One of the more common Scripture passages used to prove the Catholic understanding of praying to the saints is in error is from Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 — “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun.” Usually paraphrased to something like “the Bible says the dead know nothing about what’s happening on earth,” the conclusion is the saints in heaven cannot be aware of our prayers to them.
In my opinion this is a good example of taking a passage of Scripture out of context, and further investigation indicates that. If you read a larger passage of the text (Ecclesiastes 9:1-10), it says things like “one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil” (verse 2), “the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost” (verse 5) and concludes with “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (verse 10)
So our question should be regarding this passage – is it speaking of someone who has died in Christ and is in heaven with him? Would we really believe there is no difference in their fate than the wicked? Would we really believe they have no reward and the memory of them is lost? Do we believe they are in Sheol instead of heaven? Certainly not. If you read this passage in context it is a very poetic way to express we should all realize our time on earth is limited and we should seek to make the most of it. Nothing more.
Another passage sometimes cited is Psalm 115:17 – “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence.” Again, the question must be asked, is this speaking about those who have died in Christ? The next verse tells us the answer – “But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 115:18).
Passages can certainly be removed from their context and applied to a totally different question to make almost any point. But there is ample indication from Sacred Scripture those who have died, and especially those who have died in Christ are aware of what is happening on earth. Whether they are completely aware of everything, or only aware of certain things by God’s revelation to them, we do not know.
One very clear example from the Old Testament is when we see Rachel in the book of Jeremiah pleading for her “children” (the Jewish people), as they are being exiled from the Promise Land. The prophet records “Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.’ Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.’” (Jeremiah 31:15-16) In this case not only is Rachel aware of their exile, we see she successfully intercedes for them to God and secures a promise they will return to the land God had given them.
Another clear example we are given in Scripture is the story of Lazarus, Abraham and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). We are told Lazarus had been a poor man, and the rich man ignored him as he lay at his gate, hungry and full of sores. When Lazarus dies, angels carry him to Abraham’s bosom, which is another name for Sheol, the place where those who died before Christ waited for him. The rich man then dies, and is in Hades in torment. He asks Abraham to have mercy on him and send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue. Abraham tells him the chasm between Hades and Sheol cannot be passed over. He then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn his brothers of their coming fate if they do not repent. Abraham replies they have Moses and the prophets to instruct them. The rich man says they won’t listen to them, but they would listen to someone who has risen from the dead. To which Abraham tells him “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.”
Some want to refer to this as a parable; others see it as a literal reference. I tend to the latter, because when Christ relates a parable, he does not use the names of real people, and Abraham we specifically know to be a real person. Regardless, it teaches us a truth, and cannot contain any falsehood. Here we see even from Hades the rich man seeks intercession from Abraham on behalf of his family. But even more telling is the fact Abraham is aware of Moses and the prophets, who lived long after he had died.
We see another specific example with Abraham, when Christ tells the Jews “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). This indicates Abraham was aware of the incarnation of Christ, another event that occurred long after he had died.
The book of Revelation also tells us those in heaven are aware of what is happening on earth. In Revelation 6:9-11 we read “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 thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon 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 brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
In Hebrews 12:1, we’re told we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” speaking about those great Old Testament saints listed in Hebrews 11. Those who wish to dismiss this passage insist it means they have witnessed the faith to us, not they are witnessing our lives. That may be. But I don’t think “witnesses” is the key word in the passage that tells us they are aware of us. It’s the word “surrounded.” The author of Hebrews presents us as running a great race, while they surround us. “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, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2) How would it be possible to “surround” someone unless you’re aware of them? The image created by this passage is we are participating in a great athletic event, and those who have died in Christ “surround” us to cheer us on.
And Hebrews Chapter 12 continues with another very important revelation. It contrasts the way the Israelites approached God at Mt Sinai (Exodus 19:16-25), with the way Christians approach God through prayer. “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:18-24)
Perhaps there is no clearer passage than this one. We’re specifically told in Scripture when we pray, we enter the heavenly Jerusalem, and there we come to “the spirits of just men made perfect,” – the saints. Whether or not we wish to recognize their presence, Scripture is quite clear we come into contact with them when we approach God in prayer. And why wouldn’t we? They are indeed with Him.
This addresses another concern often expressed, as is found in 2 Samuel 12:21-23 when King David’s son has died. His servants ask him “’What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.’ He said, ‘While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?” But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’” This passage is often cited to prove the saints cannot return to earth to help us. This fails to acknowledge Hebrews 12:18-24 teaches the reality that we go to them when we enter the heavenly Jerusalem in prayer. Prayer to the saints does not “summon” them back to earth. It simply recognizes that Christ has united heaven and earth (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:17-20), and for those who are in him (Romans 6:3, Romans 8:1-2, 2 Corinthians 5:17) we have direct access to heaven through him, to include the saints alive with him there.
One other very common objection to the understanding the saints in heaven are in some degree aware of what is happening on earth is that there are no tears in heaven and to know what is happening to the people they love could bring them great sadness. This contradicts the view that heaven is a place of total joy.
When presented with this view, we need to ask where Scripture teaches there are no tears in heaven? The only relevant passages I can find are speaking to the end of time, not those in heaven currently (Revelation 7:13-17, Revelation 21:1-4). These passages speak to when a new heaven and earth are created, and then God will wipe away our every tear. I haven’t seen any evidence it applies to those in heaven prior to that time.
We actually know very little about heaven from Sacred Scripture. We know there will be great wonders we can’t really imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9). We will indeed rest from our labors, but we will also be in the service of God (Revelation 7:15). The joy of knowing we have completed the race God set before us must be incomparable (Hebrews 12:1). There would certainly be an absence of physical suffering as we glorify God in spirit and await the resurrection of our physical bodies.
But we know Christ is in heaven, and we will be completely and perfectly united to him. We also know he very personally feels our suffering on earth, and experiences it as his own suffering. This is why instead of asking St. Paul why he was persecuting Christians, he asked him “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) St. Paul came to understand this so well he penned about the body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
I remember having a discussion with a lady one time, who believed if we were in heaven and one of our loved ones were in hell, God would simply wipe our memory of that person so we would not experience sorrow. I remember telling her I can’t say I have the answer to that, but I think we have to remember that Jesus Christ is the Truth (John 14:6), and our joy in heaven certainly can’t be based on a lie. I don’t think any of us know how that type of sorrow and the joy of heaven will be reconciled; I think it simply becomes a matter of trust in the one who loves all of us perfectly. At this point we certainly do still see “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) as St. Paul says. But I believe we can trust the joy of those in heaven and their awareness of our suffering on earth can indeed be reconciled, and they continue to “surround” us to encourage and assist us to run the race well. Their happiness can’t be dependent upon the Truth being hidden from them.
So it’s clear from Scripture to at least some degree, the saints in heaven are aware of things that happen on earth. Even so, how could they possibly hear and respond to potentially millions of people praying to them at once? That question will be covered in my next post.