One Thing That Bothers Me About the Christian Response to Death

Erik Cooper —  October 17, 2011 — 6 Comments

“Have you ever heard of Dan…..Whel…Wheldon?”

My mom is ridiculously hip for her age (which shall remain unquantified), but when it comes to knowledge of pop culture, outside of American Idol’s top 12, she usually needs some assistance.

“You mean the winner of this year’s Indy 500, Dan Wheldon?” I asked.

“Oh, well, yes. I didn’t know that. I just had lunch with him. He’s very charming.”

“Does dad know about this?”

Turns out my mom and Dan have a mutual friend, and they coincidentally ended up sharing a meal together at a Speedway, Indiana restaurant.

Just two months ago.

Other than that six degrees of separation encounter, I don’t know Dan Wheldon at all. So when the news of his tragic death hit my Twitter feed last night, I was a little surprised at my audible gasp. Like many, we were deeply troubled for his family and friends, and deeply moved by the outpouring on the radio, TV, and social media sites.

But I have to be honest, I was also troubled by something else. Something I’m not really sure what to do with, so I’m just going to throw it out there. I really wrestle with one of our (seemingly compassionate) Christian responses to high profile deaths. This statement began emerging everywhere:

“I sure hope he knew Jesus.”

I know you may find this surprising. Blasphemous even. I don’t find this to be a theologically inaccurate statement, but I do question our motivation for publicly speculating about it.

Let me be absolutely clear, I believe your stance on Jesus is the most important decision of your life. I believe Jesus is absolutely who He claimed to be, the only Way to be reconciled with God. But I have to go with my gut on this one, and right now it just feels a little funny.

Maybe we just don’t know what else to say, but impulsively reacting to tragedy with “doctrine” feels cheap, like we’re seizing a moment of mourning to slip in a subtle sales tactic. Riding the avalanche of emotional outpouring to gain momentum for our argument. Using the fear of death to try and scare people towards God.

I wonder if more people would be drawn to Christ if our response more mirrored His own in moments like these.

Of course Jesus taught. He instructed. He corrected. But He also embraced pain. He mourned. He wept. Regardless of people’s personal standing with Him. To me, this kind of compassionate outpouring should be our primal Christian response.

So today, we weep with the Wheldon family. To me, it seems like the most Christ-like thing to do.

What do you think?

6 responses to One Thing That Bothers Me About the Christian Response to Death

  1. I so agree with you Erik. My heart is filled with sorrow today for both the loss of Dan and the loss to his family. Nothing else needs to be said other than sincere condolences and prayers for the family.

  2. Growing up in church I too have heard that phrase about whether a deceased person Knew Jesus many many times. And I actually think we wonder aloud because we are eternally minded and we know that to be absent from this world means we will be present somewhere else.

    It does seem that our 1st response should be to weep and I think we do if it’s someone we actually have a relationship with. Otherwise our initial response is to speculate about the state of a person’s soul. Anyway just my thoughts.

    I will definitely think next time before I rush to say such a thing. I realize it probably seems rather harsh and judgmental to many.

  3. Carrie Thompson October 17, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I don’t know, Erik— I think you are right and many times that IS just a statement that is made…. I def. think that our first response- out of love- is to feel that mournful, painful sadness for anyone who is dealing with that kind of loss. The shock factor plays in to pain of a loss like that for the family… After losing our dad- I can say, WITHOUT a doubt- that during that time- when pain and loss and uncertainty about EVERYTHING is so overwhelming- that it IS a time when you are grasping for any positive feeling… maybe it is that type of projection people are making… that HOPE that lies in Jesus at such a sad, horrific time of tragedy??? Not sure- just a thought? I know that I just cry about those things- and even more so the older I get…. but for those who go to that statement first— MAYBE they are just grasping for that positive Hope….

    • That’s valid Carrie. Appreciate your input. It’s tough to assess people’s motivation via social media, but I sense we have a desire to seize these moments to “sell Jesus.” And that just feels cheap to me.

  4. Erik- I’ve thought about this a little more and I think that when we say or think “I sure hope he/she knew the Lord”, what we are doing is taking God’s place as judge just for that moment. What we are doing is saying, “That person was such a wonderful human being, full of life, good to others, etc. etc. that if I were judge, I’d grant them entry into heaven.” And think about it, we never say or think such a thought when some terrible human being (and there have been many in the news of late) meet their demise. Honestly, I play judge again and think, “I hope they are sent to the hottest place in hell for what they did”. (Which is wrong I know)

    So your post is a reminder to me not to judge the living or the dead. My job is to show Jesus to everyone I come in contact with by the way I live and interact with others.

    • That’s a beautiful way to say it Andy! It did feel judgmental to me. I think that’s what bothered me the most. Reminds me of this Billy Graham quote I love:

      “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”

      Thanks for your insight.

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