Sunday, July 24, 2005

Revelation 5:8 and Prayers to the Dead

Prayer is a significant part of the Christian life, and there are hundreds of passages on the subject in scripture and the writings of the earliest church fathers. God is the recipient of those prayers, and praying to the deceased is never encouraged. Instead, it's repeatedly either directly or indirectly condemned.

Sometimes those who advocate the practice will attempt to defend it by appealing to doctrinal development or the authority of some group, such as the Roman Catholic hierarchy, to teach the concept. But nothing in the earliest sources would logically develop into the concept of praying to the dead, and there's no reason to believe that the Catholic hierarchy has the authority it claims to have. Appealing to doctrinal development or Roman Catholic authority can't justify praying to the deceased.

Other advocates of the practice will attempt to defend it by claiming that it is, in fact, taught in scripture. One of the most popular passages cited to this end is Revelation 5:8. Supposedly, the fact that the elders possess bowls of prayer suggests that they're the recipients of prayer.

But the elders in that passage are referred to as carrying the prayers, not as the recipients of the prayers. Revelation 8:4, which uses similar imagery, refers to the prayers going to God. 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. The elders are presenters of the prayers, not recipients of them. Similarly, when angels are referred to as carrying bowls of wrath (Revelation 16:2), we don’t conclude that the angels therefore are the recipients of the wrath.

Furthermore, when other passages in Revelation allude to the prayers of Revelation 5, the most natural implication is that the prayers were addressed to God and were asking Him for justice on earth. This is documented by Richard Bauckham in his chapter on prayer in Into God’s Presence, Richard Longenecker, ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 252-271. As Bauckham explains, Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4, 9:13-14, and 14:18 have similar terminology and imagery. The phrase “golden bowl full” is used in both Revelation 5:8 and 15:7. It seems that the wrath described in 15:7 is in response to the prayers of the saints. In 6:9-10, we see the martyred saints asking God for justice. And the incense altar associated with the prayers of the saints in 8:3-4 is referred to again in 9:13-14 and 14:18 in connection with God exercising justice on earth. It seems that the best explanation of the prayers in Revelation 5 and Revelation 8 is that they’re prayers to God, asking for justice on earth. They aren’t prayers to the dead.

The earliest patristic commentators on Revelation 5:8 refer to the prayers in that passage as being offered to God, not to the elders. We see this in Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 4:17:6-4:18:1), Origen (Against Celsus, 8:17), and Methodius (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, 5:8), for instance. Many of the people who advocate praying to the dead are the same people who often tell us that we should let the church fathers have a much larger role in our scripture interpretation than Evangelicals usually allow. Yet, when the fathers contradict their view of scripture, they don't seem to have as much concern about it.