This is an invitation to more dialogue on this subject. Last time I brought this up, there were concerns that I was overstating my case.
As far as I can tell the “biblical case” for talking to the dead in Christ is based upon the teaching of Hebrews which clearly tells us that we are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses. And a verse in Revelation presents the saints in heaven offering bowls of incense before the lamb on the throne, and those bowls of incense are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8). My question is, “Am I missing anything?” Those Scriptures do not tell us to talk to the saints in heaven, and they do not tell us that they can hear us. Nor do they imply this. And part of our interpretation of these passages needs to include the rest of the apostolic traditions in Scripture.
Paul in particular has numerous occasions where he might make mention of such a reality. He is constantly writing to churches while he is in prison, awaiting trial, and having to deal with the reality of persecution, death of saints, and the doctrine of the resurrection. Why does Paul never make mention of this? And in fact, why does he seem to present things in a way that actually pushes against any notion of prayer to the saints?
In Philippians Paul is struggling with whether or not it would be better to live or die. He of course says plainly that to die is gain since that would mean he would be with Christ (1:21-23). But he says that for him to remain in the flesh is better for the Philippians. Staying alive a little while longer, staying in the flesh, means Paul gets to “remain and continue” with them for their progress and joy of faith. But by the logic of prayers to the saints, Paul has it backwards. It would be better for Paul to die and go to heaven so that his prayers might be more effective for the Philippians. The arguments defending invocation of the saints insist that those who have died and gone to be with the Lord are more sanctified and in closer union to the Trinity and therefore their intercessions are that much more potent. But Paul says just the opposite. He says that staying in the flesh is more needful and more useful for the Philippians. Dying does not mean that he will go on to heaven and carry on a more effective ministry on their behalf. Neither does dying mean that Paul will “remain and continue” with them, only via the Holy Spirit. Paul assumes that his death will be a departure from the Philippians and that his ministry to them and for them will change significantly. Do not misunderstand me, Paul is carrying on worship and prayer before the lamb even now, but Paul knows nothing of the doctrine of the invocation of the dead.
Another example is 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul wants the Thessalonians not to be “ignorant” concerning those who have fallen asleep, and he wants to give comfort to those who are alive (1 Th. 4:13-18). First, here’s a perfect opportunity for Paul to explain how those who have died in Christ actually can hear us when we talk to them. Here’s a perfect opportunity to dispel our ignorance regarding those who have fallen asleep in death. But the comfort that Paul brings is the comfort of the resurrection, the comfort of the promise of Christ’s appearing. The doctrine of the invocation of the saints is not the comfort Paul offers. Talking to the dead, far from being an affirmation of the doctrine of the resurrection, actually seems to be at odds with it. We are not gnostics, and therefore the victory of the resurrection of Jesus has only begun to burst out into this world. But the fullness of that victory will occur when I get my body back from the grave. When the worms and maggots are deprived of their gluttonous feasting, then we shall be reunited to speak to one another again. Prior to the resurrection, death is swallowed up in victory because Jesus is risen and he is busy driving death and evil out of this world, but talking to dead people is some form of hyper-preterism. Why do we need the resurrection if death is already done away with? The sting of death is gone; sin does not plague believers and therefore we can die and rest in peace in Christ. But death is still a reality; death does separate us from direct contact with those we love. Lastly, on this Thessalonians passage, Paul uses the description of the dead as being “asleep.” I fully grant that this is metaphorical language, and I am not a proponent of the doctrine of “soul sleep.” At the same time, the metaphor means something. And if Paul is trying to dispel our ignorance regarding those who have died in Christ, he is in no way suggesting that we ought to pray to them, ask them to pray for us, or in any way try to communicate with them. We don’t talk to people when they’re taking a nap or in the middle of the night when they’re sleeping. The metaphor doesn’t invite us to think that we ought to be talking with them. Rather, it invites us to think that we must wait for them to “wake up” at the resurrection.
Ok. Please hear me carefully. I’m throwing these passages out for discussion. I invite honest interaction here. I know I may sound polemic at points, but my point is not to offend anyone or suggest that people who don’t agree with me are fools. My point is simply to restate what I’ve said before. We cannot invoke the saints in faith because God has not invited us to do so in His Word. At best, we are ignorant of how we commune with the departed saints. The biblical writers have countless opportunities to clarify, and they do not ever suggest that we can keep talking to them and they hear us after they have died. They are with Christ, they are worshipping the lamb on the throne, death is swallowed up in victory and we do not mourn like unbelievers, and yes their lives and legacies surround us as a great cloud of witnesses. And yes, in the Holy Spirit we are united together, and all of our lives are hid with God in Christ. Yes, and Amen. But to extrapolate beyond that, that we can and ought to talk to departed saints is to speculate beyond the Word of God.
And if God has not spoken, then we cannot act in faith.