I heard in college that no one makes it to 20 years old without experiencing a death in their immediate circles. I don’t know if that’s true, but I haven’t met anyone to disprove it. Even in our sanitized, death-averse culture, we can’t escape the fundamental, brutal truth of the human condition: Humans die.
And when we experience the death of someone we love deeply, it hurts. We grieve, mourn them. My last grandfather died last year, and I still remember his funeral vividly. One of the saddest aspects of American funerals is how uncomfortable everyone is. Because our culture is so death-averse, we don’t know how to deal with grief, especially others’ grief. We end up saying something like, “Well, now [name of deceased loved one] is watching you from Heaven.”
It’s that sort of comment, no doubt, that generated this question:
Is there any scripture… to support our loved ones in heaven being able to pray for us here on earth?
Before we talk about the theological truth value of statements like that, we have to acknowledge that they come from a well-intentioned place. We miss those we love who have died, and it’s comforting to believe that they’re in Heaven praying for us (or in more extreme cases, acting as our guardian angels, ‘protecting’ or ‘watching over’ us.)
Unfortunately, the Scriptures don’t indicate that a loved one who has died has any special access to us from Heaven.
In fact, the Scriptures are surprisingly unclear about what happens after we die – especially given how fully the afterlife is developed in our collective popular imagination. For instance, in one place, Paul seems to indicate that after he dies, he’ll be hanging out with God:
For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better… I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 24 But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live – Philippians 1:21-24 (NLT, emphasis mine)
But in some other places, Paul clearly talks about those who have died as though they’re asleep, waiting for the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13, for example). Two other major examples in the New Testament might indicate that the dead can interact with the living are Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12. But in neither case is it clear that the authors are trying to paint an accurate picture of the afterlife. Jesus is talking about the importance of caring for the poor here-and-now, and the author of Hebrews is encouraging living believers to follow in the footsteps of the departed fathers and mothers of the faith.
The Scriptures simply don’t give us enough information about what happens after we die to know if our dead loved-ones are conscious (and praying for us) or not.
But even if our loved ones are not in Heaven praying for us, we have hope. Our hope as Christians does not come from the promise of transportation to a Heaven somewhere else, far away. Our hope lies in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Scriptures speak of his resurrection as God’s down-payment on a promise to us: a promise to restore not only the dead, but the whole world. We are moving back towards Eden, and through Jesus’ resurrection, God promises to restore all of us, including our dead loved-ones, whether they’re consciously with God right now or sleeping.
I know I’ll see my grandpa again in the Resurrection. I know that Death doesn’t have the final word because through Jesus, God has conquered Death and the Grave. No one could say it more beautifully than Paul. I’ll never forget standing over my grandfather’s grave, rain falling around us, and hearing the minister read this beautiful passage:
When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting… It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory… Our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” — 1 Corinthians 15:36-56 (NLT)
Whether Grandpa is praying for me in Heaven now or not, I know I’ll see him again someday soon. And I can’t wait.