The Evangelical Herald
Should Christians Sorrow Over Death of Loved Ones?
In today's world, there is a movement to observe the death of a human being with a "celebration" of that person's journey through life. This celebration highlights the many triumphs and successes during a lifetime that merit remembrance. Many agnostics and atheists herald this as an enlighten form of honoring the dead. Yet for the true Christian, one who believes and follows the teaching of Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit, the question arises, Should we mourn and weep or should we rejoice and celebrate the death of a loved one?
The instruction given to us by the Apostle Paul is that "we should not mourn as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13)." On first glance, most would see this instruction to mean that we should not mourn for the dead. In fact, many a Christian may feel guilty if indeed he/she expresses sorrow over the loss of a loved one at a "celebration" funeral. Yet this instruction does not say not to mourn, but "not to mourn as those who have no hope [emphasis mine]." We can see this clearly when we consider Paul's own sentiments as he faced the death of a beloved brother (Phil. 2:27). In this passage, Paul felt the impending sorrow over the possible sorrow of losing his brother to an illness. How then should we mourn or what place does rejoicing in hope have at a funeral?
As we read the Holy Scriptures, we can see that at the very beginning death was instituted as a punishment of disobedience - it was not a friend, but a foe (Gen. 2:17). Throughout the Old Testament we see that death was seen exactly as that - a foe to be shunned. This foe brought mourning and weeping (2 Sam. 3:32). Well did it remind humans of the punishment of disobedience. Throughout the Old Testament we do not see any celebration or rejoicing over the grave (cf. Isa. 38:18,19).
The New Testament brings the "Good News" that God sent His son to take upon Himself the sins of those that believe in Him (Jhn. 1:12). He died in our place, but he also resurrected in triumph over death (Rom. 5:8). The New Testament clearly teaches that all are condemned to eternal destruction, but, praise God, Jesus paid the price of this condemnation. All who receive in faith this gift of life are free of the condemnation of death (Rom. 8:1). Jesus tasted death for all men (Heb. 2:9).
At the moment of our repentance and acceptance of this gift, we are conceived as spiritual beings, we our resurrected from death unto life. This is the time of great rejoicing! In fact, this is the only place in the Bible that we find that there is rejoicing in the heavens (Lk. 15:7). We can say that there is a celebration in heaven. All heaven rejoices with those who truly are born again and become children of God.
So when a Christian dies and passes from this world, should we rejoice without feeling any sadness on his/her departure? In the story of Lazarus, we see New Testament people weeping over his death - even Jesus wept (John 11:33-38). Human weeping, the Bible teaches, is a real and necessary expression of the human heart. James tells us to "Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness (James 4:9)" because it is a means to "humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord (James 4:10)" and results in the Lord uplifting us. It reveals that we recognize in humility (in contrast to pride that exults itself as self sufficient) the need to be comforted by our Creator's promises.
The Apostle Paul tells us that "he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:25-26)." The book of Revelation tells us that "there will be no more death or sorrow (Rev. 21:4)." A careful study of these passages will show us that these two events will occur at the consummation of the ages at the establishment of God's eternal kingdom. It is precisely this waiting for the establishment of this kingdom that gives us the correct hope in the mist of sorrow. Until then, human beings will weep (see Lk. 6:21). We will weep over Satan's temporary triumph. We will weep and sorrow over sin that still wars in our members and reminds us of the great separation it causes of loved ones in life as we know it. Our Lord tells us "blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted (Mt. 5:4)." In the use of "shall", we can see that there is a future time of comfort after the mourning.
To deny that we do not feel the pain of seeing a lifeless body that can not see, hear or feel our desire to share our love is to deny the reality of death. Yes, this pain would be unbearable to those who mourn without hope. But for a Christian that does not mourn as "those without hope", our mourning is full of hope. Hope to see the establishment of Christ eternal kingdom. Hope to see the resurrection of loved ones who died in Christ. Hope to see the day when sin and death are completely destroyed. It is then that we will rejoice with a rejoicing unequal to any we have experienced in this world.
If there is to be any celebration in a Christian funeral, the celebration should be focused on Christ's love for us. He is the One to be celebrated - for He is the one who lived a perfect life for our sakes - a life that He sacrificed for us. For Christians that have departed loved ones that waited upon the Lord, we will rejoice in thanksgiving for the lives these loved ones lived in Christ - for they lived not for selves, but for Him. We mourn in hope, but we also mourn with rejoicing that they fought the good warfare for the glory of God. We will rejoice that we were touched by their love and for the example they have left for us. But for the Christian, let us not forget, death still reminds us of the consequence of sin, that death is a defeated enemy for those in Christ, but still an enemy. It reminds us of our need and yearning for the coming of Christ - "when death will be no more". Even so come, Lord Jesus.