In today’s blog, I’m answering a question asked by a reader:
How would you respond and minister to unsaved friends or family (or even strangers) who have lost a loved one and assume their lost loved one is in Heaven, even though that person clearly did not have a relationship with Jesus Christ?
That’s a good question. I’ve been in that exact situation. I think the answer is that we do not have an obligation to try to convince people that their loved one was not saved. I think what that would do is lay a responsibility on us to impose an opinion we have, and although that opinion may very well be accurate, it will just cause unnecessary distress to that person in the midst of their loss.
This is very different than a person who believes their loved one who is still alive is saved, when they are clearly not. That’s when we need to sit down with them and say, “You think your brother, your father, your son, your daughter, your spouse is saved, but there is clear evidence they are not.” We need to pray for that person as we would pray for an unsaved person, relate to them, and reach out to them. We need to look for ways to get the gospel to them, because there are many indications they are unsaved. But when someone’s loved one has died, what is the point in trying to persuade them that their loved one is in Hell? I don’t know what that would accomplish.
What might help you personally on this—and I have reassured myself about this many times—is to realize that we do not know what happens inside a person before they die. We don’t know whether the Holy Spirit of God has done a work of grace in someone’s heart and life at the last moment. They may have been aware of the hours, minutes, even just seconds leading up to their death and cried out to God for deliverance.
Take the person who has been in a coma for a period of time and is unresponsive. Everyone might think, “They were in this accident. They didn’t know Christ when they left home that day, so obviously they still don’t know the Lord.” But we don’t know what God is doing in someone’s heart and mind—bringing back to their memory aspects of the Gospel that have been shared with them, and things they’ve read and heard. In their weakness—in their most vulnerable, least independent, most dependent state—they could be turning to Christ in faith. We may be surprised and delighted to one day see them in the presence of Christ.
Now, that should not be a false assurance for someone to say to themselves, “Then it doesn’t really matter if I share the gospel with them, because maybe God will do a miracle in their lives shortly before they die.” Of course not—we should do everything we can to bring them the truth. But once someone has died, I think it is appropriate to say, “We don’t know.” This can encourage someone to think, “Maybe they did come to faith in Christ and maybe one day I will see them in God’s Kingdom.” To me, that seems like an appropriate way to encourage rather than discourage someone.
The bottom line is, when you’re talking with an unbeliever, your concern should be to share the gospel with them. You’re not trying to address the issue of whether family members of theirs who have died in the past were saved or unsaved or whether they’re in Heaven or in Hell.
What is clear is that you should share the gospel with them, and talk to them about Heaven and Hell and whether they will go to Heaven or whether they will go to Hell. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.” We must believe and have faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved and go to Heaven. (See "Can You Know You're Going to Heaven?")
If they raise the question, “Are you saying that my father who died is in Hell?” you can say, “I don’t know where your father is, because I don’t know what the condition of his soul was when he died. He may have turned to faith in Christ. And you probably wouldn’t be in a position to know that unless he was able to tell you.”