Dialogue: Jesus, Peter, Elijah & Elisha Prayed for the Dead

Dialogue: Jesus, Peter, Elijah & Elisha Prayed for the Dead January 9, 2020

+ a discussion on apologetics methodology and effectiveness

This was a post and exchange originally posted at Facebook. Words of Catholic William C. Michael will be in blue.


All four raised the dead, and prayed for them before they were raised; therefore, they prayed for the dead, and it is recorded in Scripture. It’s inescapable logic.

1) Elijah: 1 Kings 17:17-24 (17:21: “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.”).

2) Elisha: 2 Kings 4:18-37 (4:33: “So he went in and shut the door upon the two of them, and prayed to the LORD.”).

3) Jesus: raising of Lazarus: John 11:41-42 (11:41: “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.”).

4) St. Peter: raising of Tabitha: Acts 9:36-41 (9:40: “Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed.”)

In all these instances, a prayer for the dead person is recorded (Elijah’s being the most specific and undeniable). Jesus also “prayed” (or at least talked) to the dead, when He cried, “Lazarus, come out” (Jn 11:43), and to the dead son of the widow of Nain: “Young man, I say to you, arise” (Lk 7:14). St. Peter did the same, saying, “Tabitha, rise” (Acts 9:40).

Run this by the next Protestant who claims that there is no prayer for the dead in the Bible. You can also point out that St. Paul prayed for the dead man Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16-18). All of a sudden, supposed “total absence” becomes a myth and a joke.

They may say, “well, that is a special case, when someone is being raised from the dead.” It is a special case, granted, but these are nevertheless cases of praying for the dead. It can’t be denied. So if someone claims this “never” happens in the Bible, or that it has no scriptural warrant, they are wrong. No one can possibly claim otherwise.

Prayer for the dead is even more explicit in 2 Maccabees: a portion of Scripture that Protestants have thrown out on inadequate grounds:

2 Maccabees 12:39-45 On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. [40] 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.

And 1 Corinthians 15:29: “baptized on behalf of the dead,” means, I think, “doing penance on behalf of the dead”: according to the exegesis of St. Francis de Sales, and taking into account the striking similarity to 2 Maccabees 12:44.

No Protestant would agree that in calling Lazarus up from among the dead that Jesus was “praying to Lazarus”. Give me a break. Catholics, after all, aren’t raising the dead when they pray to the saints.

All the same, if Catholics were raising the dead, Protestants wouldn’t be arguing. To try and compare raising the dead by apostles, prophets and Our Lord with ordinary Catholic prayers for the dead is ridiculous. I’m a Protestant convert to Catholicism and I know that the issue is the multiplying of devotions and prayers, especially when basics aren’t covered…like reading the Bible or helping our neighbors.

Jesus and Peter both prayed for and to dead persons, as I explained:

Jesus also “prayed” (or at least talked) to the dead, when He cried, “Lazarus, come out” (Jn 11:43), and to the dead son of the widow of Nain: “Young man, I say to you, arise” (Lk 7:14). St. Peter did the same, saying, “Tabitha, rise” (Acts 9:40).

This was invocation of (or, in a very loose sense, “prayer to”) the dead, insofar as they talked to a dead man. My point (already plainly stated) is that “if someone claims this ‘never’ happens in the Bible, or that it has no scriptural warrant, they are wrong.”

You have to grasp what exactly I am arguing. Your criticism of my argument being “ridiculous” is a non sequitur because I’m not comparing it to “ordinary Catholic prayers for the dead” (Paul praying for Onesiphorus and the 2 Maccabees passage are much more that). What I’m saying is that this eliminates the absolute prohibition among some Protestants of either prayers for the dead, or invocation of the saints, or any communication whatsoever with the dead. If Jesus and Peter talked to dead men, then obviously there is a proper sense in which that can and should be done.

I’m not claiming everything here is a one-to-one direct analogy. There can be partial analogies and connections or common ground in biblical proofs, and arguments on several aspects or on multi-levels. If someone wrongly assumes what I would claim for one of my arguments, the analysis is gonna be way off-base.

Analogical arguments in particular are massively misunderstood by many people (I know, because I love that kind of argument), because folks are largely unfamiliar with that mode of arguing. Virtually no analogy is perfect (corresponding in all respects). Most are partial, so one must, accordingly, understand what the analogy applies to and thus how much it proves or is effective as an argument.

I do understand what you’re saying, Dave, (and appreciate it), and I thought of this same line of argument a few years back, but the more I messed with it, the less meaningful I found it. It impresses Catholics (like me), but it really doesn’t affect Protestants who are happy to remain Protestants.

As for prayers for the dead…Protestants reject prayers for the dead that some aspect of their salvation might be completed after their death. That’s the whole issue for them. It’s “purgation” after death that they reject, and it’s purgation that we pray for! As for 2 Maccabees, they were living under the Old Covenant, where sacrifices were the norm, so I can’t see why a Protestant would think that Christians living after the Cross would continue any such thing, and could easily explain away that passage–if they were even willing to hear it at all. The prayer for Onesiphorous, is vague, “Lord grant him mercy on Judgment Day”, and I’m not sure Protestants would have any problem absorbing it into their system.

I’m not holding on to Protestant positions, I’m simply explaining them…I wasn’t converted to Protestantism by arguments like these, and I know my friends/colleagues wouldn’t be either.

Neither was I. But that is perfectly irrelevant as to whether it is true or not. One must distinguish between 1) what is true, and 2) what “works” in a pragmatic sense, in persuading folks. It’s still worth it to present true and valid arguments, whether they “work” or not: at a minimum, they help to strengthen the faith of Catholics, by showing biblical support for our views.

To suggest that because the Maccabees, living 100+ years before the Gospel, offered Jewish sacrifices for the Jewish dead supports Catholics who offer Masses and prayers for the souls of Christian dead is, as I said, ridiculous–especially when we consider what the Protestants think salvation means, i.e., freedom from the guilt and punishment of all sin through repose in the suffering and death of Jesus.

It’s not a “novel interpretation.” It proves what it proves, as far as it goes. Again, if things I am not trying to prove are superimposed onto my argument, then the whole thing goes awry. Whether Protestants accept the argument or not (i.e., as I conceive it), is irrelevant. It remains true, and what it establishes is undeniable.

It’s not “ridiculous” at all! It supports the basic notion that prayers for the dead are acceptable. All doctrines develop: and they do from the Old Testament to the New Testament. So prayer for the dead developed into also almsgiving and penance for the dead and Masses for the dead. You may understand my argument (though I still have doubts), but you don’t seem to understand development of doctrine, and arguments that have to do with that.

I didn’t think that apologetics were intended to persuade people who are already persuaded.

They’re not. That would be meaningless. Apologetics is intended to persuade, yet in fact it usually doesn’t. And persuasion ultimately is the work of the Holy Spirit, not apologists or any other persons. It is more devoted to the removal of obstacles or roadblocks that people have. That can apply to Catholics as well as Protestants. People believe all manner of false things. Lastly, it is intended to bolster the confidence and intellectual capacity of Catholics to understand and defend their faith more effectively, and to synthesize faith and reason.

What’s the point of telling Catholics that purgatory and prayers for the dead is true?

I’m not telling them it is simply true, but that it has biblical support. This piece deals with the Protestant objection that it is entirely unbiblical: that nothing is in the Bible at all about it; also the claim sometimes made that God never sanctions communication between the departed and the living. My paper blows both those false ideas out of the water. Whatever you think of it: like it or no, it does those things, and that was the intent. I have no illusions that Protestants will rush to become Catholics simply by reading this.

Again, it comes down to the nature of the argument and what I think it proves. You seem to misunderstand this all down the line. I can tell by your comments that you still don’t grasp what I was trying to do with this, and what I think it proves. That’s okay. It allows me to clarify further, and that’s always good. I appreciate the opportunity, because if you think this, others may also.

Catholics already believe that–and not because these Bible verses say so. These arguments don’t address Protestant opposition at all. 

They do. I just explained how. They don’t address the issue comprehensively, but in a limited aspect: dealing with a key hostile premise. Please let me explain further:

1) A belief that no communication whatsoever between the dead and the living is permitted (and that all of that is identical to forbidden necromancy, seances, etc.) obviously precludes from the outset prayers for the dead and invocation of the dead: asking for their prayers.

2) A belief that such things are not seen in the Bible at all would preclude their practice for Protestants, who think that every doctrine or practice must have express or explicit biblical sanction, and (in large part) for Catholics, most of whom who believe that all Catholic doctrines have at least some biblical evidence in their favor, or that they are at least harmonious with what is in Scripture.

3) My paper simultaneously takes out #1 and #2 as objections.

4) Therefore, a root premise of the communion of saints is established as true and permissible (biblically).

5) #4 is an altogether worthy and useful end.

6) Therefore the paper is a helpful aid in both apologetics towards non-Catholics and an aid to confidence among Catholics: who are so often accused of being “unbiblical” or “anti-biblical.”

These are corollary doctrines which are inferred from an already existent Catholic conviction. They are not “proofs” but circular arguments.

Not at all. You just don’t get this.

Do you honestly think that a Protestant will embrace that idea that what is done under the Old Covenant means that its “acceptability” is proven for life under the New Covenant? Divorce is “acceptable” under the Old Covenant…and not acceptable under the New. Therefore, Jewish precedence isn’t Christian proof.

That’s a rabbit trail and gets into development. The new covenant develops from the old. Protestants cite the OT in favor of their doctrines just as we do. Maccabees and its evidence for prayers for the dead is rejected not because it is in the OT, but because they think it is not in the OT. They threw out the seven books that we retain, and that the early Church accepted.

I think I do understand development of doctrine, but think that this is working backwards…when we’re using Old Covenant acts (and that a single instance in a deuterocanonical book which doesn’t say much anyway to support what Catholics do) to prove New Covenant practices, how is that “development of doctrine”? 

I didn’t claim that it entirely proved the whole thing. It shows prayers for the dead: the basic practice. It was practiced by the Jews and wasn’t condemned in the text; therefore God approved of it. This is of the utmost significance. If it were wrong, the text would have indicated that, and it would be significant: if not as Scripture, then as historical reference to what the Jews believed was right or wrong practice. But Maccabees is Scripture; therefore inspired and infallible. It was thrown out on inadequate grounds.

I believe in development of doctrine, which is why I don’t think Catholics need to prove that doctrines and practices that owe their existence to the development of doctrine need to be “proven” from the Bible. They can be proven from Catholic tradition to people who first come to believe in the Catholic Church, without which mystery being embraced (which is part of the Creed for this reason) will keep men from embracing 100 other doctrines.

That’s another way to do it also. But it’s always good to appeal to the Bible as much as possible. That’s not just a Protestant thing. The apostles and fathers did it all the time. There is no necessity of accepting sola Scriptura in order to massively cite the Bible. That is another fallacy. Protestants don’t “own” the Bible. I don’t become a Protestant in my essential methodology simply because I cite the Bible a lot. All the fathers did that . . .

Thanks, but appeals to Maccabees make no sense. It’s like appealing the epistles of Paul to persuade Jews. Speaking of persuasion, saying “persuasion is not our job but the Holy Spirit’s” is dividing things that can’t be divided. Scripture rightly says, “and Paul reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, bringing in the name of the Lord Jesus; and he persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.”

I didn’t say, “persuasion is not our job but the Holy Spirit’s”. That is your paraphrase of what I wrote, leaving out a key word. What I actually wrote was: “And persuasion ultimately is the work of the Holy Spirit, not apologists or any other persons.”

That’s “both/and” and not “either/or” and is standard apologetics understanding. I could easily produce a hundred quotes to that effect. I have devoted my life these past 32 years to trying to persuade folks of the truth of Christianity and of Catholicism in particular. But I’m just a tool of the Holy Spirit. If He uses me, great. But often, He won’t. In any event, the results are not in my hands. We proclaim truth as best we can discern it. The results of the proclamation / and/or defense lie with God and the free will decision of the hearer.

There’s nowhere else to go with this . . . it’s just going round and round . . . I’ve said about all I can say about it. If you disagree, you do.

Plus, outside of 2 Maccabees, there is nothing in the OT suggesting that Jews were to pray or make offerings for the dead.

I think I found at least one other: Fasting for the Dead in the Old Testament (Not Unlike Praying).

The problem is that appealing to 2 Maccabees and saying, “this will get ’em”. 

I didn’t say that! I didn’t “promise” anything, for heaven’s sake. That was the whole point of noting that persuasion is ultimately the job of the Holy Spirit. It all comes down to individual response. I wish you would stop misrepresenting what I am arguing (and turning it into some simplistic, silly thing: hence, your reference to it as “ridiculous” more than once). It gets very wearisome. Again, you confuse:

1) trying to persuade by means of one passage, or claiming that it will in fact (massively) persuade.


2) simply presenting a biblical proof or indication, irregardless of how effective it is to persuade.

Truth is truth, whether 100 billion people believe it, or none do. I present what I believe is true. Whether someone accepts it is not ultimately up to me. Jesus presented all truth and He was perfect, too, and lots of people rejected Him and His message, didn’t they? We should expect no less. In fact, He predicted that we would be hated for His name’s sake. I’ve attempted to do my best to defend one concept or idea in this instance.

Run this by the next Protestant who claims that there is no prayer for the dead in the Bible.

To me, that seemed that you were saying (and I think you were) that this argument will “get ’em”.

Yes, I did. I was referring specifically to the instances of prayers for the raising of the dead, which are undeniably prayers for the dead (!!!). How could they be otherwise? Therefore, in this sense, at least, such a thing is “biblical.”

I made no claim as to whether this would persuade them or not. Again, you think in terms of pragmatic results; I am thinking in terms of proclaiming truth, which has its own inherent power, whether people accept or reject it. Nor was I referring to Maccabees there . . .

I don’t think a Protestant will listen to Maccabees.

Of course they won’t, but it’s because they threw it out of the Bible on dopey grounds. It’s still the Bible, historically speaking, and so I appeal to it, because I don’t grant their hostile premises. I defend the deuterocanon elsewhere. Separate argument . . .

the other appeals to OT passages about burial rites and mourning suggest nothing about praying souls through purgatory.

I don’t claim that my other argument is a strong argument. But it’s a possibility. I didn’t mention purgatory, but it’s implicit, I think, in the notion of prayer for the dead.

Therefore, if you’re stuck with only Maccabees, you’re stuck with an argument that isn’t going to interest any Protestants.

But I’m not. We also have the other OT and NT evidence that I presented. 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a strong argument: rightly understood.

Lastly, prayer for the dead is not at all unknown in Protestant circles. Luther acknowledged a minimalistic sense of it. Lutheran confessions include it (and they practice it); same with Anglicanism. I was at an Anglican funeral service for my grandmother, where the priest prayed for her.

Among the Reformed and Baptists, it’s a different story (as so often). But that’s not the whole of Protestantism, by any means. Thus, to say that “Protestants” as a whole reject it is untrue. Two of the initial forms of Protestantism continued to accept it as a valid practice. And they must do so (presumably) for some reason.

The Protestants who decided to become less sacramental, sacerdotal, and traditional (with no legitimate basis; only Calvin’s or someone else’s whim and fancy) rejected it.

Related Reading:

Baptizing the Dead? (Odd Verse 1 Corinthians 15:29) [6-5-02]

Baptized for the Dead: The “UnProtestant” Verse (1 Cor 15:29) [2004]

New (?) Biblical Argument: Prayers for the Dead [2004]

“Catholicism Refuted” (?): “Father” / Purgatory / Statues / Confession (Pt. III) [12-11-04]

Prayer for the Dead & Retroactive Prayer (Luther & Protestants) [3-22-05]

Does God Forbid All Contact with the Dead? [6-23-07]

John Wesley Believed in Prayer for the Dead [7-13-09]

Fasting for the Dead in the Old Testament (Not Unlike Praying) [11-4-12]

Dialogue on Prayer for the Dead & the Bible [11-5-12]

Dialogue w Calvinists on Prayer for the Dead & Purgatory [3-18-15]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #4: Prayer for the Dead [2-20-17]

Prayers to Saints & for the Dead: Six Biblical Proofs [6-8-18]

4 Biblical Proofs for Prayers to Saints and for the Dead [National Catholic Register, 6-16-18]

Reflections on Interceding for the Lost Souls [National Catholic Register, 6-26-18]

Dialogue w Lutherans: “Proxy Baptism”? (1 Cor 15:29) [12-28-18]

C. S. Lewis Believed in Purgatory & Prayer for the Dead [6-22-10; rev. 10-8-19]

The Anglican Newman on Prayer for the Dead (1838): It was as well-attested in the early Church as the Canon of Scripture [10-11-19]


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(originally posted on 6-9-13 on Facebook; slightly revised on 1-9-20)

Photo credit: Elisha Raising the Shunammite’s Son (1766), by Benjamin West (1738-1820) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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