A Few Thoughts on Origen-al Prayer

Several weeks ago a friend of mine discussed his feelings toward the passing away of his wife’s grandmother. Besides the loss of a loved one, he especially lamented the loss of a strong believer who had prayed for his family every day for years. Yet when he said this, I immediately began to wonder whether the passing of that dear saint into the presence of the Lord was a loss or a gain. Are the souls of departed saints—once ushered into foyer of heaven—muzzled from intercessory prayer?

Without sounding like a proponent for the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox “cult of the saints” (which I am not), let’s explore whether or not departed saints may, in fact, continue to pray together with the saints on earth for the spiritual blessings of the body of Christ and the accomplishment of God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” We do know that Christ, the God-man, intercedes for us (Romans 8:34). The Spirit, too, intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:26–27). Yet the Son and Spirit—as members of the Triune Godhead—hear our prayers and know our circumstances and needs even better than we do ourselves.

In the book of Revelation we see an example of the souls of departed saints petitioning God relative to events on earth. The “souls of those who had been slain” under the heavenly altar in Revelation 6:9 cry out to God for His judgments to begin. And because the angel of judgment later gets his prayers from the same altar (Revelation 8:3), many commentators believe the answer to the prayer of the departed saints is found in Revelation 8:4–5, when God casts judgments on the earth.

Of course, there is no evidence that departed saints are aware of our lives on earth. And if they are, it is only by mediated knowledge, not by omniscient awareness. Contrary to popular folk-theology, human beings never cease to be finite beings. Only God is infinite; all creatures are finite. Thus, they will forever and always be subject to the creaturely limits of knowledge. (No, grandma’s probably not clucking her tongue at you every time you sin.)

So, to me, prayer to or through departed saints seems neither biblical or reasonable. The same can be said about living believers praying for the souls of departed saints—an idea that makes no sense biblically or theologically. Because we believe that redeemed humans are immediately with the Lord upon physical death, and because we believe a person’s eternal fate is determined here—not in a post-death state—then praying for the dead is pointless.

However, this does not answer the nagging question about the spirits of saints once on earth, but now in heaven, offering up prayers and intercession for the living saints on earth. This is not the same as praying to or for dead saints. It is a question of whether or not the church universal, spiritual, and invisible unites together in prayer for the will of God to be done.

In the third century, the renowned Christian scholar, Origen, wrote a treatise on prayer, dealing with such issues as prayer and providence, the proper attitude of prayer, the purpose of prayer, and so forth. In On Prayer 11.2, he wrote:

And as knowledge is revealed to the saints now through a glass in a dark manner, but then face to face, so it would be unreasonable not to employ the analogy for all the other virtues also, which if prepared already in this life will be perfected in the next. Now the one great virtue according to the Word of God is love of one’s neighbour. We must believe that the saints who have died have this love in a far greater degree towards them that are engaged in the combat of life, than those who are still subject to human weakness and are engaged in the combat along with their weaker brethren. The saying: If one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it, does not apply only to those who here on earth love their brethren.

In short, Origen taught—with many in the early church—that the departed pastors and saints, many of which were martyred for the faith, continued to pray for the churches with an even greater love and clearer sense of God’s purpose and will. Though he cites a number of apocryphal texts to support his claim, his primary arguments for the prayers of the departed believers are drawn from biblical principles, reason, and a keen conviction that departed saints are conscious and active before God . . . and, yes, still active members of the universal church.

Personally, I see no inherent problem with Origen’s reasoning on this matter. It seems reasonable that when I pass on into the presence of God and await the full redemption of my body, that I would pray for God’s perfect will to continue to unfold on earth, that I would pray for those still living for whom I promised to pray in this life, and that I would pray these things with greater sincerity and greater perfection. If I were to die tonight, I suspect the Lord would have to personally stop me from praying for my wife, children, and friends left behind.

Yet what practical application would this conviction have for we who are alive? It would not imply that we pray to or through saints, that we petition them to intercede for us. I don’t see how this would be possible or beneficial. Even if it were possible for them to hear our prayers, how would this change the fact that our temporal prayers are just as imperfect and riddled with sinful motives and limited knowledge as those offered directly to the Father, through the Son, and in the power of the Spirit? And, by the way, even Origen, who believed the saints in heaven continued to pray for those on earth, taught that Christians should pray only to God the Father, through the Son (On Prayer 15–16).

But I see no good reason to biblically, reasonably, or theologically reject the idea that the grandmother of my friend’s wife continues to intercede for her loved ones still caught in the throes of the spiritual battlefield of this present darkness. She promised to pray for them everyday in this life. What would prevent her from keeping her promise in heaven?

However, because we have no example from Scripture, we are here asking questions it does not clearly answer. If we answer at all, we rely on biblical, theological, historical, and experiential reasoning, which seems to allow—but does not demand—that our loved ones in heaven may still be praying for us here on earth.

But how would you answer this question? Did my friend lose a prayer warrior with the passing of that faithful saint . . . or did he gain a prayer victor who could continue to offer up more perfect prayers before the very presence of God?

Or is the question too speculative and irrelevant to even ask and answer?

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