Prayer to Abraham and Dead People in Scripture

“Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” (Luke 16:24)

Aert de Gelder (1645-1727), “Abraham and the Angels”
Aert de Gelder (1645-1727), “Abraham and the Angels” (photo: Public Domain)

Jesus’ story (not technically a parable) of Lazarus and the rich man (traditionally known as “Dives”) is found in Luke 16:19-31. I won’t cite the entire passage here, as I usually do, for lack of space. It’s a remarkable argument for the Catholic belief in invocation of saints and asking saints to intercede. And it goes directly against Protestantism, which strongly upholds the following two propositions:

  • It is improper to “pray” to anyone but God, and
  • It is improper to ask anyone but God to fulfill (i.e., have the power and ability to bring about) an intercessory request. By definition, no one but God can do so.

These are exactly the sorts of considerations concerning which the Luke 16 passage is relevant. The rich man literally prays to Abraham in the passage and asks him to send someone to warn his five brothers, so they can repent and not end up in his miserable state (on the “bad” side of the two divisions in Hades described in the passage).

It matters not if both men are dead; the rich man still can’t do what he did, according to Protestant categories of thought and theology.

How is it that the rich man prays to Abraham, when supposedly no one can pray to or ask to fulfill a request to anyone but God? The rich man actually makes two such requests, and then repeats the second, after Abraham refused it:

  • Luke 16:24 (RSV) And he called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Laz’arus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’
  • Luke 16:27-28 And he said, `Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’
  • Luke 16:30 And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

How can that be within Protestant theology? No one has ever adequately explained this to me, and I’ve written about this passage many times on my blog and in my books.

Abraham appears in the story to be able to fulfill prayer requests by his own powers. Why is the whole story about Dives asking Abraham for requests, rather than going directly to God and asking Him? God is never even mentioned in the entire story (!). Because it’s not a parable (which never have proper names), Abraham doesn’t represent God (no one represents anybody); he is literally the same Abraham of the Old Testament.

Abraham’s double refusal to fulfill Dives’ prayer request doesn’t prove that he shouldn’t have been prayed to in the first place. If that were the case, then he certainly would have said something like, “You can’t pray to me! Pray only to God!” – just as apostles and angels alike refused worship that was appropriate only for God. Remember, this is Jesus telling the story, and He didn’t rebuke any false theology in it.

This just isn’t how it’s supposed to be, from a Protestant perspective. All the emphases are wrong, and there are serious theological errors, committed by Jesus Himself (i.e., from their perspective). It creates huge problems for Protestant theology and biblical inspiration alike; even for Christology (if Jesus Himself is dead wrong about something so central to faith as prayer).

Protestantism holds not only that no one ought to pray to anyone but God, but also that they should not try to contact or talk to the dead in any fashion whatever (believing that all such efforts are necromancy or occultic practice). Holy Scripture contradicts this, too.

Granted, it’s a bit of a unique scenario, but the Bible provides two instances of communicating to or “contacting” the dead (and also — interestingly — praying for the dead at the same time), without mediums or spiritists: initiated by the praying person:

  • John 11:43-44 . . . he cried with a loud voice, “Laz’arus, come out.” [44] The dead man came out, . . .
  • Acts 9:40-41 But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. [41] And he gave her his hand and lifted her up. Then calling the saints and widows he presented her alive.

Jesus speaking to and raising Lazarus, and Peter raising Tabitha (talking to her, too) are precisely examples of “contact” with or “calling up” the dead. If a Protestant argues that because Jesus is God, He’s a special case and not our model, then he or she has to explain why Peter does the same thing.

We are certainly to imitate the example of the apostles (2 Thessalonians 3:9). Thus, St. Paul urges his readers to imitate him (Phil 3:17; 4:9), and both him and the Lord (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7), just he in turn imitates and follows Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). St. Peter talked to a dead person; so can we.

  • Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,

This includes angels. Only God is omniscient. But angels can know enough to hear prayers and act upon them. They don’t have to “know our hearts” to be able to know what our hearts are expressing, when we verbalize it to them. The following passage shows that an angel learned about Daniel’s thoughts in prayer: either directly or because God made him aware (the previous verse): 

  • Daniel 10:12 . . . “. . . your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.”

Angels know lots of things (like when sinners repent: Luke 15:10): including our petitionary requests.