I thought I had taught and grasped the Bible enough to be prepared for death. But when I lost my dad in 2011 the pain, grief, and emptiness was devastating. Death created a void. Bereavement felt like being made mute, becoming unable to speak. It’s a troubling and difficult thought that one day you and I will be no more. We will all die.
It’s a troubling and difficult thought that one day you and I will be no more.
These last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic were terrible. Countless people died daily, all around us. We’ve all witnessed enormous fear, suffering, grief, and loss. Emotions ran wild. The pandemic had everyone searching for comfort, for hope. And similar to most of human history and almost every culture, the idea that the dead are now in a better place could be heard everywhere. These words slip effortlessly from our mouths. But they are hollow comfort.
Do Deceased Loved Ones Rest in Peace?
The thought that you may never see a loved one again is unbearable. So we’re always looking for consolations to help us escape, denying the terrifying possibility. For many years we’ve turned to various phrases:
- “They’re resting in peace”
- “She’s watching over us now”
- “You can still make your late father proud”
- “He’s in a better place now.”
The dead are gone and their fate is already determined.
I understand why these are attractive. More so, I can relate to wanting them to be true. They are ways to ease grief and pain, to lessen loss. But despite our wishes, the dead are gone and their fate is already determined. This is a gut-wrenching reality. For who would readily affirm that their departed loved ones could actually be in a worse place than their earthly toil? Christians shouldn’t turn to these expressions for comfort. Instead we must ask what the Bible says about deceased unbelievers.
What Does God Say?
I’m sympathetic to all those who’ve lost loved ones. It was a tragic day all those years ago, when my dad died in my hands. So I’m familiar with the feelings of hopelessness that accompany the death of a breadwinner, a father, and pillar of the home. I still hear him give up his last breath, feeling his feet turn cold while watching any remaining strength disappear from his strong chest. Here was a man I’d known my whole life: a disciplined teacher, loving husband, and attentive father. But the reality stuck me in the face, that if my dad died in unbelief, I will never see him again.
If my dad died in unbelief, I will never see him again.
He would never rest in peace (Isaiah 48:22). “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish” (Psalm 1:6). During his ministry, Jesus pulled back the curtain a little to give us a glimpse of the fate of deceased unbelievers (Matthew 13:42). “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out” (Luke 13:28).
This truth is profoundly uncomfortable. An unbeliever’s suffering doesn’t end with their physical death. A worse fate awaits them in the afterlife. What a tragedy! The unbelieving dead don’t rest in peace. Insisting that they do sounds humane and kind, but it’s seriously misaligned with what God teaches in the Bible. “God will say to those on his left ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41; John 8:24).
What Should We Say?
So, what must we say as Christians? Very simply, we must speak the truth in love. This means refusing to compromise on either. Instead we should be compassionate and caring, while simultaneously offering Christ, the reason for our hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Funerals are therefore an opportunity to preach the gospel. But how we do this, especially at the funeral of an unbeliever, must be both sensitive (loving) and sincere (truthful). We are responsible to confront the divergent views and false hopes heard in the face of death.
We should be compassionate, simultaneously offering Christ, the reason for our hope.
Regarding death, the Westminster Confession of Faith (32.1) says: “After death, the bodies of men decay and return to dust, but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal existence, return immediately to God, who gave them. The souls of the righteous are then made perfect in holiness and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory as they wait for the full redemption of their bodies. The souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness as they are kept for the judgment of the great day. Scripture recognises no other place except these two for the souls which have been separated from their bodies.”
I wish I could believe otherwise. But being politically correct won’t change the fate of the deceased. And offering hollow comfort to the living is unkind. As much as we might want it, the unbelieving dead don’t rest in peace. This pains me as much as any of you.
Death Isn’t the End
Every death is a terrifying reminder of our own mortality and our longing for a better life. God has promised to be with us and provide peace amid pain. So as we pick our way carefully between speaking the truth and showing love, let us also pray. Let us lean on our God, asking that he will turn our pain and loss into opportunities for his greater glory.