Some see in Hebrews 12:1 the idea that people in heaven might be able to look down and see us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. . . .” The “witnesses” are the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11, and the fact that we are “surrounded” by them leads some commentators to understand those heroes (and possibly other people) are looking down on us from heaven.
The idea that people are looking down from heaven to see what we’re doing is common in popular culture. But, as much as we might like the notion that we’re being watched by our departed loved ones, that’s not what Hebrews 12:1 is teaching. Building on Hebrews 11, the author begins drawing up some practical lessons (that’s why chapter 12 begins with “Therefore”). The “witnesses” are the people whom God commends for their faith in chapter 11, and there is a large crowd of them in heaven. The question is, in what way are they “witnesses”?
The proper interpretation of Hebrews 12:1 is that the men and women forming the “great cloud of witnesses” are witness to the value of living life by faith. Their Old Testament stories give testimony to the blessings of choosing faith over fear. To paraphrase the start of Hebrews 12:1, “Since we have so many tried-and-true examples of proven faith . . . .” So, it’s not that people are in heaven watching us (as if our lives on earth are so interesting or they have nothing better to do!), but that those who have gone before us have set a lasting example for us. The record of their lives bears witness to faith and God and truth.
Hebrews 12:1 continues, “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.” Because of the faith and endurance of believers who went before us, we are inspired to stay the course in our own race of faith. We follow the examples of Abraham and Moses and Rahab and Gideon and etc.
Some people point to the rich man’s mention of his brothers in Luke 16:28 as proof that departed souls (in Hades, at least) can see events on earth. However, the passage never says that the rich man could see his brothers; he knew he had brothers, and he knew they were unbelievers. Also, some people use Revelation 6:10 as a proof text: the tribulation martyrs call for God to avenge their deaths. Again, this passage says nothing about the martyrs seeing people on earth; it simply says that they knew they deserved justice and desired the Lord to take action.
The Bible doesn’t specifically say that people in heaven cannot look down on us, so we can’t be dogmatic. However, it is unlikely that they can. People in heaven are likely preoccupied with other things such as worshipping God and enjoying the glories of heaven.
Whether or not people in heaven can look down and see us, we are not running our race for them. We are not hoping for their approval or listening for their applause. Hebrews 12:2 keeps our focus where it belongs: “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus is our blessed hope, no other (Titus 2:13).