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Is “Praying to the Saints” Biblically Correct?
The logic, the logistics, and the lawfulness questioned

During my years as a Catholic, the concept of “praying to the saints” was a dominant theme. I admired the saints. I studied their lives. I pondered the amazing ways God used them. I never questioned if “praying to the saints” was a viable practice. I just accepted it as an established church tradition that appeared to be desirable and spiritually helpful. After being born again, however, I discovered biblical insights that made me question various aspects of this Catholic tradition.

The Catholic Catechism does acknowledge that the Church is “the assembly of all the saints” (CCC 946). However, the universality of that status is not the general mindset of most Catholics. Most Catholics only use the term “saints” in reference to those who are dwelling in heavenly bliss.

Catholics believe these saints can be petitioned in prayer and that one of their primary occupations is interceding about situations on the earth. This heaven-to-earth connection is considered an integral part of a concept called “the communion of the saints,” as stated in the Apostles’ Creed. In the past, some Catholics who are now honored as saints, believed so wholeheartedly in this doctrine, that even while they were yet living, they announced that they intended to ultimately fulfill this role. Here’s two examples, quoted from the Catholic Catechism:

St. Dominic (1170-1221) urged, “Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.” (CCC 956)

St. Theresa of Lisieux (1873-1897) claimed, “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.” (CCC 956)

Certainly, such a compassionate intention is admirable, but is it even possible? Can heavenly saints help believers on earth after their demise? Can they powerfully intercede for those who connect with them in prayer? Did Dominic and Theresa finally arrive at this exalted status in the kingdom of God or was this prospect of filling a mediatorial role a false and unfulfilled expectation?

If you check all the occurrences of the word “prayer” in the Bible (114 times in the New King James Version), you’ll find that word always refers to petitioning the Creator. Not one passage presents an Israelite in the Old Testament or a follower of Jesus in the New Testament “praying” to anyone but the true and living God, unless they were guilty of idolatry. If you are unsure of this claim, do a search from Genesis to Revelation yourself, entering the words “pray,” “praying,” “prayed,” and “prayer.” I guarantee, you won’t find one example. Surely, if it was a legitimate biblical practice—and if it was powerful in its implementation—there would be an abundance of incidences throughout Scripture. However, I repeat, you will not find a single instance.

Revelation from the book of Revelation

There are two primary passages in the book of the Revelation that Catholics tend to cite as proof the saints in heaven can be petitioned in prayer.

The apostle John, in the vision he received from God, was allowed to visit the throne room of the Almighty:

     And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

     Then He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.
     Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Revelation 5:6-8)

Then three chapters later, when the seventh seal is opened, we find a continuation of this theme:

     When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
     And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets.
Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
     And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.
     Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth. And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1-5)

Incense only emits its fragrance when it burns with fire. So also the prayers of the saints.

The big question is this: do these references to “saints” mean saints on the earth praying or saints in heaven praying, or both? The word “saint” (including the plural “saints”) appears 97 times in the entire Bible. The vast majority are references to God’s people on the earth, in both the Old and New Covenants. A few times this term refers to God’s people who have gone on to a heavenly existence. So, the “prayers of all the saints,” as indicated in Revelation 8:3-4 especially, is surely referring to both the saints on earth and the saints in heaven (emphasis by author). From the Catholic perspective, however, the “saints” in this vision are the heavenly saints who pray to the Father on behalf of God’s people on earth.

In deciphering the true meaning of this passage, we should ponder the following five points:

  • The throne room scene—The “prayers of the saints,” represented as golden bowls of incense, are presented to God from three different sources: the twenty-four elders, the four living creatures (probably cherubim), and the angel who appeared to John. We are never instructed in the Bible to pray to the twenty-four elders, the cherubim, or any angel, yet they are the ones who made the final connection with God Almighty. So why should we pray to the heavenly saints and not these others? Of course, we are specifically warned in Colossians 2:18 against giving too much reverence to angels and I do not recommend praying to any of those pictured in this throne room scene.
  • The twenty-four elders—We do not know the identity of the twenty-four elders. Some have conjectured that they represent the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel from the Old Testament along with the twelve apostles from the New Testament—but this is only speculation. Besides, John was one of the twelve apostles, and he was the one having the vision. Did he see himself as one of the twenty-four? There were also twenty-four courses of priests that served in the Temple of Solomon—so there could possibly be a connection there. No one knows for sure. Therefore, no definite doctrine can be established from this vision because the interpretation of this one aspect of the vision is so debatable.
  • Not individually examined—The “prayers of the saints” that rise like incense before God are not individually examined by the twenty-four elders or the angel. Both present these petitions to God corporately, like thousands of names on a lengthy petition. Besides, this passage doesn’t seem to relate to individual problems or challenges in the petitioners’ lives that prayerfully require God’s attention. It’s about a final global resolution. Apparently, these united prayers concern one specific request—that God would execute final judgments on the excess of evil in the earth and restore this world to a paradise state by the second coming of the Messiah. Haven’t we all prayed about that, petitioning the Lord, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven”? Surely, the elders, the cherubim, and the angels are all passionate about seeing this happen, too.
  • Metaphorical and symbolical—John’s vision is metaphorical and symbolical (prayers are not “literally” incense smoke), so any analysis of its content involves subjective conclusions based on personal opinions. Normally, major biblical doctrines of the Christian faith are never established by parables, metaphors, or symbolic images. These are primarily used by the Holy Spirit to enhance and to illustrate doctrines plainly spoken in other places in Scripture. Praying to the saints in heaven is never plainly spoken anywhere in the Bible. It has been extrapolated from passages like these with creative interpretations and imagined meanings.
  • The golden bowls of incense—Some Catholics may believe that “the golden bowls of incense” in these passages refer only to the prayers of canonized saints already in heaven. If that were the case, they are the ones—exclusively—whose prayers burn with an incense-like aroma before God’s throne, and they are the ones representing ordinary believers who are still in the earth. The intercessory prayers of these heavenly saints are then passed along to the twenty-four elders, the cherubim, and the angel who in turn present them to God. However, it was David in his earthly, fleshly state, who cried,

   Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. (Psalms 141:2)

If David, during his earthly sojourn, can offer prayers that burn like incense, so can we. Besides, Revelation 8:3 reveals that these golden bowls contain the prayers of “all” the saints, and (as already stated) that would have to include both saints in heaven and saints on earth (a status all born-again believers are granted).

“Words without knowledge” from the book of Job

Another Bible passage often quoted by Catholics to support this concept of heavenly saints praying on the behalf of earthly believers is Job 5:1 (KJV). Eliphaz, the Temanite, critically and skeptically suggested to Job:

   “Call now, if there be any that will answer thee; and to which of the saints wilt thou turn?”

However, this verse was not an inspired word from God. It was advice from Eliphaz that God later described as “words without knowledge” (Job 38:2). So, it was not a Spirit-breathed revelation to be enshrined as truth, but rather, a record of someone’s faulty religious opinion. Besides, Eliphaz wasn’t suggesting that it would work; instead, he was implying to Job that it would be a futile endeavor that would not work.

The rich man and Lazarus, the great contrast
The story of the rich man and Lazarus

Another passage Catholics often reference to validate this doctrine is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). When the rich man died, he went to the chamber in Hades reserved for the wicked, and being in torment, he looked across an impassable gulf into a peaceful and blessed realm Jesus called “Abraham’s bosom.”

The rich man appealed to Abraham to send Lazarus back to his living relatives to warn them, which Abraham declined to do, saying it would not work, because they would not listen. One Catholic apologist proposes:

“All of this reveals to us that not only can dead saints hear our requests; they also have some measure of power to carry them out on their own (though no doubt by God’s power).”[1]

There are seven main reasons this story cannot be used to support the idea of God’s people on earth petitioning saints in heaven:

  • The rich man was not alive physically in the world when he presented his appeal to Abraham. He was in the chamber of the wicked in Hades (the underworld). If any doctrine could be built upon this story, it would be the possibility of the unrighteous in Hades (equivalent to Sheol in Hebrew), being able to communicate across the impassable gulf during the Old Testament period, not the people of God on earth being able to pray to the saints in heaven. Also, note that the rich man did not talk directly to Lazarus; he was only able to speak to Abraham.
  • The rich man was condemned before God for his earthly behavior; he was not a believer seeking to be pleasing to God. Why choose him as an example of someone praying effectively?
  • This subterranean scene related to a time before the resurrection of Jesus. Now that the full redemption price has been paid, the righteous who depart from this world are accepted immediately into the third heaven (the manifest presence of God)—which would probably be a much greater distance from the lower parts of the earth where Hades is located. And we have no idea if the inhabitants of Hades can peer into the third heaven, which is also called “Paradise.” (See 2 Corinthians 12:1-4.) So, the logistics of this story are completely different than what they would be now.
  • The condemned rich man was talking to an Old Testament saint (Abraham), but Abraham never presented the rich man’s appeal to God, which is supposed to be the next step of the process of praying to the saints.
  • The rich man’s appeal was not answered, but rather rejected, and nothing happened because of the appeal he made. So, the approach was futile.
  • Jesus gave no indication that Abraham could have fulfilled this request even if he attempted to do so.
  • Evidently, the main reason Jesus shared this story was to exhort the rich not to selfishly hoard their riches, but instead, be compassionate toward the poor—and that eternal destinies can be determined by choices like that. If he was being supportive of the doctrine of praying to the saints, He would have surely chosen more suitable characters, situations, locations, and different results.

So, let me repeat the quote from the Catholic apologist I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion and give two answers:

All of this reveals to us that not only can dead saints hear our requests; they also have some measure of power to carry them out on their own (though no doubt by God’s power).[2]

Does this story prove that dead saints can hear the prayerful requests of living believers? No, it does not! Does this story prove that Abraham had the power to fulfill the rich man’s request? No, it does not! Does this story prove that Jesus endorses such a practice? No, it does not!

The logistical hurdle: omniscience and omnipresence

I believe praying to the saints, or petitioning the saints to pray in our behalf, is not only unbiblical; it is illogical. There are 1.3 billion Catholics in the world. What if just ten percent of them petitioned Saint Peter in one day to intercede in their behalf? That’s 130 million prayers! In one day! Do the math. That breaks down to 5,416,667 prayers every hour and 90,278 prayers every minute. What if you had 90,278 people talking to you at the same time? Could you handle that mental overload? To process that many communications intelligently, effectively, simultaneously, peacefully, responsively, and powerfully, Peter (or any other saint being approached by the multitudes) would require the remarkable attribute of omniscience.

In a sense, Peter would also need to be personally present with each petitioner to be involved in a meaningful way. Growing up, I “talked” to my patron saint, Christopher, as if he was right there with me. I never considered the possibility of millions of other Catholics requesting his involvement in their issues at the same time. Therefore, to be in millions of locations in one day would also demand a second remarkable attribute for any petitioned saint: omnipresence.

I would dare to say this dual requirement would make it impossible—even for someone in a heavenly, perfected state—to respond to the prayers of earthly believers. There is a very remote possibility that I might be limiting the true capacity of a saint in the celestial, eternal state, but I don’t think so. In my theology, omniscience and omnipresence are attributes that belong to God alone. The whole idea of praying to the saints is neither logically, nor theologically correct.

Is contacting the dead acceptable in the sight of God?

There is another point that needs to be emphasized. Trying to contact the dead is strictly forbidden in the Bible. In fact, even attempting to do so is labeled an abomination:

      “When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations.
     There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer,
     or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.
     For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you.” (Deuteronomy 18:9-12, See also Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27)

The King James Version of this passage describes the person who participates in this occult practice as “one who consults with familiar spirits” and a “necromancer.” The New King James Version uses the word “mediums.” God’s mandate to His people regarding these spiritual practices is unambiguous:

     “Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:31)

     “And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people.” (Leviticus 20:6)

These are strong and stern communications from God that should be heeded by those who claim to love Him. Admittedly, there is a big difference between a medium trying to conjure up the spirits of the dead to receive psychic messages or predictions, and a Catholic believer petitioning departed saints to pray in his or her behalf. However, both involve an attempt to converse with departed spirit-beings in a different spiritual realm. If the former is forbidden, the latter is forbidden also. If necromancy is described as spiritual prostitution in Leviticus 20:6, then praying to the saints fits into the same category. (Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but I believe it is true, and for your benefit, I am attempting to convey the unadulterated Word of God.)

The Mount of Transfiguration
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, depicted in stained glass

In debating this issue, Catholic theologians often cite the example of Moses and Elijah appearing to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. They claim this supernatural event proves the possibility of communication with saints in the celestial world. Such a proposal begs the following three responses:

  • Peter, James, and John were not praying to Moses and Elijah, asking for them to appear or to pray in their behalf when the visitation took place. It happened at the sovereign will of God.
  • Neither Moses nor Elijah petitioned God to do anything for Peter, James, and John, interceding for them in the manner of departed saints.
  • When Peter, James, and John gave too much reverence to Moses and Elijah (offering to make them tabernacles), they disappeared from the vision, and the audible voice of the Father adjusted the worldview of the disciples by saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (See Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-7, Luke 9:28-36.)

This last point is the strongest. I believe it would benefit us greatly if the Father spoke again audibly to the millions who have given too much credit and too much reverence to supposed ‘canonized saints,’ even naming numerous cathedrals and churches after them (The Church of Saint Matthew, The Church of Saint Peter, etc.). Isn’t this custom similar to the apostles wanting to make Moses and Elijah “tabernacles”? Shouldn’t all this attention and glory should be reserved for the Son of God alone?

     For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5)

It is true that when Jesus died on the cross there was an earthquake, and a number of burial sites were affected, so that “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:51-53). However, these visitations happened purely at the will of God, not because Israelites were praying specifically to those saints to intervene for them. Furthermore, as far as we know, none of those risen saints offered to intercede for those they appeared to. To try and orchestrate such a connection is an attempt to penetrate a realm that God withholds from human beings living in this world.

Remember how seriously Saul was treated when He attempted to contact Samuel (who was a saintly person) through a medium with a familiar spirit (the witch of Endor). Saul was judged by God and killed in battle soon after (1 Samuel 28, 31).

The reference to Jeremiah in Second Maccabees

Catholic theologians, at times, reference a book that is not contained in the Protestant canon of Scripture concerning this doctrine (2 Maccabees 15:14-17, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition). In this passage, a dream is related in which Jeremiah (who is in heaven) is praised as a lover of the Israelite people who prays often for them.

Once again, even if that book was inspired and if that dream was true, it does not prove that anyone communicated prayer requests to Jeremiah or expected to get a personal response from him or personal involvement in presenting their petitions to God. It is possible that the saints in heaven can intercede for those on earth—and I would not be surprised if they do. However, it is not possible for communication to take place between us and them.

Pray for the saints, not to the saints.

There is probably no better way to close out this article than to quote Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian church:

     Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:18)

This verse adjusts our focus and shifts it where it needs to be placed: not pursuing prayer from departed saints above but praying for living saints here in this world below.

Hebrews 12:1-2 paints an amazing picture from which we can draw two final conclusions:

     Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 

This passage may be literal, but most likely, it is metaphorical. Regardless, it sums up the chapter before it (Hebrews 11) as if to say, all those heroes of the faith listed there (Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and so on) are watching our progress and in a sense, cheering us onward. I tend to think it’s just figurative speech—but even if it was literal—even if the departed saints can peer into this realm and into our lives—this passage does not encourage us to look to them. It does not say, “Appeal to the cloud of witnesses to intercede in your behalf.” Rather, it explains that we should ever be, “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”

No one would dispute the fact that the Great High Priest “lives forever to make intercession” for His people, and “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26 NCB, Hebrews 7:25 NCB). If that be true—if both the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit—omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent—are petitioning the Father in our behalf—why would we ever involve ourselves in the questionable pursuit of trying to contact mere saints whose authority and power pale in comparison?

NOTE: We suggest that you also read the article on this website: “ARE ALL BELIEVERS SAINTS?” at this link.

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Endnotes

[1] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/05/asking-saints-to-intercede-teaching-of-jesus.html, accessed 3/25/2022.
[2] Ibid.

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Written by Mike Shreve