Do You Need God to Know That Abortion is Wrong?

The New Republic's latest “contribution” to the abortion debate is remarkable, in that, despite getting virtually everything it says factually wrong, it still raises an interesting problem for pro-choicers and atheists. Here's the Twitter teaser to the piece that started it all:
According to the author of this piece, TNR senior editor Jamil Smith, (1) the pro-life movement is struggling to survive; (2) the pro-life movement is fueled by ignorance; and (3) pro-lifers are forced to resort to “because God” in defense of their views. Each of these views is demonstrably false, but the third point actually highlights a potentially devastating problem for pro-choicers and atheists.

Is the pro-life movement dying, or gaining ground?

Unlike The New Republic, the pro-life movement isn't struggling to survive. But you don't have to take my word for that. Just look at the most recent Gallup poll data on Americans' positions on abortion:

U.S. Adults' Position on Abortion

Here's how Gallup summarized the overall trends in 2012:
Gallup began asking Americans to define themselves as pro-choice or pro-life on abortion in 1995, and since then, identification with the labels has shifted from a wide lead for the pro-choice position in the mid-1990s, to a generally narrower lead for "pro-choice" -- from 1998 through 2008 -- to a close division between the two positions since 2009. However, in the last period, Gallup has found the pro-life position significantly ahead on two occasions, once in May 2009 and again today [2012]. It remains to be seen whether the pro-life spike found this month proves temporary, as it did in 2009, or is sustained for some period.
It noted further that “the decline in Americans' self-identification as "pro-choice" is seen across the three U.S. political groups.” So the last two decades has seen a shift for pro-choicers having a wide lead over pro-lifers to pro-choicers having a narrow lead over pro-lifers, to the present, in which the lead is hotly contested. And from this Smith concludes that the pro-life movement is dying? The data shows the opposite: the pro-life movement is not surviving, it's gaining ground.

More likely, the problem is that Smith is ignorant: Gallup has also found that most Americans mistakenly believe that a majority of America is pro-choice, and that political moderates and pro-choicers are most likely to get this wrong. So Smith's description of a political movement that is losing groundbut remaining ignorantly deluded is an apt one: he's just applied it to the wrong side of the debate.

Are pro-lifers promoting ignorance, or asking inconvenient questions?

But let's talk about ignorance and science. Here's a larger excerpt from Smith's piece:
The anti-choice platform survives by propagating one fundamentally flawed truth above all: Conservative politicians know more about medicine than doctors do, because God. That is an explanation that relies upon the ignorance of the persuaded and coerced.

Ignorance—both the kind they embrace and the kind they relentlessly promote—has always been a primary tool for conservatives in their battle against reproductive choice. [...] The more of us caught up in speculating when life actually begins and questioning the rights of the fetus, the better.
This is a call to stop asking when life begins and to stop questioning whether or not the fetus has human rights, couched in Orwellian terms as a war on ignorance. Those rascally pro-lifers are making us ignorant by encouraging us to think about unpleasant questions!
Figure 18.13
The pro-life movement is actually very much pro-science, and science is on the pro-life side of the question of when life begins. This is from Sandra Alter's Biology: Understanding Life, a collegiate-level biology textbook for non-majors. It explains the birds and bees for anyone still confused about how reproduction works:
To illustrate, look at the human life cycle diagrammed in Figure 18.13, which is representative of all animal life cycles. A life cycle is the progression of stages an organism passes through from its conception until it conceives another similar organism. The diploid zygote in the diagram represents that part of the life cycle during which the fusion of gametes, or sex cells, from a male and a female of the same species have produced a new individual. The female gamete is the egg, and the male gamete is the sperm.

After a person (or other animal) grows to sexual maturity, the sex organs begin to produce gametes by a type of cell division called meiosis (my-OH-sis). During meiosis, one parent cell produces four sex cells, but these cells are not identical to the parent cell. Each sex cell is haploid; that is, it contains half the amount of hereditary material of the original parent cell. It is a single set of genetic information – one of each chromosome. Because of this reduction in chromosome number, one sex cell from each of two parent organisms can join together in a process called fertilization to form the first cell of a new individual that has a full complement of hereditary material. This new cell is diploid. That is, it contains double the haploid amount – a double set of the genetic information, or two of each chromosome. This type of reproduction, which involves the fusion of gametes to produce the first cell of a new individual, is called sexual reproduction.
New life begins the same way in all animals, not just humans. Two gametes, sperm and egg, fuse to form a diploid. This diploid isn't part of the mother or the father: it's a genetically-distinct individual member of the species. That's how we get new birds, new bees, and new boys and girls. On this point, there's just no serious scientific question. Scientifically literate people don't wonder, for example, if chicks are alive (or individuated) before they emerge from their eggs. So science teaches that fertilization produces new beings. In the case of humans, the fusion of sperm and egg produces a new human being.

But this doesn't answer every question in the abortion debate, which is where we get to the most (inadvertently) interesting part of Smith's piece.

Is abortion only wrong “because [of] God,” or can atheists know morality, too?

Detail of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (1511)
Smith claims that the pro-life justification for its position is simply “because of God.” Well, actually he says that it's “because God,” and that this is why “conservative politicians” claim to know more about medicine than doctors, but that's a bit of an incoherent mess. What he's driving at, as near as I can tell, is that opposition to abortion can only be due to religious reasons.

That's an interesting claim for a few reasons. First, because he doesn't actually quote a single person citing religion in defense of their position: he just ignores the actual reasons given, saying that their reasons are really “because God.” Second, because (Gallup again): “Americans who profess no religious identity are the most heavily pro-choice, at 80%, with 15% calling themselves pro-life.” How would Smith explain those 15%? Are they just pro-life “because God”?

But the third reason is that if Smith is right, this is a damning critique of atheism.

The pro-life argument is simple: (1) human beings are alive from the moment of fertilization, and (2) it is morally wrong (and ought to be illegal) to intentionally kill innocent human beings. The first point is a scientific one. The second is a moral and legal one, one that science can't answer. You don't find human rights under a microscope, and there's no experiment capable of proving that murder is wrong.

Our scientific knowledge gets us far enough to say that abortion is the intentional killing of a human being, so we can say that if all human beings are entitled to basic human rights, then we must recognize unborn humans as having these rights, as well. But science can't say if the intentional killing of innocent human beings is murder, or if murder is wrong, or if human rights exist.

So here's why I say that Smiths' piece ends up being an inadvertant contribution to the broader debate on abortion, as well as on religion. I frequently see two types of pieces from secular writers:
  1. Articles declaring that we can be good without God, that atheists are just as moral as anyone else, etc.

  2. Articles like this one, claiming that we can only know that killing people is wrong “because God,” in which case a truly universal respect for human rights can only come from a religious worldview.
Those two positions can't both be right, so which is it?

If it's #1, then pro-choicers need to abandon this ridiculous “because God” strawman. If it's #2, then atheism is morally terrifying (and if murder is always wrong, then atheism is false). 

Sam Harris (left), Jean-Paul Sartre (right)
In fact, atheists don't agree on this question. Broadly speaking, they fall into three camps. First, there are people like Sam Harris, claim that science can somehow prove morality, that an ought can be derived from an is without God or teleology. Second, those like Jean-Paul Sartre, who acknowledge that apart from God, everything is morally permissible as morality is reduced to a human invention:
The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. [....]
No one can tell what the painting of tomorrow will be like; one cannot judge a painting until it is done. What has that to do with morality? We are in the same creative situation. We never speak of a work of art as irresponsible; when we are discussing a canvas by Picasso, we understand very well that the composition became what it is at the time when he was painting it, and that his works are part and parcel of his entire life. It is the same upon the plane of morality. There is this in common between art and morality, that in both we have to do with creation and invention. We cannot decide a priori what it is that should be done. 
The third group of atheists simply try to have la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca (“the barrel full and the wife drunk,” Italy's colorful take on “to have your cake and eat it, too”). But this third position isn't tenable.

So in spite of Smith's gross ignorance of the statistical growth of the pro-life movement, the scientific origins of human beings, and the actual arguments used by pro-lifers, he's stumbled into something resembling an interesting point. He (apparently) thinks that only God can coherently undergird the opposition to murdering unborn children. Non-believers and pro-choicers, is he right?

Does Scripture Teach Us to Pray for the Departed, and to Pray to the Saints?

Daniel Chorny, The Bosom of Abraham (15th c.)
In regards to prayer and the Saints, Catholics do two things to which Protestants tend to object:
  1. Praying to the Saints: Asking the Saints to pray for us, etc.
  2. Praying for the Saints: Praying for the dead, commending their souls to God.
Yesterday, I talked about some of the common Protestant arguments against praying to the Saints: particularly about how these objections tend to be rooted in faulty views of the afterlife. But I didn't address what's perhaps the most common objection to both types of prayers, which is some variation of “But where do we see that in the Bible?” We saw yesterday that Scripture doesn't condemn these prayers, but neither does it commend them ... right?

So today, I want to look at the Biblical support for both prayer to and for the Saints. Is it true that Scripture is silent about praying to and for the Saints? And if so, would that Scriptural silence support the Protestant position?

I. Is Scripture Silent on Praying to and for the Saints?

In proving the Biblical case for these Scriptural practices, there's an easy way and a hard way. Let's address each in turn.

A.The Easy Way: Judas Maccabeus
Carl Poellath’s workshop, Judah Maccabees’ Vision (c. 1866)
The Second Book of Maccabees is completely straightforward about praying for the departed, and praying to the Saints. In 2 Macc. 12:43-46, some of Judas Maccabeus' soldiers fall in combat. Although they're fighting for Israel, the Israelites discover superstitious amulets on the fallen soldiers, and realize this is why they were allowed to fall. Maccabeus responds to this by praying for the dead, and offering a sin offering on their behalf:
He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.
You can't get much clearer then that. The Bible tells us that he prayed for the dead, praises him for it, and then tells us that he thereby made atonement for them that they might be delivered from their sin. All of this is linked to the resurrection of the dead, which puts the author of 2 Maccabees ahead of the Sadducees when it comes to orthodoxy (cf. Luke 20:27).

A few chapters later, Maccabeus inspires his men before battle “by relating a dream, a sort of vision, which was worthy of belief” (2 Macc. 15:11). Here's what he saw (2 Macc. 15:12-16):
Oni′as, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. Then likewise a man appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. And Oni′as spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.”  Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.
I've discussed this passage before, but for our present purposes, the important thing is that he's conversing with two Saints, Onias and Jeremiah, and they're interceding for him. Jeremiah in particular is described as “praying much” for the Jews and for Jerusalem. And it's Maccabeus' account of this vision that inspires the soldiers' valor leading into their greatest battle (2 Macc. 15:17).

B. The Complication: Martin Luther
The Apocalypse, from the Luther Bible (1524)
So both praying for the faithful departed, and praying to the heavenly Saints are expressly commended in 2 Maccabees. With Scriptural evidence this clear, how could Protestants possibly disagree? Simple. Modern Protestants generally don't consider 2 Maccabees Scripture, because it's part of the Deuterocanon (often inaccurately called Apocrypha).

That's not entirely a coincidence. Protestants have pointed to the passages we're discussing as reason to reject 2 Maccabees as Scripture. This argument doesn't make a lot of sense from a Catholic perspective. Rather, it looks something like this:
  • Protestant: “Prayers for the dead and prayer to the Saints aren't in Scripture!”
  • Catholic: “Sure they are. There's prayer for the dead in 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, and prayers to a Saint, with explicit reference to the Saint's ongoing intercession, in 2 Macc. 15:12-16.”
  • (Protestant removes 2 Maccabees from the Bible).
  • Protestant: “Look, prayers for the dead and prayer to the Saints aren't in Scripture!”
I'm exaggerating a bit, but only slightly, because this really does resemble how Reformation history played out.

Before we go any further, I should clarify a bit of history that lots of people get wrong: 2 Maccabees was in everyone's Bible at the time of the Reformation, and had already been declared canonical by the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Copts. During the Reformation, these Books were then removed by Protestants, although there was some initial confusion over which books they wanted in and out (for example, Calvin accepted Baruch as Scripture, while Luther rejected James, Hebrew, Jude, and Revelation). Initially, the Deuterocanonical Books were moved to an Apocrypha section in the back of Protestant Bibles, but they were eventually removed entirely.

This chronology is critical, if you're going to avoid mistakes like Evangelical scholar Norman Geisler's Catholic conspiracy theory. He thought the Church didn't teach that the Deuterocanon was inspired until the Council of Trent (a common mistake), and concludes that “proclaiming 2 Maccabees canonical some twenty-nine years after Luther lashed out against prayers for the dead (in 1517) is highly suspect, especially since the book supported prayers for the dead.” This conspiracy theory is hindered by actual documented history, like the Council of Florence's Bull of Union with the Copts from 1442, an ecumenical statement listing the canon of Scripture, including the “two books of the Maccabees.”

So, barring a time machine, Catholics didn't add 2 Maccabees to the Bible in response to the Reformation. Instead, Protestants like Luther “lashed out against prayers for the dead,” Catholics pointed to 2 Maccabees in support of the doctrine, and Protestants removed 2 Maccabees. Now, Protestants like James Swan at Beggars All reject the idea that Luther's eventual rejection of the Deuterocanon was based on his rejection of the Books' teachings, since he thinks it would mean that “Luther is fundamentally dishonest and simply changed to the smaller canon to just pick and choose his theology.”

But Luther does exactly that with the Book of James. James wasn't even a seriously disputed book in Christian history: you'd be hard-pressed to point to even a remotely-orthodox believer who denied James. But after Luther came up with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, his theology led him to choose a smaller canon. He's clear about this in his 1522 Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude:
In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works. It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac; though in Romans 4 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15. Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation 2 devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works of Moses' statement in Genesis 15. For Moses is speaking here only of Abraham's faith, and not of his works, as St. Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. This fault, therefore, proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.
So Luther was very comfortable with the idea of removing Books from the Bible if they contradicted his interpretation of St. Paul. Whether or not Swan is right that this makes Luther fundamentally dishonest is irrelevant: the record shows that it's true.

So the Bible at the time of the Reformation taught something Protestantism denied, and apparently for this reason, these parts were edited out of the Bible. Of course, if you remove the Books of the Bible that speak about prayers for the dead and prayers to the Saints, you can't use “prayers for the dead and prayers to the Saints aren't in Scripture” as an argument. It would be like firing every board member who disagrees with you, and then claiming you're right because all of the (remaining) board members agree with you.

C. The Hard Way: Onesiphorus and Abraham

James Tissot, The Bad Rich Man in Hell (c. 1890)
Having said all of this, there are references to prayers for and to the dead even within the Protestant Bible. They're just less explicit than the ones that got removed. Here, I'm reminded of Msgr. Ronald Knox's remark in The Belief of Catholics:
You must not say that no revelation would satisfy you unless the guarantee of miracle accompanied it, and then say in the same breath that you will refuse to accept any story of miracle precisely on the ground that it is miraculous. That is as if you were to invite your opponent to stab you with a pistol. If you will not have miracles, then you must be prepared to be satisfied without them.
Just as a skeptic can't reject all evidence for miracles and then require evidence for miracles to be persuaded, Protestants cannot reject the canonicity of any passage explicitly describing the prayers in question, and then complain that the remaining evidence isn't explicit enough. With that in mind, let's look at two particular instances from the New Testament:

1. Onesiphorus and Prayers for the Dead

In 2 Timothy 1:15-18 (NAB), St. Paul writes to Timothy about a man named Onesiphorus:
You know that everyone in Asia deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus because he often gave me new heart and was not ashamed of my chains. But when he came to Rome, he promptly searched for me and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day. And you know very well the services he rendered in Ephesus.
This passage is a subtle one, because Onesiphorus is a bit like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense: it takes a while to realize that he's already died. To see this, pay close attention to three things in the passage.

First, as the NAB footnotes explain, “Onesiphorus seems to have died before this letter was written. His family is mentioned twice (here and in 2 Tim 4:19), though it was Onesiphorus himself who was helpful to Paul in prison and rendered much service to the community of Ephesus.” The second mention is striking, since Paul doesn't ask Timothy to greet Onesiphorus. Instead, he says: “Greet Prisca and Aquila and the family of Onesiphorus” (2 Tim. 4:19).

Second, all of Onesiphorus' earthly actions are spoken of in the past tense. At first, this seems to be simply because Paul is recounting how Onesiphorus cared for him in his hour of need. But Paul goes on to praise “the services he rendered in Ephesus,” without referring to any services that he is rendering there or elsewhere.

Third, the one time that Paul speaks of Onesiphorus in the present (and future) tense is when he prays, “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.” In other words, Paul is praying for his soul, commending him to God in anticipation of the Final Judgment. And this prayer is distinct from Paul's prayer for Onesiphorus' family a couple verses earlier. If Onesiphorus isn't dead, why is Paul praying for him and his family separately? So all of this points to the fact that Onesiphorus had died, and that Paul is praying for his soul.

2. Lazarus and Prayers to the Dead

Jesus' parable of “Lazarus and the rich man” takes place largely as a series of prayers that a rich man in torment, prays to Abraham, starting in Luke 16:22-24:
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; an in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.”
Abraham refuses the rich man's request on two grounds: that he can't (since there's “a great chasm” between Abraham and the rich man, Lk. 16:26) and that he won't (since the rich man already had his chance). The rich man then offers up an intercessory prayer to Abraham, praying that someone will go to visit his brothers to warn them against leading a reprobate life. Here, Abraham simply refuses, since they have the Scriptures and “if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead” (Lk. 16:31). The “great chasm” separating the rich man from Abraham seems also to separate him from his brothers, but it doesn't cut Abraham off from those on Earth. Moreover, in light of the Resurrection, we should note that this refusal isn't absolute. Someone does rise from the dead, “for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

There's a lot to unpack in this parable: it's one the clearest Biblical uses of “Father” as a spiritual title, it's got an entire lingering question about just where the soul of the rich man is (if he's in Hell, how is he praying?), and then it's got the fact that Christ presents the rich man as praying to Abraham, and there's not a hint that this is inappropriate. We don't hear Abraham rebuking the rich man for crossing the chasm with his prayers, or saying that this detracts from God's glory, etc. And again: this is true even for the prayers going across the “great chasm” separating the rich man from Abraham. So this serves as a proof, a fortiori, for praying to the Saints.

II. Would Scriptural Silence Support the Protestant Position?

Let's say you're not convinced: you don't think 2 Maccabees is canonical, you don't think Paul is clear enough, and Jesus is speaking in a parable. Does that mean that the Protestant position is right?

Not hardly.

Sola Scriptura Protestants tend to oscillate (generally unconsciously) between treating everything not explicitly mentioned in Scripture as permitted, and treating everything not explicitly mentioned in Scripture as forbidden. A half-millennium on, this is still a lingering problem for sola Scriptura. If you hold to Luther's view that “whatever is without the word of God is, by that very fact, against God,” you've got an obvious problem: the restrictive principle itself isn't found in the word of God, so it's a violation of the restrictive principle to accept the restrictive principle.

But even accepting the restrictive principle, consider two facts:
  1. Scripture tells us to pray for one another and encourages us to take our sins and struggles to one another as members of the Body of Christ
  2. The faithful departed are still part of the Body of Christ.
Protestants tend to believe that (1) doesn't apply to the deceased, even though Scripture doesn't say that. Catholics are the ones taking the Scriptural teaching at face value here, going to our brothers and sisters in Christ without regard for whether they're in our living room or before the Throne of God. Protestants are holding to two standards - one between us here on earth, another for our interactions with the departed - but this second standard isn't actually Biblical.

Also, we're not done with 2 Maccabees just yet. The story of the Maccabees is celebrated at Chanukah, which Jesus celebrated in John 10:22-23. This supports the canonicity of the two Books of Maccabees, as does the fact that 2 Maccabees 7 is referenced in Hebrews 11:35-37. Some people, even after seeing this, conclude that 2 Maccabees is historical-but-not-canonical. Even that's a huge admission, though, since the history recorded is that God saved the Jews after the intercession of two Saints in Heaven.

By the way, the Jews still pray for the dead. You can read the Kel Maleh Rachamim prayer for yourself: it commends the soul of the faithful departed to the Lord.

Given all of this, think about what Scriptural silence would actually mean. Christ comes in to a culture in which there are Jewish prayers for the dead and prayers to the dead, and in which Judas Maccabeus is praised for his virtuous leadership (specifically including these two things). He celebrates Chanukah, tells a parable in which praying to a Saint is presented positively, and says nothing against these spiritual practices. Then you get to the New Testament period, and we see the author of Hebrews reference 2 Maccabees, again without any sort of indication that the Book is a mix of history and heresy.

Would any reasonable observer conclude from witnessing this that Christ and the Apostles were actually opposed to prayers for the departed and to the Saints in Heaven? Of course not. The results are exactly what you would expect. We see the earliest Christians like Origen (185-284), declaring that 1 and 2 Maccabees carry “the authority of holy Scripture.” And we see the early Christians praying to and for the Saints.

In doing this, the earliest Christians aren't showing a disdain for Scripture. Quite the opposite: they evince a clearer understanding of what Scripture actually has to say on the subject, and they recognized that Scripture supports the practice of praying for the deceased, and praying to the Saints who have gone before us.

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. 


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!

The Tragic Case for Christ

Johannes Moreelse, Heraclitus (1630)
I. An Anatomy of Tragedy

Man knows two things: how things are (the World), and how they should be (the Ideal). I don't mean that he knows these things perfectly, or that every man completely agrees with every other man about what is or what ought to be. But everyone has some sense of these two things, and tragedy – all tragedy – can be traced to the chasm between the two. Together, these two observations form a single insight: things are not as they should be. The larger the gap between these two things, the greater the tragedy.

It is necessary to know both of these things – the World and the Ideal – to experience tragedy. There could be no experience of tragedy if everything were how it ought to be, or if we had no sense that things ought to be other than they were. Neither the beast in the field nor the angel in Paradise feels the anguish of tragedy. But man, in this “valley of tears,” does feel it, because he sees that things are not as they should be. He is like the beast, but without the tragic ignorance; like the angel, but without Paradise.

This is not just a truth about the external world. It's also a moral assessment of man, and a damning one. You know how you have acted, and you know how you ought to have acted. It's here that we encounter some of life's deepest tragedies. Worse yet is the twofold recognition that you're 1) even now not living the way that you know you should, and 2) not able to be the man that you know you ought to be.

II. The Four Possible Remedies 

If the entire drama of human tragedy is this war between how things are and how they should be, between the World and the Ideal, how can we be freed? Left to our own devices, we are faced with only four options: overturn the World, abandon the Ideal, both, or neither.

Overturning the World was the most promising of our options. It recognized that the problem is not within our ideals or our interior longing for paradise but within the injustices and failings of daily life. If we could only actualize the Ideal, we could usher in Utopia. But the twentieth century is replete with examples showing how well these utopian crusades fared in practice. Instead of producing a Garden of Eden, these attempts resulted in a horrifying Necropolis.

In fact, even that is putting things too mildly. A Necropolis is a “city of the dead,” while former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski places the number of “lives deliberately extinguished by politically motivated carnage” throughout the last century at “no less than 167,000,000” and “quite probably in excess of 175,000,000.” That's not a city. That's the combined population of the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. So it's not just that our attempts to achieve the Ideal have failed. It's that, more often than not, these attempts have only increased the tragedy.

Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern (1635)
Abandoning the Ideal. As this striving for Utopia has repeatedly proven disastrous, we are currently trying its opposite: a sort of resignation. If we cannot overturn the World to achieve our Ideal, perhaps we should reject our Ideal. And so we have tried every method that we can imagine. We've declared ourselves “good enough,” “basically good people,” pretending that we don't see the gulf between our actions and our ideals. We've proclaimed ourselves ignorant, trying to lose the Ideal in the mists of moral relativism, writing off our misdeeds as mere differences in preferences, rather than real, and tragic, failures. We've told ourselves that every ideal or belief, no matter how secular, is a form of “religion” to be rejected as irrational. We endorse a hedonism that acts as if the World is the Ideal. We pretend that the World shouldn't be any better than it is, that we shouldn't be any better than we are, and yet we fail to convince even ourselves.

When all of this fails, we simply distract ourselves with the pleasures of the flesh. If we cannot make ourselves angels, we will try to make ourselves beasts. Some of these pleasures are obvious enough: the so-called “pleasures of the flesh,” like sex, drugs, and pornography.

But more often, we lose ourselves in mindless diversions, both on the Internet and “in real life” (a term that has, for many of us, become grimly ironic, as more waking hours are spent online than off). These diversions - sitcoms, social media websites, games, and the rest - are not necessarily bad, of themselves. But when we spend our days chasing our tails rather than our ideals, it's worth asking what these diversions are diverting us from. We don't want to ask that question, but we cannot ignore it entirely. Even in the world of escapism and distraction, we find ourselves haunted by the Ideal, and we cannot hold on peacefully to an intentionally meaningless existence. We never fully succeed in lowering ourselves to the level of beasts, and our mindless entertainment can't drown out our minds completely. We can bury the Ideal, but not kill it.

And so tragedy finds its way even into our life of diversions. Nowhere is this clearer then in the man who has pursued these worldly pleasures with reckless abandon.. Having found that fleeting pleasures flee, he eventually but necessarily slides helplessly into ennui or outrage.

A little of both. The third option, then, is to attempt a sort of balancing act in which we reject ideology and ideologues, but tell ourselves that we still have ideals. We hold to loosely-defined principles and “beliefs” that give us a sense of meaning, but which we can abandon or ignore when convenient. Rather than escaping from the tragic, this risks amplifying it, by acknowledging it without doing anything serious to solve it.

Absurdity and despair. Having seen the futility of our efforts at achieving the Ideal, and the impossibility of avoiding it, we are left with one last option: give in to the tragedy. Sometimes, this takes the form of embracing despair, the approach advocated by absurdism. In his commentary on Camus' The Stranger, Sartre writes that “the absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions.”

But suicide remains an ever-present possibility, a final, desperate attempt to flee tragedy. Some of the clearest-thinking atheists, have seen this. Camus opens The Myth of Sisyphus by declaring, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” But even those who don't believe in hell can recognize this for what it is: not an escape from tragedy or a triumph over it, but a surrender to it.

III. The Tragic Preamble to the Gospel

So far, then, this might not sound like the Good News of the Gospel. But in a real way, this is the prolegomena to the Gospel. What we've just heard is the secular story of the Fall. Genesis 3:24 tells us that, after the Fall, God “drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” You don't need the Bible to tell you this, because you already know it. You've seen and felt within yourself a sense of the Ideal, a sort of homesickness for Eden and for Heaven. But you've also seen within the world, and within yourself, that something has gone seriously awry.

You see within yourself the need for salvation, and if you've been paying attention, you've also seen that you're incapable of saving yourself. None of us can, no matter how hard we try. It's precisely here that we encounter Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Revelation shows us why we long for the Ideal: we're made for Him. And it shows us why we fall short: we're sinful, fallen creatures. We need grace. Through the Cross, the Gospel gives meaning to tragedy. And best of all, Christ offers us a way out of tragedy, the only way out. We cannot make ourselves angels, and we don't have to be beasts. We can be Saints instead.

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