In debates and discussions with evangelical Protestants, the most effective arguments are going to be ones that make use of Scripture. But, when it comes to the saints, the scriptural evidence initially may not seem as prolific as it is for so many of the other teachings of the Church.
The verses most commonly cited in support of the Church’s teaching on the saints are Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4, although there are certainly others, such as Job 5:1, which St. Thomas Aquinas mentions. I believe these verses are indeed supportive of the Catholic position, but I also think there might be a more effective way of presenting the teachings of the Church besides a do-or-die debate that hinges on just one or two verses.
There is often a tone of ridicule to Protestant critiques. Can the saints really hear us? Doesn’t saying so make them omniscient like God? What’s more, even if they could, are they really in a position to help us?
Let me rephrase these questions as one: Is it biblically plausible that there are beings in heaven other than God Himself who are aware of our needs, hear our prayers, intercede on our behalf, and generally help us in our daily struggles?
The answer is undoubtedly yes. It can be summed up in one word: angels.
Here, the Scriptural evidence is prolific. The Bible is replete with stories of interactions with the angels and goes into quite a bit of detail about all they do to help us. Here’s just a sampling—and let me say up front, this is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the nearly 300 instances that angels are mentioned in the Bible:
■ Ministering to Our Needs: After Jesus is tempted in the desert, angels minister to his needs in Matthew 4:11. Although the English translation is vague, in the Greek, this could mean providing him with what we can imagine was much-needed food and drink. Jesus is not the only figure in Scripture for whom angels care. For example, this also happens with Elijah in 1 Kings 19.
■ Protecting Us: An angel saves Daniel and his friends from the blazing furnace in Daniel 3. Once again, three chapters later, an angel keeps Daniel safe from the lions’ den. Earlier in the Old Testament, an invisible army of angels gathers to fend off the king of Aram from an Israelite city.
■ Spiritual Guidance: Consider the angels who appeared to Joseph, Mary, and Zechariah in the gospels. Note that in the last case, the angel renders the old man speechless for disbelieving his words.
■ Caring for the Dead: In Luke 16, Jesus tells of the angels carrying Lazarus’ soul to Abraham in heaven.
■ Fearsome Agents of Divine Wrath and Salvation: The story of the role the angels played in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is especially intriguing for our purposes here. First, Lot bows his face to the ground in meeting these men. (Did this veneration of the angels constitute idol worship? Surely not!) Second, even though they are introduced as angels, these divine beings are perceived by the people of the town as men—that is, they appeared to be human (even though we understand angels to be spirits in nature). This perception is reinforced by the fact that Lot served them a meal. Finally, these angels are quite powerful: they say they will destroy the city for its sins.
■ Delivering Messages from God: And let’s not forget the angel who showed John the wondrous visions in the Book of Revelation.
Did the assistance of these angels detract from the omnipotence of God? Did their ability to foresee the future make them omniscient like God? Did their interactions with men and women of faith interfere with the exclusive, unique role Christ has as our Mediator? Nonsense! God simply used them as instruments of his Grace, which is what I’m sure any faithful evangelical Protestant would say. And that is what the Church tells us God does with the saints. In fact, if anything, the Church’s beliefs about the saints are quite modest and uncontroversial against this biblical background on the angels. Indeed, now we can see why the early Church took the hints from Revelation 5:8 and Job 5:1 and drew the obvious conclusion that it did.
But, hold on for a minute. Is it fair to compare saints and angels? I’ll let the words of Jesus answer this. In Matthew 22:30, Jesus tells us that at the resurrection we will be “like the angels in heaven.” In fact, later on in the New Testament, St. Paul insinuates that there is some sense in which we will be above angels: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” the apostle writes in 1 Corinthians.
Postscript: The attentive reader may have noticed that some key Scripture passages that mention the “angel of the Lord” are omitted. This was intentionally done out of an abundance of caution: some scholars and commentators believe that references to “the angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament actually involve pre-incarnate apparitions of Christ, rather than angels. Therefore it could be potentially misleading to include those in the above survey.