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death, grief, and eternal destinies

January 27, 2012
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Over the last few days, I’ve been preparing a sermon on the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the grave. It is a story of death, grief and life.

Death is our common enemy. It is an intruder with whom we are never to make peace. Death is not the way it’s supposed to be. Nonetheless, what Jesus said and did in face of death must change the way we view and experience it.

Jesus said that he was the resurrection and life, and secured that promise with his own death and resurrection. Those who by faith are connected to Jesus share in his resurrection and life. Though Christians will face death, they need not live under the power of it. Death does not have the last word. Christians live with the hope that they, like Jesus, will rise again. The life for which we long – the good and flourishing life – cannot be taken away, even by death.

But how should Christians think about the death of those, particularly loved ones, who are not Christians?

Before I mention a couple of points, I want to acknowledge the difficulty of this subject because when we talk about death we talk about eternal destinies. I believe in heaven, hell and the resurrection of the dead. I believe that Jesus is the only source of life and that life is with him. If we deny Jesus, we deny life and receive what we wanted – a life without God. Hell.

So, how should Christians think about the death of those, particularly loved ones, who are not Christians?

God is the author of salvation and the judge of all. There is a fine line between being theologically aware and theologically arrogant. Being theologically aware leads to knowing God whereas being theologically arrogant leads to thinking we are God. This distinction is important because many, out of theological arrogance, confuse knowing the source of salvation with being the author of salvation. When this happens, we make the mistake of thinking we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether someone is a Christian.

This is complicated by broad evangelicalism’s emphasis on salvation by profession of faith. In other words, we know that we (and others) are Christians if we profess that Jesus is our personal Lord and Savor. There is good reason for this. The Apostle Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Profession of faith is important. It is even a sign of experiencing salvation. However, we must not make the mistake of determining whether or not someone is a Christian based on whether they profess faith.

I, along with many friends, have asked the question of those who have died: Are they a Christian? Did they have faith? I don’t think there is anything wrong with this question. However, we must answer humbly. We must answer with the recognition that God and God alone saves, not one’s profession of faith. We cannot fully know what transpires between God and a person. God is the judge. We are not.

God is full of love. In the last few years, a new universalism is starting to emerge. James Smith, professor at Calvin College, suggests two fundamental approaches that drive this movement: “I can’t imagine a God of love would send people to hell” and “At least I hope that God doesn’t send people to hell.”

I understand why people are drawn to these teachings. It is a grievous thought that people, particularly those we love, are separated from God in hell. However, the problem with the new universalism is that it’s built on presumption and therefore provides little comfort and direction in thinking about loved ones who have died but never, at least to our knowledge, made a profession of faith.

I think a better approach is to cling to what we know with confidence. What we know with confidence is that God is full of love. Knowing this shouldn’t translate into believing there isn’t a hell or if there is one, it’s empty, but should instead evoke a deep, abiding trust.

Some close to me have died. Those who were professing Christians, I tried to grieve as one who has hope. As for my deceased loved ones who were not professing Christians, I trusted that God would attend to them in a way that is loving and just. I can trust him with my soul and the souls of others whom I love. This doesn’t translate into wishful thinking but real relinquishment of control over others’ eternal destinies.

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