The One Question Christians Need To Stop Asking People, When Their Loved One Dies

Hands


Two days after my father died, I was walking into my church and ran into a good friend. She hugged me and expressed how sorry she was for my loss.

She loves me and she meant it.

Then, without taking a breath, she looked me in the eyes and asked a question that kicked me right in the stomach, and she never even knew it:

“Your Dad was saved, right? I mean, He knew the Lord, right?”

Christian, this is both a common, and really, really terrible question to ask anyone who has just lost someone they love deeply. There’s simply no good resolution, and here’s why:

If the person answers, Yes, to the question of whether or not their loved one was “saved”, what immediately follows is an attempt, (intentionally or not), to minimize the grieving person’s own personal pain; the rationale being, that if we know that Uncle Bill is dancing in Heaven with Jesus right now, well then, we shouldn’t be all that sad here.

In a well-intentioned attempt to offer some sort of healing to a wounded survivor by showcasing the upside for the dead person, this salvation question and the resulting assumptions that come along with it, can actually discount their own sadness and loss by default.

Even if they believe that their loved one has “gone to a better place”, the fact of the matter is, that for them, this place has gotten decidedly lousier and more lonely. You may be trying to console the person grieving, but in reality, you often simply trivialize their grief or sidestep it altogether.

Yes, their beloved may be in Heaven, but they’re still going through Hell here.

And sadly Christian friend, that’s actually the better scenario of the two, in the “Was your dead family member/friend saved or not?” sweepstakes.

What happens if you get a No?

What happens if the person suffering such intense personal mourning, (who you’ve now placed in the middle of the most awkward of possible moments), actually believes that the loved one in question, didn’t accept Jesus, that they weren’t properly “saved”?

Firstly, they almost certainly feel a tremendous pressure to say Yes, merely to avoid the insult imbedded in the question itself; but even if they somehow fight through the embarrassment, and anger, and confusion to tell you, “No, he/she wasn’t saved”, then what?

I’ll tell you.

The grieving person, then gets the wonderfully comforting image of Uncle Bill being tortured and suffering, currently and eternally in a lake of fire or other nightmarish setting.

Well done. They now have that, piled on top of the devastation they’re already walking through.

They still get to walk through it of course, just now carrying a framed picture of their loved one in Hell, as they do. That was helpful.

Christian, I’m going to give you some news that will certainly anger some of you, but for the sake of good, hurting people you may otherwise do damage to, I’m going to give it to you anyway:

No one really knows who goes to Heaven and who doesn’t.

You don’t. I don’t. Your favorite pastor doesn’t—at least not enough to query someone’s grieving loved ones.

Yes, there are Scripture passages that seem to give us some comfort for faithful people, but even they have their limitations. They often don’t even mean what we do in our modern Christian culture, when we ask those “eternal destination” questions.

In the Book of Acts, when the Apostle Peter publicly preaches, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”, or when the Apostle Paul writes to his church in Rome, that salvation comes by “confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord”, they aren’t referencing a one-time altar call or a momentary magic prayer (the things we so often are referring to in our “Were they saved?” questions).

They speak to a turning to, or a coming to God in need, or to the orientation of one’s life; not merely to walking to the front during a Sunday service to have a pastor punch your ticket to Heaven.

If we’re honest, we don’t really know all the mysteries of how one actually receives the salvation that Jesus talks about, and even if we could somehow boil it all down to a 30-second prayer (one the Bible never really references), we’d still never know the internal hearts of individual people enough to speak to their soul’s condition.

We don’t whether they prayed the prayer, but didn’t really make the same profession with their hearts that they did with their mouths.

We don’t know if they lived their whole lives never praying the magic prayer, yet in the quiet of their own inner places and in the outer lives that they lived, actually gave their lives to God many, many times over.

We don’t know the thoughts that our dead loved ones thought, or the silent prayers they prayed, or the inner journey they traveled; things only God could see.

And so Christians, since there is so much we don’t know, and since there is so much potential damage we can do to those who grieve, and since there really isn’t a huge win here, the best advice I can give you about the question of a deceased love one’s eternal destination; is to simply not ask it.

When someone is in the disorienting, agonizing cloud of raw, fresh grief, they don’t need spontaneous sermonizing, or armchair theology, or speculations about the Afterlife. They need simple, sweet, direct compassion in this life.

Words are dicey propositions in times of loss, so use them very carefully when trying to comfort hurting people. If you must speak:

Ask them what they will miss most about their loved ones.
Ask them what lessons they learned from them.
Ask them their greatest memories of the person they’ve lost.

Don’t ask if they think they’re in Heaven or not.

The way that my loving, well-meaning friend could have comforted and blessed me perfectly in the church doorway that day; was to hug me, tell me how sorry she was for my loss, look me in the eyes—and be silent.

Christian, when someone is grieving, often the most important, most healing, most helpful words, are those we chose not to say.

 

 

 

66 thoughts on “The One Question Christians Need To Stop Asking People, When Their Loved One Dies

  1. My wife and I lost our 17 yr old daughter in a car accident. She was in a coma for 4 days. The Doctors offered zero hope. After many tears and heart wrenching emotional pain, we chose organ donation, which, ironically she had chosen just months before to mark on her drivers license Later, as we stood in that reception line at her funeral, we cringed at “comforting” remarks like: “It’s the will of God;” “God is in control; we don’t always understand why, we just have to trust God;” “It’s part of God’s plan,” “She’s in a better place; etc. I know they meant well, but the whole experience we went through forced us to rethink our religious beliefs and dig deeper into the real meaning of those cliques we grow up hearing so much. Many of those friends, however, were very comforting, offered help in so many ways, donated money for a scholarship in her honor at Africa University, and looked for ways that God could work through them to make something good come out of our tragedy. I do not believe that God makes bad things happen in our lives, but often He uses our bad things to help us bring good to others as well as ourselves.

    • My husband’s step-dad’s family lost a young man to a car accident at 18. We spent the day with them after it happened and I listened to all the things that people said when they came by bringing food. And then I listened to his mother after they left ask how it could be God’s plan. How could God think he needed my son more than I needed him? Why did he need another angel? And so on.

      It was one of the single greatest growth experiences in my life. All those attempt-to-comfort phrases immediately went on my “never say it” list. I wouldn’t be inclined to ask after someone’s salvation anyway, but this post beautifully illustrated the problem with that line of questioning too.

      I can only imagine the pain you went through – and that imagination still falls terribly short of the reality, I know. I hope you’ve found a place of comfort and peace since she passed.

  2. I really do have to go—really, but I could not resist this one. Two old ladies at the funeral home standing over an open casket with a dead person in it:

    “Myrtle? Don’t you think that she just looks so natural lying there?”

    No. If you think she looks like she did when she was alive. Yes. If you think she looks naturally dead. Truth is. She’s dead, cold, and stiff as cord wood—and that is an inescapable fact.

    Maybe someone could convince old ladies to quit this nonsense at funerals.

    Like I said, I have to go resolve a load of problems. I may be back one of these days—but this is going to take a while.

  3. Someone once said exactly this when my dear Father-In-Law passed away. He had been my Father-In-Law longer (26 years) longer than I had my own father who died when I was 20.To question as to where this sweet man would spend eternity was absurd. Even worse, it was his own son who raised the question.

    • Amen ! You are so correct. It is only through Jesus that you are SAVED.
      John 14-6 Know magic prayer. It is the only way. mjs

  4. Im going to be the one(?) person who disagrees with this post. I disagree because I dont think it’s consistent with Biblical Christianity. The ethos behind the post is that the important thing is that people are happy, even if it means downplaying eternal elements. Sure, there is little benefit in upsetting people in bereavement. But if those involved in the above described conversation are all Christians, then the discussion is relevant to their faith, and salvation is the most important thing in their lives. Consider some of the things Jesus said, EG if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out so that you maintain your salvation. To Jesus, salvation was more important than discomfort.
    To censor such discussions is to begin censoring the faith, and it suggests that faith can take a back seat and is simply not vital. Well, that’s not how Jesus saw it.

    • Jesus saw compassion. Your comment is heartless and doesn’t reflect the heart of Jesus at all. What good does it do to bring it up, after it would be too late to help the person who is gone? All it does is bring more pain to the person whose heart is broken.

  5. Our English word “eternal” means no beginning or end. How can a punishment have no beginning? In every scripture that speaks of “eternal” punishment– that word has been mistranslated. That is just a fact. Look in the young’s literal translation (reported by all, even conservatives, to be the most accurate) This changes everything; including the idea of being “saved” as meaning “free ticket to heaven”. Nothing has devastated me more than the church turning a blind eye to the fact that nobody well be suffering “eternally”. You’d think that would be “good news”, but I guess when your the ticket holder, it’s bad news.

  6. Thank you for continuing to underscore such a critical point. Thought you might appreciate this: https://pamrichardswatts.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/football-shiva/

    Loss—especially loss of life—commands respect, and we who witness hurt are called to honor the hurting properly. We see a perfect example of this in the Jewish mourning ritual of shiva. For starters, mourners customarily sat on low stools or the floor, symbolizing the emotional reality of being brought low by grief. God’s chosen people knew how to take a knee.

    For me, the practice raises this question: Are we giving due consideration when our teammates fall? Even before we offer comfort and assistance, are we pausing to pay our respects? Could we as believers “mourn with those who mourn” more thoughtfully if we, too were to take a knee?

  7. I think that if you can’t/shouldn’t ask if a person was saved and going to heaven, then by all accounts, no one should be able to say “They are in a better place now.” I’ve been to many Catholic funerals where they celebrate the person into heaven. I’ve always thought that to be petty presumptuous. So if that is the case, why would anyone even bother about another persons eternal security? Seems to me that the only person you really have to worry about it yourself then. If that is the case then, why even evangelize or promote Jesus publicly. Seems he is pretty useless then as a crowd pleaser. What good is then to follow someone who promotes something they can’t guarantee until it’s too late?

  8. This is on point. I’ve felt the same way for some time. As someone who is pretty well acquainted with those conversations at a funeral, I really do think the best thing people can do in a time of grief is shut the hell up. If you want to bring me food, hug me, or sit with me without saying a word, I appreciate it. If I want you to talk, you’ll know.

    I ‘m in agreeance with you– nobody really knows who’s “in,” who’s “out,” and what that really means after all. We’re all taking a shot in the dark.

  9. “Why would you ask a hurtful question like that at a time like this?”

    “Saved from what? Saved for what?”

    The Good News is not about post-mortal rewards and punishments, immortality, perfection, sin management, or omnipotence.

  10. Oh yes, my darling mother passed away 5years ago. The church bulletin read ‘………..buried her mother today’. No condolences, no prayer thoughts, just that. The most horrible, thoughtless thing, then our pastor spoke about people who put things of sentimental value into a coffin and how useless that was. I had just had to choose the outfit and under garments for her to be cremated in. They were dads favourite outfit too.
    No one offered to take morning tea that day, as i was on roster, in fact I sat on my own in an empty hall while missionaries spoke in the church, with no one to share. Thank God one lovely man leaned across the counter, without a word and gave me a huge, warm hug.
    The next weeks sermon was on funerals and hell. My adult sons looked at me and asked…are you ok mum? Do you want to go out? My husband was in shock, as he and she were very close too.
    How good that others in the church followed me up and shared their grief at the passing of their loved ones. I sure know what not to say, and what I heard that helped.
    Mum was so sick it was really a blessed release, and I miss her, but don’t wish her back here in her pain. I have never asked ‘why me’? Why not me is the truth of life, and to grieve is normal, but after what I had seen in the hospital, peace for her was peace for me.
    Only now I can really talk about it and look at photos, or share memories, most of the time I just pretend she is on one the long caravan holidays they took for 3-4 months every year. The pain is still unbelievable, but it is the fact that we love, we die and we remember. But just DON’T say silly platitudes to those who are left behind……

  11. 2 incidents both of which happened to me just after my Dad (a non-believer) died: the first was the Christian Doctor that was on call at the time of his death badgering me about my beliefs and trying to decide if I were a ‘true’ Christian – I still to this day can’t work out how it was any of his business!
    The second was a couple of days later when I attended my Church and someone came up to me and asked the ‘was he saved’ question to which I replied that I had spoken and prayed with Dad a few hours before he died and I really didn’t know what had happened between God and him. His answer was ‘Oh he’s probably in hell then!’ Good grief – I just stood there with my mouth open and great self control as I really wanted to do this moron physical harm!!!!
    Great article by the way!

  12. I would tell the person it was not of their business. Please let my family grieve in peace. Personal relationships with Jesus are just that, personal!

  13. ‘and the greatest of these is love’ how does asking this question display love? It doesn’t, it displays the fears of the speaker. When our baby died many people, friends, with little ones avoided us. Friends who could have comforted me with their care and love. I asked a friend who did visit me why, and she said that my friends were afraid that it would happen to them…. But you see, it wasn’t about them … they forgot that part I guess.

  14. I needed to read this today, on my father’s first birthday post-mortem. I never let myself consider hell until he got sick, and I am having a really hard time hanging on to Christianity because of it. So much about it just doesn’t add up, most notably God allowing hell’s very existence in the first place if he loves us so much, he wants no one to ever go there. Is he not so powerful to get rid of it and devise a new system?

    Please, no responses about how ‘people send themselves to hell.’ When free will to have a relationship with God or to reject him is confounded with hell as a consequence, it is not free will.

    • Dear Beth,
      There is hope for you today and fully understand your feelings. I too struggled with Christian belief and I was in the ministry for 16 years. But after having a “Road to Damascus” experience, I was given this gift to study the bible and Ancient Hebrew (the language God first spoke to His people) for 6 hours a day for over a year. You wouldn’t believe how much scripture has been debated, changed and left out of what we know as our bible today during the 4th through 6th century when Christianity became legal and the religion of the Roman Empire – with Roman Emperor Justinian forcing acceptance against what the Popes of that day believed. The scripture that states: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city…..”, I’ve often thought that the Dark Ages that followed all this re-interpretation, change in understanding word meanings that was very different than the scriptures in the few hundred years after Christ death, was a cause of the Dark Ages.

      I believe Christianity will change it’s view on hell drastically in the next 50 years (as it’s be waning the last few hundred years) because of the internet. Before the internet, we didn’t have easy access to historical events, writings and understanding the Hebrew language, etc. without going to a very limited library or traveling to a country that had ancient documents to study. Would be very costly. We had to rely on what was taught in the pulpit. Takes along time to change an understanding of biblical concepts that have been past down from generation to generation for over 1,700 years.

      May I suggest a few books I believe will bring much comfort and new hope in your belief in Christianity. This first book is VERY simple and can be read in 6 hours. It is called, “Love Wins,” by Rob Bell. Many mainstream Christians label him a heretic, but state they haven’t read the book. It is not a book trying to sway you to a new religion, but a very good book of questions and a new look at what some of the parables could have meant. No one has absolute truth while in this flesh, but this book does bring much comfort to understanding the hyperbolic (extreme exaggerated, alarmist) language of the bible. Today, we would say to our kid, “Don’t play in the street, you could be hit by a car and hurt.” Hyperbolic example: If you play in the street against my laws, the angels of protection will leave you and you will be crushed, leaving your bloody body to feed the birds of prey while your soul will tormented in hell.” Lol I bet the kid would stay out of the street if you spoke in Hyperboles – which is the intent in scripture to keep you from experiencing much pain and hell here on earth.

      The 2nd book is a book chocked full of scripture. I would say 70% is scripture, but is listing scripture in the perspective to teach “line upon line, precept upon precept.
      There is a scripture in 2 Peter 1:20 that states, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.” This has been interpreted several ways by Christians through the centuries. One being that WE cannot interpret the scripture of our own private understanding, but need guidance from superiors (Popes, Pastors, etc.) to verify. Two, the prophet did not interpret from his private understanding. In researching Hebrew word meanings translated into Greek, “Private” has a meaning of “Single.” e.g. No prophecy is of any single interpretation – meaning it needs the whole sum of God’s Word to interpret it for us – where you have to look where the word in question is stated everywhere in the bible before understanding it’s meaning. The bible is a wonderful mystery novel that has clues all through it. That is what the 2nd book does – lists all the scripture concerning hell, hades, Gehenna, eternity, eternal life and punishment, etc. It is call Hope beyond hell. You don’t have to buy it, but can download or read it or listen to audio form on – http://www.hopebeyondhell.net – without signing up or having to leave an email or name. This speaks volumes to me that the writer is not wanting to profit from the book, like the mass of Christian marketing.

      Be blessed.

  15. I didn’t read all the comment so this might be a repeat: equally bad, if not worse (at least for me) was to hear that “God just needed my dad in heaven. It was his time.” Such a copout. Just grieve with me. Don’t try to solve my grief for me.

  16. Reblogged this on What's Rattling My Cage and commented:
    Excellent post by John Pavlovitz! I pray that I never ask a grieving individual that question. First it is not my place as a Christian or otherwise to ask and second it is not my business no matter how close I am to the individual.

  17. I need to tell you that I think the same way as you. I truly do. You just say it soooooo well. There is no way in heaven or hell that I could explain so beautifully what you explain to so many. I wish I could borrow your communication skills when dealing with certain people. Instead, I will just keep reading your articles and hopefully “footnote’ you half as well as you communicate. Your articles are a blessing!!!!

  18. Thanks for this post. My father was Jewish. When he died, none of my Christian friends said a thing about Heaven and Hell, but it was pretty obvious that they were thinking about it. I simply do not believe that non-Christians like my father …and Anne Frank and all the others that died in the Holocaust… And Ghandi, and my Muslim friend’s dad… Have been doomed to eternal damnation and punishment. No just God would set up a “winners/losers” system like that. Jesus was never interested in creeds and church membership — he was interested in love, mercy, and a transformed heart.

  19. I am glad to come accross this article. I lost my dad recently. He passed away so sudden and unexpectedly. He was not sick. He went to work one day and we received phone call from his office that he passed away. I found comfort in this post even though it is an old post.

  20. This needed to be said and yet people are missing the entire point and want to go back to doctrinal arguments. Latin, Greek, and Hebrew roots of scripture translation could set SO MANY people free from so many misconceptions and doctrinal issues once and for all.

    Our God is a loving God and there is a real process that we do not see, are not involved in, and do not know for certain. Thanks for stating this.

  21. I agree completely with you about the topic but as far as who gets in /being saved/knowing the Lord etc.. But the way I understand it, Knowing him ISN’T enough. MATTHEW 25 1-13 explains that 10 virgins (people of virtue/Christians) who fell asleep didnt have enough lamp oil (didn’t keep filling their faith tank with reading/learning/sharing/serving/praying/repenting) didn’t keep following the word, kept on sinning, not following in the way and works of Jesus. Declaring Jesus Lord and savior isn’t enough… Don’t fall asleep in your faith or let your lantern fire (passion for the lord) die out. In REVELATIONS 22:14 Isn’t talking about your jammies but your soul.
    Verses w/commentary below :
    REVELATIONS 22:14 NIV Blessed are those who wash their robes (pray/serve/repent/seek forgiveness) the that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.
    MATTHEW 25 1-13 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins(proclaimed Christians) who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish (non practicing Christians) ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Hereʼs the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I donʼt know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
    Matthew 25:1‭-‬13 NIV
    http://bible.com/111/mat.25.1-13.NIV

Comments are closed.