A few months ago I wrote to a friend not long before her father died. Over the years she had shared her faith with him, but she had no assurance that he knew the Lord. Her dilemma raised an important question. What should we say when a loved one dies and we are not sure about their ultimate destination? Here is an edited version of what I wrote to my friend:
I remember thinking about all this when my father died. A gifted physician, he was greatly loved by those who knew him. The day before the funeral, I asked the pastor if he thought my father was in heaven. He replied something along these lines, “We have to remember the words of Genesis 18:25, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ Let’s pray about it overnight and ask God to give us peace.” Back then I thought that answer was a bit weak, but now with the passing of nearly 4 decades I see the wisdom of the pastor’s words. He brought me back to the character of God.
The issue is not our loved ones and their faith or lack of it. We aren’t really qualified to judge that very well. We know from the Thief on the Cross that there is such a thing as last-second salvation (Luke 23:40-43). God who sees all things is both the Judge of All the Earth and a God of mercy whose heart is filled with grace. He will do right. There will be no mistakes. It is not possible that anyone will end up in hell who ought to go to heaven. There won’t be any “Oops!” moments when it comes to eternal destiny.
There is much we don’t know because we can’t know it this side of heaven. God alone is able to judge what is in the heart (1 Samuel 16:9). I cannot find any place in Scripture where we are encouraged to mourn our lost loved ones in hell. The warnings about hell are for the living, not the dead. To say that is not to deny any part of what the Bible says, but it reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways and that he will do right by our loved ones.
In that hope and with that confidence, I can rest well at night. Those who have died are in the hands of God who is both just and loving. He will do what is right in every case. That is more than enough for me.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.