This is a hugely important question. But, actually, in a certain sense, this question really contains a number of other questions rolled up into one:
- Isn’t Christ the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim 2:5)? If so, isn’t affirming the ability of the dead to pray for us a violation of that biblical teaching? In light of that, it would seem that there can be no biblical justification for the Catholic belief that saints in heaven can pray for those on earth.
- Are the dead even conscious? Aren’t the dead “asleep” until the resurrection?
- If the those who have died are conscious, how do we know they are aware of the needs of Christians on earth?
- Assuming one could answer the questions above, isn’t it just speculation that the saints pray for those on earth? Is there any clear indication in Scripture that those in heaven actually pray for those on earth?
- Isn’t it a violation of the biblical prohibition against necromancy to ask the saints in heaven to pray for us?
These are all important questions. Let me try to take them one by one.
Today, let’s look at the first, namely, isn’t the practice of asking the saints to pray for us a rejection of the biblical teaching of Christ’s role as the “one mediator”?
The One Mediator
Again, while many Protestants are taught otherwise, the Catholic Church teaches very clearly that Christ is, as St. Paul says, “the one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim 2:5).
I won’t belabor this point with many quotations. Suffice it to say, the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this in numerous places. For example, no. 771 reads:
“The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men.” (citing another official Catholic document from Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 8 § 1.).
Lest someone insist that this is “new” Catholic teaching, let me assure you that this was also affirmed at the Council of Trent:
“If anyone asserts that this sin of Adam, which in its origin is one, and by propagation, not by imitation, transfused into all, which is in each one as something that is his own, is taken away either by the forces of human nature or by a remedy other than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ . . . let him be anathema.” (Session V, 3).
But isn’t the idea that saints can pray for us on earth a violation of this clear teaching of Scripture? I don’t think so.
The Biblical Basis for Praying for One Another
Scripture tells us that we should pray for one another. In fact, this isn’t just a passing suggestion. That the righteous pray for one another is emphasized over and over again.
It may seem silly to make a lot out of this, but we often don’t realize how frequently the idea of praying for one another comes up in Scripture.
To illustrate just how frequently the idea comes up I’ve put together the following catalogue of passages—and this is far from exhaustive:
- Jesus commands us to “pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28; cf. Matt 5:44).
- Jesus says that some demons can only be driven out by prayer (Mark 9:23), which most likely involves the idea of praying for the one possessed.
- The apostles pray for Stephen and the other newly appointed seven deacons (Acts 6:6).
- With his dying breath, Stephen asks the Lord to forgive his killers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). The conversion of Saul would seem to be an answer to this prayer, as Augustine long ago observed.
- The Christian community prays for Peter after he has been arrested (Acts 12:5).
- The early Christians pray for Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:3).
- Paul repeatedly says that he prays for other Christians (cf., e.g., Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 13:9; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:4, 9; Col 1:3; 1 Thess 1:2; 5:26; 2 Thess 1:11; 2 Thess 3:1; 2 Tim 1:3; Phil 4). For example, he tells the Corinthians, “we pray God that you may not do wrong” (2 Cor 13:7).
- Paul prays for the salvation of Israel (Rom 10:1).
- Paul asks the Christians to pray for him, explaining to them that by doing so they “strive together with me” (Rom 15:30; cf. also Phil 1:19; Col 4:2). Prayer thus brings about a kind of communion.
- Paul says that Christians pray for one another (2 Cor 9:14; Col 4:11). In fact, he instructs them to do this: “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:18; here as throughout the New Testament the word “saints” refers to Christians on earth).
- The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews bluntly asks his readers, “Pray for us” (Heb 13:2).
- James makes it abundantly clear that we should pray for one another and that we should even confess our sins to one another in that context: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:14–16).
- John says that, with the exception of one guilty of “mortal sin,” praying for one another can restore a sinner: “If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that” (1 John 5:16).
- John prays for his fellow Christians (3 John 2).
Is it unbiblical to pray for one another? No.
What Paul Really Said
In fact, it is especially strange to me that so many non-Catholic Christians condemn the idea that saints can pray for us by turning to 1 Timothy 2:5. Talk about wrenching a text out of context!
Paul’s whole point in the passage is that we can pray for one another because Christ, who has offered himself for all men, is now the one mediator between God and man. Let’s read the whole passage as it stands instead of proof-texting:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. 3 This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time. (1 Tim 2:1-6)
Paul clearly did not think that Christ’s role as “the one mediator” excludes the notion that we can pray for one another. Rather, “it is “good” and “acceptable in the sight of God our Savior”! In fact, it is precisely his role as the one mediator that makes it possible for those united in him to pray effectively for others.
In sum, it seems to me that praying for another and asking for prayer from one another is a characteristic of believers. It is hardly a minor theme in the New Testament. Are those who in heaven simply relieved of this obligation? Do they no longer desire to pray for those who need it?
But this raises another question: can the dead pray for the living? Are they even conscious?