Here’s a question that is not rare — although, because it’s a little bizarre, it may strike us as a weird question at first. But it’s sincere and important and not infrequent to our inbox. This time it comes from a listener named Leslie. “Pastor John, I am not trying to derive personal comfort from this question; I just honestly want to know: Can people who are in heaven look down and see us (their loved ones) on earth?”
Who of us would not like to know? Who has not asked this good question and wanted to know, especially those of us who have lost loved ones and think about it personally that way, as well as those who wonder whether Jonathan Edwards is looking down, or the apostle Paul? Let me say five things in response to this question.
We Don’t Know for Sure
Ultimately, I think the answer is that we don’t know for sure. At least, we don’t know to what extent they might be allowed to see and know all that happens on earth. There is at least one passage of Scripture that some writers would interpret in a way that makes it quite clear that they do know what is going on. I will get to that in just a moment, but I would not stake my life on a position about this, because I don’t know for sure. But I will tell you what I think in just a minute.
I would say that if God grants saints in heaven to see the suffering and misery as well as the good on the earth, we may be sure that they see it not with their old imperfect eyes and that they understand it not with their old imperfect minds and that they assess it not with their old imperfect hearts. Rather (we may be sure because the Bible says so), they have been perfected in heaven (Hebrews 12:23).
They will see and understand and assess all things in a perfectly spiritual way that takes into account everything they need to know in order to make sense of it and to keep from making any mistakes. And so, they will not in the least doubt the goodness of God in what they see or the wisdom of God in what they see. That may be as important as any surety of whether they can come and see.
Cloud of Witnesses
There is one text that may well, I think, probably does — probably does — suggest it. God grants the saints in heaven to witness the race that we are running on earth. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
“If they see you at all, they are cheering you on to endure every hardship by encouraging you to focus on Christ.”
Now, the reason that doesn’t settle things for me completely like it does for Henry Alford — he thinks that just closes the deal; he thinks they definitely see us, watch us, cheer for us — is that the Greek word witness here, just a couple of verses earlier and three times at least in Hebrews 11, is a word used to refer to the testimony that the saints of old gave in their willingness to die for the truth of God. So, it is possible that Hebrews 12:1, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” simply means that all the saints in the past, when they died, successfully witnessed to their faith on earth and made it to heaven through their suffering, so you can make it too — not that they are watching you.
But I am inclined to think that it does mean they are watching, partly because of the picture of the race. It is as though the saints finish their marathon at their death. Then they come around and stand on the side of the racetrack and watch us. And we are supposed to take heart from that because, in essence, they would be saying, “Hang in there. Trust God. You can do this. We made it; you can make it too.” And I find that very, very encouraging.
Only Mediator We Need
We should be cautioned to beware of spending too much time thinking about the saints above so that we are tempted to interact with them in the way that the Roman Catholics do when they pray to the saints and to Mary. I think this is very dangerous for the health of our faith. It has led many people (millions, I fear) to look to the saints and to Mary in their longing for help rather than focusing on Christ and the throne of grace that he has opened to us.
This very book of Hebrews that we just quoted also says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence [because of Christ] draw near to the throne of grace” — not to Mary, not to the saints — “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16). Christ is the one mediator between God and man. The New Testament does not encourage us to make the saints or Mary into mediators as we seek God’s help.
Beware of Sentimentalism
The last thing I would say is a caution against sentimentalism. You know, if you watch movies or television, sooner or later, it seems, every show that has somebody die is going to have some sentimental, sappy statement — like “Well, they are with the angels” or “They are in heaven” or “They are looking down on us” — without any reference to God or Christ. We are all tempted to hope that those who had no faith as far as we could see — or little faith — might be saved. Of course, Jesus is merciful, and the thief on the cross was saved in his eleventh hour. We are not the last judge. Maybe God turned somebody’s heart just before they died. We don’t make those judgments.
“Focus on the great, central realities of the New Testament, which are rock solid, absolutely certain.”
But Jesus warns us, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22–23). That is a warning not just for us, lest we deceive ourselves into thinking we are following Christ when we are not. It is also a warning that we not be sentimental as though everybody who is a good person who died is going to be in heaven.
The bottom line is that we should focus on the great, central realities of the New Testament, which are rock solid, absolutely certain, and full of hope for all who trust in Christ. If you think about the great saints in heaven, take heart. If they see you at all, they are cheering you on to endure every hardship by encouraging you to focus on Christ.