On the Role of the Saints

Last Judgment A detail of Fra Angelico's Last Judgment
depicting the sorting of souls.

The Four Last Things

‘Eschatology’, from the Greek word eschaton (‘end’, ‘final thing’, ‘last thing’), is the branch of theology which considers the final things. The Four Last things are death, judgement, heaven, and hell.  

Death and judgement are the lot of all human beings. Heaven or hell is the final destiny of every individual. The relation of the judgement of the individual soul to Christ’s return in glory is not entirely clear. It appears from Scripture that the Second Coming of Christ (the parousia) precedes the judgement. Most the­ologians, however, distinguish the particular judgement of the individ­ual at death from the general resurrection and judgement of the dead at the end. A few theologians (‘full preterists’) argue that all biblical texts about the end were fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century. It is, however, neither necessary nor wise to attempt to settle finally all of these matters in one particular manner.

Heaven and hell may be defined in part as eternal presence with God (heaven) or eternal rejection of God’s presence (hell). Scripture and the Church’s tradition speak of heaven in particular with two metaphors: the perfection of God’s kingdom or reign and the vision of God. Since our final state involves a resurrected body, and since bod­ies imply place, heaven and hell in some sense of the word must be ‘places’ as well as states of being. However, the resurrected body in Christ’s case was not subject to the laws of physical bodies known to us, since it could apparently disappear or appear at will and could move through walls (see St. Luke 24:3 1, 36, 51; St. John 20:26). What the ‘place’ of such resurrected, glorified bodies is we cannot now know.

Prior to the resurrection of the dead, judgement, and the life of the world to come, there seems to be an intermediate state of souls which Scripture refers to as ‘paradise’ (St. Luke 23:43) or ‘the bosom of Abraham’ (St. Luke 16:22). This state corresponds to ‘Hades’, a place of repose and peace, as opposed to ‘Gehenna’, a place of damnation.  When the creed says that Christ ‘descended into hell’ it refers to this intermediate state of the repose of souls, not the state of final damna­tion. The final destiny of souls is not changed in this intermediate state (cf. St. Luke 16:19-31).

The Afterlife

Anglicans traditionally have not attempted to develop a detailed understanding of the afterlife, since such detail inevitably would go beyond the rather limited information provided by Scripture and would speak of matters that cannot in any case be understood except approximately and very generally. Here as in some other matters Roman Catholicism has developed doctrines (purgatory) and theolog­ical speculations (limbo) that involve precisely such unwarranted speculation. Ironically, many sectarian, fundamentalist Protestants join the Roman Catholics in excessive speculation concerning escha­tology. In particular fundamentalist Protestants are inclined to chil­iasm (see Chapter 3, Part II) and to excessive interpretation of St. John’s Revelation.

‘Purgatory’ in Roman Catholic understanding is a state or place in which the temporal penalty due for sins committed during one’s life­time is paid. Every soul in purgatory will eventually be in heaven. The Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans do not accept this idea, though all Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that prayers for the dead assist the dead in some way and are entirely legitimate and desirable (see II Maccabees 12:43-5).

How the prayers of the living assist the dead is a mystery. In the eternity of God it is perfectly possible that prayers from the living today may help the dead of the past in their own lifetimes. In any case, purgatory is a speculation built on no solid Scriptural foundation. ‘Limbo’ is a theological construct which is meant to explain how God might deal with the souls of non-baptized persons who showed great natural virtue and goodness or who died as infants before committing any personal sins. ‘Limbo’ is the final state of such persons, according to some medieval theologians. Limbo is a state of perfect natural bliss and enjoyment, which, however, forever excludes the possibility of supernatural bliss and the eternal vision of God. This idea is a theo­logical speculation with no binding force in any Church.

The Communion of Saints

The Communion of Saints is an article of the Apostles’ Creed which is closely related there to faith in the Church and in the resurrection and life everlasting. ‘Saint’ comes from the Latin word sanctus, mean­ing ‘holy’. A saint is a holy one. In the end all of the faithful in heaven are saints, the holy and blessed people of God. St. Paul’s epistles often speak of whole Christian com­munities to which he writes or refers as ‘the saints’ by way of antici­pating this final blessed state of the faithful.

More particularly a saint is usually defined as a Christian who has shown heroic virtue in some respect or respects. While everyone who will prove to be a faithful Christian to the end will be a saint, no one but God knows as a rule whether or not a given individual will so persevere in the faith. A ‘saint’, then, is a Christian whom the Church knows and agrees has lived and died faithfully. Such a ‘canonized’ saint, recognized by the Church on earth as such, does not differ really from many unknown saints except in our recognition. For this reason the feast of All Saints’ Day (November 1st) honors not only the canonized saints, but the countless men and women of faith who died in obscurity.

The Roman Catholic Church has an elaborate, formal, canonization process for investigating claims of sanctity and proclaiming the results of such investigation to the Church. In the Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Catholic Churches the process of canonization is much less formal: at some point the Church simply recognizes the sense of the faithful as a whole that a given person is in fact a saint. Martyrs who die for the faith are the most obvious candidates for such canonization because of the dramatic way in which their faith was shown, but less­er acts of self-denial and service to God and man also are so honored.  All Christians agree that the saints are to be honored and imitated for their examples of virtue and fidelity. The lives of the saints are among the most fruitful, important, and practically useful Christian writings.

The prayers of the saints in heaven assist the faithful on earth accord­ing to the Revelation of St. John (5:8 and 8:3-4 in the light of 6:9-11). Therefore, while the saints are not to be given worship or adoration, which is due to God alone, or to be invoked in a manner that implies such worship or adoration, their prayers are part of the communion of saints confessed in the Apostles’ Creed. The prayers of the saints in heaven support Christians on earth, just as Christians on earth sup­port one another in prayer. For this reason all Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Christians may ask for or invoke the prayers of the saints. Such requests for prayers occur in the formal worship of the Anglican Catholic Church and are an important part of the rela­tionships of prayer and love which knit together the ages in the com­munion of the Church.

In the Middle Ages the invocation and cult of the saints combined with popular credulity to produce an imbalanced religion. The Reformation was not wrong to want to prune back devotion to the saints in order to emphasize more fundamental doctrines of the Faith which that devotion threatened to obscure. The communion of saints only exists under the overarching love of God bestowed upon the Church by Jesus Christ. However, there is little danger in modern Anglican circles that the cult of the saints could obscure the person and work of Christ. Therefore, it is fitting that the invocation of saints retain its important, subsidiary place in the worship and life of the family of God.