At that moment, I knew — although the word know seemed so feeble in describing the certainty I felt — that everything Ellie had said was true. My father had seen it too, this land just beyond the great river. I was here because of them. And others.
Surrounded now by a great cloud of witnesses.
A single tear coursed my cheek. In later days, I would describe it as a baptism of sorts. That tear, washing me of my unbelief.
— Excerpt from The Ghost Box, Chapter 25
The Ghost Box is not Christian fiction. But there’s lots of Easter eggs for the faithful. One is found in the scene above. In it, an important character dies and Reagan Moon, my snarky hero, with the help of some peculiar old goggles, is able to watch that character’s soul actually leave their body, bound across a “golden river,” and begin a sojourn into a new, glorious estate. The experience is a turning point for my spiritually skeptical protag.
In the novel, I use a phrase that’s lifted straight out of Scripture. Here’s the verse it was taken from:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Heb. 12:1 NIV)
So Reagan Moon realizes that his own life is a “race,” that others have gone on before him, and that he is “surrounded by… a great cloud of witnesses.” In the previous chapter (Heb. 11), the biblical writer listed the long succession of saints and martyrs that have preceded us — Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Samson, etc., etc. Hebrews 11 is often called the “Hall of Faith” because of the vast array of “witnesses” it describes. The imagery is that of a coliseum filled with the faithful departed, a “great cloud of witnesses” who are looking down upon us, urging us forward.
Question: Is this imaginary or actual? Are the saints of the past actually looking down upon us, witnessing our travails, cheering us on, or is this simply a metaphor used to encourage us to “follow in their footsteps,” so to speak?
I tend to see this, and similar biblical images, as literal. That somehow, in some fashion, the holy dead are aware of the living. No, I can’t confidently say that this is a “proof text” for such a position. Nor do I think there IS a definitive one. Nevertheless, I don’t think the Scripture definitively states that the dead have no knowledge of the realm of the living. In fact, I believe just the opposite.
I realize this is an uncomfortable position for many evangelicals. We have this penchant for demystification. Unexplained phenomenon is best cordoned off behind cautionary Scriptures. It’s why ghosts, for example, are typically viewed as demons in evangelical circles. The notion that a disembodied soul can impinge upon and/or interact with our dimension is unsettling. If not flat-out heretical. Of course, the Bible is clear in forbidding necromancy, consultation with the dead, and the seeking out of occult seers and mediums. That’s indisputable. Nevertheless, there are several biblical occurrences that lend some credence to the idea that deceased saints are aware of the living.
- The “spirit” of Samuel — The most famous and perhaps the most puzzling “ghost incident” in Scripture is Saul and the Witch of Endor (I Samuel 28). When Saul compels a seer to summon the prophet Samuel, they witness “a spirit coming up out of the ground” (vs. 13). The spirit is recognized as the dead prophet who seemingly validates himself by prophesying against Saul and predicting the king’s death in battle (vss. 16-19). Not only does the encounter suggest that the holy dead exist in close proximity to earth, but that they are conscious, and aware of a timeline of events, both past and (possibly) future.
- The Mount of Transfiguration — In Mark 9:2-8, two dead prophets—Moses and Elijah—manifest alongside Jesus. Scripture is unclear as to their state, being that they appear neither ghosts nor resurrected bodies. Complicating matters is the fact the prophets “were talking with Jesus” (vs. 4), interacting within an earthly timeline and a physical estate.
- The Rich Man and Lazarus — Because this is a parable, we must be careful not to force too much literalism into the tale. Nevertheless, in Luke 16:19-21, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who dies and is sent to Hades “where he was in torment” (vs. 23). From this state, the rich man appeals to Father Abraham to “send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (vss. 27-28). If we assume Jesus is illustrating a real condition in the afterlife, then the deceased rich man remains conscious after death, aware of his five brothers, and requests they be reached in “real time.”
- The souls under the altar of God — The Book of Revelation offers up a remarkable glimpse of heaven, in particular after the opening of the fifth seal of wrath the apostle John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'” (Rev. 6:9-10) Again, some may object on the grounds that Revelation is largely metaphorical. Even so, we are given a picture of souls who are at rest, conscious, quite aware of a timeline of earthly events and awaiting the culmination of their avenging.
These verses aren’t enough to make a slam dunk case that a real cloud of deceased witnesses is really aware of us and cheering us on toward the finish line. Conversely, I’m not sure there’s an airtight case against such a point of view either. In fact, some faith traditions view the “Communion of the Saints” as not simply a metaphorical fellowship, but a vibrant reality.
In his book, For All Saints: Remembering the Christian Departed, N.T. Wright says this:
By the end of the fourth century some believed that the presence of the martyrs’ relics in their midst conveyed what one writer has called ‘the veritable and gracious presence of the martyrs themselves, and through them of the Godhead with Whom they were united.’ The church on earth believed itself privileged to enjoy an intimate fellowship with those who had gone on ahead. Hilary and Augustine, in the fourth and fifth centuries, both elaborated this doctrine. The angels and saints, the apostles, prophets and patriarchs, they argued, surrounded the church on earth and watched over it. Christians here are to be conscious of their communion with the redeemed in heaven, who have already experienced the fullness of the glory of Christ. this, or something like it, is the doctrine which we affirm when we say ‘the Communion of the Saints’ towards the end of the Apostles’ Creed. (For All Saints: Remembering the Christian Departed, N.T. Wright, pg. 16)
Of course, this view can give rise to beliefs such as prayers for the dead and even purgatorial indulgences. But in the broader sense, All Saints Day and the Communion of the Saints is built off of a clear biblical idea that
- Deceased saints are conscious after death
- Deceased saints are at rest
- Deceased saints are in fellowship with God
- Deceased saints have some awareness of the living and the present
- Those who ‘die in the Lord’ enjoy fellowship — both present and future — with the saints
While there is no biblical precedent for praying to departed saints, the recognition that we are “privileged to enjoy an intimate fellowship with those who [have] gone on ahead” and should “be conscious of [our] communion with the redeemed in heaven” is rooted in Scripture and church history. So I suppose the bigger question isn’t whether the dead are aware of the living, but what forms our “intimate fellowship” and “communion with” the “great crowd of witnesses” should take.