The following is an edited transcript of Russell Moore's podcast Signposts.
The other day I had someone ask me about a funeral that she was going to. She said “This is a funeral for an unbeliever, and I’m trying to think through what to say.” I think that’s a really good question, and an important question for all of us, because we’ve been in this situation. Almost everybody has been in this situation; if you haven’t then you will be in the situation.
So when she says “what I should say,” really that could be a number of things. It could be the question of what should you say when you’re just there and you’re going through the the line talking to family members, in which case I think the response to that is simply to grieve with the family members and say, “I’m really sorry about the loss of your mother/dad/brother” or whomever it is and grieve with them.
Scripture tells us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. Jesus gives us the example of being grieved to the core at the death of Lazarus, and this was someone who obviously was a believer. But death itself is something Jesus sees as an enemy, and something that ought to provoke tears and grief. And so a simple “I’m here for you and with you,” “I grieve with you,” “I’ll be praying for you,”—all of those things are appropriate at a funeral.
The question becomes more complex when you’re dealing with someone who has to give a eulogy or someone who is a minister who’s actually preaching the funeral. I have a great deal of sympathy here, because the very first funeral that I ever did was for someone that I didn’t know and was a complete unbeliever. Not just an unbeliever, but someone who apparently had lived a pretty awful life, because the family members were standing in the background, and the pallbearers were standing in the back as we’re about to go in for the funeral. And one of them looked over at the grieving family and said, “Well bless their hearts, they’re better off because he was the meanest man I ever knew.” I thought, “You know what, if at the end of your life, your pallbearers say that you’re the meanest guy they ever knew, you have lived a rough life.” And so here I had to preach this funeral.
There was another time where the daughter of a woman who had died said to me, “You know, I’m trying to think through what to say in the eulogy and I really can’t think of anything kind to say about my mother except the fact that she kept the bird feeder stocked in her backyard. She cared for the birds.” I said, “There’s nothing?” “No.” She could find nothing. So I understand a little bit of the tension that happens there.
On the other hand, I’ve been to many funerals where someone that I knew to have been an unbeliever is there, and the the pastor will stand up and talk about how aunt Flossie is in the presence of Jesus now and has graduated on up into glory. And obviously what the pastor is intending to do is to comfort the family with the idea of Heaven for the loved one.
The problem, though, is it becomes really clear to people that what you’re doing is simply using Heaven as a means to an end. So you don’t really believe what it is that you’ve been saying about, “No one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ,” about the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, and repentance for sin. Because once someone’s dead, that’s all over with. That sort of pious lying about the life of a person, really does–in my view–great damage to the gospel.
That doesn’t mean that we go in the exact opposite direction. I was at a funeral one time where the person had died and they had multiple pastors. The first pastor stood up and said, “This is someone who’s in heaven right now and rejoicing with Jesus.” The second guy was an Independent Fundamentalist sort of pastor who said, “You know, I keep hearing all of this about how this guy is in heaven right now. But this guy never had time for the church, never had time for Christ, and never was willing to repent of his sins and put his faith in Jesus Christ. And I just want you all to know that at 3:45 AM last Tuesday, he busted hell wide open.” That’s not an appropriate word either at a funeral.
Instead, I think what we need to do at a funeral is a number of things. The first thing–whether you’re giving the eulogy or whether you’re officiating or whether you’re in some way leading this funeral–the first thing is to recognize and honor the dignity of that life. Whether it’s a believer or an unbeliever, this is somebody who is created in the image of God. This is somebody who in some way was “imaging” God. This is someone who operated within the common grace that God gives to all of humanity. So when we find something that’s praiseworthy in the life of the person who has died, what we’re saying is that this life really mattered. God displayed Himself in some way in this person’s life, and so I’m affirming that this person is created in the image of God, and I’m affirming all the good things that God did through this person.
In many cases, even someone who has made a total wreck of his or her life has had those times where God has used that person in some way or another in order to bless other people. Finding those things as an aspect of gratitude to God. “Thank you for the fact that you gave us this person. Thank you that you used this person in the following ways” is completely appropriate to do at a funeral. Now having said that, be honest and don’t make up attributes about this person who has died. If you do, all that you’re going to communicate to the people who are hearing you is not comfort. You’re just going to communicate the fact that you’re a liar. And they’re not going to believe anything else that you’ve said.
So if you have somebody who was a very miserly person, you don’t want to get up and say, “What a generous person this is.” If this is somebody who harbored bitterness, you don’t want to get up and say, “This is somebody who was so forgiving.” You want to be truthful in the things that you say. That doesn’t mean that you have to get up and say, “You know, this was a really bitter woman,” or, “This was a really unforgiving man.” You don’t need to say that. You leave those things in in silence. They don’t need to be said.
There are some cases where I think it’s appropriate to raise the sort of issue that everyone’s thinking of. I was at a funeral one time for someone who had been a really, really short-tempered guy. The Lord had used this guy in all sorts of ways, but everybody had had a run in with him, and every one of those run ins were really scorching. And so his son simply said, “Hey, my dad was not the easiest person to deal with. He was kind of a prickly guy.” And there was laughter, a kind of relieved laughter that took place in the room. Because the point of the eulogy was not to settle a score with his dad, it was to say, “Hey, I know you all are thinking about some difficult times that you had with my dad, but let’s also remember the ways that God used him.” I think that’s entirely appropriate in that case.
When it comes to the eternal destiny of the person who has died, when you’re dealing with a believer, of course, what you’re going to do is to draw on all of those Scriptures of hope. So you’re going to say, “We grieve, but we don’t grieve as those who have no hope.” You’re going to talk about Resurrection in Christ and Resurrection from the dead.
When you’re dealing with an unbeliever though, you don’t have all of those things. So what do you do? Well, I would want to say don’t presume that person is eternally lost. Don’t presume that the person is eternally saved. But don’t presume the person is eternally lost. And the reason I say this is that salvation is through faith.
Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness. We receive salvation as beggars, and Jesus has told us that it doesn’t matter whether we received salvation very early in our lives and lived our life for Christ, or if we cried out for mercy and Christ in those last seconds or nanoseconds before we go out into eternity. He’s given us the parable of the workers in the field, and the ones that came on early in the day and in the ones who came on at the end of the day being paid the same wage.
So we ought to recognize that. We also ought to recognize the example that our Lord gave us of the thief on the cross. And what stays in my mind constantly any time that an unbeliever I know dies or any time that I go to an unbeliever’s funeral is hearing a message in Southern Seminary Chapel probably 20 years ago where the preacher from Wales is preaching on the thief on the cross. He gave the illustration of a man who had been horseback riding and he was an unbeliever, all of his family had just given up on him as a hopeless unbeliever. He was thrown from the horse, believed the gospel mid-air, hit the ground, and went into a coma for some weeks. And when he woke up out of the coma as a Christian, his family was really shocked about this. And they all said, “If you had died, we would have assumed that you were in hell.”
This preacher said, “You know, if the thief on the cross had any God-fearing relatives, they probably assumed that he was under the Judgment of God. They probably were the most surprised people imaginable when in Paradise they find themselves in communion with this murderous thief that they had given up on a long time ago.
Well, that’s always a possibility. Don’t count on it, if you’re an unbeliever right now listening to this, it’s a very, very dangerous thing to say, “Well, I’ll just come to faith in Christ in those last seconds on my deathbed.” That’s a very dangerous thing. First of all, you don’t know how much time you have. You don’t know whether or not your death is going to be lingering or sudden. And you also need the grace of God in order to even recognize the truth of the gospel and the presence of Christ. So don’t presume upon that grace. Repent and believe.
But, as we’re thinking about other people, there’s always the possibility that in those last few seconds or moments that the message that has been given, that the seed that has been planted may have come to fruition. So let’s hold that at least as a possibility when we’re thinking about unbelievers. Which means we weep, we grieve, but we don’t pronounce though definitively that this person is in Hell. And I think what that also means is that we proclaim the gospel. Now you don’t have to get up and say, “Uncle Ronnie’s in heaven” or, “Aunt Flossie’s in hell.” You don’t have to do that.
What you have to do is to stand up and say, “We’ve gathered here today because of death. The death of this person that we knew, this person that many of us loved. We’re all going to face death. Death is an enemy that’s coming for us all, and you can’t outlast death. You can’t fight death with money, or with health, or with anything else. You’re going to ultimately face death. How do you face death? You face death as a sinner who’s in need of forgiveness and you face death as someone who receives the life that comes through the shed blood, broken body and resurrected life of Jesus Christ.”
So preach the gospel. You don’t have to narrate and adjudicate every aspect of this unbeliever’s life in order to say to people, “There is hope for you no matter what it is that you’ve done. You can find salvation and today is the day of salvation.” I think that’s the way to handle an unbeliever’s funeral.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
These words are the John 3:16 of American cultural Christianity. Watch how often they show up on the Bible verse plaques sold in Bible Belt mall kiosks or posted on Facebook walls, even on tattoos. Whether as home decor or on social media posts, I see this passage claimed fervently by people I know haven’t been in a church service since the first Bush Administration. Naturally, this love for this verse has often led to more theologically-oriented Christians lamenting the out-of-context use of Jeremiah 29:11. So much so that a young Christian asked me recently, “Does Jeremiah 29:11 apply to me, or not?”
My answer: kind of.
Let me take that back. Yes, it does apply to you, but not in the way many “claim” the passage.
Many understand the text to be about God’s favor on one’s life and on one’s plans. If I just have confidence and follow my heart, someone following this line might think, God will bless me. That’s not the prophet Jeremiah; that’s Deepak Chopra. Anyone who could find that kind of moral therapeutic deism in the Book of Jeremiah hasn’t read any verse of Jeremiah above or behind this verse.
The Book of Jeremiah is all about God disrupting his people’s plans and upending his people’s dreams. This verse comes in the context of a shocking message from the prophet. Those “left behind” in Jerusalem—anchored around the temple and the throne—assume that their relative fortune is a sign that God is for them, while those carted off in captivity to Babylon are seen to be under God’s curse. It’s not just those in Jerusalem who are tempted to think this way; those in Babylon are tempted to think it too. Israel’s God seems distant to them, and they seem as though they’ve been raptured away from the promises to Abraham. Jeremiah says, though, that God’s judgment will fall on Jerusalem, and that God’s purposes will come to being through the exiles.
This isn’t actually good news for any of the hearers. The Jerusalem establishment chafes at this message, and finds prophets who will say that peace is just around the corner. For the exiles, the message isn’t a cheery one either, at least in the short-term. In Jeremiah’s letter to them, they are told that their return from exile won’t happen anytime in their generation, so they should create new lives in Babylon.
So how does this passage apply to you? Well, Jeremiah 29:11 must be read in the context of the whole Book of Jeremiah, and the Book of Jeremiah must be read in the context of Israel’s story. But all of Jeremiah and Israel’s entire story must be read in the context of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. All the promises of God “find their yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). If we are in Christ, then all of the horrors of judgment warned about in the prophets have fallen on us, in the cross, where we were united to Christ as he bore the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13). And, if we are in Christ, then all of the blessings promised to Abraham’s offspring are now ours, since we are united to the heir of all those promises (Galatians 3:14-29).
Through Jeremiah, God told the exiles that their scattering isn’t accidental. God has plans for them, plans that include even what seems chaotic and random. Moreover, these plans mean that the exile isn’t permanent. That isn’t because of their faithfulness but because of God’s promise to Abraham—a promise that was itself looking forward to Abraham’s son, the Lord Jesus (Romans 4). And indeed, the exiles didn’t stay scattered. God restored them to their home. Why? He brought them home because through them “according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (Romans 9:5).
Moreover, God tells us that since we are in Christ, we are strangers and exiles in this time between the times (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11). We suffer, we bleed, we die—and through all that we are tempted to think that this means that God has abandoned us. We conclude that we are “as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36). Not so, the gospel word tells us.
God has a plan for us, in Christ. That plan is not for our destruction but for our well-being. We are being conformed into the image of Christ—by sharing in his suffering—and our ultimate end is not as victims but as victors, as joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:12-39).
How do we know this? We know it the way the exiles of old did: not by observing our present condition but by the word of God, his oath and his covenant. That means that our plans may evaporate. Our dreams may be crushed. Our lives might be snuffed out. But the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us up with him.
Does Jeremiah 29:11 apply to you? If you are in Christ, you can count on it. The passage doesn’t promise you the kind of future American culture prizes, and maybe even promises a future you would tremble at it if you saw it in a crystal ball. Short-term, you may suffer. But, long-term, your future is co-signed with Christ. That’s a future for your welfare, and not for evil, a future of hope, not of despair.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/jodie777
The Supreme Court just handed down a decision in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources. In a 7-2 decision, the Court ruled that the state cannot restrict a program of distributing recycled tire parts for playground surfaces from a church simply because it is a church. You probably are not spending your summer wishing for old tire parts for your church daycare, so you may ask why this obscure-sounding case matters at all.
The case matters because the Court here recognizes the difference between a government establishing a religion and a government choosing not to penalize a religion. I am a Baptist—a real Baptist who believes our confessions of faith, all the way back to our beginnings. This means I hate, and I mean hate, a state-established religion. A state-established religion is, at best, a theologically-generic, spiritually-dead civic body. A state-established religion is, at worst, a violent persecutor turning the sword on those who don’t adhere to its teachings. In either case, a state-established religion is a political move masquerading as a religion. Such does not point people to the gospel of Christ or to the kingdom of God.
But this case is not about a state establishing a religion. Missouri wasn’t contemplating privileging Lutherans for this program, with a consubstantiation clause. Rather, the state offered a neutral program for groups—public or private—that cared for children and owned a playground. The law shut out Trinity Lutheran not because they didn’t meet the criteria for the program but simply because they are religious.
No reasonable person would conclude that offloading excess tire fragments to a church or a synagogue or a mosque would constitute government recognition of that house of worship or its beliefs. Instead, the state has an interest in making sure children are safe, and wants to get the playground surfaces to where the children are. In this sense, the program is similar to the G.I. Bill of the post-World War II generation. A veteran who takes his education benefit to Brigham Young or Notre Dame or Baylor is not carrying with him a government blessing of Mormonism or Catholicism or Texas Baptist Christianity.
For some time, we have seen pressures in American life not simply to make a distinction between church and state (which I am all for; again, a Baptist) but to use the levers of government to secularize our civic spaces. That’s not what the First Amendment is for.
This ruling is a win for religious freedom, and for limits on the power of the state. Not only religious people, but, with us, all Americans should celebrate that. We don’t want a state empowered to referee between theologies and to privilege some religious ideologies over others, even if that ideology is secularism.
This week marks the release of the latest DC superhero, Wonder Woman—and with the film comes a hubbub of conversation about what it means to be male and female in this supposedly post-gender society. Some are outraged that some theaters showed early release showings of the movie to restricted all-women audiences. Others are angry that the super-heroine apparently shaves under her arms (which no self-respecting island amazon would do, some say).
Wonder Woman is unperturbed by all this. She’s been in the middle of gender wars before. In fact, she’s been there from the very beginning.
There’s a reason, after all, that Wonder Woman was on an early cover of the feminist Ms. Magazine. Unlike other DC superheroes, she wasn’t the product of the imaginations of then-anonymous young men in garages or apartment stoops, longing for the extraordinary. Instead, she was the invention of a psychologist
William Moulton Marston, a scholar from Tufts and Columbia universities, was not a Stan Lee-type comic book marketing genius. He was just the opposite; he was one who thought comic books were degrading American culture, and he sought to fix it, with an Amazon princess.
Marston was more than just a psychologist and scholar. He was the inventor of the technology that later became the polygraph, the “lie detector” test. This idea showed up in the Wonder Woman comics (the golden lasso makes everyone in its grip tell the truth). He was also a supporter of the Progressive movement, an early feminist, and an expert on the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome.
Marston feared comic books were too violent and depraved (as did many at the time). He located this depravity not in the medium but in its “blood-curdling masculinity.” So he set out to design a woman who comes from an amazon island, with no men and thus pacific. Wonder Woman wasn’t for girls (they weren’t the comic book audience), but for the boys. “Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves,” he concluded.
It didn’t quite turn out just that way, but Wonder Woman transformed American society—and was transformed by it, becoming more aggressive in times when women were working factories in World War II, for instance, and more docile in the 1950s.
The resurgence of the warrior princess on the silver screen ought to remind us of the powerful mythological and cultural forces behind many of the contemporary “gender wars,” and that these are, in some ways, nothing new. The Apostle Paul, after all, knew about Wonder Woman.
Or, at least the apostle knew of the goddess on whom Wonder Woman was based—Diana or, in her Greek name, Artemis. The Pauline teaching on men and women in the letter to the Ephesians wasn’t written in a void but in the shadow of the temple of Diana, a temple that was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The gospel erupted the city into controversy (Acts 19:21-42) because the news of Christ threatened the silversmiths’ industry of Artemis idols (Wonder Woman action figures, I guess you could say).
Like our time, the ancient world had a complicated view of women’s empowerment. On the one hand, goddess temples filled the empire. On the other hand, so did temple prostitution and misogyny. Some important rights for women have been gained, of course, but we haven’t completely overcome all of that. Wonder Woman does indeed represent power, but she also is, in every iteration, designed to be sexually attractive to men. The 1970s-era television series noted in its theme song, “Fighting for your rights, in your satin tights, and the old red, white, and blue.” The rights and the tights were both part of the package—and, from the looks of things, still are.
The apostolic witness broke through all of that, even in the hometown of Diana. The biblical revelation teaches some very real, creational distinctions between men and women. That revelation also tells us that women are, from the beginning, created to be co-heirs with men, and joint-heirs with Christ, of the reign that is to come. Mars and Venus end their warring when both come into submission to Jesus.
As the film Wonder Woman releases, Christians can tell our daughters and sisters that she represents something true. We can also lament that signifies, in some ways, something awry—a fallen world where women must often signal toughness and invulnerability because they are in the midst of predatory or potentially predatory men. We should model for our sons and brothers a different way—a way that doesn’t prize women on the basis of how their sexual attractiveness or availability to men in general. We should also teach our daughters and sisters that they are indeed to be fighters—the way Mary was (Lk. 1:46-55).
Whether you go see Wonder Woman or not, let’s be ready to speak to our neighbors of a gospel that’s good news for women and girls, as well as for men and boys. Let’s speak of a gospel restores some real wonder to womanhood, and some meaning to manhood too.
Photo credit: ©WarnerBros.