One does not wish to speak ill of the dead, and it is not my intention here to do so. But it is my intent to speak of how one believer did speak of the dead recently. I refer to an interesting article in the Weekend Australian a few weeks back about recently deceased columnist and atheist Pamela Bone. And I refer to how one Anglican vicar conducted her funeral.
That last sentence ought to already be setting off question marks, if not alarm bells: church funeral for an atheist? According to the report, Ms Bone wrote down her desire for a church funeral ahead of time. As the article states, “‘It may seem hypocritical, after I have spent so many years of my life in journalism writing columns about the harm done by religion, to want to have a funeral in a church,’ she wrote at the start of the service booklet. ‘However, I love old hymns, religious poetry, church spires … I am a cultural Christian … the church belongs to us all’.”
The article finishes with these words: “In Bad Hair Day, her book about dying, she wrote: ‘If God does exist, I don’t approve of him’.” So she seems to have made it clear her thoughts about God, and where she stands with him.
But as I said, my main concern is with what was said at the service. This is what the article says: “Colleen O’Reilly, vicar at St George’s Anglican Church in Melbourne’s Malvern, said: ‘We are here to commit her to the God she doubted existed, but she would never let go of the question.’ She described Bone, who died last Saturday at 68, after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2004, as ‘an icon for Christian feminists as we seek to undo harm done by patriarchal distortions’.”
Now as a Biblical Christian, I must say I have a few problems with these remarks. If, as Ms Bone admits, she has always rejected God, then heaven will not be her place of final abode. That is tragic news, and it grieves the heart of God that those whom he has died for can so stubbornly and insistently dismiss him, and his provision for their eternal reconciliation with him. But that is the clear teaching of Scripture.
Yet the vicar does not seem to bemoan any of this. All she can do is extol her as a champion of women’s lib, as if that will somehow make everything OK. Sorry, but no matter how committed she may have been to feminism, the real question is, what has she done with Jesus? Has she received him as Lord and Saviour or not? That is the only final question of real significance.
I cannot imagine Jesus and the disciples suggesting that although some people have rejected God and denied the saving work of Christ, at least they were great feminists. While earthly causes are not unimportant, in the greater scheme of things, what one does with the God question, and where one spends eternity, really are the key concerns of life.
Now some might object that only God can judge one’s eternal destiny. Quite so. But that is not the end of the story. Believers are called to do all they can to help people make the right choices about where they spend eternity. While only God ultimately knows who are his, that does not for a moment take away our responsibility to do all we can to warn people about a lost eternity without Christ.
The claim that God alone knows who are his must never trump our responsibility as believers to preach the good news, to warn people of judgment to come, and to seek to win the lost for Christ. Otherwise the preaching of Jesus himself and the early disciples would be in vain. After all, they did all they could to persuade people to repent of their selfishness, to leave their sinful ways behind, to receive God’s forgiveness, and to live a new life in Christ.
While we cannot be the ultimate judge of anyone’s fate, we can proclaim forcefully and without fear that what one does with Jesus Christ in this life will seal their eternal destiny. If a person has rejected God and his only provision for eternal life – repentance and faith in Jesus Christ – then we have no right to somehow assume they are really alright, and God is somehow happy with them.
Far too many church funerals are offering false hope to people. While we can all hope that everyone makes the right decision about Christ, we cannot just glibly assume they are going straight to heaven, when all of their adult lives they denied God and rejected his only offer of salvation.
The truth is, we are not doing anyone favours by misleading them about the most important question that they face: that of their eternal destiny. The Bible makes it clear that those who reject Christ, God will reject. Jesus made this quite plain: “Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33). “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36).
“There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.” (John 12:48). And Scripture is clear that we have only this lifetime to get things right: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Still, some might object that this sounds too harsh, unloving and uncompassionate. But how can a cavalier view of these truths be loving? Is it unloving and unkind to allow someone to go his or her own way, rejecting God and his offer of eternal life? Is it compassionate to stand by and allow people to choose a lost eternity without God? The most loving thing we can do is warn people about wrath to come if they will not receive the provision offered by Christ.
Ms Bone has made choices in her lifetime which she will now have to live with – forever. But the real concern is when Christian leaders offer false or fuzzy hope, especially in defiance of the clear teaching of Scripture. To imply that a person who wants nothing to do with God and the atoning death of Christ is somehow doing OK in the afterlife is neither merciful nor biblical.
Life is too short, and our eternal destinies too important, to minimise the gospel, offer false hope, and water down the clear teaching of the Bible. The good vicar may have meant well, but faithfulness to the biblical position must always be our first priority, not mere sentimentality or niceness.