“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #4: Prayer for the Dead

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #4: Prayer for the Dead February 20, 2017

Photograph by “jclk8888” (7-7-13) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]


[This is an installment of an extensive series of mine, in which I interact with the book that I believe is the best Protestant critique of Catholicism in our times: Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, by Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. Mackenzie (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995).]
Norman Geisler wrote:
There is no indication in the Bible that anyone ever prayed for another after the person died. (p. 348)
Inspired Holy Scripture (God’s revelation), to the contrary, states:
1 Kings 17:17-23 (RSV) 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. [18] And she said to Eli’jah, “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!” [19] And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her bosom, and carried him up into the upper chamber, where he lodged, and laid him upon his own bed. [20] And he cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?” [21] 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.” [22] And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Eli’jah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. [23] And Eli’jah took the child, and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and delivered him to his mother; and Eli’jah said, “See, your son lives.”
2 Kings 4:32-35 When Eli’sha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. [33] So he went in and shut the door upon the two of them, and prayed to the LORD. [34] Then he went up and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. [35] Then he got up again, and walked once to and fro in the house, and went up, and stretched himself upon him; the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.
Acts 9:36-41 Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. [37] In those days she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. [38] Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him, “Please come to us without delay.” [39] So Peter rose and went with them. . . . [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.
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, presumably with the use of prayer for that end (since Elijah, Peter, and also Jesus prayed when they raised the dead). Thus, they prayed for the dead. 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 are not too distant for us to pray for their souls while in purgatory.

It’s inescapable logic:

1. The prophet Elijah prayed for the widow’s son, and the prophet Elisha prayed for the Shunammite’s son, and St. Peter prayed for Tabitha, that they be raised from the dead.

2. In order for such miracles to occur, the person prayed for had to have been dead, by definition.

3. Therefore, Elijah, Elisha, and the Apostle Peter all prayed for the dead, so that such a thing is recorded in the written Word of God (directly contrary to Norman Geisler’s claim above).

4. We must conclude, then, that 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 prayers of Elijah, Elisha, and Peter, and the three dead persons would not have been raised (1 Jn 5:14-15).

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 his 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). These third states are Hades and purgatory.

If a person can be so aided in the earthly direction, why couldn’t he or she be aided in the heavenly direction, and who can completely deny that there might be gradations or processes in the journey from earth to heaven? As Jesus would ask the Pharisees, “which of these two things is more difficult to do?”

But Dr. Geisler maintains that:

Praying for the dead contradicts the example of Jesus. When Jesus lost his close friend Lazarus by death he never prayed to God for him. He simply resurrected him . . . (p. 354)

This is a pretty desperate argument. We know from Scripture that Jesus prayed to God right at the time of the raising of Lazarus, saying, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me” (Jn 11:41). What, I ask, is He thanking His father for? The most straightforward explanation is that He was thanking Him for raising Lazarus. Again, in  Acts 9:40, St. Peterknelt down and prayed” right before raising Tabitha. I submit that very few people would deny that he was praying for her: to raise her.

Likewise, the prophet Elisha “prayed to the Lord” right before raising a child from the dead (obviously praying for that result). Yet, Geisler would have us believe that Peter’s and Elisha’s prayers contradict “the example of Jesus”: as if there were something wrong with them. It’s ludicrous. They are plainly praying for the dead, and it is presented as an altogether good and moral thing to do, not a bad and immoral, impermissible thing.

But if those three counter-arguments are deemed insufficient, for those whose preconceived, unbiblical theology is contrary to them, then the undeniable, unarguable clincher is Elijah’s example above, in which we are expressly, specifically, explicitly informed that he prayed for the dead child, and that God heard the prayer and raised him: 

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.” [22] And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Eli’jah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.

Therefore, If Geisler is to be believed, Elijah would be contradicting Jesus and doing something wrong, which is absurd, as there is no hint of disapproval in the text. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament: so righteous that he could pray for it to stop raining for three-and-a-half years, and then to start up again (Jas 5:16-18). He was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, and appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Jesus. This particular argument is beyond silly, and embarrassing to even have to refute. But so it is with many arguments against Catholicism. The only contradiction here is between Dr. Norman Geisler and the clear, perspicuous teaching of the Holy Bible.

Another fairly straightforward biblical example of prayer for the dead, is St. Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus. Geisler casually assumes (p. 348) that Onesiphorus wasn’t dead. Many Protestant commentators, however, disagree with him. See my papers,  St. Paul Prayed for a Dead Man: Onesiphorus, and Paul Prayed for Dead Onesiphorus (Protestant Commentaries).

The Bible teaches that one can and should pray for the dead. Period. End of discussion (for those who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word and revelation). Next question?


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