Prayers of the dead

It’s a commonplace of the Roman Catholic tradition that those Christians who have died are now in heaven interceding for us. So the authoritative (for Roman Catholics) Roman Catholic Catechism asserts,

The intercession of the saints. “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness … They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus … So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.”

It’s an idea that is unsupported by Scripture, but is universally used within the Roman Catholic tradition to encourage Roman Catholics to offer prayers to Mary and the Saints. In contrast, Hebrews 7 points out that it’s the Lord Jesus who intercedes for us in heaven:

The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Heb 7:23-25; emphasis mine)

Now there is a comforting thought for those who suffer in this world. Jesus is in heaven, praying for us in his capacity as heavenly high priest, making intercession for our sins. Indeed, the idea that anyone else who is not a high priest (and in the Book of Hebrews, Jesus uniquely occupies this role) might intercede on our behalf really is the most terrible blasphemy.

Even if dead Christians were capable of interceding for us in the way the Roman Catholic catechism envisages, there is no guarantee that they are able to hear us, and there is some indication in the New Testament that they can’t. There is, however, a curious yet encouraging passage in Revelation 6 where we find that there are, in fact, dead saints offering prayers to God:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Rev 6:9-11)

How literally we ought to take this image is a question for another day. There is a great deal of picture language in Revelation, and if we are committed to taking it as factually as a news report, then we may also find ourselves committed to believing that God is not Trinity, but is of one substance with the seven spirits before his throne. So I for one am not going to insist that there are dead, martyred Christians praying before the throne of God at this very moment. Revelation 6 is making a point about God’s sovereignty and justice (not about human consciousness between the time of our physical death and the day of final judgement).

But even assuming that the dead, martyred saints are indeed consciously in God’s presence, offering their prayers to him, we are seriously misguided if we think that they are going to focus their energy on praying for us (especially if, as Hebrews 7 has shown us already, this is a job reserved for Jesus). Revelation 6 depicts these faithful souls as praying for God’s judgement and justice to be poured out, and soon.

Now there, at least, is a lesson we can learn from the dead saints. We should pray as they prayed and as Jesus taught—that God’s kingdom would come, and that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Pray then, for divine judgement and justice.

4 thoughts on “Prayers of the dead

  1. What about Revelation chapter five,. there we have the image of 24 elders offering up bowls of incense, ” which are the prayers of the Saints.” the 24 elders represent the Old and New Testament Church.

    If the prayer of a righteous man availeth much more the prayers of just men made perfect, who encompass us as a cloud of

    They are not dead , they are alive in Christ Jesus and nothing can separate them from us.

    That is what Communion of Saints means in the Nicene Creed.

    Go to the catacombs and see the inscriptions..right from the beginning the first Christians prayed to the Saints and for the

  2. I believe, Robert, that the key word in your description of Revelation 5 is ‘image’. It’s picture language emphasising that the whole of creation and in particular the whole people of God (as represented by the 24 elders) are offering praise to God.

    This is not the same as dead saints interceding on behalf of living Christians.

  3. Dear Gordon,

    Whilst I think your explantion is has to look at the consistant exegesis of the Scripture in Christian history.Seems a strange God, who would allow prayers for the dead in the normative Judaism of Our lords day, and early Christianity and then wait 1500 years to abolish them.

  4. Hi Robert
    I think you’ve misunderstood Revelation 5.  The prayers of the ‘saints’ are the prayers of Christian people, still living on earth.  That is the way the NT consistently uses saints (or, ‘holy ones’).

Comments are closed.