What If Loved Ones Die and They’re Not Christian?

How much are we going to "miss" those who are not in heaven with us?

A number of years ago my wife took an adult instruction/membership class at one of the churches in our national church body.  This was before she was my wife – at the time, just a pretty girl I had tricked into dating me.  She loved the class, became a member, and attended again, this time bringing along a non-Christian friend.  Her friend hadn’t had nearly as extensive of a Christian background as my wife had, and in applying some of the truths that she was learning to her own life, she struggled with answers to some of the big life questions.  There was one in particular that bothered her: What if a loved one dies and he/she is not a Christian? 

I remember my wife calling and asking me about it and feeling a little helpless.  I’d been trained with “proof passages” for every doctrine I’d learned that I could typically rattle off pretty quick.  I hadn’t, however, been trained to comfort someone grieving the loss of a friend or family member who, according to every biblical indication, is probably in hell.  As it turned out, this friend’s dad had died of a drug overdose years earlier.  Now she was wondering why she’d even want to go to heaven if there was no hope of her dad being there.  Pretty good question. 

Since this incident 6 years or so ago, I’ve had the same question asked numerous times in a variety of ways by both Christians and non-Christians.  In the article I posted several weeks ago, I mentioned that people in our country are gradually becoming more willing to not identify themselves as “Christian,” which also means that there are fewer nominal Christians that we could reasonably hold out potential hope for, making this a question that could more increasingly be an issue for Christians in the future.

To start, I think that you’ve got to be careful about not falling off of either edge of this discussion into a valley of “no truth” or “no love”.  The valley of “no truth” here would be a universalist attitude that holds out hope that a loving God might possibly contradict his own Word and either not send anyone to hell, or, possibly send people to hell but after a while, have a period of annihilation so that they don’t have to suffer any longer.  This would be unscriptural.  (cf. Matt. 25:41, 46; Matt. 3:7-12; Mark 9:42-48; and, for instance, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.)

The other valley, the valley of “no love,” would be to boldly proclaim orthodox doctrine about heaven and hell and why people go to one or the other, but do it in such a way that suggested you didn’t have any comprehension or sensitivity to the fact that this person would obviously like their loved one to be in heaven but they are powerless to change the dire reality.  In doing so, you could inadvertently rob heaven of its attractiveness, which would be misrepresenting it, and could turn someone off of any desire to live in eternal relationship with God.  And ultimately, this would be unchristlike. (cf. 1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 3:1-3; Jer 29:11; and, for instance, Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” )  Christ came to give hope to the weak, weary, lonely, and oppressed – those sick with sin.  To lead with biblical teaching in a way that shatters someone’s hope would probably misrepresent the gospel.  It’s sort of like doing a Bible study with a liberal feminist and starting with the doctrine of the roles of men and women.  That’d probably close any lines of communication immediately.  Rather, the more sensible thing to do would be to start with showing the love, sacrifice, and generosity of Christ, a man whom you can’t help but respect.   

Demonstrating a perception of human integrity and sensitivity should be common sense, but with Christians who are passionate and fervent in defending doctrine, that just unfortunately isn’t always the case. 

So, what can you say when someone asks about a loved one in hell? 

I’ve sometimes heard people quote Christians or even pastors in saying that since heaven is a perfect place and there won’t be any sadness there, then since the knowledge/memory of a loved one who is not there would naturally be terrible, that memory must be erased.  I don’t know that there is sufficient biblical evidence to support the blissful ignorance of a heavenly lobotomy like that though. 

Rather, here are 2 things I’d encourage people to think about:

1) Those not in heaven never really wanted what heaven truly is anyways. 

In the simplest description I know, heaven is the eternal blessing of being in God’s loving presence.  An unbeliever doesn’t really want that. 

I once read the story of a pastor who, after a debate with a non-Christian friend about heaven, said that it became very obvious to him that by not taking everyone to heaven, God was actually being very gracious.  His friend had suggested that if God is truly loving he should really take everyone to heaven, regardless of their beliefs.  The pastor then asked his friend if he would like to spend eternity under God’s rule worshipping Jesus with other Christians.  The friend responded by saying that this sounded like his own personal hell and that he would be furious if God stuck him in a place like that forever.   

What some believers don’t understand is that unbelievers have chosen life apart from God.  Their unbelief wasn’t just some crime that they were a victim of.  It was what their heart wanted.  That doesn’t make the thought of them in hell easy, nor does it make their afterlife enjoyable, but it does at least give it the sense of ownership and responsibility that is deserved on the part of the individual.

2) It is possible to experience joy and happiness despite knowing that others are suffering.

Some of you are thinking that sounds like the most unchristian thing you’ve ever heard.  Then answer me this question…..is God continuously miserable?  NO ONE is as in tune with souls that have been lost as he is.  In fact, no one has ever loved the souls that have been lost more than he has.  And yet, he continues to reign over all creation in holiness and glory, apart from fear and sadness. 

The truth is that it is still possible to be empathetic and compassionate as well as joyful at the same time.  In fact, this regularly happens in our lives.  If you cross the finish line first in a race or if you win the lottery, is your first thought sadness and mourning for those who didn’t win?  That is by no means a perfect analogy, but hopefully it at least illustrates the point that we can be thrilled for our own good fortune, appreciative of God’s justice, and yet at the same time aware of those who by their own choice have not partaken of Christ’s payment for sins and promise of good fortune. 

Finally…

You know someone who is bound for hell at this moment.  Some of you know people who are already there.  Gut-wrenching.  If this person is still alive, don’t ever stop working with them and praying for them.  My goal today is not at all to cause you to care less about their spiritual well-being and eternal future.  My goal is to remind you that while your passion for such an individual is/was unquestionably great, the passion that you find in, from, and for Christ will be unquestionably greater. 

To say that you don’t want to go to heaven because a loved one won’t be there is to fail to understood that, no matter who you are, your greatest loved one, Jesus, is already there.

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13 thoughts on “What If Loved Ones Die and They’re Not Christian?

  1. Andrea says:

    I have also wondered about what happens to that person right before they die? What if they truly let the holy spirit do its work, and accept the fact that Jesus did die on the cross to save them and He is the only way to the Father in heaven? Maybe I am in denial, but I have always told myself that I can’t know for sure what happens to that person in those final moments. Am I kidding myself? I have two uncles that were not Christian, that have passed.

    • 2.Hey Andrea, good thought. A “deathbed conversion” is a very real conversion and perfectly legitimate. We don’t ever want to slip into a mindset of some of the Jewish Christians of the first century who thought that being a believer “longer and stronger” meant that they were more deserving of God’s love. The only reason any of us receives entrance into heaven is because of God’s grace, his undeserved love.

      Therefore, if someone comes to faith at the last second as an extension of God’s grace, that too is faith that leads to salvation. I think the criminal on the cross to whom Jesus said “today you will be with me in paradise” is a great example of that type of last minute conversion. (Luke 23:40-43)

      I’d probably pause before holding out misplaced hope and wouldn’t offer false promises to someone, but it’s certainly true that God alone sees the heart and makes the final judgment and there is really no way of knowing what goes through someone’s heart at the very end. My guess is that there have been thousands of last moment conversions in history.

  2. Pastor Hein,
    As a pastor you are almost certainly quite familiar with the cross of the evangelist (http://tinyurl.com/3r8ozpl). I find myself torn up regularly about people whom I’ve shared the gospel with who have rejected it. Is this a sinful feeling of mine? Will this remorse be completely gone in heaven? Does God not feel any of this heartache? I had never thougt of these questions in too much depth before your post. I’d be quite interested to hear your thoughts.
    Keep up the good work. I find your posts beneficial for me, and I’m sure the same is true for many others.
    God bess

  3. suzy walker says:

    I believe we are not helpless in regards to our loved ones salvation, Acts 16,31 declares that if i believe then me and my household will be saved…I stand in the gap for my unsaved family, I pray Gods mercy and favor over them everyday…I know that my prayers will be answered…I will never stop praying for them as long as there is breath in me…If they knew what i knew i would want them to pray me into Heaven as well…I believe the church needs to be taught about our weapons and how we can bind up these mind blinding spirits that are holding our loved ones captive…W e have the answer God did not leave us without some heavenly weapons, that can stop satan in His tracks…trouble is church needs to know their rights and know that we have power and its our job to pray…God says in Psalms 62 REMIND ME OF MY WORD!!!! AND DONT STOP!!! Keep knocking keep on thanking Him and your loved ones will all be saved!!!! NO DOUBTS!!!!! God bless…

    • Barbara says:

      I’ve lost my son, 20yr old. He was going through a rebellious stage. He avoided going to church, suffered some disappointments and probable addiction. He died from what was ruled and appeared to be an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. He was brought up as a believer and, to my knowledge, did not deny believing by mouth. Some things he did, we know were against the law of our God. I am only human but how do you propose that I resign myself to accepting that my son might be in hell and that is good for him and for me? Or that it can still be happy for me for he got what he deserved? How would you explain that other rebellious youths, even in the Scripture (Old and New) get a chance to recover and return, but others die suddenly without that possibility? We know that God is fair and His is not the same fairness as ours. What if Peter died at any time when he denied Jesus after walking with him day after day and witnessing miracles? Would that be what he deserved? It would follow to answer it yes but he had a chance, after a chance, after a chance to repent. I am left here not knowing where my child is and that is painful enough. None of us knows the fate of those who have left before us with a very few exceptions. With just a few exceptions, we also don’t know who went to hell. It is,by design, none of our business except to help each other in the journey and in hope. Do not second-guess God.

  4. My theory is that God is outside time. He was not made, he always was and always is. I believe that we can pray into someone’s past and ask God to work for them. I pray for my friends who have died to ask God to go to when they were dying / before and be there with them in their midst (Psalm 139). I don’t think we know the full story so I believe that you are right in not giving false hope to people who have lost loved ones. I feel more inclined to pray for more people and see as many people come to Christ in these last days as I can.

    Out of all the research I did in the last few hours on this topic, this was by far the best. May God Bless you for being a faithful truthful servant and letting love be the greatest of these in you. Cheers mate.

  5. Excellent. I was looking for some answers here as my Christian Sister in Laws mom is passing soon. She has been sick a very long time. My SIL always made a point of telling me her mother wanted nothing to do with God or faith. That always disturbed me. Why were we even talking about it? Wouldn’t it have been better to ask for prayer for her mothers very soul? We can’t know really where her mother will spend eternity.. We are not the judge. She may have repented in her last healthy thinking. God knows. We don’t know for sure. Yes, I agree that prayer is essential along with loving always. And what about faith for that person that won’t believe. Why don’t we pray in faith that at the very least the person will come to repent in their last moments as the sinner on the cross did. Let’s leave God to be who he is. Sovereign and ruler over all including life and death!

  6. Joe Bigliogo says:

    Only a psychopath could believe eternal torture is just and fitting for someone who couldn’t buy into the Christian belief. If hell really exists there can be no heaven, not for anyone with a modicum of human empathy.

    • Okay, Joe. So let me ask you…what if no justice is ever brought to unrepentant rapists, pedophiles, murderers, etc.? If someone gets through life without any consequence for such behaviors, and you’re perfectly fine with that, couldn’t I also reasonably suggest that you don’t possess “a modicum of human empathy”? Does such flippant acceptance of injustice constitute a “psychopath”?

      Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf has suggested that only white American suburbans who haven’t faced the slaughter of infants, the rape of sisters/mothers/wives, and the genocide of innocent countrymen could consider hell unjust. Much of the world would suggest such an intellectual denial of hell to be privileged western naiveté.

  7. Joe Bigliogo says:

    First of all hell doesn’t even exist, it’s just a made up Christian fear fear tactic. But let’s assume that it does. This article is clearly about “unsaved” loved ones and unbelievers; why would you bring up pedos and rapists and have the audacity to suggest I have no human empathy because I don’t believe in eternal torture? Christian doctrine states that any sin even the most trivial is worthy of eternal damnation in hell. Regardless of the offence do you actually believe anybody deserves non-stop, unbearable, torture that never ends? Do you really?
    My concern is for Christians suffering nightmares and terrible angst because they believe it when other Christians tell them their unsaved loved ones and close friends are burning or will burn in hell. Like I said, empathy.
    Of course I believe in justice, proportional justice. But not torture and certainly not eternal torture because I’m not a sadistic psychopath and I don’t believe you are either.

    • Maxine says:

      Thank you, Joe. Your reply gave me comfort. You see, I am a Christian who has suffered nightmares and terrible angst after a loved one committed suicide, and other Christians told me it’s too bad he’s in hell. Yes, empathy! I even became severely depressed, and the Bible and prayer no longer provided comfort. My pain was compounded by the fact that I didn’t feel free to talk to other Christians about all this. Eventually I made adjustments and got comfort from a friend who was also going through depression (for other reasons) and pulled myself out of the terrible black hole.
      I still struggle with the concept of hell. As a teacher, if my students disobey, I give them punishments that are reasonable, with the purpose of helping them make better choices in the future. I would never dream of allowing them to be tortured just for disobeying me. Does that make me better than God?
      To this day, if I start to think too much about hell, I start slipping into the severe depression of two years ago. I also start to have negative thoughts about God and distance myself from Him. So for the sake of my mental health (and relationship with God) I don’t allow myself to think about hell too much. To this day, nobody has been able to give me a satisfactory explanation for the existence of hell.

  8. This is fantastic. I have been talking to someone who is deeply troubled about the idea that one of their loved ones is in Hell and I have not been exactly sure how to respond with compassion, this will help.

    I reposted it one my blog, hope you don’t mind. Great blog by the way, I found it when I was researching the topic of loved ones in Hell.

    God bless,

    James

  9. T says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Made me feel a little better. I cared for my father for the last years of his life. When I say cared I was almost 24-7. Not just a drop-in here and there. We were close. He claims he was brought up Baptist, but he never went to church unless it was a wedding or a funeral. I have always prayed for him. When I realized his time was really getting short, I started praying aloud bedside. I would have him recite prayers after me and asked him if he would have Jesus come into his heart and if he would ask forgiveness for his sins. He did aloud. Being my father had dementia for years before he died 2009-2016, I wonder if I helped with his salvation at all. I also talked to him about joining my Mom in Heaven. I encouraged him again to pray and ask for salvation. I couldn’t bear to think that he wouldn’t be with my Mom again. They were married for 71 years. A Christian told me once that once you have dementia or Alzheimer’s, of course you don’t remember your transgressions so it’s impossible to ask for forgiveness and receive salvation.
    Dementia to me would be considered as mental illness. I believe that God understands that and is forgiving..
    Even though you were of sound mind when you sinned.
    I am grieving his loss so much.

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