The Saints in Heaven are Quite Aware of Events on Earth

The dead in Christ are more alive and more aware than we are, so it’s foolish to exclude them from our prayer life.

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 126r - Paradise - the Musée Condé, Chantilly
Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 126r - Paradise - the Musée Condé, Chantilly (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I drew the following from a very enjoyable dialogue with a friend who is a traditional Anglican philosopher.

There are various biblical indications that the saints in heaven are quite aware of what is happening on the earth.  Here is one of the clearest:

Hebrews 12:1 (RSV) 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,

That would appear to be a good biblical argument against the denial that these saints “know our present state on earth” or that in order to do so they have to be “close to omniscience.” They know about us because they are in a higher state of knowledge than we are. Being more intelligent or aware does not logically entail something close to omniscience. Having great knowledge can still be millions of “miles” away from having all knowledge, which is what omniscience is. It’s a false dilemma or an attempted “false equivalence.”

The Bible says that we will “judge angels” (1 Corinthians 6:3), and that “when he appears we shall be like him” (1 Johnn 3:2). Jesus said, “in the resurrection they ... are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). It’s reasonable to assume that we will have knowledge in the afterlife at least akin to that of the angels (which is itself extraordinary). The Bible says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:10). Who has joy? Who is rejoicing? That’s the folks in heaven!

We see an example of “imprecatory prayer” in heaven, asking for justice (Revelation 6:9-11). We observe men in heaven (Revelation 5:8) and also angels (Revelation 8:4) somehow possessing the “prayers of the saints”. Why? What are they doing with them, pray tell? Why are they involved in prayer at all? It’s plainly intercession. 

If “prayer” is defined as simply addressing someone and asking a request of them, then yes, we pray to saints (and should!). We also “pray” to our friends on earth in the same sense. So this “proves too much and becomes ultimately a non sequitur in the discussion (because it is really asking for their intercession to God; not asking them as if they were God).

But if prayer is defined as addressing the Being (God) Who ultimately has the power to grant answers to prayer, then it is only properly spoken of being directed to God alone, even if through intermediaries.

The problem with Protestant arguments against the communion of saints is that they collapse the recourse to intermediary intercessors in prayer (i.e., the ones who have died) with requests to them as if they had the ability to answer the prayer, which is God’s prerogative and power alone.

Catholic prayers to saints (i.e., rightly understood, in accordance with Catholic dogma) presuppose this, but because it’s not stated every two seconds, Protestants too often falsely supposes that Catholics think saints can grant prayers in and of themselves apart from God. This (a supremely important point) is the fallacy or misunderstanding or both.

Protestants will object that certain saints have special or particular influence with God, and more efficacious prayers in specific areas (our notion of patron saints). I don’t see why. The Bible clearly teaches that different people have different levels of grace (Acts 4:33; 2 Cor 8:7; Eph 4:7; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 3:18). From this it follows, it seems to me, that some might specialize in certain areas more so than others, according to different parts of the Body of Christ (there is much Pauline teaching on that).

I don’t see why this should be either controversial or objectionable. It’s usually objected to because of observed excesses, while an ironclad argument against it from Scripture is rarely made.

The fact remains that “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16). In the larger context of that passage, James states:

James 5:17-18 Eli’jah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. [18] Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.

Would it not follow, then, that Elijah seemed to have a particular influence over weather? Therefore, why couldn’t someone ask him to pray to God about the weather, rather than someone else, since he had this record of asking for rain to cease, and it did for three and-a-half years? So he became, in effect, the “patron saint of meteorological petitions.”

We do roughly the same in this life with friends, on the level of empathy. So, for example, if a woman has difficulty with miscarriage or difficult pregnancies or deliveries, she might go to a woman who has experienced the same thing and ask her to pray to God for her.

I don’t see any intrinsic difficulty here. Catholics don’t ever deny anyone the ability to “go straight to God.” But we assert with James that certain prayers of certain people have more power (also with regard to certain specificities); therefore it is sensible to go to them as intermediaries. Thus, again, in the same passage, we see “differential prayer factors”:

James 5:14 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;

The passage doesn’t say “go right to God, and if you don’t, it is a danger of idolatry.” No; the sick person is advised to go to the elders, and have them pray, and anoint.

The dead in Christ are more alive and more aware than we are, so it’s foolish to exclude them from our prayer life.