Heaven, Hell and Funerals

Anyone who has lived in a minister’s house knows that  middle-of-the-night telephone calls often bring bad news.But for many pastors there is one kind of call that is uniquely  painful.

There are times when the shock of death is easier to handle  than questions about eternal life.

“It happens like this,” noted the Rev. J. Gerald Harris, who became editor of the Southern Baptist newspaper of Georgia after 40 years in ministry. “A grieving widow would call and say with a broken heart  and with tears in her voice, ‘Pastor, my husband had a heart attack  last night and we took him to the hospital, but he was dead on  arrival. I can’t believe it has happened, but we need your help. I  know he was not a church member, but we would like for you to preach  his funeral.’ ”

The pastor says “yes,” of course. Then, while talking with the  family, it often becomes apparent that the deceased was not a  believer or may even have been someone who — by word or deed —  flaunted his status as an unbeliever. Others may join the church,  then walk away for decades.


This is awkward, noted Harris, for clergy who believe salvation is  found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone. It’s one thing to step  into the pulpit and preach on the mercy of God and to speak words of  comfort to a grieving family. It’s something else for a pastor to go  a step further and do what loved ones may want him to do — openly  proclaim they will be reunited with the deceased in heaven.

Harris said he started receiving calls and emails soon after he wrote about this subject in the Christian Index, in part because this  dilemma pivots where the minister draws a theological line, a line  that many liberal Christians no longer believe needs to be drawn at  all.

There is no question, Harris stressed, that pastors should provide comfort and care for families in these circumstances. Obviously,  there is no need for preachers to speak words that would cause  grieving relatives pain. However, he also is convinced that it’s  wrong for pastors to deliver messages they sincerely believe are not  true — to embrace the doctrine of “universalism,” which proclaims  that all people find eternal salvation, no matter what they believe  or how they live their lives.

This is tricky doctrinal territory, as Sen. Barack Obama learned  during a June 10 meeting with clergy behind closed doors in Chicago.  While other conservative leaders asked Obama about controversial  social issues, the Rev. Franklin Graham — son of evangelist Billy  Graham — asked an openly theological question: Did the candidate  believe that “Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way.”

Later, Obama told Newsweek that — in a candid, personal answer — he replied: “It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption  comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden  Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but  of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I’ve said  this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some  evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally  embraced Christianity as far as I know… I do not believe she went  to hell.”

In the end, Harris said, it’s all but impossible to ignore this kind  of doctrinal division. However, pastors do have options when handling  these situations, other than delivering sermons that violate their  own consciences.

In many Christian traditions, funeral rites consist of hymns and  prayers that place more attention on the words of scriptures than on  a minister’s message. But if the family insists on a sermon that  focuses on the deceased, he said, pastors can suggest that a friend  deliver this message. In some congregations, loved ones offer  eulogies during gatherings — fellowship meals, perhaps — following  funerals.

“These questions aren’t going away,” said Harris. “For many people  today it’s not enough to be tolerant of other people’s decisions and  religious beliefs. Now they want a kind of positive tolerance, they  want you to accept and praise other people’s beliefs. You have to be  willing to say what they want you to say. …

“That just isn’t possible, for a lot of us.”

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