“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)” (Romans 2:13-15 NIV)
I recently had a conversation with my mother about how we verbally express our condolences to others. Someone we both know lost one of her students to pneumonia over the holidays. My mom told me that she essentially said, “We don’t know where the student was on her walk with the Lord, so we have to just hope that she’s in Heaven now.” I get that this is supposed to be encouraging and hopeful, but I believe that a statement like this is a bit limiting. It’s vague, and doesn’t necessarily fulfill the need for comfort and closure. It apparently didn’t comfort our friend.
At the time, my only reaction to hearing of my friend’s response was that I could see both sides. The idea of Heaven and Hell are not lost on me, and I think that we in the church think of it quite naturally, even if we don’t focus on death every day. Yes, I believe that getting to Heaven, meeting God, and reuniting with our friends and loved ones is important, but I also believe—to an extent—that our faith isn’t always confined to the constructs of organized religion.
I ended up calling my mom back and expressing my thoughts a few days later, because we didn’t manage to finish the conversation the night she called. I started by telling my mom what a good “old-school Baptist” she is for saying what she did (a loving tease, of course!). While she isn’t wrong that WE DON’T KNOW, even I don’t want to hear that sort of thing when people I know die. It may be a generational difference.
C.S. Lewis writes in The Last Battle (book 7 in The Chronicles of Narnia) about a soldier, Emeth, who is a Calormene, fighting on the opposite side of the Narnians, the book’s heroes. Emeth wants to meet his god, Tash, but he is surprised and confused to meet Aslan instead. He asks where Tash is, but Aslan tells him that Tash has never known him. Emeth has always followed Aslan, although he never knew it. Like in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Emeth saw Aslan in need, and gave him shelter, food, aid, etc.
It may not sound like good doctrine to believe that people who don’t officially worship God and accept Jesus Christ as their savior will get to Heaven, but I think that’s exactly what is written in the passage from Romans, above. Jesus Himself states in the parable, “Whatever you did (not do) for the least of these, you did (not do) for Me” (Matthew 25:40, 45 NIV). The goodness of our hearts and transformation of our minds are ultimately defined by our actions much more than our words, whether we are relating directly to God or not. Similarly, many people claim to follow Christ by attending church and praying the right prayers, but in their hearts, they are stingy, selfish people who lack compassion and charity. Are they right with God? Fortunately, it’s not up to us to judge.
No one I know personally has died recently, but we all know of someone who has lost a friend, loved one, student, neighbor, etc. I do find peace in the hope that what is in the hearts of those I love may get them to Heaven, whether they’re aware of it or not. Not “being a good person,” per se, but actively living in Love that can only come from our Creator, is what I believe gets us to Heaven. I only hope that when I speak to my friends and family, especially those who are on the fence with God, that my words “we don’t know” CAN be a comfort.
Nicole can be reached by email here.