A common Evangelical protest against the Catholic practice of praying and interacting with the saints is that they “can’t hear us.” Those who disbelieve our practice often quote 1 Kings 8:39 which says, for you alone (O Lord) know the hearts of all men. Hence, according to this quote Saints, who are not God, cannot know our thoughts unless we speak them aloud.
This means, we must therefore speak them aloud. And this in turn ridiculed, or at least dismissed, by many Evangelicals who consider it absurd to think a saint way up in heaven would have adequate hearing to perceive us, way down here on earth talking to them. Further, even if they could hear us, how could they distinguish thousands or millions of people talking to them all at once? And so on, with these sorts of objections. To be fair, not every Evangelical shares all these objections nor do they always attempt to ridicule our practice. But objections and attitudes like this are common enough to merit response.
The straight answer to the objections that saints cannot know our prayers due to lack of hearing, or inability to mind read, is set aside by Scripture itself which does speak of them as interacting with our prayers. More of this in a moment.
But some attention should also be paid to the highly naturalistic notions held by our critics, of the saints in heaven. To simply presume they “hear” in same way we do here on earth, or that their minds are operative in same way that ours are, or that they even experience time in the same serial way we do, are all highly questionable premises.
To begin with, the saints, through their more perfect union with Christ, ought not be presumed to experience their human faculties in exactly the same way as here on earth. Obviously their bodies have not yet risen, and hence they do not “hear” in the same manner as we do who still have bodies. Neither are their minds mediated through the physical brain as our is. Even when the trumpet shall sound and the bodies of the saints be restored to them, we need to understand that their humanity, body and soul, will be a glorified humanity. While we do not know all the aspects of a glorified humanity we will surely not have the forgetful and slow minds we have now. Neither ought we presume that our hearing will be limited as it is now.
So, to be clear, we ought not merely presume that the saints in heaven, even now, experience all the limits we do. They are caught up in Christ, and bound to Him more intimately and perfectly.
Secondly, the saints do not likely experience time like we do. Heaven is called, among other things in Scripture “eternity” or “eternal life.” Now eternity does not refer merely to the length of time or life, but also to the fulness of it. The fulness of time includes past, present and future, as one thing, in one moment. While we cannot be sure if the saints experience the “comprehensive now” as God does, we ought not presume that they experience time merely as we do either. Heaven is quite surely outside our earthly experience of time.
Hence, our understanding of heaven ought to include a mystical dimension and it is wrong to simply project our currently broken and fallen human condition on to the Saints in heaven or to presume them inside time exactly as we are.
Jesus rebukes the minimalists of his day – Regarding this tendency to make heavenly realities look either silly or untenable by projecting earthly categories there, Jesus had to rebuke the Sadducees of his day. They attempted to make heaven (which they rejected as a reality) look silly by projecting an earthly marriage scenario there of a woman who had seven husbands. Jesus said to them “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven (Mk 12:24-25). Thus, heaven is not like earth, and should not be reduced to it. Nor are the souls in heaven presumed to be exactly the same as they are now.
Hence, to presume that Saints can hear us is not outlandish, for they are in Christ, and they are perfectly in communion with him in heaven. It is obviously Christ himself, then, who fosters our union with the Saints and their ability to remain in communion with us. For there is only one Body of Christ, and all the members are untied by the Head, who is Christ.
Now that the Saints do interact with us and present our prayers to God is stated in the Book of Revelation:
[T]he twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Rev 5:8)
Later we also see that the angels also collect the prayers of the saints:
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne (Rev 8:3).
“Saints” here is used in the common first Century biblical sense as meaning those on earth who have accepted Christ (cf Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; 2 Cor 9:1; Phil 1:5; Rom 16:2 and many,many more), not merely in the modern Catholic sense as only the canonized saints in heaven.
And thus, the image and teaching here is that the Holy Ones in heaven collect the prayers of the saints on earth and present them to God, like incense.
That these prayers have dramatic effects is illustrated in the verses that follow in Rev 8:
The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8:4-5)
There follow seven trumpet blasts with confer God’s judgment and justice.
So the saints in heaven do hear us, they do collect our prayers and present them God and their intercession has powerful effects, the text from 1 Kings above, not withstanding.
Those who merely deny this based on some human notion of implausibility I would argue come under the Lord’s judgement: Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? (Mk 12:24). For though it may seem implausible to human minds, our God is able. And he reveals in Scripture that he not only able to empower the heavenly saints and angels in this regard, he is also most willing.
Here is a very good and brief video on this by Tim Staples