What does the Bible say about praying to the dead?

Mary McKillop supposedly performed miracles for those who prayed to her after her death. What does the Bible say about praying to the dead?

The Bible doesn’t give any examples of people praying to the dead. There are no commands or specific reasons to do so. Rather, in the Scriptures people pray to the Lord, the object of their faith and the granter of their petitions. We know that prayer proceeds from faith in the promises of God and is guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, 'Whatever you ask for in my name you will receive' (John 14:13,14). Paul encourages us to pray, intercede and give thanks for all people and tells us that there is one mediator between God and people, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:1-5).

One of the few passages I am aware of that comes anywhere close to this question is from the book of Job. After Job suffered great loss, his friend Eliphaz said to him, 'Call if you will, but who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?' (Job 5:1). The ‘holy ones’ is a reference to the angels and Satan, who present themselves to the Lord as if they were in a heavenly court. Eliphaz seemed to be saying to Job, ‘Call on one of these holy ones, these heavenly beings in God’s royal court, and see who will answer you’. Similarly, the book of Revelation uses imagery of God’s heavenly courtiers (Rev 5:6-8, 8:3,4). None of this, though, points to an efficacious praying to the dead.

Mary McKillop certainly was a saint, a godly woman who achieved much for the education of the poor in rural parts of our country. Like Martin Luther, she struggled against the hierarchy of the church and was excommunicated from it. However, we don’t need to highlight some of the saints of the church and put them on a pedestal at the expense of others. The saints were fallible people who drew their strength from Jesus. The New Testament makes it quite clear that we Christians are all saints, made holy by the blood of Christ, yet sinners at the same time. We don’t get to God through the saints, as if they had better access to God because of their status.

A helpful distinction for me is thanking God for those who have died, rather than praying to the dead. Interestingly, the Lutheran Confessions say, ‘We know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not ban’ (Apology of the Augsburg Confession: XXIV, 94). In our holy communion liturgy we pray, ‘With angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven ...’ At various times of the church year we name patriarchs, apostles, even the Virgin Mary, in these prefaces. Departed saints can provide us with examples of how to live the Christian life. We can certainly honour and acknowledge them in our prayer life, but we do not look to them for help or to answer our prayers. Jesus is our one mediator to God the Father.

Response by Rev Tim Jarick, school pastor of Victory college, Wodonga, Victoria.

This question appeared in the RAQ (Rarely Asked Questions) column in the March 2011 edition of The Lutheran. While responses to RAQ questions are supplied by LCA leaders or theologians, they should be treated as personal opinions and not as official statements on behalf of the church.