Preaching John into Heaven


Preaching John into Heaven!

Richard Hollerman

Have you ever gone to a funeral home or a church building for a memorial service and the speaker lamented that the deceased person had gone to hell?  I have yet to go to such a funeral.  Whether the dead person was likable or obnoxious, whether the person was kind or harsh, generous or stingy, or any other character trait, somehow the preacher assumes that he or she is now in heaven.

We know that Jesus clearly spoke about the present and future and of people’s eternal destiny. He uttered the solemn warning:

Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14).

Notice especially our Lord’s statement that “many” are on the broad way that leads to eternal destruction, while “few” are on the narrow way that leads to eternal life.  The one pathway leads to hell, but the other one leads to heaven or the kingdom of God.  The one is broad but the other is narrow. 

Does this mean that I’ve only been to the funerals of devoted children of God who are saved and safe in His care? Not at all.  Most of the funerals I’ve attended have been for common people, some religious and some irreligious. 

One man came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?”  The Lord replied, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).  This clearly shows that those who know God through Jesus Christ are in the extreme minority. Indeed, few will be saved in this life and few will enter the joys of eternal glory.

When we go to a funeral, we hear all kinds of praises for the one who has died.  For instance, we hear:

  • He was a good man!

  • He was a good citizen!

  • He was a good employee!

  • He was a good father and husband!

  • He was a good family man!

  • He was a good church member!

  • He helped his neighbors and friends!

  • He was really friendly and helpful!

Those who know their Bibles are aware that none of this gets at the heart of salvation.  While it is vital that we demonstrate our faith and new life by being active in good deeds (and we can’t be saved without this), still this misses the point of salvation and being right with God.  Scripture says that God gave His dear Son to take on Himself our flesh and went to the cross for our sins.  When He hung on that cross, He carried our sins and died for them, then three days later God raised Him from the dead so that through this resurrected Savior we might be freed from our sins and enter His holy presence.  Those who turn from their sins (Acts 3:19) and place their faith in God through Christ Jesus and in His sacrificial death (John 3:16-18, 36) and are buried in baptism to rise in newness of life for God’s gracious forgiveness (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3-11) are prepared to face death with hope and confidence.

But consider again our common experience of the usual funeral. Regardless of how irreligious a person is, somehow the preacher “preaches him into heaven” at the funeral.  We are sometimes made to wonder if the preacher really knows anything about the deceased person. We may have had the deceased (let’s call him “John”) as a friend, a family member, or a fellow-employee, but the picture given in the obituary portrays quite a different character than we have known.  Regardless of the person’s departure from the sound teaching of Scripture, regardless of the person’s secular lifestyle, regardless of the worldliness displayed in the person’s daily life, regardless of the known and unrepentant sin in the person’s life, somehow people think that “John” (the departed) is going to heaven. Times without number we have heard the platitude, “John (or Mary, Tom, or Sue) is in a better place!”  Surely people say such lies to make them and others feel better and to take away the guilt of not talking to “John” about salvation or maybe they actually think that God will overlook his sin and grant him a home in heaven.  But are we justified in lying about such a serious and sober matter?

We may not have even known the person who has died but something about the funeral just doesn’t ring true.  We just see a discrepancy between the funeral comments and what we find in Scripture.  Not long ago, I attended a funeral that left me cold, and grieved, and even spiritually angry.  I’ll not give a lot of the specifics or make any identification, but the talk was remarkable. Virtually all of the comments described how wonderful the deceased person was in sports! He was a “triple letterman in baseball, football and track” and volunteered to coach many teams during his lifetime.  He played in church teams and was in golf tournaments.  Of course, he also excelled in his chosen profession (a couple dozen of his fellow-workers had attended dressed in their uniforms).  Extremely little was said about the person’s spiritual nature, any love for God, any devotion to holiness, any interest in sharing Christ, or any sacrificial service for Jesus.  I felt numb with a grief that the most important truths of Scripture had been omitted and the most important things of the world had been emphasized. Yet this is what happens in American funerals on a regular basis!

Over the years, funeral speakers have envisioned the deceased persons in a condition similar to their earthly life.  One speaker thought that “John” would be enjoying his fishing as he had in this life. I even think I remember that the “river of life” was the location of the fishing! Another imagined that the dead person would be in heaven playing cards as she had done on earth every Saturday night.  A further speaker or preacher thought that “John” would be playing golf on the heavenly golf course!  Recently a speaker thought that “John” would be on the heavenly softball team competing against some unknown team.  People like to think of heaven as a continuation of their worldly pursuits, whatever that may be—and regardless of the worldly nature of such activities.

One thing that isn’t mentioned in funerals is Hell.  Regardless of the secular thought and lifestyle of the deceased and regardless of the worldliness in his life, preachers shy away from intimating that “John” is right now in the “torment” and “agony” of hades (cf. Luke 16:23-24).  Of all things, the pastor or minister carefully avoids casting any reflection on the whereabouts of “John” even if he had a horrible character, lived in known sin, was living in adultery, habitually got drunk, regularly smoked, routinely got angry, and spent all of his free time into the worldly pursuits of music, car-racing, TV, movies, computer games, gluttonous activities, or just “wholesome” pursuits of wasting precious time in unspiritual activities.

Preachers seem to take one of two avenues to justify “preaching John into heaven.” First, liberal preachers and others may emphasize the person’s good qualities, virtues, humanitarian activities, and charitable giving.  But we know that salvation is “not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9). We can’t do enough to get us into heaven.  Second, fundamentalist or evangelical preachers may emphasize that “John” made a “commitment” to Christ when he was a lad of five and he has been saved ever since that early presumed salvation experience.  At that time, little “Johnny” “invited Jesus into his heart” and has been secure ever since—regardless of the known and unconfessed sin in his life.  Scripture, of course, gives an entirely different view of how a responsible person comes to Christ for salvation (cf. John 3:16-18, 36; 5:24; Acts 2:37-41; 3:18; 20:21; 22:16; Romans 6:1-11).

For some reason, most preachers lose their perspective and objectivity when they speak in a funeral. In their efforts to console the grieving family and friends of the departed person, they overlook a host of scriptures that emphasize that one must “do the will of God” in order to “live forever” (1 John 2:17).  They somehow avoid the fact that only those who have walked in holiness will see God (Hebrews 12:14).  They neglect to tell the audience that one must actively do God’s will in order to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 7:21), while those who live in sin and commit the deeds of the flesh will not inherit God’s Kingdom (Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

How does one relate to unbelieving family and friends who are in sorrow over the death of “John” who died in sin, unbelief, and lukewarmness?  A funeral is probably not the time and place to give a lesson on the horrors of hell.  Wouldn’t it be wise to just speak about Jesus, the Savior of sinners and the Lord of life?  Speak about His sin-bearing death on the cross and the resurrection to new life.  Allow everyone to apply the “good news” of the salvation message to themselves and others they may know.  Yes, one must state that a person must abide in Christ (John 15:1-8), bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and must live an obedient life (Hebrews 5:9) in order to have eternal life. Yes, a passing reference may need to be made of “John”—the occasion of the gathering—but let the main comments be on our blessed Savior and Lord, the Son of God, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” and the only way to God in heaven (John 14:6).  It is always safe and never wrong to speak of the only One who can rescue from sin, death, and hell and who offers eternal life in heaven.

We may not know everything about the life to come since God has kept some of this secret from us (cf. Deut. 29:29).  But let’s not lower ourselves with the foolishness of “preaching John into heaven” when surely he must not have gone there.  Let’s not talk about John’s dancing to country music, or enjoying auto racing, or getting drunk in heaven. No, this utterly dishonors God, demeans His holy way, and violates the truth of Scripture. Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and be responsible before God.  But, please, don’t preach John into heaven when surely he didn’t go to that blessed home!




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