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.