There have been too many tragic deaths lately. Let’s talk about some “don’ts” when it comes to speaking or writing about death in Christian spirituality. It is a common practice among evangelicals to preach about dead people who don’t know Jesus OR even the ones who do. Some even write about it. I think this is a crime. It’s true disrespect to the dead. During seminary, I’ve been told also that funerals are the best place to evangelize because that’s when people are most vulnerable. I think this is all immoral. Let me give some examples.
I saw an article about this young man who worked in Thailand in a household of extensive Christian contact, but this young man wanted to think more about it. Eventually, the young man died in an accident without ever knowing Jesus. It’s supposed to elicit emotions from the reader. The only emotion it elicited was not that we need to quickly tell others about Jesus. Instead, I got angry. Is this guy serious? If Christians actually believe in a literal hell, the writer is using the case of someone going to hell to somehow moralize towards some other ends. Using the dead to accomplish one’s means is the greatest form of disrespect. To use death to illustrate in order to get a certain response from our audience is highly immoral.
Back to my seminary professor who taught me about funerals. I was absolutely uneasy when I heard it. Is he serious? Is he really thinking that using people vulnerable emotions in the time of loss to gain converts is the best and more tasteful way? In my estimation, that is the most tasteless thing I’ve ever heard (okay, maybe I exaggerate, but it certainly is one of the most tasteless things). By disrespecting the dead, he also disrespected the living. It is no better than someone trying to sell life insurance at a funeral.
As a Christian, I am not saying all the stuff that is said is totally untrue. Some of it is scarily true (at least from my perspective). Truth however does not occur in isolation. Truth has context. Truth told in inappropriate context still does not quite do the job. In fact, such truths hurt by turning people off the faith completely. Think about when Jesus talked about death and eternal life. Did he try to scare the hell out of people so that he could scare people out of hell? No!!! Jesus often talked of eternal punishment when he condemned unethical and rich people (e.g. Matthew 25; Luke 16). He spoke strongly to people who were at their strongest but not at their weakest. Try that on for size in your upper middle class church and see what happens. Report back, will you? I’m only half joking, if an ACTUAL imitation of Jesus can actually be told as a joke.
So, preachers (and writers), please, I implore you, before you think you can “use” death for anything, stop before it’s too late. Death is a horrible event. Death made Jesus cry. I think the only appropriate response to death is to weep with those who weep. The commemoration of the dead is sacred whether the dead is Christian or not. Neither funeral nor moralizing sermon illustrations taken from dead is ever appropriate. Moralizing, philosophizing and theologizing about the dead are all immoral acts.