Jason Engwer vs. the Biblical Case for Invoking Saints

Jason Engwer vs. the Biblical Case for Invoking Saints April 22, 2023

Protestant apologist Jason Engwer wrote the article, “Attempts To Make A Biblical Case For Prayers To The Dead” (Trialblogue, 6-9-08). His words will be in blue.


The Biblical record gives us a lot of information about how the people of God in past ages lived in a large variety of circumstances, and prayer to God is mentioned often, whereas prayer to the deceased isn’t mentioned at all. There are hundreds of passages on prayer in the Bible, covering thousands of years of history. In all of that context, we’re never encouraged to pray to the dead.

That’s not true. The rich man in Hades prayed to the long-dead Abraham (Luke 16), and Saul made an petition to the dead prophet Samuel (1 Sam 28:14-20). Though it was in the context of a sinful occultic seance of sorts, nevertheless, the text provides no hint that this was not the actual Samuel (rather than an impersonating demon, which is the usual Protestant reply). The text says, “Saul knew that it was Samuel” (28:14, RSV), and the narrator refers to “Samuel” four times (28:12, 15-16, 20). Moreover, Samuel gave a true prophecy, which came true the next day. Demons don’t do that; they lie and deceive.

To the contrary, scripture condemns any attempt to contact the deceased (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Isaiah 8:19, 19:3).

That’s necromancy and occultic practices which are condemned, not the communion of saints.

The evidence from the earliest patristic sources is against the practice as well. Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian wrote treatises on the subject of prayer without encouraging prayers to the dead. Instead, they either state or imply that prayer is to be offered only to God. Origen in particular is emphatic on the point (Against Celsus, 5:4-5, 5:11, 8:26; On Prayer, 10).

Some of the Church fathers didn’t get it, which is the case with just about every doctrine. There are always slow learners and late learners. The great majority of the fathers, however, did get it. So if we’re gonna count “patristic heads,” Catholics win.

In this post, I want to address some of the few New Testament passages commonly cited in support of the practice. As you think about these passages, ask yourself why advocates of praying to the dead have to resort to such argumentation.

Well, I’ve explained many times why I “resort” to these arguments. It’s because they are biblical! What I’ve asked myself is why Protestants continue to reject practices that are explicitly biblical (taught right from the lips of Jesus) and the consensus of the Church fathers.

Sometimes the Mount of Transfiguration will be cited, as if Moses and Elijah are recipients of prayers to the dead. But Moses and Elijah had returned to life on earth. No prayer is involved.

I agree, but I would also ask, “why did God will for these dead men to appear on the earth, if in fact He desires no contact at all between the living and the departed?”

And the only one who spoke with them was Jesus. Peter, James, and John didn’t speak to them.

The text doesn’t rule out possible discourse with the disciples. It simply doesn’t mention it. Since the dead man Samuel talked to a man on the earth, and received a petition from him (which he refused, as it was against God’s will), and the dead Abraham talked to a man in Hades, and received two petitions from him (which he refused, as they were against God’s will), it’s entirely permissible and possible.

Even if we were to conclude, without good reason, that Jesus had been praying to Moses and Elijah, Jesus isn’t merely human. He’s also God.

God has no reason to “pray” to men. The texts say that He was talking to them.

Another passage commonly cited in support of praying to the dead is Revelation 5:8. But the elders in that passage are referred to as carrying the prayers, not as the recipients of the prayers. (The earliest patristic commentators on Revelation 5:8 refer to the prayers in that passage as being offered to God, not to the elders.

Revelation 5:8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;

The question I’ve asked over and over (and have never seen a Protestant answer yet) is: “what in the world are dead men in heaven doing with ‘the prayers of the saints’ “? If they have nothing whatsoever to do with the process and practice of prayer, why do they possess prayers of other people (“the saints”)? This makes no sense at all from a Protestant perspective. They simply would never have them. All those prayers would have gone to God and no one else would have been involved, because God wouldn’t have allowed it: so says Protestants. If folks prayed to or invoked saints, God would make them deaf to the prayers or intercessory requests. That’s what Protestants believe: even though the Bible clearly teaches that saints in heaven are fully aware of earthly events (Hebrews 12:1: see my commentary).

But in the Catholic and Orthodox views, it’s easily explained: people on earth ask saints to intercede for them to God; therefore, the dead saints are intermediaries, have the requests, and present them to God to be either fulfilled or denied, according to His will. It’s consistent with our position, and utterly inconsistent with the Protestant one. In all such cases, I follow the inspired, inerrant Bible, not a false Protestant belief that contradicts the Bible.

Revelation 8:4, which uses similar imagery, refers to the prayers going to God.

Yes, of course. He’s the ultimate recipient of all prayers precisely because He is God.

Revelation 8:3-4 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; [4] and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.

But the problem is precisely the same as with Revelation 5:8: why do these angels have anything to do with “prayers of the saints”? All this shows is that we can invoke angels and ask them to intercede, too. It’s no help for the Protestant unbiblical and anti-traditional position at all.

Just as the harps in Revelation 5:8 are likely used to play music to God, the prayers mentioned in the same passage most likely are directed to God, not to the elders.

We’re not denying that. This is why we refer to the intercession of the saints. We’re asking them to pray for us to God because their prayers have much more power (Jas 5:16). We say, for example, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us . . .” That’s not an ultimate recipient of prayer; it’s an example of an intercessor; a prayer warrior.

The elders are presenters of the prayers, not recipients of them. 

Exactly! Now Jason is starting to get it! And why are they presenting the prayers of others? And how is this not a form of intercession or intermediary effort on their part? I’d love to hear an answer, but Jason has decided to never respond to my critiques (though he actually slipped and did recently, without mentioning my name as the one whose argument he was replying to).

In 6:9-10, we see the martyred saints asking God for justice. 

Yep. They are praying for those on earth. Since they are doing that, and since saints in heaven are quite aware and interested in what happens on the earth (the implication of Hebrews 12:1) it follows straightforwardly that we can and ought to ask for their intercession to God on our behalf or the sake of others.

And we ought to ask, given that millions of prayers are offered to the dead every day among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for example, how likely is it that, if the practice was accepted in Biblical times, all that we would be able to find to reflect that fact in the Biblical record would be possible allusions in passages like the Mount of Transfiguration and Revelation 5:8? If praying to the dead had been an accepted practice in Biblical times, we would expect it to be mentioned many times in many contexts, explicitly. But it isn’t.

It is, twice, and is strongly — if not explicitly — implied in these passages in Revelation, twice. See my early responses above.

Catholics and Orthodox who discuss this subject often try to shift the topic of discussion and confuse categories. They’ll enter a discussion about prayers to the dead and begin discussing prayers for the dead. They’ll cite passages in the Bible and the church fathers regarding whether the deceased pray for us, even though the issue is whether we should pray to them.

Sure, sometimes people are sloppy in logic. I haven’t done any of these things, myself.

They’ll cite passages about angels in a discussion about the deceased, as if the two are indistinguishable.

They are in the sense that both can be asked to intercede, per the Bible. Hence, Lot petitioned angels and his request was granted:

Genesis 19:13, 15, 18-21 “for we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.” . . . [15] When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city.”. . . [18] And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords; [19] behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me, and I die. [20] Behold, yonder city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there — is it not a little one? — and my life will be saved!” [21] He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken.

Note how God used angels as intermediaries to accomplish His will of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Likewise, He uses them as intercessors (and even in some sense, He allows them to answer the prayer and “grant” the “favor.” In this passage, both things are taking place. The Bible taught this; don’t blame me!

They’ll assume that Biblical passages associating an angel or deceased person with prayer in some way, such as Revelation 5, must involve prayer that’s directed to that angel or deceased person as a recipient, even though the passage doesn’t make that association.

It strongly implies it. I want to hear a Protestant alt-explanation that’s more plausible than how I interpret those passages. It never comes. Therefore, I continue to hold my view until such tome as I hear a more feasible explanation.

They’ll assume that if a passage of scripture tells us that the deceased know about some events on earth, then all deceased believers must know about other events on earth as well, such as prayers that are offered to them.

Hebrews 12:1 strongly implies that knowledge of earthly events and concern about them is a general characteristic of departed saints. If God wants them to receive intercessory requests, He is certainly able to do so. As far as I know, evangelicals haven’t denied God’s omnipotence and omniscience yet.


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Photo credit: Bi.johannes (2-20-20): clouds in the Sky over France [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


Summary: I respond to Jason Engwer’s erroneous assertions that the Bible never sanctions invoking saints. It does several times, & his counter-explanations abysmally fail.



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