The past three Saturdays I have attended three funerals. I know as I get older and continue in ministry that such things will become more common. Nonetheless, during this time I have had time to reflect on death, sorrow, funerals, and hope. All three funerals I attended were for believers, which is an encouragement, but I cannot help but think that we have a tendency in our culture, and in evangelicalism, to not take death seriously enough. Because of this treatment of death, our funerals may come across as trite, shallow, and in the process so does our display of the gospel.
Now to be clear, for the families and loved ones who have lost someone, their pain is real and their sorrow is deep at death, yet our funerals often do not communicate this reality.
By this I mean we do not talk about death seriously at a funeral. If we even mention death at all, we are quick to move past it to get to the good news. I understand this tendency, who wants to talk about bad news when you can talk about good news? Yet it is in the severity of the bad news that we can better see the glory of the good news.
We have the same tendency when it comes to sin. We don’t really talk about it, and when we do we only talk about its cure. Yet if we do not establish there is a problem, and that it is a severe problem, then there is no need for to have a cure at all.
When I have attended funerals of unbelievers I have noticed that no one will talk about death at all, they simply cannot or will not process it—because it is final. In this way they ignore death and its ominous nature. They don’t talk about it because they know one day death will find them and there is nothing they can to do about. It is unfortunate that Christian funerals tend to the same thing by minimizing death, while not realizing that this also minimizes the gospel.
So what I am proposing? I am not sure. But here are some thoughts on what we should be able to say about death as Christians:
- Death is a tragedy- Death is not natural. The world was created and there was no death. Death came about because of sin and it still exists because of sin. This means man was not originally meant to die. We have eternity ingrained in our souls and this is why death is so daunting to us. Our very being cries out for eternity, and death appears to cut this short. So while through Christ there is victory, death remains a tragedy, a terrible thing which needs to be dealt with.
- Death should be taken seriously, even wept over- As Christians we are so quick to get to the good news that we often cut short the process of weeping over the evil of death. It is here that Jesus’ raising of Lazarus in John 11 is instructive to us. Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus, being himself the Resurrection and the Life, with the plan to raise Lazarus to life. Jesus comes to conquer Lazarus’ death. Yet before he does this, we read how Christ was impacted by Lazarus' death, a death he is about to overcome, “He was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled… Jesus wept.” We too should be deeply moved and troubled by death, weeping over its influence and power, all-the-while knowing that Jesus will overcome it. In order to do this we must not gloss over death with trite and shallow slogans, or by ignoring its seriousness. We should mourn death, as Christ did.
- Death is not yet finally defeated- While Christ overcame death on the Cross, and we do through his resurrection, death is not yet fully and finally defeated. 1 Corinthians 15:26 reminds us of this, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” This destruction of death has been consummated, but it not yet complete. This means our enemy still has some power over us and that is not a good thing. Death will not be cast out until the new creation, until then we must not pretend that it is just a minor inconvenience. Death is our enemy, and in his goodness Christ shall end it once and for all.
- We are nothing in comparison to death- There is nothing you or I can do of our own power to overcome death. We ignore death, even at funerals, because of its fullness in comparison to our smallness. When we stare into the abyss of death, we see clearly there is no hope for us in us. Death will overcome us if we are left to ourselves. Our tendency is to push that thought out of our minds and to focus on the trivial things of life as a distraction from our dire state. A funeral is the perfect place to let the full weight of death sit upon us. It is good for us to see that we can nothing to stop death and that we need someone greater than us to defeat it. It is this all-consuming nature of death which shows how great a savior we have in Christ.
Christians need to simultaneously treat death with more gravity while at the same time not losing hope. If for a moment we can say that Christianity is not true, what would be the consequence of that? Death would be a truly devastating reality we cannot avoid. The world needs to be confronted with the gravity of what death is and how it is inescapable. We need to show them that without Christ, if Christianity is false, there is no hope at all.
Then we need to point them to the gospel. Once we see how terrible, unnatural, and all-consuming an enemy death really is, then we can see how great and good the news of the gospel truly is. This is what a Christian funeral should be marked by sorrow, gravity, weeping, and hope. When we see death clearly we can then see the overwhelming beauty of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.