Why I Don’t Like FuneralsChristians have missed the mark when it comes to funerals. The way we conduct them doesn’t match the biblical view of salvation.
I don’t suppose I ever enjoyed going to funerals, but I find them almost unbearable now. There are plenty of reasons to dislike funerals: People with no experience as public speakers get conscripted to give eulogies, and the results are predictable, perhaps repeated several times in one service. The word “hypocrisy” may come to mind as the deceased is lauded beyond recognition. Furthermore, there is the general discomfort most of us feel when dealing with death. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling some dislike for funerals.
What is so often said at Christian funerals is not false as much as it is incomplete.
I am, however, thinking of a much more important reason for disliking most of the funerals I have attended in the last few years – a reason that is especially relevant for evangelical Christian funerals. What I have in mind is the depressing lack of biblical content in the services and the misplaced focus. Christian hope as found in Scripture is focused on our future resurrection at the return of Christ and our eternal life as whole persons, body and soul, in a redeemed universe, but in many Christian funerals there is no mention at all of our future resurrection rooted in the resurrection of our Lord.
I have attended in the last month funeral services for two Christian friends, one a man who was a member of my church and the other a woman who served Christ faithfully in both local church and denominational contexts for many years. The tributes given by family members and friends were well deserved in both cases. It was appropriate to remember the positive influence of these two people on many others. But the expression of Christian hope in both services never went beyond the affirmation that those who had died were now in the presence of the Lord. I don’t doubt that, but the impression given was that they had entered into their final experience of salvation when they died and went to heaven, and that just doesn’t match the biblical view of salvation.
Let me be clear, I am not denying that those who believe in Christ enter into His presence in a disembodied state at death. The apostle Paul viewed death as the door to being with Christ, a condition better than those of this life (see Philippians 1), and he spoke of post-mortem existence as “absent from the body and present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). There is also Jesus’ description of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16, although it is not clear how literally the story is to be read, given its description of bodily parts in the life after death. Do believers enter the presence of Christ at death? Yes. Is that the fulfillment of Christian hope rooted in Christ’s victory over death? No, that is just the first step beyond this life, an interim existence in which we wait for resurrection and final judgment at the return of our Lord in glory. As N. T. Wright has stated it so well in his book, Surprised by Hope, what we look for is “the life after life after death.”
This perspective is really very clear in the New Testament. There is, in fact, a biblical text addressed to Christians telling them how to think about hope in the face of the death of Christian loved ones, and that is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Paul asserts there that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so also He will bring those who belong to Jesus into the same experience. That will happen at the return of Christ, when “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Paul says nothing at all in that text about what happens at death—instead the whole focus of the text is on what will happen at our future resurrection. The same sort of emphasis is found in 1 Corinthians 15, where the entire chapter is devoted to an emphatic affirmation of the bodily resurrection of the dead, prefigured and promised by the resurrection of Christ “the firstfruits” (vs. 20). The victory of Christ will not be complete until he has evacuated the graves and displayed his conquest of death itself (vs. 26). The final biblical description of our hope is seen in Revelation 21-22, and the picture there is one of a redeemed cosmos inhabited by the resurrected saints. It is not a picture of souls being liberated from bodies and going to heaven, but a picture of a new heaven and a new earth, and God comes down to dwell with his people.
The death of a Christian is often described in terms like, “God took her home,” but this doesn’t really match the biblical view of things. We weren’t made to live as disembodied souls in heaven, but to live as embodied persons serving as stewards of God’s good creation, and in the end that is what we will be. The Bible does not describe final salvation as “going to heaven,” and no continual use of the words will make it so.
What is so often said at Christian funerals is not false as much as it is incomplete. The fuller picture conveyed in Scripture does not deny that deceased Christians are with the Lord, but it does expand our hope to affirm confidently “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead.” Being absent from the body and present with the Lord is good, but as good as that is, there is something far better that lies ahead when Christ comes again to make all things new. That’s worth saying at Christian funerals.
Stan Fowler serves as academic dean and professor of theology at Heritage Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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