Do you believe in life after death? Do you believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ? How about Lazarus? Or the many dead who were raised simultaneously during Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:52-53)?
Earlier this year I attended a church called “The Garden” in Chatsworth, CA at the behest of one of my dear friends and co-workers. The sermon there was on resurrection—more specifically on “experiencing” Jesus’ resurrection in a physical way. The message, simply put, was that Christians need to grieve just as much as normal people do when they lose a loved one and that God understands this grieving process. The lesson was taught via the story of Lazarus as detailed in the Gospel of John (John 11).
Naturally, I had some problems with the message. It’s my personal opinion that any Christian who truly believes the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ, and the Bible as a whole, should be positively delighted when a loved one passes away. After thinking about this for quite some time, I decided to e-mail the pastor my thoughts on the matter. The body of the e-mail, edited slightly due to extraneous personal information, is below:
Dear Pastor Kim,
I’ve listened to the sermon three times now and the overall message seems to be that we should be “real” with God. We should be okay with airing our grievances when we’ve lost a loved one. We should come to Him first and allow ourselves to make requests, feel hurt, be angry or anything in between. You said many times that Christians shouldn’t just say, “praise Jesus” when someone they love passes, to which I couldn’t help but ask myself—why not?
For the Christian who’s lost a fellow believer, the idea of traditional mourning seems, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, an indictment on the mourner’s faith. Christian or not, you will undoubtedly miss your loved one and their company once they’ve passed away. But for the Christian, a newfound feeling of emptiness can’t compare to how ecstatic you must be to know that said loved one has been reunited with their perfect Creator. Your loved one is watching over you in a place of unfathomable and unending ecstasy. If anything, this should be cause for celebration. And how selfish would it be for us to wish that person were back on earth, slugging it out in a fallen world, simply to assuage our feeling of loss? The Christian will be comforted by the belief that in the relative blink of an eye, they will be reunited with their loved one—in God’s glory—for all time. So, what on earth does the Christian who truly believes in the afterlife have to grieve for?
Maybe they lost someone close to them who was not a believer? This is somewhat more understandable, but even here the grieving process for the Christian should be mitigated in a major way by their faith. Romans 8:28 tells us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” So the believing Christian isn’t able to say that the loss of an unbeliever was somehow a “mistake” or that it was not intended to be a benefit to them (and other believers) in the long run. Indeed, the unbeliever’s death is all part of God’s perfect plan for those who love Him. But more than that, the Christian knows the attributes of God—perfectly loving, perfectly just, all-knowing—so on and so forth. Even though it may seem unfair from the human perspective, we know that because God exhibits these qualities the unbeliever got exactly what they deserved—no matter how good of a person they were, or how much we personally miss them. So again, for the Christian who truly believes in the afterlife—and who also truly believes in God’s sovereignty—what is there to mourn?
Even if this very “human” (as you called it) grieving process turns out to be necessary, it’s still unclear why we should be telling God how we feel and what we want. After all, He already knows what’s written on our hearts and minds without us having to form those thoughts and feelings into words. And since prayer doesn’t usually utilize speaking anyway, why is it so important that we think these thoughts specifically to God? Can He only respond to thoughts when we bow our heads a certain way or clasp our hands? Beyond the logistics of communicating those thoughts to Him, what could we possibly ask for that’s a tenable solution to our problems? Why is it important to let Him know what we think when He’s already fashioned a superior plan? How comforting is it to ask for something and interpret a “no”—or not get any answer at all? Since He’s sovereign over all of creation, how much sense does it make to be upset about a situation that He manufactured in the first place?
I don’t have good answers for any of these questions, but I can say that as an atheist I happen to believe in the efficacy of the grieving process. Much has been written about effective ways of dealing with our emotions—studies show it’s generally better for our happiness to write feelings down, rather than talk about them for instance—but these approaches are rather “worldly” and rest firmly on the notion that the loss of a loved one is permanent. So, I’m a bit surprised that Christians, despite laying claim to spiritual knowledge of life after death, can’t (or choose not to) circumvent the normal steps of the grieving process. Why don’t the truths of Christianity better equip believers to deal with death than the truths of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or atheism? It appears that the promises of Christianity aren’t truly believed—even by Christians—and so they must suffer through the heartaches of life like everyone else. If this were not the case, Christians would be deeply consoled by the simple and elegant truth that God is sovereign over all and salvation comes to those who accept it from Jesus Christ. But no human knows—beyond the shadow of a doubt—what happens after death. For this reason I think we all want to experience a resurrection, even if it’s just to ask “what’s it like on the other side?”
If the story of Lazarus is to be taken as literal history, rather than metaphor, then Mary, Martha, Jesus and even the Jewish mourners who were present during Jesus’ miracle could’ve asked this question. But sadly they did not. Or if they did, the scriptures leave that detail out. Which is pretty striking considering the power of the question and it’s potential answer; it’s something mankind has asked itself since we were capable of doing so. If this answer had been recorded then perhaps Christians would have the depth of faith required to truly believe in the doctrine of life after death—rendering the grieving process useless, or at the very least reduced in severity. But, unfortunately, the Lazarus story is glaringly without conclusion. Jesus’ final line, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go” is hardly a fitting end. We don’t know if Lazarus praised Jesus—or if Mary and Martha did. We get no picture of what Lazarus’ life was like after the resurrection. How many more years did he live? How did he die? Was he miserable, having already experienced heaven?
But I believe the most important detail is that God (via Jesus in this case) intentionally creates the suffering of Lazarus, his family and the “many” Jewish mourners present from Jerusalem to prove a point—namely that he is the Son of God and everything is part of his master plan. As soon as Jesus hears about Lazarus, he says, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” He goes on to tell the disciples before they reach Bethany, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So we know that he was intentionally waiting for Lazarus to die by staying in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” for two days after hearing the news.
But is the contrived grief of waiting for Lazarus to die really worth it? Wouldn’t the healing of Lazarus on his deathbed be miraculous enough to prove who Jesus was? In fact, it’s incredibly easy to imagine a situation in which Jesus could prove beyond doubt that he was the Son of God—without the emotional trauma of inflicting death on his close friend’s family. He could’ve just as easily gathered all of the people that needed to get the message, brought them into the middle of the desert and had God rain down fire that spelled out “I am real and Jesus is my Son.” No life lost. No grief induced. The notion that Mary and Martha had to lose their brother in order for people to believe Jesus was the Son of God strains credulity—especially since they themselves never lost faith after Lazarus’ death, and the disciples had already witnessed a litany of miracles firsthand.
Naturally, we assume Jesus had good reason for inducing the emotional collateral damage that a funeral caused over four days for Lazarus’ family and friends. But if some “higher” inscrutable plan was at play here, it again begs the important question: why is it necessary or fruitful to mourn? We know from the story that Mary and Martha were deeply upset at the loss of their brother. But we also know that if that was part of the plan to begin with, no amount of suffering and grieving on their parts could’ve changed it. If Mary and Martha had not been sad at all, Jesus still would’ve raised Lazarus. In fact, the moral of this story seems to be that we should trust completely in Jesus at all times, even when the consequences look particularly dire. Potentially the exact opposite of “being real” with God about what we want to happen and how we feel about a given situation.
So even after hearing your sermon multiple times, I’m still racked with questions about how effective it could possibly be to mourn as a Christian—if indeed it’s necessary given the beliefs held. I’m sure if we could see God’s plan laid out before us we would probably be content, but since we can’t we have to rely on blind faith. Blind faith in, not only what happens to us when we die, but in God’s overall plan for the good of His believers. And when our faith isn’t strong enough, God’s plan is still present and active, so what is the ultimate point of being frustrated with it? Ultimately, would we want to change God’s perfect plan—even if we could? This is not a new problem for Christianity; just one that I believe is illustrated rather well in your sermon, and I’d be curious to know how you and your church answer these questions.
Thank you for your time and I hope this letter finds you well.
So, any Christians out there have compelling answers to those questions? How do you feel knowing that a believing loved one will go to heaven when they die? Why do you feel this way?