Of the many Catholic beliefs that Protestants challenge, the intercession of the saints is perhaps the most common.
Not all Protestants object for the same reason. Some claim that requesting the saints’ prayers is an inappropriate Christian practice because it takes away from Jesus’ unique mediation.
For others, our invocation of their intercession isn’t offensive to God in principle, but they maintain that the practice is futile, since they believe the Bible teaches that the saints aren’t able to intercede for us in the first place.
There are two common challenges they pose on this front. Let’s take a look at each of them and see how to meet them.
Challenge No. 1:
How can the saints pray for us when Ecclesiastes says they have no knowledge in the afterlife?
Protestant Christians appeal to Ecclesiastes 9:5, which says, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” Just a few verses later, the author asserts again, “There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (v. 10).
If the dead “know nothing,” so it’s argued, and there is “no thought or knowledge” in the afterlife, then wouldn’t it be futile to request the saints to pray for us?
Challenge No. 1: First response
The first way we can we meet this challenge is to explain that the author is not intending to make an assertion about the nature of the afterlife, he is merely trying to make sense of death from an earthly perspective.
In the beginning verses of the chapter, the author makes it clear that death is his main topic:
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. . . . Everything before them is vanity, since one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked . . . he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; also, the hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 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 forever any share in all that is done under the sun (Eccl. 9:1-6).
The author is making the point that, from his earthly perspective (“under the sun”), living is better than dying. Note the following statements: “he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (v. 4) and “they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun” (v. 6).
Within this context, the author says, “The dead know nothing, and they have no more reward” (v. 5). He’s not trying to give a definitive teaching about the afterlife but is simply saying that life “under the sun” is better than death. That’s what you would expect him to think when all he has to work with is his earthly perspective—a perspective from which we can’t be certain about the conscious activity of souls in the afterlife. Divine revelation is required for knowledge of such things.
Challenge No. 1: Second response
A second way to meet the challenge is to point out that the souls in heaven possess the beatific vision. This gives us good reason to think that they would be conscious of requests made of them.
Consider, for example, what St. John tells us: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
John recognizes that our status in heaven will be far beyond what we can imagine. Our natures will be elevated to a state that will “be like him [God]” since we will “see him [God] as he is.” If the saints are elevated to such a state in heaven, then we have good reason to think that they are aware of the requests we make of them.
Furthermore, in many instances, the Bible speaks of us being transformed to be like Christ (Rom. 8:29, 1 Cor. 15:49- 52, 2 Cor. 3:18, 2 Pet. 1:4, 1 John 3:2). And we know that transformation will be complete in heaven.
The book of Hebrews tells us that Christ, as priest of the heavenly temple, “always lives to make intercession” (Heb. 7:25). If Christ always lives to make intercession for Christians on Earth, and the saints are going to be perfectly like Christ, it’s at least reasonable to think that the saints would be doing what Christ does—namely, interceding for Christians on Earth.
And since Christ’s intercession involves knowledge of Christians on Earth, it’s reasonable to infer that such knowledge would be shared with the saints who participate in that intercession.
Challenge No. 1: A third way
Another way we can meet this challenge is to show the clear evidence in both the Old and New Testaments that there is consciousness in the afterlife.
Let’s start with the Old Testament, in particular its prohibition against consulting a necromancer: “There shall not be found among you . . . a necromancer” (Deut. 18:11). A necromancer is someone who conjures up spirits in order to gain hidden or secret knowledge beyond ordinary human intelligence.
This prohibition against necromancy would be unintelligible unless it were believed that souls in the afterlife were conscious. Why would someone try to conjure the dead to gain secret knowledge if such spirits were unconscious? That makes no sense.
Indeed, it was his belief that the souls of the dead were conscious that led Saul to consult the “medium at Endor” and request of her to conjure the spirit of Samuel (1 Sam. 28). We’re told that Samuel communicated with Saul (v. 15-19). How could Samuel communicate with Saul if Samuel were not conscious?
The New Testament gives even more convincing evidence. In his parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus depicts all three characters—the rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham—as conscious in the state between death and resurrection.
And we have good reason to think that such consciousness in the afterlife is a reality, because Jesus’ parables often teach us about real things such as kings, fathers, sons, banquets, vineyards, death, judgment, reward, and punishment. If we can affirm these things to be real in Jesus’ parables, then it’s reasonable to conclude that consciousness after death is real too.
Perhaps the clearest evidence for consciousness in the afterlife is found in the book of Revelation. Several times John describes human souls in heaven in a way that suggests they know what’s going on here on Earth. Consider, for example, Revelation 5:8:
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.
The twenty-four elders represent human souls, perhaps deceased leaders of both the Old and New Covenants (twelve patriarchs and twelve apostles). That they are human souls becomes evident in light of the different creatures extending out from the throne of the Lamb in concentric circles.
The four living creatures, who are angels, constitute the first circle (Rev. 4:6). The twenty-four elders make up the second (Rev. 4:4). Outside the circle of the twenty-four elders, we’re told, there is a multitude of angels “numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” (Rev. 5:11).
Beyond this huge number of angels, there exists
a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands (Rev. 7:9).
That the multitude is from every nation, tribe, and peoples suggests that it consists of humans and not angels.
Perhaps the clearest evidence for consciousness in the afterlife is found in the book of revelation.
And since the multitude is identified as “standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” we know they are in heaven, because the throne of God and the Lamb exist in heaven and not on Earth. Moreover, we know this great multitude consists of human souls in heaven, because verse 17 tells us that they “shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more.” Then, in verse 19, we read, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” To no longer hunger, thirst, or feel sorrow is not characteristic of earthly life but only of life in heaven.
How can we know that the elders are human souls? Notice the pattern: the four angels, the twenty-four elders, a multitude of angels, and a multitude of human souls. There seems to be a comparison of rank between the two angelic groups and the other two groups. The four angels are higher in rank than the multitude of angels, and the twenty-four elders are higher in rank than the multitude of peoples.
If the comparison of rank is angel-to-angel for the first and third concentric circles, and we know that the fourth circle to which the second group is compared consists of human souls, then it’s reasonable to conclude that the second concentric circle of creatures, the twenty-four elders, are human souls. It makes sense that there would be a comparison of rank between two groups of angels and two groups of human souls.
In Revelation 5:8, John tells us that twenty-four elders are offering bowls of incense, which the context reveals are the prayers of Christians on Earth. How can these elders, these human souls, be engaging in intercessory prayer for Christians on Earth if they aren’t conscious?
Revelation 6:9 is another example. When the fifth seal is opened, John sees under the altar the souls “who had been slain for the word of God,” and they cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” The martyrs are fully aware that their enemies are still living on Earth, which would be impossible if they were unconscious.
Another example is Revelation 7:13-14, where an elder tells John the ones “clothed in white robes” are “they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Clearly, this elder had knowledge that these Christians were martyrs and was aware of the earthly tribulation they had suffered.
In Revelation 19:1-4, we read about a “great multitude” singing praises to God for judging “the harlot” and avenging “the blood of his servants.” When John introduces this great multitude in Revelation 7:9 standing before the throne and before the Lamb, he specifies that the multitude is “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues.” Therefore, the great multitude that John sees singing praises to God consists of conscious human souls.
All of these passages show that human souls in heaven are aware of God’s dealings with mankind on Earth, friend and foe alike. This challenge from Ecclesiastes 9, therefore, fails when we take into account New Testament revelation to fill in the gaps about the afterlife where Old Testament revelation is lacking.
Challenge No. 2:
How can the saints in heaven be aware of our interior thoughts when 2 Chronicles 6:30 states that God alone knows the hearts of men?
2 Chronicles 6:30 reads: “Then hear thou from heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and render to each whose heart thou knowest, according to all his ways (for thou, thou only, knowest the hearts of the children of men).” If the Bible says that only God knows the hearts of men, so it’s argued, then the saints can’t hear our mental requests for intercession.
There are two ways we can answer this challenge.
Challenge No. 2: First response
First, there is no reason God can’t reveal his knowledge of our interior thoughts to others. St. Thomas Aquinas takes this approach in his response to the above challenge:
God alone of himself knows the thoughts of the heart: yet others know them, insofar as these are revealed to them, either by their vision of the Word [second Person of the Trinity] or by any other means (Summa Theologiae Suppl. 72:1, ad 5).
Aquinas articulates the difference between how God knows the thoughts of men and how the saints in heaven know the thoughts of men. God alone knows “of himself,” whereas the saints know “by their vision of the Word or by any other means.”
God knows the interior movements of man’s heart and mind by nature. In other words, he has this knowledge by virtue of being God. He alone can know the interior thoughts of men in this way. But there’s no reason God can’t reveal this knowledge to others, such as the saints in heaven, by whatever means he wills.
A possible Protestant counter: for saints to receive knowledge of the interior thoughts of many people at the same time would require omniscience, which only God possesses. But omniscience, which is full knowledge of all things (including the divine essence), isn’t the same as knowing a finite number of thoughts simultaneously. So, it’s not necessary for the saints in heaven to be omniscient to know all at once the interior prayer requests of Christians on Earth.
Therefore, it follows that God can communicate this kind of knowledge to rational creatures. According to Aquinas, God does this by giving a “created light of glory” that is “received into [the] created intellect” (Summa Theologiae I:12:7).
Because this “light of glory” is created, it’s not infinite by nature and doesn’t require infinite power to comprehend or act upon. Therefore, it’s not impossible for God to give it to a human or angelic intellect in order to know the interior prayer requests of human beings—even many simultaneously—and respond to them.
Challenge No. 2: Second response
Second, there is evidence in Scripture that God does reveal his knowledge of the interior thoughts of men to others. Consider, for example, the Old Testament story in Daniel 2 involving Joseph and his interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
Nebuchadnezzar had a troubling dream and asked his sorcerers and wise men to interpret it. But the king demanded his wise men first tell him his dream, something they recognized only the gods could do: “The thing that the king asks is difficult, and none can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Dan. 2:11). All of the wise men failed to fulfill the king’s request.
But in verse 19, we read that “the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night.” Afterward, Daniel was able to articulate the dream—and then interpret it—for Nebuchadnezzar.
In other words, God revealed to Daniel the interior thoughts of a man. If God can reveal knowledge of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to Daniel, then surely he can reveal to the saints in heaven the interior prayer requests of Christians on Earth.
Revelation 5:8 serves as an example in the New Testament of God revealing the interior thoughts of men to created intellects, particularly to souls in heaven. Recall that John sees “twenty-four elders” along with the “four living creatures” prostrating themselves “before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
As argued above, the “twenty-four elders” are representative of human souls. And they are cognitively aware of multiple prayers even though they don’t have physical ears.
St. Paul provides a helpful principle for meeting these two challenges: in this world, we know only partly what we will know fully in heaven. He writes to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12).
Thus, it’s at least reasonable to think that the things that souls in heaven know and the manner in which they know them will be greater than here on Earth. If the soul is able to know God’s essence in the beatific vision by grace, then knowledge of the interior thoughts of men by a grace should be a piece of cake.
Sidebar: Peter and Paul Make the Case
Other examples of consciousness in the afterlife can be taken from Peter and Paul’s epistles. Consider, for example, 1 Peter 3:19, where Peter informs us that after death Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison.” Such preaching would be futile if these spirits couldn’t know what Jesus was preaching to them.
2 Corinthians 5:8 is a good example from Paul: “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Why would Paul desire a state of existence without knowledge (the afterlife) over a state of existence with knowledge (this life)? If there were no knowledge in the afterlife, then Paul’s desire would be unintelligible.