Speak Now, Or Forever Hold Your Peace

Since becoming interested in Christian apologetics, there has been one drawback that I was not anticipating.  Having spend countless hours studying biblical theology I have come to certain conclusions on rather controversial issues.  I am able, I believe, to discern between true ideas and false ideas that people claim for the Bible.  For example, some claim the Bible is neutral or positive about same-sex sexual relationships, or whether Hell is real, or a host of other issues.  I generally do not have any reluctance in offering my opinion in a discussion when religious topics arise.

But there is one issue I do hesitate on offering an opinion, and that is when someone has died and a friend or family member says something like, “they’re in a better place now” or, “they’ll be looking down on us all from heaven” or something to that effect.  Especially when I know the deceased was either not a Christian or were a Christian in name only.  In either case, they had exhibited a life that would cause me to question whether the person would be in heaven.  This situation always makes me uncomfortable.

It’s not like you could just come out and say, “probably not”, even if you had many good reasons to be suspicious of their heavenly eternal destiny.

So that makes me wonder.  Is being silent in a situation like this, particularly when the loved one knows your (my) background, understood as tacit agreement in the sentiment?  Is it better to be silent and allow the aire of agreement?  Or is it better to say something, as gently as humanly possible?

My concern is that my silence is taken as agreement, and that makes me uncomfortable.  In my case anyway, the truth is more important to me than my comfort.  As I have always said, I would rather be correct in my convictions and uncomfortable, than naively comfortable with a false idea.  I think most people would likely voice agreement with that, but when it comes down to brass tacks, I don’t think so.

Questions for readers, Christian and Atheist alike: How do you handle this situation?  How does this make you feel when you are confronted with someone making this statement about a deceased loved one?

Christian: How do you address this situation when you know the person is likely a Christian in name only, and not likely saved?

Atheists: How do you feel when you hear someone say something like this when you believe they are mistaken about the existence of an afterlife?

To both: Why do you not react in the opposite way of how you actually respond?

Comments

  1. This was a very thoughtful piece, John, and I appreciate you bringing it up.

    There is a time and place for everything, especially when losing a loved one is concerned. I understand what that person is going through and, as someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, I’m sensitive to their feelings. I don’t think that’s an appropriate time to discuss one’s personal beliefs. I just simply offer my sympathies and try to help them through their loss by celebrating the good memories.

    I, too, feel uncomfortable when people utter those same words you mentioned. I just silently acknowledge them with a nod because I know it make them feel better.

  2. Do you ever think there is a good/appropriate time to bring up that you believe they are wrong about their lamentation?

    I didn’t really highlight this aspect as much as I wanted to initially in the post. But My larger concern is this: is there an implication that I affirm their statement by not speaking up? Should one make it clear that you do not share their sentiment?

  3. Dan Trabue says:

    I don’t think one needs to say anything other than words of comfort. Silence in such a matter does not indicate approval.

    At its best, silence indicates humility, as in being humble enough to know that I’m not in a place to judge anyone else’s eternal condition.

    Seems to me.

  4. I tend to agree with Dan. Unless the bereaved directly asks you your opinion, I don’t think it is very appropriate, especially considering that it could potentially further the depression. While there is a time for correction, a lot of tact should be used when someone is mourning.

    • Let me just clear up that I have no intention of “correcting” those grieving a recently departed loved one.

      But I have had those people make the statement and then look to me for a sort of confirmation, or reassurance.

      In those cases, ethically speaking, should your opinion be expressed, lest you mislead them as to your opinion?

      I do agree it would be inappropriate, Oscar, hence the uncomfortable feelings of remaining silent.

  5. Sometimes a bit of redirection is the best way to deal with this. I guess it’s easiest in cases where the deceased person was very ill and suffering at the end of their life. If someone grieving the loss of a loved one in that situation looked at me hopefully and said, “At least he’s in a better place now,” I think I’d probably say something like, “We can take comfort in the fact that all his pain is over.”

    I don’t bring up my atheism to people most of the time. (I know you think there’s no stigma associated with being atheist, but bear with me for a minute.) There’s one administrator I work with from time to time who is very much a “church lady” type, and throws a lot of religious language into almost everything she says, with lots of verbal cues to agree with her sentiments. I don’t have any problem smiling and nodding then, because I know she isn’t actually trying to engage me in a philosophical conversation — and likely it would make my life a LOT worse if I were to interpret her statements as such. On the other hand, there are coworkers of mine who do openly discuss theology and atheology, and I’m happy to share my opinion with them.

    So I guess my real advice is, gauge how much you think they are actually looking for your opinion. You don’t have to tell them exactly what they want to hear — and I agree, there’s something very uncomfortable and even unethical about encouraging people to believe things you don’t think are true yourself. But you can also recognize there’s a time and a place, and not feel too guilty about “lying by omission” when someone’s in a really emotional state. Save the theology for a time when you’re talking to a close friend about someone who has died, but the conversation has moved on to a more general discussion about your beliefs about mortality.

  6. There is a stupendous sincerity in your inquiry, which I respect. But I’m obliged to say at the outset, a time of bereavement is not an occasion for theological rigor. In fact, in my opinion, it’s frankly crass even to assess the adequate “Christianness” of the dead person in your own head, much less to contemplate “correcting” someone who uses the common language of bereavement. Put another way, if it were my brother who had just died, and you felt he was a “Christian in name only,” and you actually uttered a correction to someone’s breezy “he’s in a better place,” I’d honestly be tempted to punch you. At a minimum, I’d be unlikely to engage you further, and I’d have a story about a smug ass. I hasten to add, you are not a smug ass. Your many posts confirm your sincerity and decency. But a “correction” of the sort you contemplate would most certainly sound insufferably smug.

    I’m a bit troubled as well by the premise of your inquiry. Do you really know, really? who’s going to heaven and who isn’t? Is your theological capacity so large as to transcend the multiple doctrinal disputes within Christianity itself as to qualification for heaven — especially when one predominant view holds that accepting Jesus as one’s savior at any point suffices, and requires no “works” to prove entitlement to salvation? The very pointed phrase “Christian in name only” raises a host of theological disputes. Yet you would presume to mediate, authoritatively, all of these disputes, and actually say to someone, “no, I don’t believe he is in a better place”?!

    Perhaps your inquiry is better framed with reference to timing. Perhaps discussing a person who has been dead for many years in the way you contemplate would take some of the arrogant sting out of your theology.

    I respect your desire for integrity — and sometimes silence does signal assent, as when people stand by and permit evil without protest. But that principle of integrity in the face of evil should never be confused with silence out of simple respect for the feelings of a person who has lost someone.

    One final thought: have you ever heard a eulogy where something was said of someone that you had good reason to believe wasn’t true? Were you ever, for a moment, tempted to take issue with the statement? Death brings out some disturbing strangeness in the living, and the custom of trying to focus on good things during bereavement evolved for a reason.

    • Terrance H. says:

      Completely agree, Kendrick.

    • Kendrick, as a Christian I think the Bible is true and is clear enough to make a correct assessment. However, like I had mentioned to Terrance, this is not the crux of my point. The issue at hand is being in a situation where you believe someone to be wrong on a what you believe to be a significant issue, but are in a place where “correcting” (notice I use quotes around the term correcting) is inappropriate morally and practically, but not doing so runs the risk of having the person believe you agree with them.

      So it’s not a timing issue, since I’m not really trying to find the right time to tell them they’re wrong about their deceased loved one. If I believed they were wrong about their soteriology I could find appropriate times to discuss it without ever having to frame it around or link it to the death of their loved one. The deceased cannot benefit from it now anyway.

      I fully realize that when we are all in this situation, the right thing to do is bite our tongue and comfort the mourning. The last thing they need is someone shaking their finger at them. And the last thing I need is another reason to visit the orthodontist.

  7. Terrance H. says:

    John,

    All that time spent reading the Bible is good for the soul, but it doesn’t allow us real access to the mind of God. You have to remember that the Bible, while clearly inspired by God, was written, nevertheless, by man, a prejudicial and imperfect creature.

    That isn’t to say we should advance an argument from ignorance, or allow others to do so. We shouldn’t, for example, claim that homosexuality MIGHT be O.K. with God and therefore we ought just accept it and let He on High work out the eternal details. But we should at least acknowledge that we simply don’t know for certain what God wants, if not precisely that which is mentioned in the Bible.

    Not agreeing or disagreeing with someone is not agreement. It’s simply nothing. You don’t know, can’t know, and that is that. So, I don’t think it’s wise to shatter an already broken heart with sweeping claims when you haven’t the knowledge to make such claims. Sometimes it is simply better to let it be.

    Let people take comfort, for that might be the only thing holding them together.

    • Terrance, my issue doesn’t rest on whether I am correct in my assessment of the individual or my understanding of the Bible, or even whether the Bible is true, which is why I also posed the question to Atheists. I am speaking of the inner dilemma of being in a situation where you believe someone is saying something you believe to be significantly false, but are in a context where you cannot speak out, but not doing so may or may not imply tacit agreement.

      While I agree that absolute certainty is not possible, I don’t think that translates to probably uncertainty. Just because man may be prejudicial and imperfect, that has no bearing on whether the Bible contains the word of God if God exists, and superintended its authorship. There are plenty of writings by man that contain no errors. The possibility of imperfection is not the same as probability of imperfection. But this is a complete tangent of where this was supposed to go, I’m not really interested in following this particular point through.

      After reading these comments, I feel like I still have to reassure everyone that I have no intentions of “correcting” anyone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, nor am I looking for a justification to do so. As Kendrick pointed out, anyone who would do so, deserves a few loose teeth.

  8. John,
    What a thought provoking post.
    I don’t know that I will say anything here that others have not said already.
    If someone really wants your opinion, then you should offer it, but perhaps in the humblest way possible.
    I had a relative ask me at my grandfather’s funeral where I thought my grandfather was going, knowing that a)my grandfather was a rather crotchety old atheist (he had an Anglican minister at the service, who had a really touching eulogy that made light of grandpa’s outspoken apostasy) and b)that I was the only other person there who outwardly admitted I was an atheist as well.
    This relative is a member of The Church of Christ, and I think felt as though he was going to put me on the spot.
    Death is certain, what comes beyond that is no place for certainty.

    When I was a Christian, and someone asked me a question that I knew there was no polite answer to, I always would write a list of scripture on a piece of paper, hand it to the person who asked, and tell them “I’m not the person to make that choice, but if I am right that the Bible is true, here is what God has to say…” I never quoted scripture, because it infuses my opinion into an “objective truth”, and it always gets you into an argument. If someone wants the answer they will find it.
    I guess in your case Matt 13:36-50 comes to mind, Matt. 20:1-16.

    I think it is always best to let others answer their own questions. I think you can say something that lets people know where you stand without being arrogant.

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