How do we View the Death of an Unbeliever?


How do we View the Death of an Unbeliever?

As we read the national and world news, we’ve noticed that recently certain high profile celebrities have died. Further, I’ve gone to several funerals of friends. So death is somewhat on my mind these days. Probably you too have had to face the reality of death among your own circle of friends and family and you have noticed the death of certain secular personalities. But do we go beyond being touched by these deaths—do we also think about the life and circumstances of their death? Do we ponder where these departed souls are now?

People around us look at death in various limited or even defective ways. Some assume that nearly everyone will leave this world to go to “heaven.”  However this idea is misconceived. This popular view is nearly a universalist one that thinks most people are already right in the eyes of God. Others, with a Catholic background, may think that most professing “Christians” will go to purgatory where they will need to be purified by the fires of God to make them worthy of heaven. There are others who have an anti-Christian view, such as reincarnation, that denies any semblance to a Biblical understanding of life after death. They wrongly think that people will come back in another form to live their life over again, with the object of achieving perfection or nirvana. With the growing number of atheists, we know that there are millions of others who mistakenly think that when they breathe their last, they will be like a dog or a rat and simply cease to exist!

Let’s now become personal: How do you and I view someone who has died and was not prepared to face God in judgment?  We could close our eyes to the truth and try to convince ourselves that the deceased person was a faithful, loving, and devout follower of Christ. But the truth may convict us by reminding us that the person failed to exercise saving faith and neglected to live a faithful life of loving service for the Lord. But in the trauma of pre-death and post-death, we may want to believe an untruth about the person’s condition. Or we may have a low view of what is required to enter the Kingdom of God. Some people have such a superficial view of conversion and salvation, they think that merely believing in Jesus, with a defective faith, is all that is required to be born again and enter heaven. Dozens of Scriptures would show the fallacy of such a view.

Many people don’t want to face the truth about this for they refuse to think that their friend or loved one could be lost. Thus, they hope that somehow the person may have had a “death-bed conversion,” or may have cried out to God in their heart during their final days on earth. Or they may hope that God will be lenient toward their friend even though the person failed to have a settled faith in Christ Jesus and His saving death, and failed to exercise that faith in practical obedience to God, and failed to live a life of love for the Lord and for others. In our grief over the departed loved one, we may overlook the truth that we would know in our calmer moments. Or our theology may be at fault, thus we are unclear about what the Bible teaches about salvation and eternal life.

We know that only those who have been spiritually “born again” will enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3-7). Only those who have a living faith in the Lord Jesus (John 11:24-25), who do the will of God (Matthew 7:21), who manifest the fruit of the Spirit and righteousness (Galatians 5:22-24), who are part of the body of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-27), and who refuse to follow the ways of the flesh (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) will be received by the Lord on that great Last Day at the judgment. But we wrestle with the fact that few—very few—have responded this way during their lifetime. Try as we may to change this reality, we must face the cold fact that “it is appointed for men to die once, and after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). And the related scripture that few are on the narrow way that leads to life, whereas many are on the broad way that leads to destruction.

Let’s notice a few brief truths from the Scriptures that will help us to understand God’s perspective on death and of the need to prepare for this coming event that will face all of us, unless the Lord Jesus should come beforehand.

First, death is an enemy that is not natural but must be faced.  Remember that Paul calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Bildad, one of Job’s “friends,” called it the “king of terrors” (Job 18:14). Death is not a friend, particularly if we don’t know Jesus Christ. The modern humanistic perspective that death is a “natural” part of existence is utterly wrong. Death entered into human existence because of the original sin and this physical death has spread to all humanity (as will as all non-human life).

Second, most people generally dread death. Unless they have convinced themselves that there is no God and no life after death, people innately know that they must face their sins in the life to come. They have a “fear of death” that plagues them through life (Hebrews 2:15). I knew one person who said that he refused to go to a funeral for death was so painful to him.  Many do dread seeing a dead person. There is the reminder at a funeral that each of us must die and face God in judgment.

Third, God doesn’t delight in the death of unforgiven sinners. God declared, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” thus He calls on people to “repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:32). It was God’s intention in the beginning that His creatures would live forever, but sin entered the world through the first pair.  Paul explains that “in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). When someone leaves this world without a saving relationship with Him through Christ, God’s heart is grieved since this is not what He wanted nor what He finds pleasant. He knows what these departed saints will face and also what they will miss.

Fourth, God does have a different attitude toward His children who depart this life.  Scripture assures us, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His godly ones” (Psalm 116:15). Asaph was able to say to God, “With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24). We further read in Revelation 14:13: “I heard a voice from heaven, saying, ‘Write, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!” ‘ ‘Yes,” says the Spirit, so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.”’” With deep assurance, Paul was able to say that he had “the desire to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).The apostle also wrote that he preferred to “be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). The future holds promise to the one who lives a life of faith, love, and obedience to the Lord.

Fifth, at death we must cease all earthly activity and also lose all further opportunity to change our eternal destiny. As we noticed earlier, after death comes the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). There will be no change of status after one breathes his last and his brain waves cease.  You may remember the parable of the rich man who died and immediately he was in torment (Luke 16:19ff). He could do nothing to change his status or alter his condition after death (vv.23-26). In another parable, Jesus tells us of a rich man who was utterly concerned about storing up his produce on earth but was not mindful of God (Luke 12:19). But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you, and now who will own what you have prepared?” (v. 20). Now is the only opportunity you have.

Sixth, there will be no change of status after death. I have a friend who is convinced that most of the world’s population will be given another opportunity to be forgiven after they die—and he thinks that most people will accept such an opportunity at that time. This view, which is nearly a universalistic understanding, is indeed an empty hope. Jesus said that most people have entered through a wide gate and walk a broad way that leads to destruction, whereas only a few enter through a narrow gate and will walk the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). As we have noticed, death ends all opportunity to come to God through Christ, to repent of sins, to be born again, and to respond to the gospel in faith.

If all of this is true, in our grief we may lament, “But how can I bear to think of death and the departure of a friend, a relative, or a family member?” This has occupied the minds of sensitive and devout people for ages. It is an issue of great moment and can keep a person awake at night as he or she ponders the fate of a dear loved one. One friend of mine said that he was plagued with the thought of his lost grandfather who died, for he knew that he could do nothing now to alter that destiny.

We may not be able to answer such a weighty matter easily, but we can at least receive some light from Scripture. As the psalmist put it, “The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130; cf. v. 105).

When we think of the departure of our family member or close friend, let’s keep the following truths in mind:

        1.    Abraham asked God, “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25). Moses also said, “Ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:3-4). God will exercise perfect justice with someone who has died who doesn’t know God. God is righteous and all that He does in regard to those who die—whether righteous or unrighteous, whether forgiven or unforgiven—will be right.


        2.    The Lord will have mercy on those He chooses to give mercy: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). We know that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6). We can count on God to have compassion on those He chooses to bestow compassion. He longs to show His mercy toward those who respond to Him in faith.


        3.    We can’t overlook the matter of sin.  We know that sin will keep most people out of heaven.  God “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:7). As Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin separates from God right here on earth (Romans 5:10-11) and it will separate people from Him through all eternity (Matthew 25:41).


        4.    God will be entirely impartial in the judgment.  As the apostle put it, “He will render to each person according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6). “There is no partiality with God” (v. 11). “The judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things [such sins]” (v. 2). His ways are right and just, and there will be no question that His pronouncements are just.


        5.    Faith is the key to being right with God (Romans 1:16-17). And unbelief and sin are the keys that determine not being right with God. If we sin, God will reward us with the consequences of such sin. We refer here to unforgiven sin. We know that everyone has sinned (3:23), but only the unforgiven sins are held against us after death. Notice this long explanation by Paul: “To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (2:7-10).


        6.    Beware of making another means of coming to Christ or receiving eternal life. We often hear people who seek personal assurance for their friend or loved one who dies by saying, “John was such a good person. He always tried to help other people.” Or we say, “Susan must have gone to heaven for she was unselfish and kind. Surely God will allow her to go to heaven!” Although this is understandable, we know that good deeds cannot give one entrance into heaven. Salvation is a “gift of God” and isn’t “a result of works,” otherwise one could boast of is righteous deeds (Ephesians 2:8-9; cf. Titus 3:5; Philippians 3:9). Our good deeds, our obedience, our religious or moral works, our love and charity cannot provide the foundation of acceptance with God. The question is what has one done with Jesus? Has one lived in saving faith, godly love, and humble obedience?


        7.    In heaven, we who are forgiven and have a saving relationship with God will know pure and unadulterated joy! The psalmist exclaimed, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11b). Even now we can “greatly rejoice” (1 Peter 1:6), and Peter told his suffering and persecuted readers, “You greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (vv. 8-9). Although we may need to suffer for our faith, Peter gives this consolation: “Keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (4:13).  Jude tells us that we will “stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 24).


        8.    God won’t allow us to be burdened by grief over lost loved ones in the life to come in heaven.  Especially notice this: If grief over our lost friends and loved ones were to bring something negative to our life beyond the grave, then joy would be minimized. Instead, we can look forward to great joy, fullness of joy, and joy inexpressible! Somehow, God will “wipe away every tear from our” eyes (Revelation 21:4a).  There will be no more “mourning, or crying, or pain” for “the first things have passed away” (v. 4b). If a loved one is lost, we may grieve deeply here, but in the life to come—when our characters will be entirely transformed into the perfect likeness of God—the fact that our loved one or friend was lost will not mar our complete joy. We may wonder how this can be, but it is a truth found in Scripture.


        9.    We will be like God in all of His moral perfection (1 John 3:3). And God will not be burdened by the loss of some who were unforgiven in the coming age. While we know that God hates to see anyone lost, somehow, in His holiness, justice, and righteousness, we know that God yet maintains a continual joy and blessedness—that will last through eternity. We will be the same way. Our natures will be so changed that we too will be able to recognize that God is just and condemns the lost, and since we will also be holy and righteous, we will likewise be able to maintain a perfect joy, peace, and contentment. We may not be able to fathom this at present, but surely it must be true.


        10. We must not entertain the thought that God, in His compassion, will accept a person who has died in his sins (John 8:24). He has already made clear that He will only accept responsible persons who humble themselves in repentance for their sins and trust in God to save them through Christ (Acts 20:21; John 3:14-18, 36). God “cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). He “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). In our grief, we may wonder if God can find some other way to receive unrepentant sinners, but we have no such hope in the Scriptures.


These are some of the Biblical truths that should inform our mind and conscience about those who die. In light of this, it is good for us to redeem the time and do what we can now, in the present, to reach our friends, our relatives, our family members, and all others.  Now is the time to come to Christ for the only time we have is the present. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You may not have a further opportunity to reach someone for we never know if that person will live longer or perhaps die tomorrow. Let’s do what we can while we may.

(The interested reader may want to read Love Your Loved Ones Before they Die.)








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