Protestants tend to be opposed to praying to the Saints and Angels for two reasons: (1) it’s offensive to the dignity of God, since we’re going to someone besides Him; or (2) it’s a waste of time, since we can go directly to God. This hints at the underlying issue – that Catholics and Protestants tend to think of prayer and Heaven very differently.
There is no monolithic Protestant vision of Heaven, and Protestants are far from alone in having erroneous conceptions of Heaven. As I’ve argued before, our normal conceptions of Heaven are too selfish and too small. Three popular errors are:
- Soul sleep. This is the belief that the souls of the just don’t even go to Heaven until the Last Judgment. Luther famously favored this view of “soul sleep,” writing to a friend in 1522: “I am inclined to agree with your opinion that the souls of the just are asleep and that they do not know where they are up to the Day of Judgment. I am drawn to this opinion by the word of Scripture, “They sleep with their fathers.””
- The Celestial Toy Store. In his early days, Billy Graham described Heaven like this: “We are going to sit around the fireplace and have parties, and the angels will wait on us, and we’ll drive down the golden streets in a yellow Cadillac convertible.”
- Me and Jesus. The focus here is that I, the saved individual, get to encounter God. In (rightly) emphasizing the need for a personal relationship with Christ, this view totally ignores the rest of the saved. There’s no sense of there being anything like a Church in Heaven.
If you’re taking these views of Heaven, it’s not surprising that you wouldn’t know what to do with the Saints and Angels (unless it’s to summon them to get you another drink while you party by the fireplace).
In contrast, the Catholic vision of Heaven is one in which God pours out His Glory upon the Saints and Angels, and chooses to incorporate them in the most intimate aspects of prayer. If that vision of Heaven is correct, we don’t need to worry about God being jealous of His glorified creatures, as if He were insecure in His Glory, and it makes even less sense to worry about something as banal as “efficiency” in prayer. So the core question ought to be: is the Catholic vision of prayer and Heaven true?
Scripture points to a clear “yes” to both halves of that question. Here are six Biblical passages that might help us to see these topics with fresh eyes:
(1). Hebrews 12:22-24
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.
Why it matters: This passage isn’t talking about how we will approach Heaven when we die. It’s about the way that we approach Heaven, “the heavenly Jerusalem,” right now. How do we do that? In large part, through prayer. And how does Hebrews 12 describe this heavenly Jerusalem? Here are who we meet, in the order listed in the Biblical text:
- The Angels.
- The “firstborn who are enrolled in Heaven.” John Calvin suggests that this is a reference to the Patriarchs. Whatever the case, it seems to be a reference to Saints of particular prominence.
- Just men made perfect. Calvin recognized that this means “that we are joined to holy souls, which have put off their bodies, and left behind them all the filth of this world; and hence he says that they are consecrated or “made perfect”, for they are no more subject to the infirmities of the flesh, having laid aside the flesh itself. And hence we may with certainty conclude, that pious souls, separated from their bodies, still live with God, for we could not possibly be otherwise joined to them as companions.” (In other words, Calvin is showing why Luther was wrong to believe in soul sleep – the Saints are in Heaven right now!)
That’s a much bigger, busier Heaven than “me and Jesus.” And it means that when we pray, we’re not just going to God: we’re going to the angels and going to the Saints. In his commentary, Calvin speaks of us joining the Saints in Heaven as companions, and that’s true. But it’s more than just going with them; we go to them. That’s what Hebrews 12 says. And it says it like that’s a good thing, not a wicked thing to be avoided. How can this vision be harmonized with either soul sleep or a rejection of going to the Saints and Angels in prayer?
(2). 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering— since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfil every good resolve and work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why it matters: God is made glorious in His Saints. That’s why God isn’t jealous of the honor we pay to the Saints. He honors the Saints by glorifying them, and He wants to do that for me and you. Protestants rightly tend to focus on the fact that God calls the unworthy. But His Promises are better than simply saving the unworthy, and loving the seemingly unlovable. He wants to make us worthy.
(3). Matthew 6:7-8
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Why it matters: This is how Christ introduces the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. And Jesus succinctly shows us the absurdity of focusing on “efficiency” in prayer. He condemns empty phrases, and belaboring prayers by making them needlessly long. But He also reminds us that God already knows what we need. So prayer is inherently inefficient, since it involves us telling the Father what He already knows.
The logical end-point in treating prayer as an efficient ordering system is to simply not pray at all, since God already knows. But that’s clearly not the Biblical model. So this passage should make us seriously re-examine why we pray. It’s not to tell God something He doesn’t know, and it’s not to give Him a better plan than the one He already has. Rather, it’s about living and communicating in that relationship with God, articulating our needs and wants, letting our own wills be conformed to the Divine will, and so on. It’s also about growing in union with our neighbor, which is why we pray for others, and ask them to pray for us. But this also points to one reason we ask the Saints and Angels to pray for us, as well.
(4). Revelation 5:6-14
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
Why it matters: Let’s start with the incense. The four living creatures and the 24 elders are offering up the prayers of the Saints before Jesus Christ, the Passover Lamb. Are these the prayers of the Saints in Heaven or the Saints on earth? Seemingly both, since the passage presents “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” offering a single chorus of worship, and the creatures and elders responding by saying “Amen!”
Think about the implications of this. First, it’s yet another “inefficient” Biblical description of prayer. The Angels are acting as mediators, even though God hears our prayers perfectly fine without them. He is somehow glorified all the more by His Angels offering up these prayers. Second, it points to the reality that the Saints in Heaven are praying (and of course they are). So why not ask them to pray for you?
(5). Revelation 19:9-10
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
Why it matters: A popular Protestant misconception is that it’s idolatry simply to speak with the Saints and Angels in Heaven. If I tell my grandma here on earth how much I need her prayers, that’s fine; but if I tell the exact same thing to my other grandma, the one in Heaven, that’s idolatry and ancestor worship. It’s unbiblical paranoia, but it’s so widespread a belief that it’s worth tackling head-on.
This passage shows why that’s not true. St. John has been conversing with this angel throughout the Book of Revelation, and that (obviously) is not wrong. It’s only when he goes to worship him that the angels rebukes him. So talking to the Saints and Angels in Heaven = good. Worshiping them = bad. And that’s pretty clear evidence that talking to someone isn’t the same as worshiping him (even if that someone is in Heaven…. as the angel in Revelation 19 is.)
(6). Genesis 22:10-11
Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”
Why it matters: It’s Abraham praying to an angel. That is, he’s conversing with an angel who is speaking to him from Heaven. That’s what we’re allegedly not allowed to do. And Abraham doesn’t just go unpunished for this. God responds by sending a Messianic prophecy to Abraham through this same angel (Genesis 22:15-18).
These selected passages are, of course, part of a much broader Biblical vision of Heaven and of prayer. But I think that for many people confused or troubled by the prospect of praying to Saints or Angels, it’s precisely this vision that needs discovering. Hopefully, this is something of a start.