? Pretty slim pickings to base an entire doctrine on, especially when you look at what the verse says (2 Tim. 1:18): “The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day; and in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well.” Can we say “that day” (there and v. 12) is the Judgment Day? If he’s in hell when Paul wrote that, all it might be, is a wish (not prayer to God) that the man be given mercy in the judgment. Paul can wish and think that without actually praying that to God. If he’s in heaven, what might the mercy of God be for? Perhaps a wish on Paul’s part that the man not lose any rewards for all the help he gave Paul. In no case is this verse a necessary support for purgatory, because “that day” — Judgment Day — would be after one was in purgatory (if it existed).

No; there is more:

1 Corinthians 15:29-31 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? [30] Why am I in peril every hour? [31] I protest, brethren, by my pride in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 

One Catholic interpretation of this fascinating passage holds that “baptized” is used not for the sacrament, but to denote redemptive suffering on behalf of the dead (analogous to prayer on their behalf) , along the lines of “baptism” used in this sense in other passages: 

Mark 10:38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

Luke 12:50 I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!

The sense, in other words, is that if the dead don’t rise again, why should anyone suffer and mortify themselves for them, or pray for them? 15:30-31 backs up this interpretation, because Paul links his own suffering to the preceding verse. It’s also backed up by a very similar deuterocanonical passage:

2 Maccabees 12:40-45 Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. [41] So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; [42] and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. [43] 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. [44] 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. [45] 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.

Jesus not only prays for Lazarus, but in a sense, to him as well, by commanding him (a dead person). The same occurred when He raised Jairus’ daughter and the son of the widow of Nain. In commanding them to rise, He was simultaneously praying for them. 

Likewise, when Peter raised Tabitha, the text specifically notes that he “prayed” and then commanded her. Lastly, the prophet Elijah clearly prayed (successfully) for a child to be raised.

John 11:41-44; Mark 5:39-42; Luke 7:14-15; Acts 9:40-41; 1 Kings 17:18-23]In fact, indirectly, Jesus even commanded His disciples to pray for the dead (“Heal the sick, raise the dead, . . .”: Mt 10:8). We’ve seen the models above [bracketed passages], of how one raises another from the dead. They include prayer, and also talking to the dead person. 

All of this is quite anathema and unthinkable to most Protestants, but there it is, right in front of us, in Holy Scripture. Are we to follow the forbidden mere traditions of men, that go contrary to Scripture, or God’s inspired, infallible Word (as the Catholic Church has done in this instance)? The choice is very easy.

Dave, your examples above all seem to involve raising people from the dead. Is that what you do when you pray for the dead?

Are they instances of prayer for the dead or not? Your task is to prove that they are not if you have this odd notion that all such prayer is forbidden. But they clearly are, so you have a problem. 1 Corinthians 15:29-31 is not raising the dead, though; it is aiding the dead by penance or prayers. Protestants have very little cogent explanation for it.

Well, in John 11, Jesus’ prayer to God is not a prayer specifically for Lazarus, who is not even mentioned in His prayer to the Father, so I can say it was not a “prayer for the dead.” 

That would be stretching it. In John 11:41 Jesus prays to the Father, “I thank thee that thou hast heard me.” Heard Him about what? The most plausible answer is that He prayed about raising Lazarus (especially since we know He did in other instances of His raising the dead). There is nothing else in the immediate context to suggest that the prayer where He had been “heard” was about anything other than Lazarus.

Mark 5 and Luke 7 do not even mention a prayer. 

I didn’t claim that they did. What I stated was that “In commanding them to rise, He was simultaneously praying for them.” Jesus was talking to dead people in a way that Protestants claim we can never do (because they equate any such communication with necromancy, seances, etc.).

Acts 9 mentions prayer but does not give its contents, so we don’t know what Peter prayed. 

Which is perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute (the exact content) . . . It remains proof that Peter prayed for a dead person.  He was obviously doing that; then he talked to a dead person, too, saying, “Tabitha, rise.”

Only 1 Kings 17 tells us what was prayed (” let this child’s soul come into him again”), but, again, it was to raise the child from the dead. 

And it was an instance of prayer for the dead. Case closed. Prayer for the dead is repeatedly illustrated in the biblical books that Protestants accept. Paul prays for the dead Onesiphorus too.

My point is that praying for the dead is nowhere encouraged by any N.T. writer 

Really? I just demonstrated how it was.

and is pointless unless you were raising them from the dead and God led you to do that. More “pointless” than “forbidden.”

Paul wasn’t trying to raise Onesiphorus from the dead. Nor were those who suffered for the dead through penances (1 Corinthians 15:29-31, backed up by the precedent and scriptural proof of 2 Maccabees 12:40-45) trying to bring them back. Yet somehow (if we accept your view — and I don’t) the Christian Church has done it all through these centuries . . . how odd again. If Jesus and Paul and Peter and Elijah all prayed for the dead, it’s good enough for me!

So, when do you do it? When you want to raise someone from the dead?

Why do you believe in sola Scriptura when it is not taught in the Bible?

Ah, the old change-the-subject ploy….

Not at all. This is the premise that lies underneath your questioning. But even sola Scriptura doesn’t require a biblical prooftext that is identical in all particulars, as you now foolishly demand. You deny prayer for the dead. I showed it in the NT. Now you quibble about particulars (whether it is used to raise the dead), but logically that doesn’t disprove the fact. You claim my examples are only of this sort. Two of them are not.

I asked you, when do you do it? Obviously it is not to raise anyone from the dead. So, what is the scriptural justification, if any, for your prayers for the dead? 1 Cor 15?

I gave many biblical prooftexts for prayer for the dead. You don’t agree with them. Fine. There are always people who will pick and choose what they like from the Bible and what they don’t like. Nothing new there. We follow what the Bible teaches. You think eight or nine texts are insufficient to establish the doctrine and practice.

Yet, like almost all Protestants, I assume that you accept sola Scriptura as your rule of faith. Sola Scriptura is not ever explicated in a single verse in Scripture. I wrote two entire books about it, and tons more on my blog. Yet Protestants base their entire belief on authority and the basis of theology on this non-biblical tradition of men. You’re not stopped by the complete absence of any proof in Scripture, from believing it, anyway.

So I wonder why you say our biblical support is inadequate when I present many prooftexts, while you have none for sola Scriptura? Why don’t you apply this same criterion of proof to yourself, and cease believing in that?

The same is true for the canon of Scripture. Nothing in Scripture indicates which books belong in the Bible. The book of Esther doesn’t even mention God. Yet Protestants accept as dogma the fact that there are 66 books. And they arbitrarily decided to eliminate seven books that the early Church accepted as Scripture. The same authority that established the canonicity of the 66 books accepted by all, also canonized the seven books we Catholics accept.

I’ll ask you again, when do you do it? Obviously it is not to raise anyone from the dead. (Have you raised anyone from the dead lately?) 

I haven’t, but Jesus casually assumed that His disciples would and could do so (“Heal the sick, raise the dead, . . .”: Matthew 10:8), and throughout history many people have:

. . . reports from St. Irenaeus, Pope St. Gregory the Great, and St. Augustine (City of God, Book XXII, ch. 8 ), and actual raisings said to be performed by St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, St. Martin of Tours, St. Benedict, St. Bernard, St. Malachy, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Elizabeth, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Dominic, St. Philip Neri, St. Patrick, St. Francis Xavier, and many others.”

(from my book, A Biblical Critique of Calvinism) 

I’ve answered you several times. Now either you respond to what I’m saying, too, or this conversation is over. I don’t do “ships passing in the night.” Life is too short for futile conversations. A real dialogue is back-and-forth, not a lecturer and a listener.

So, when do you do it, what specifically do you pray and what is the scriptural justification, if any, for such a prayer for the dead? 1 Cor 15?

I’ve provided you with that. I even introduced some new material about fasting for the dead in my most recent blog / Facebook post [my paper, “Fasting for the Dead in the Old Testament: Not Essentially Different from Praying for Them”]. Yet here you are droning the same old questions as if I had said nothing. This type of fundamentalistic, robot-like lecturing is what is so ridiculous.

I have answered; you just didn’t get it, because I was dealing with the premise behind your question (in several ways). I can see now why you missed it, because you use a common sort of “argumentation” that we observe so often from certain types of Protestants. This same technique is also used constantly by Jehovah’s Witnesses. You hear only what you want to hear and ignore what the person on the other side is saying. I know the tactics, from over 30 years of evangelization and apologetics. I can spot them a mile away, and I was correct in my initial perception in this instance. Thanks for the classic garden-variety demonstration.

And, in fact, you have not answered my question. Read back through our posts. I showed that most all your examples of prayer for the dead related to raising them from the dead, so I asked you when you prayed for the dead, since (I assumed) it was not when you were raising someone from the dead. And what was the scriptural justification for it, 1 Cor. 15 (the only N.T. passage you cited that did not relate to raising someone from the dead). Your response was to change the subject to sola Scriptura or the canon, not answer my question about when you prayed for the dead. So, don’t say you have answered my question.You have not.

We disagree. You don’t get it. You don’t even have your basic facts right. But I thank you for providing a textbook case of how not to go about arguing a theological point. I’m sure it is instructive for many.

And again you don’t answer the question. If we were in a court of law, the Judge would instruct you to answer my question and you would not be able to dodge it.

Not all judges understand rhetoric and various techniques of argumentation, either. No biggie. But this is not a legal situation; it is a matter of what God’s inspired Word teaches on prayer for the dead. We Catholics accept the data from revelation. You do not.

Why don’t you copy and paste your answer to my question, when you pray for the dead, what you say in your prayer, and the scriptural justification for it. Go ahead. 

I just wrote 48 minutes ago: “I haven’t” [raised anyone from the dead or prayed for that].

Yes, I assumed that. So, I asked when do [you] pray for the dead (if not to raise them from the dead), what do you say in your prayer, and what is the scriptural justification for that. You can copy and paste your answer to that if you already answered it and I missed it. Otherwise, please answer. Thanks. 

We pray things like what Paul prayed for Onesiphorus, or what the Jews prayed, as seen in 2 Maccabees, with the same notions likely reflected in the thought of 1 Corinthians 15. 

If I missed it, how hard is it for you to copy and paste it?

If you can read, go read. Maybe you’ll get it the second time around.

You’ve been boorishly repetitive, completely unwilling to dialogue or consider Scripture that doesn’t fit with your preconceived notions, unwilling to answer my counter-arguments or interact with much of the substance of those, and now you are misrepresenting my replies (because you can’t comprehend them and didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I brought up sola Scriptura in an altogether relevant fashion).

By the way, ad hominem is not needed nor appreciated.

I have critiqued your unwillingness to dialogue or answer my counter-arguments. That is a flaw in how you go about contending for your viewpoints, not about you as a person. I haven’t attacked you personally; only your methods. It is you who have committed the ad hominem fallacy by implying that I am lying: don’t say you have answered my question. You have not.” I certainly did, in various ways. You simply didn’t comprehend my argument and my logic.

It’s not there to read. Thus my request for you to copy and paste it. Is that unreasonable?

It is there, and now you have this paper [I informed him of it in the Facebook thread], with additional answers. 

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