Does Devotion to Relics Please God?
THE blood of “San Gennaro,” said to liquefy usually three times a year, is one of many religious relics. So is the Shroud of Turin, in which the body of Jesus Christ was allegedly wrapped. Among relics linked with Jesus are his supposed crib (in a large basilica in Rome), his spelling book, and more than a thousand nails said to have been used at his execution! Religious relics also include a number of heads of John the Baptizer and, in various places in Europe, four bodies said to be “Santa Lucia.”
Among cities particularly famous for relics is Trier, Germany, where one of the many “holy tunics”—the seamless inner garment worn by Jesus Christ—is preserved. In Vatican City itself there are over a thousand relics in a special archive. Literally thousands of religious relics are kept in the church of “Saint Ursula” in Cologne, Germany. The list could go on and on. Why, in Italy alone, there are 2,468 so-called holy places with religious relics!
Reverence for relics is believed to date from the fourth century of our Common Era, as does veneration of “saints.” For religious, economic, and even political reasons, the number of relics has gradually grown through the centuries, with thousands in existence today. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed that “according to its tradition, the Church venerates the saints and honors their authentic relics and their images.” (Constitution “Sacrosanctum Concilium” sulla sacra Liturgia, in I Documenti del Concilio Vaticano II, 1980, Edizioni Paoline) “The illustrious relics, as well as those honored by great popular piety,” are mentioned in Codex Iuris Canonici (Code of Canon Law) promulgated by John Paul II in 1983. (Canon 1190) Anglicans and members of the Orthodox churches also honor relics.
With so many alleged nails of Christ’s impalement and heads of John the Baptizer in existence, it is obvious that religious relics are often fraudulent. For instance, radiocarbon dating proved the Shroud of Turin to be a fraud. Interestingly, during the heated debate over it in 1988, the well-known Vatican observer Marco Tosatti asked: “If the scientific analysis used on the Shroud was applied to other objects of popular devotion, what would the verdict be?”
Obviously, no wise person would want to venerate a false relic. But is that the only factor to consider?
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible does not say that God’s favored people, the ancient Israelites, venerated religious relics while in Egyptian bondage. True, the patriarch Jacob died in Egypt and his remains were carried into the land of Canaan for burial ‘in the cave that was in the field of Machpelah.’ His son Joseph also died in Egypt, and his bones were eventually carried to Canaan for burial. (Genesis 49:29-33; 50:1-14, 22-26; Exodus 13:19) However, the Scriptures give no indication that the Israelites ever venerated the remains of Jacob and Joseph as religious relics.
Consider, too, what happened in the case of the prophet Moses. Under God’s direction, he led the Israelites for 40 years. Then, at the age of 120, he ascended Mount Nebo, viewed the Promised Land, and died. Michael the archangel disputed with the Devil about Moses’ body, and Satan was foiled in any possible attempt to use it to ensnare the Israelites in relic worship. (Jude 9) Although they understandably mourned Moses’ death, they never venerated his remains. In fact, God made such a thing impossible by burying Moses in an unmarked grave at a location unknown to humans.—Deuteronomy 34:1-8.
Certain advocates of the veneration of relics cite 2 Kings 13:21, which says: “It came about that as they were burying a man, why, here they saw the marauding band. At once they threw the man into [the prophet] Elisha’s burial place and went off. When the man touched the bones of Elisha, he immediately came to life and stood upon his feet.” This was a miracle involving the lifeless bones of one of God’s prophets. But Elisha was dead and “conscious of nothing at all” at the time of the miracle. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) Hence, this resurrection must be attributed to the miracle-working power of Jehovah God, who effected it by means of his holy spirit, or active force. It is also noteworthy that the Scriptures do not say that Elisha’s bones were ever venerated.
Some in Christendom advocate devotion to relics because of what is said at Acts 19:11, 12, where we read: “God kept performing extraordinary works of power through the hands of [the apostle] Paul, so that even cloths and aprons were borne from his body to the ailing people, and the diseases left them, and the wicked spirits came out.” Please note that it was God who performed those extraordinary works through Paul. The apostle himself did not perform such works independently, and he never accepted veneration from any human.—Acts 14:8-18.
Contrary to Bible Teachings
Actually, devotion to religious relics is contrary to a number of Bible teachings. For instance, an indispensable factor in such devotion is belief in the immortality of the human soul. Millions of devout church members believe that the souls of all those canonized and venerated as “saints” are alive in heaven. These sincere people pray to such “saints,” seeking their protection and asking that they intercede with God on the petitioners’ behalf. In fact, according to one ecclesiastical work, Catholics attribute to relics “the power of intercession of the Saint with God.”
According to the Bible, however, the human soul is not immortal. Humans do not have souls within them that are undying and capable of existence apart from the body after death. Rather, the Scriptures say: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7) Instead of teaching that humans have immortal souls, the Bible says: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) This applies to all humans—including those later canonized as “saints”—for all of us have inherited sin and death from the first man, Adam.—Romans 5:12.
Devotion to “saints” should be avoided because they were never authorized to intercede with God for anyone. Jehovah God has decreed that only his Son, Jesus Christ, can do this. The apostle Paul said that Jesus “not only died for us—he rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us.”—Romans 8:34, The Jerusalem Bible; compare John 14:6, 14.
Another reason to avoid devotion to “saints” and religious relics associated with them rests in what the Bible says about idolatry. One of the Ten Commandments given to the Israelites stated: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.” (Exodus 20:4, 5) Centuries later, the apostle Paul told fellow Christians: “My beloved ones, flee from idolatry.” (1 Corinthians 10:14) Similarly, the apostle John wrote: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”—1 John 5:21.
Reverence for canonized “saints” and religious relics, therefore, finds no support in the Bible. However, some people desire the presence of something considered holy that can be seen and touched and supposedly has saving power. Indeed, many consider religious relics to be a visible link in a chain between heaven and earth. Please reflect on this point for a moment.
It is not by seeing and touching religious relics that a person acts in harmony with Jesus’ words about the worship that God desires. Jesus said: “The hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him. God is a Spirit, and those worshiping him must worship with spirit and truth.” (John 4:23, 24) Jehovah God is “a Spirit,” invisible to human eyes. To worship him “with spirit” means that our sacred service to God is motivated by a heart full of love and faith. (Matthew 22:37-40; Galatians 2:16) We cannot worship God ‘with truth’ by venerating relics but only by rejecting religious falsehoods, learning his will as revealed in the Bible, and doing it.
It is not surprising, therefore, that scholar James Bentley acknowledges that ‘the ancient Hebrews did not practice the veneration of relics.’ He also says that during the four centuries between Stephen’s death and the exhuming of his body by Lucian, the attitude of Christians toward relics changed completely. By the fifth century C.E., however, apostate Christendom had already ceased adhering to clear Biblical teachings about idolatry, the condition of the dead, and the role of Jesus Christ as the one who “pleads for us.”—Romans 8:34; Ecclesiastes 9:5; John 11:11-14.
If we want our worship to please God, we must make sure that it is not associated with any form of idolatry. To be acceptable, our worship must go to the Creator, Jehovah God, not to any relic or creature. (Romans 1:24, 25; Revelation 19:10) We must also acquire accurate knowledge of the Bible and build up a strong faith. (Romans 10:17; Hebrews 11:6) And if we walk in the way of true worship, we will act in harmony with the overwhelming Scriptural evidence that devotion to relics does not please God.
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Elisha’s bones were not venerated although they were involved in a resurrection