Three Things You’re Probably Getting Wrong about Praying to the Saints

As Christianity Today acknowledges, prayers for and to the Saints date back to the early Church (in fact, these practices date back far earlier, even to Old Testament Judaism, but I’ll talk more about that tomorrow). Nevertheless, these practices are controversial within Protestantism. Today, I want to look at just one of them — prayer to the Saints — and show why the opposition to it is grounded in a faulty view of life after death. Tomorrow, I’ll look at the Biblical support for both prayer to the Saints and prayer for the Saints.

First, a word on why Protestants tend to object to prayer to the Saints. For some people, such prayers are sinful, since they think it gives glory to someone other than God, or that it’s equivalent to “consulting the dead.” Others view it simply as impossible, since they think that the Saints can’t hear us, or are unconcerned with what’s going on here below. But almost all of these arguments are built upon the same three misconceptions about the souls of the Saints who have gone before us. Given this, let’s present the Biblical view on each of these three major points:

Johann Michael Rottmayr, Intercession of Charles Borromeo supported by the Virgin Mary (1714)
1. The Saints in Heaven are Alive, not Dead.

The first mistake in opposing “prayers to the dead” is assuming that we’re praying to “the dead.” One of the most frequently cited passages against prayer to the Saints in Heaven is Isaiah 8:19,

And when they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?

Those who oppose prayer to the Saints present a straightforward argument: the faithful departed are dead, and it’s sinful to “consult the dead.”

But the first premise — that the faithful departed are dead — is false, and directly contrary to Scripture. Jesus actually denounces this view as Biblically ignorant (Mk. 12:24). He reveals the truth about the Saints when He says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). And in response to the Sadduccees, He says (Mark 12:26-27):

And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.

So the Protestant view that says that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are “dead” is “quite wrong.”

Read the literature written against prayers to the Saints, and see how frequently they’re mischaracterized as “the dead.” This isn’t a harmless mistake. The passages warning against “the dead” simply don’t apply to the question of the Saints. Indeed, a great many popular assumptions about the afterlife are built on the idea that verses like Psalm 115:17 (“The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any that go down into the silence”) apply to the Saints in Heaven. They don’t, and Christ tells us that they don’t.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent (12th c. icon)
2. The Saints in Heaven are Witnesses, not Sleeping or Ignorant.

Related to the first mistake is the idea that the departed Saints are cut off from us on Earth, and that it’s therefore immoral (or at least futile) to communicate with them. This belief takes two general forms: first that the souls of the just are “asleep” until the Resurrection; second, that the souls are isolated in Heaven.

First, soul sleep. The United Church of God argues against praying to “dead” saints:
In addition to all this, praying to dead saints today assumes the doctrine of the immortal soul, which many people are surprised to find is not taught in the Bible. The Bible teaches that death is like sleep that lasts until the resurrection at Jesus Christ’s second coming (1 Thessalonians:4:13-16 ).

Now, United Church of God aren’t mainstream Protestants by any stretch: they are Sabbatarians (meaning that they reject Sunday worship) and they reject the Trinity. But this notion of soul sleep can be traced to Martin Luther, who wrote:

For the Christian sleeps in death and in that way enters into life, but the godless departs from life and experiences death forever […] Hence death is also called in the Scriptures a sleep. For just as he who falls asleep does not know how it happens, and he greets the morning when he awakes, so shall we suddenly arise on the last day, and never know how we entered and passed through death.

Even Luther’s most militant supporters concede that he held some sort of confused and often-contradictory notion of “soul sleep.” So, too, did many of the Radical Reformers. In this view, the souls of the Saints aren’t “conscious,” and so it would be futile to ask them for prayers.

The second camp rejects soul sleep, but thinks that the souls in Heaven are isolated from us. For example, the website “Just for Catholics” acknowledges that the first half of the Hail Mary comes directly from Scripture, but says that these Scriptures aren’t permitted to be used as prayer:

Even though the first two sentences are taken from the Bible, it does not mean that it is right to use them as a prayer. Mary could hear the salutations of the Gabriel and Elizabeth because they spoke in her immediate presence. Now Mary is dead and her soul is in heaven. She cannot hear the prayers of thousands and thousands who constantly call upon her name. Only the all-knowing God can hear the prayers of His people.

But Scripture doesn’t present the Saints in Heaven as isolated or spiritually asleep. Rather, even in their “rest,” they’re presented as alert and aware of the goings-on of Earth (Revelation 6:9-11):

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.

Perhaps the clearest description of the relationship between the Saints in Heaven and the saints on Earth is in the Book of Hebrews. Chapter 11 is a litany of Saints who lived by faith, leading immediately into this (Heb. 12:1-2):

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.

The spiritual life is compared to competing in a race, an image that Paul uses elsewhere (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 4:6-7). Here, the imagery is fleshed out to show that the Saints in Heaven are a great crowd of witnesses in the stands. Obviously, this idea of the heavenly Saints as “a crowd of witnesses” is incompatible with the idea that they’re either asleep or unavailable to see us.
Matthias Gerung, John’s Vision, from the Ottheinrich Bible (1531)
3. The Saints in Heaven are Still Part of the Church.
The Biblical depiction of the Saints as the heavenly witnesses in the grandstands of our spiritual race rebuts a third view: namely, that the Saints are enjoying God’s company so much that they’ve stopped caring about us. For example, a Christian Post column on the subject seems to suggest that the Saints don’t do anything for us once they’re in Heaven:

So yes, they are not really dead. But that doesn’t mean they hear our prayers, or provide even the slightest bit of assistance in answer to our prayers, regardless of how noble their lives may have been while on earth. God doesn’t use saints in heaven to bless saints on earth. Instead, God utilizes His holy angels to minister to His children on earth. 

Such a view gets things entirely backwards. Rather, their holiness and their enjoyment of God means that they love us and care for us all the more. That’s why they’re witnesses to our spiritual race; that’s why the martyrs in Heaven are still concerned with justice on Earth. The more we love God, the more we love our neighbor. And the Saints love God with a perfection impossible to us here below.
One way to think about this is to remember the shocking fact that the Saints are still part of the Church. The Bible describeds the Church as both the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. For example, St. Paul tells us that the Church is the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:18, 24), and the Body of Christ is the Church (Ephesians 5:23). The Saints aren’t somehow cut off from Christ in Heaven, which is why we see the Holy Spirit presenting the Bride of Christ in Heaven (Revelation 21:9, 22:17). That membership in the Church helps to explain their heavenly intercession (1 Corinthians 12:24-26):

But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member of suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

So both perfect Christian charity and our union in the Body of Christ help to account for why the Saints intercede for us. 
Conclusion
Scripture repeatedly calls for us to pray for one another (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thes. 3:1; Colossians 4:3; Hebrews 13:18), to make “supplications for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18), and for “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” to be made “for all men” (1 Timothy 2:1). Neither in praying for one another nor in asking one another for prayers do we risk offending God in the slightest. Quite the contrary: “This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4).
The Catholic position simply applies these Scriptural teaching to the entire Body of Christ, while the standard Protestant position says that these teachings don’t apply to the parts of the Church that are already in Heaven. The view goes awry in calling for us to ignore an entire portion of the Body of Christ: urging us not to pray for the faithful departed, and not to ask the Saints in glory to pray for us. Scripture calls for us to “have the same care for one another,” to suffer and triumph with the other parts of the Body. The Saints’ glory is ours; our struggles are theirs. 
As you can see from the above post, many of the most popular arguments against praying to the Saints are based on false ideas about what happens to the souls of the just after death: thinking that the Saints are dead, or asleep, or isolated, or apathetic, or outside the Church. In fact, they’re alive and before God, yet still connected to us, witnessing our triumphs, failures and struggles, all the while rooting for us and praying for us. 
With a correct view of the state of the glorified Saints and their role in the Church, most of the arguments against seeking their intercession simply dissolve. There’s simply no good reason to cut the heavenly Saints off from the rest of the Body. You’re surrounded by Heavenly witnesses who are supporting you in your spiritual race. What’s more, they’re your brothers and sisters in Christ. Given this, by all means, ask for their spiritual help and encouragement!

15 Comments

  1. Excellent explanations as usual! One thing that was helpful for me as to how the saints hear us was the nature of the beatific vision. Because the saints know God so intimately in heaven, they can be directly informed by Him. Thus, even if it is the case that the saints cannot “hear” us (lacking physical ears and all), that is no obstacle to their knowing our prayers. So cool!

  2. I don’t think anything here really scratches the surface of what Protestants believe. THe issue is whether prayers for the dead can avail them after they are dead, if praying to saint anthony really helps finding stuff, and etc.

    Honestly, it is a topic which I think the Eastern Orthodox do a fairly good job at defending because they do not have a doctrine of purgatory. I look forward to the follow up article.

    1. Craig,

      You said: “I don’t think anything here really scratches the surface of what Protestants believe. THe issue is whether prayers for the dead can avail them after they are dead, if praying to saint anthony really helps finding stuff, and etc.”

      I think there’s been some mistake. This post is about prayers TO the Saints, not prayers FOR the Saints. Re-read it with that in mind, and see what you think.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. No, I did. Most Protestants consider soul sleep heresy (it’s taught by Jehovah’s WItnesses and Seventh Day Adventists). Most of what you wrote here is stuff that no one would be opposed to, which is why I said Protestants usually take issue with prayers to Anthony/Christopher/Ann/etc for intercession but not praying that a loved one rests in peace or something of the sort.

    3. Craig,

      No, you did what?

      We’re agreed about soul sleep being considered a heresy. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that this heresy was accepted by Luther and by some of the Radical Reformers, and helped shape the Protestant opposition to prayers to the Saints.

      I’m still not positive that I understand what you’re saying on the other part. In your first comment, it sounded like you were saying that the important issue was whether or not our prayers FOR the Saints were efficacious (“the issue is whether prayers for the dead can avail them after they are dead”). As I said, this is a post about prayers TO the Saints, and I’ve given three reasons why the opposition to asking them for things is ill-founded.

      In your most recent comment, you’re clearly talking about prayers TO the Saints this time, but I can’t make out what you’re saying, unless it’s just that Protestants object to this practice (prayers to Anthony/Christopher/Ann, etc.). It’s true, Protestants object to this… but the post was about how those objections are frequently grounded in a faulty view of the afterlife.

      To the extent that you bring up prayers FOR the Saints, it sounds like you’re saying the opposite of what you said the first time. Whereas before you identified it as “the issue,” now you seem to be saying that Protestants wouldn’t take issue with praying for the repose of the souls of the departed.

      Sorry I’m having so much trouble understanding what you’re saying, but to clarify:
      1) Are you talking about prayers TO the Saints, FOR the Saints, or both?
      2) Do you think Protestants take issue with prayers TO, FOR, or both?
      3) Do you hold (and if so, can you defend) the Protestant opposition to praying TO the Saints?

      I.X.,

      Joe

    4. I was trying to say that I read the article and did not find anything that would have been out of place in my baptist church or a presbyterian church. The Apostles’ Creed affirms the “communion of the saints.”

      “As I said, this is a post about prayers TO the Saints, and I’ve given three reasons why the opposition to asking them for things is ill-founded.”

      My point is that praying to the saints is objectionable to Protestants not because it is impossible (as your post appears to infer their opposition comes from), but because of the perception that the saints prayed to are turned into intermediaries between man and God in place of Christ.

      “It’s true, Protestants object to this… but the post was about how those objections are frequently grounded in a faulty view of the afterlife.”

      I have been to a Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist church and never once was taught sole sleep, or that the saints are not paying attention to what is going on in Earth, and etc. I mean, the Book of Revelation shows the saints praying in heaven. Perhaps Pentecostals and non-denominational mega-churches teach such things, but I am not aware of any traditional protestant sect teaching otherwise.

      “Sorry I’m having so much trouble understanding what you’re saying…”

      I’m really tired, but I think I’m making sense 🙂

      1) Are you talking about prayers TO the Saints, FOR the Saints, or both?

      Sort of both.

      2) Do you think Protestants take issue with prayers TO, FOR, or both?

      Both, specifically praying TO particular saints for specific things instead of praying to God and praying FOR Aunt Sally to go to heaven even if she lived like a heathen (BTW, I am not saying Catholics would pray for this Aunt Sally either, I am only explaining how Protestants feel.) Protestants pray for people when they die, though they tend to stop after a while, perhaps for our fear of being presumptuous upon God to change His mind about something that has already occurred. Being that God is outside of time, praying for something in the past is in my mind not necessarily sinful.

      “3) Do you hold (and if so, can you defend) the Protestant opposition to praying TO the Saints?”

      I am not that informed on the issue, I’m still trying to understand it. I know that the saints are praying for the Church here on Earth, and they love us with a love that we cannot comprehend. I suppose that they are still human beings, and have not acquired super-human intelligence, I am not sure if St. Barnabas or St. John Q Public really know me by name. So, being that I do not know them on a personal level asking someone I do not know to pray for me seems a little strange. These thoughts may be incoherent here, but that is because the Scripture does not have a coherent teaching and even the ECF make references to the practice which I do not find overly specific…but I don’t want to cause a debate about that because I know that is debatable.

    5. Jesus communicated with both Moses and Elijah on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Why God chose this means of communicating with Him we’ll probably never know. But, that it indeed happened, gives credence to the belief in both the communication with, and the intercession of, Saints in Heaven. If ‘after death’ communication indeed happened with Moses, Elijah and Christ, then why wouldn’t a similar type of ‘after death communication’ also be very possible between a similar Saint in Heaven (to Moses or Elijah) and a member of ‘the body of Christ’ here below, if that was God’s divine will? Didn’t Jesus also teach us that we would be similar to angels, who we know are ‘messengers’, in the after life? :

      “… For in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married; but shall be as the angels of God in heaven.” (Matt. 22:30)

    6. Try it sometimes. Ask St. Anthony’s help when you desperately cannot find what you’re looking for.

  3. Joe,

    Each of your posts is so devastating to protestantism. You present the arguments so simply and cogently. It is incredible to me that anyone could read your blog and remain protestant. Indeed, your posts played a big role in my conversion a few years ago. Keep up the great work.

  4. Excellent article, Joe!

    I think that there are, however, two more points that Protestants commonly experience as difficulties–I know I did, during my conversion.

    The first one Mr. Beaumont has already noted: the old “how do the saints ‘hear’ us” question? He gives also the best answer. A further observation that was helpful to me was the following: the practice of intercession does not rest on theological speculation about the beatific vision, although it does rest on its truth. The intercession of the saints has been practiced from the origins of the Church and did not arise in response to some clever theological work. It has the proofs of antiquity and of theology.

    The second problem is more subtle: why should be ask the saints to pray for things, instead of praying for the things directly ourselves? As the Anglican Edward Pusey wrote in a letter to the (by this time Catholic) Newman: “the intercession of the saints departed and at rest, for us who are still militant, is part of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, and would be a necessary consequence of God-given love, even if it did not appear from Holy Scripture. The contrary is inconceivable. . . . But the truth of the intercession of the inhabitants of Heaven is, as you observe, distinct from their ‘invocation’ [by us]. Nay, it would, in itself, rather seem to supersede it. For we do not ask anyone to do what we are quite sure he does without our asking.”

    It does not seem to have struck Dr. Pusey that his argument does away with all prayer whatsoever. Why ask God to give us things we know He already wants to? So, in my mind, the answer is twofold: 1) God, in His love, wills that we should be secondary causes and participate in His work. His Providence waits on us: He wills to give us certain things because we ask, not apart from our asking. Likewise, He wills to give us certain things by the intercession of the saints and not otherwise. 2) God wills our reliance on the saints so that we experience the interdependence of the Body of Christ, and grow in humility and charity: which we could not do if our own prayers were sufficient. Also, by depending on the “departed” Christians–as opposed to those still alive in this world–we grow in hope for the resurrection of the dead and in desire for complete holiness.

    If you have anything to add, please feel free! Thanks for the great work you do!

    Reuben

  5. 1. The Saints in Heaven are Alive, not Dead, as their spirits are with the Lord, which the only place that that Scripture clearly teaches is the next place for believers after this life wherever Scripture manifestly deals with this issue, (Lk. 23:39-43; Acts 7:59; Phil. 1:21-23; 2Cor. 5:8; 1Thes. 4:17) – not Cath. purgatory to which this is related.

    Nor are the Saints a distinct class of believers, as Scripture teaches that all believers are saints, using the word interchangeably for believers , as even the Corinthians were washed, sanctified and justified in the name of Jesus and by the Spirit of God. (1Cor. 6:11). already accepted in the Beloved and seated with Christ, (Eph. 1:6; 2:6)

    Moreover, in Scripture all sanctifying work is done in this world with its trials and temptations, in which there is an sinful alternative to suffering. And thus it was here that the Lord was made “perfect,” in the sense being tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)

    Furthermore, apart their spirit being with the Lord upon death, the next event believers were manifestly told to look forward to was the Lord’s return and being with Him in glory, which event would make them as much like Christ as they could be, (1Jn. 3:2) fulfilling the longing of the holy believer, versus having to attain perfection of character prior to seeing the Lord.

    Meanwhile, the only postmortem suffering spoken of is that of suffering the loss of rewards, and thus the grievous shame of the Lord’s disapproval, at the judgment seat of Christ, and which is at the return of the Lord, not commencing at death. See here .

    2. The Saints in Heaven are Witnesses, not Sleeping or Ignorant, but Rv. 6:9-11 that the RCs compel to support them only shows they crying out for judgment, which could have been due to the increase of martyred souls arriving in Heaven, indicating the time of judgment should be near.

    Likewise, RCs compel Heb. 12:1-2 to support them, but which is not speaking about communicating with the departed, but in context (Heb. 11) that of being in the company of such as part of the same body.

    In any case, this query for judgment nor other texts simply does not support prayer to created beings in Heaven and them being able to hear prayers addressed to them and respond , nor does offering up prayers as a memorial at the time of the day of the Lord. (Rv. 5:8; 8:3-4 ; cf. Lv. 2:2,15,16; 24:7; Num. 5:15)

    3. The Saints in Heaven are Still Part of the Church, yet neither this, nor exhortations to pray for each others teach that created beings in Heaven are able to hear and respond to prayer from earth addressed to them in Heaven, and do so.

    In fact, nowhere does the Spirit ever record even one prayer, supplications or offerings addressed to anyone else by God – except by pagans – even though He records over 200 in Scripture! Argument by silence much?

    Moreover, from what I see, all two-way communication btwn created beings required both beings to somehow be consciously operating in the same realm, unlike God.

  6. I disagree with the interpretation of Heb. 12:1. These aren’t witnesses or spectators of us and what we’re doing; they are witnesses to the faithfulness of God. They were “commended through their faith” in enduring suffering (11:29).

    From The Expositor’s Greek Testament: These witnesses are “persons who by their actions have testified to the worth of faith. The cloud of witnesses are those named and suggested in chap. xi,; persons whose lives witnessed to the work and triumph of faith, and whose faith was witnessed to by Scripture, cf. xi. 2, 4, 5. It is impossible to take [martures] as equivalent to [theatai]. If the idea of ‘spectator’ is present at all, which is very doubtful, it is only introduced by the words [trechomen] . . . [agona] [“run the race”]. The idea is not that they are running in presence of spectators and must therefore run well; but that their people’s history being filled with examples of much-enduring but triumphant faith, they also must approve their lineage by showing a like persistence of faith” (vol. 4, 365).

    Also, one might expect that, if they were spectators, we would be exhorted in 12:2 to appeal to them in prayer. But what it says is that we are to look to Jesus.

    This doesn’t make a case against praying to saints, but it removes this verse, in context, as a support for it.

    1. I was thinking something similar about Heb 12:1. I reverted back to Catholicism after 20 years in Protestant circles, so I have no issues with praying to the Saints. But, it’s worth noting that many Protestants typically think of a “witness” as someone that testifies to the faith by words and/or actions, not as someone that watches an event.

      So, I don’t think it’s helpful to use this verse with a Protestant and say, “See! The saints in Heaven are watching us run the race!” Many will look at you and say, “That’s not what it means to be a witness. If I’m a witness to the faith, you are watching me, I’m not watching you.”

      That’s why you will often hear non-Catholic Christians say, “I want to be a good witness,” or, “He’s not a very good witness when he acts that way.” I rarely hear Catholics use the word “witness” in this manner.

  7. It is interesting, in watching some Protestant TV shows objecting to Pray to Mary & the other Saints, but yet ask the audience to pray with them.

    With that logic, one would think that those in heaven are dead, which is contrary to what Jesus said, about being the God of the living.

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