Saturday, May 12, 2007

Good Grief! How Should Christians Grieve?

I'm sure you've seen it too. You go to a funeral of someone who was a devout Christian who lived a full and rich life, and its an incredibly somber and subdued occasion. You would think the person went straight to Hell to judge from the reaction of the congregation. What in the world is going on, and who exactly are these folks grieving for? How exactly should we react when a loved one gets promoted into the living presence of God? And is the wrong sort of grieving a reflection of an inadequate faith in what comes next? If the deceased has gone to join the choir eternal and is in the arms of Jesus himself why exactly is everyone reacting as if that person no longer existed or had had something terribly tragic happen to them? These are the kinds of questions we should ask on such occasions.

Let's start with the obvious. Paul says in 1 Cor. 15 that for people who believe in the future resurrection of the faithful, which involves a resurrection like Christ's own, that they should not be grieving like pagans who have no hope. How then do we grieve as people who do have hope? You will notice that Paul doesn't suggest we should not grieve.

Of course if there is someone we deeply love who dies, we are going to grieve. That's only natural. We will miss them. There will be a void in our lives, and so on. But if we truly believe they've gone to a better place, then it needs to be said that grieving while natural, is something we are doing for ourselves! That is-- we are mourning or bemoaning our own loss. In other words, we are not grieving FOR the deceased, because they are indeed in the presence of the Lord, we are grieving because we miss them, because we have a void in our lives and so on.

Let me explain it this way. Pagan grieving is often two sided. You genuinely are grieving for the deceased because you believe either: 1) they have ceased to exist altogether; 2) they have not gone to a better place but quite possibly to a worse one, one less full of life and love and joy. But Christian grieving should never be two sided. It should never be other centered on the deceased, rather than self-centered. And here's a general rule. We should never mourn for long the loss of something self-centered, what ever it is. That's just feeling sorry for ourselves, and however natural, it is a selfish, self-centered thing that Christians should have enough hope and trust to get beyond. Of course if it is someone you deeply love you don't get over it--- rather you get beyond it. Is your trust in God deep enough, is your hope in the future and the afterlife strong enough that you can unmask the impostor called self-centered grieving if it goes on too long?

When I was pastoring four churches at once, I had a lot of widows and some widowers to minister to. Now many of them were living in the past. They felt like their life had basically ended when their spouse died. And yet many of them were devoutly Christian. The more time I spent with them I realized that this was a mixed and mixed up situation. The grieving had gone on far too long, and it had become a pity party. Some of it of course reflected how much they loved and missed the deceased. But if you probed deeper you discovered that some of it reflected they were still feeling sorry for themselves, and in fact they had an inadequate trust and belief in what comes next-- in the other world and the afterlife as it concerns devout Christians? Why had this happened?

There are probably a plethora of factors, but there are two I'd like to share: 1) these folks had not had good enough and vibrant enough teaching about the afterlife to make it seem real to them, rather than a vague possibility or distant hope; 2) their teaching about the grace of God was inadequate such that they believed they had to earn a spot in heaven, and they were doubtful they had done enough; 3) on the other end of the spectrum was a very different religion that had been pounded into their psyche by the culture. It's the religion that says "This life is all there is" or "You only go around once in life so you need to grab for all the gusto you can get", or "He who dies with the most toys wins" and so on.

Unfortunately in a secular society the default religion is a religion of hospitals, doctors, and medicine because the mantra is-- this life is all there is, so you must prop it up, rescue it, and delay the inevitable as long as humanly possible. Never mind that this sometimes leads to the bankrupting of whole families, who are guilted into shelling out top dollar so an ancient person can live six more months.

Well I am hear to say as a Christian---THIS LIFE IS NOT ALL THERE IS. In fact, this life is not even the best of all there is. The future is as bright as the promises of God. And if you really believe that, such a belief should effect everything in your life ranging from what medical decisions you make towards the end of a life (e.g. is this procedure prolonging the living or just prolonging the dying of a person who is after all on the way to Jesus) to how you grieve once the person is dead.

Our theology of everlasting life ought to permeate all our thinking and affect all sorts of decision making. For one thing it should cause us to realize that we need not prop up this life at all costs to a family and their resources. We should honestly not want our families to do this for us, and we should say so. But back to our original subject for a moment. Grieving is for the living, and if it is about a Christian, if it goes on too long, then it is an act of selfishness, not an act of a person who wishes the best for the deceased: 1) the deceased wouldn't want us to be grieving if they are with the Lord; 2) in any case they are coming back at the resurrection as is true of all those who are in Christ; and 3) grieving as one who has no hope is not only self-centered, it can be a reflection of lack of faith-- a profound spiritual problem.

So what does proper grieving look like? Well the funeral in the first place should be a celebration of the life of the deceased. The minister should neither attempt to preach the person into heaven or hell. It's too late for that. Funerals are actually mainly for the living, so they can get some closure on things, and Christian funerals ought to be joyful occasions, not filled with funeral dirges and continually long faces. They should of course be occasions when people are allowed the catharsis of grieving and accepting that the person is dead, but at the same time such a service should be permeated by joy, by celebration, by bearing witness to happy moments with the deceased and so on. It should be like the sense of excitement and anticipation that happens at the launch of astronauts into space-- they are going into a far country and we can't go with them, but we can be happy for them, not only because they are likely coming back, but also because the journey into the far country will enrich them, be good for them.

The dead in Christ are now immune to sin, suffering, and sorrow. The dead in Christ are immune to disease, decay, and death. They are in a place where God can wipe away the tears from every eye. HALLELUAH. This is worth celebrating. We commit them into the ground "ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection". Indeed. I agree that a Christian funeral of someone deeply loved will be a bittersweet occasion. Grieving and closure should happen, but joy should burst out as well to show us the way to get beyond the grief. Joyful grieving is not an oxymoron-- it's the Christian way to grieve, such that finally the joy overrules and gets one beyond the grieving.

So back to Paul for a minute. Paul thinks that what we believe about the future resurrection should change our whole approach to grieving. We should not grieve like the pagans who have no hope, because we have a living one. We have a Lord who not merely gives resurrection he IS the resurrection and the life, and anyone who clings to him will find that its contagious-- we derive life and resurrection from him, from being close to and holding on to him. If you have no joy in your religion, if joy does not permeate the way you look at both life, and that old impostor death , then you have a leak in your Christianity somewhere, and its time to go in for a check up with a counselor or pastor.

Night does not last forever, and joy comes in the morning. Easter morning. And we are supposed to be Easter people living in a Good Friday world. When people look at the way you live and the way you die, will they be able to tell you are an Easter person? One of the profound truths about Christianity is that it does not deny the reality of suffering and death, it simply says there are greater forces in this world. God's yes to life, is louder than death's no. Death has been dealt with in the present not by its denial, nor even by it ceasing to happen, but by it being transcended, much as human weakness can be transcended in a human life by grace. As Paul learned "God's power is made perfect in our weakness". So will you let the power of a great hope and a great joy transform the way you grieve and the way you look at both life and death? I would hope so. I would truly hope so.


And one more thing. We need to stop talking about lost loved ones if they are Christians. They are not lost. We might feel at a loss, but they are not lost. They've simply gone on to the next stage of life. They've gotten a promotion. They are indeed in a better place. Why in the world would we begrudge them that, or mourn that?


Owen Weddle said...

Amen! The problem is though, that we sometimes "forget" about those things and then revert to the secular society, as you say. But the hope of a resurrection and eternal life is what keeps me at peace with my grandmother (who was one of the most devout Christians I knew) who passed away this past Christmas season.

Though I would be careful to say someone is pitying themselves. It does happen of course, and I don't know the situations, but when there is a void of someone to love and who loves you, it is a heart wrenching thing that can last for years. After all, we were not made to be alone. Self-pity and struggles can often be heard to delineate without a lot of time (of course you may know that and have had plenty of time with some of those widows).


Michael Gilley said...


Good words but I was wondering what you make or families in denial? Often, their services look exactly the same as what you described (i.e. celebration and praise singing).

Ben Witherington said...

Good point Michael. Yes there are families in denial, in which case you have to take them gently through the grieving process, and tell them they need to not stuff their feelings inwardly, just to appear like brave Christians.

And Owen you are right as well. But here is where I say that the Christian community needs to love those bereaved folks, right on, and not just the week after the funeral. They need to learn that a person can live without a mate if they have good Christian friends and the body of Christ to love on them.



Owen Weddle said...

Dr. Witherington:

I agree there. The loss of a loved one does not mean that one can not move beyond those feelings of loneliness. The body is there to support the widows, as this is a repeated command within the New Testament. Part of the problem is people don't know how to move on and grow from their pain. That is part of the Church and especially the pastors to show them how.

BTW, I am a future "Asburian" so hopefully I will be able to get a class of yours there. However, I will be taken classes initially online while I am taking a local pastor position.

Steven Carr said...

'Paul says in 1 Cor. 15 that for people who believe in the future resurrection of the faithful, which involves a resurrection like Christ's own, that they should not be grieving like pagans who have no hope.'

That is in 1 Thessalonians, of course.

Ben Witherington said...

See 1 Cor. 15.7-8, but of course you are right that the idea is in 1 Thess. as well.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington--good post (as usual), and I agree with it by and large. However, for those of us who are Christian physicalists your 'fudging' of Resurrection (which is one idea) and of 'heaven' (which is another) seems a little odd.
That is to say, for those of us who don't believe that humans have an intrinsically immortal 'soul' that survives death, death really is the end, albeit temporarily (until the general Resurrection Christians hope for).
The only way to have your cake in and eat it too (if you're a physicalist), is to say that upon our death, God somehow 'resurrects' us directly into his presence ('to be with Jesus'--Paul seemed to think this was the fate of faithful martyrs for Christ at the end of the age).

Long story boring, funerals for Christian physicalists (e.g. me) will emphasize Resurrection over and above 'being in heaven with Jesus' (which usually assumes some sort of dualistic anthropology).

Thanks for the thoughts!

Dan Roth said...

My struggle was at my agnostic Jewish Dad's funeral 4 years ago. I was one of very few Christians at the synagogue/reception, and it was both an internal and external struggle in my words and interactions to put the "best light" on the death of a man whose destiny I was less than certain of.

Admittedly, my peace may have been due in part to his being "coincidentally" visited by a Christian chaplain in the hospice two days before death in answer to prayer that someone would come with the Gospel - besides me, whom he wouldn't listen to about it. At my urging, he shared the Gospel and only the Lord knows my Dad's inner response (he couldn't really talk in the last stages of his Parkinson's).

Point being, even with the death of (possibly) unbelieving loved ones, I praise God that He gives us the Grace to leave judgment in His perfect hands and not agonize about if He's going to judge rightly. Without that peace, fear and guilt could easily consume believing loved ones of departed unbelievers.

Dan R.

P.S. Daniel - How do you account for Jesus' words to the dying thief, "Today you will be with me in paradise?" It's a stretch to suggest that "today" is meant as some metaphorical "this age (that I'm ushering in through my death/imminent ressurection)". I think today means today. :-)

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Daniel:

Very nice to hear from your provocative self.

If you're truly a physicalist then you believe in a two stage future after death: 1) to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That would not be a physical condition my friend. That would be (as Jesus said on the cross) commending one's spirit into the presence of God;

and 2) resurrection is most certainly something that happens to a body at the second coming of Jesus to earth, not when you die; and so

3) you need to rethink this monism thing as its not in accord with what the NT actually teaches. The NT teaches a limited and temporary dualism-- which is resolved at the resurrection and

4) just for the record, those, early Jews like Pharisees who believed in the resurrection also in addition believed in life in heaven without a body as well--- just as Rev. 6 says about the saints under the altar, and just as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus sugggests as well.

Of course it is true that the Greek notion of the immortal soul is not what we find in the NT, but there were other concepts of the non-material part of a human being-- namely human spirits that are not inherently immortal but can go be with God at death.

SOOOO, repent and believe the real Gospel-- it includes life in heaven without a body as an interim condition, and a future resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns.

And one more thing--- I sincerely doubt you got this notion from Richard Hays. He's one of my best friends in the whole world over the course of the last 30 years, and he knows perfectly well what Paul and others say on this subject.


Ben W.

Sempre said...

Have you actually lost (yes, lost) anyone whom you loved with all your heart? Lost them prematurely, not in ripe old age? Someone who did not live as a 'believing Christian' but merely a good and honourable person who had never been given any spiritual education? Yes, where IS he now?
To grieve this kind of loss is the opposite of self-centred - as you yourself say, many widow/ers feel, as I do, that it is the very self that has been lost. I am not centred on myself at all - I am desperately trying to find the self I was for 27 years, the one that appears to have gone into the crematorium with him.
If you want to know how it truly feels, visit and read my poor attempts to stumble through this nightmare.
I believe in resurrection, yes - but will he know me then? Will I know him? And either way, how does that help me get up in the morning? How does it help me look our little children in the eyes and comfort them? That at some time in the far distant, much further away than next Christmas, future, we might all, if we are lucky, meet again in some other form, totally inexplicable to a child's concept of life?
Perhaps if more people in our society did not treat death like the ultimate obscenity - that any kind of public mourning after the funeral is some kind of psychological or spiritual disturbance - then the bereaved may have some chance of seeing the way to move on.
Personally, it's been over a year for me, and I'm all out of ideas ...

Cody said...

Dr. Witherington, you make a great point that our grieving should be rooted in the Word of God. His promises should be mirrored in every stage of life. However, I am concerned that your post paints an idealistic and cliche model of grief, rather than a practical one. Certainly there are many believers who have grieved in unhealthy, even faith hindering ways. But I want us to be cautious as ministers that we allow people to experience the full range of human emotion that comes from loss, without guilt.

I am sure that in your decades of ministry you have walked with people through devastating loss. And I'm sure that you have suffered great personal loss as well. For those in the depths of grief the truth of their loved one's "promotion" is a truth to be arrived at, not forced into. This is where I think the Psalms hold so much wisdom for us, because in these words we find no reservations in language or emotion, only raw broken human experience met by God. They free us to experience all our emotions in our encounters with God.

The first order of grief counseling must be to the counselors who rely on cliches such as, "They're in a better place," or "They got a promotion," or, "They wouldn't want you to cry." Let's instruct our people in the ways of grieving that reflect scripture, and include in that our full emotional experience as we travel that road.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Cody:

I hear what you are saying but I must disagree with some of it. The psalmist is not a Christian, nor is he reflecting Christian thinking about the after life that we find in the NT. Paul is deliberately swimming against the tide of his culture when he says what he does to the Thessalonians about grieving as those who have no hope. In the ANE and the Greco-Roman world it was an all out grief fest for a full weak of formal mourning. This was followed by ongoing grieving, and a celebration of birthday parties of the deceased by dining on their crypts and pouring wine into their tombs! Talk about a fixation on the deceased.

Paul is in the process of changing the paradigm.

I am not suggesting that a person should not grieve, nor deny their feelings of loss, but I am saying that there ought to be something in their lives if they are Christians which over-rides that and gets them beyond it.

Notice what Jesus says-- "blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted". If you look at the beatitudes as a whole, the fulfillment clauses all have to do with what happens at the eschaton, when they see God, enter the Kingdom etc. Eschatological comfort is offered to those currently mourning, and this is what we have to make viable and real to our people. And more to the point, the living presence of Christ and the Spirit is what we have to offer now in the present.

Patricia thank you for your sharing. I have indeed known loss in my own life, and I still am prepared to stand by what I have said in this post. I am not trivializing your pain or anyone else's, nor the painful reminders you face everyday with your family. I am however saying that the joy of the Lord should be your strength already, especially after a year has gone by.

This is a gift of God given to you to help you cope with the loss if you will receive it. There's nothing superficial or phony about it.

I am not talking about happiness, I am talking about joy, the kind the Holy Spirit instills in the believer's life.


Ben W.

Chris said...

I think grieving for the Christian is not grieving for the person who has passed away so much as grieving the separation. Yesterday is the one year anniversary of my grandfather's passing. Even though he was a Christian and I know he's still alive, I miss him terribly at times.

Yet even having said that, you are absolutely right--he's not dead. He's not lost. He's alive. Really, more alive than we are. And as much as I miss him, I don't wish he was here. I wish we were there, but I don't wish he was here. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, so it would be cruel for me to wish him back here.

So I'll look forward to seeing him again. And until then, I think instead of mourning the separation, I'll celebrate his life on earth and try to live the life he still inspires me to be.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Chris... my sentiments exactly.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington--I mentionned Dr. Hays in an earlier post, when talking about non-violence and sharing of possessions... I don't believe I mentionned him in reference to physicalism.
My own views on Paul's eschatology have largely been shaped by Andrew Perriman's work in his 'The Coming of the Son of Man'. He argues that Paul foresaw a vindication of the martyrs at the transition of the ages, which meant resurrection (the 'first resurrection') directly to heaven for those who are faithful to Christ to the point of death. And Dan, I would probably put Jesus' words to the 'thief' (perhaps a failed revolutionary?) on the cross in that context. Like Perriman, I hesitate to universalize this to all believers everywhere...
It does seem like both OT and NT writers assume, at times, something like a mitigated dualism of sorts, but I think this position is increasingly untenable, biologically and philosophically. There's no room here to argue at length for this thesis, but the mere redundancy of perceptual apparati in dualism (since both the 'soul' and the body have mechanisms to detect the world around them) should give us pause.

I know better than to argue about what the NT writers actually said on the blog of a biblical scholar (I'd prefer not to get my butt kicked today), so I'll leave that argument alone (though I must say, there surely must be a difference between the worldview assumed by the biblical writers and the worldview taught by the biblical writers).

All that to say, I am (for the time being) an unrepentant 'monist', and I hope those who bury/cremate me remember that... :-)
Thanks for the conversation.

Liam Thatcher said...

A great post.

I always remember that little verse in Acts 8 that says just after Stephen's martyrdom: 'devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.' It encourages me that grief and lamentation is godly (NIV) as well as natural, but even Stephen's attitude was one of excitement at seeing his saviour awaiting him, so I don't imagine that the godly men kept lamenting very long, before rejoicing with the martyr.

Death is one of those occasions that really does test the application of our theology... I admire those who handle it well, and can only hope that when it touches me with closer relatives than I've experienced so far I also know how to guard my heart, mourn well and rejoice well.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Daniel:

I am afraid Mr. Perriman has misled you. Have you read Tom Wright's Resurrection and the Son of God? It shows that resurrection never means a non-material ascent to heaven of anyone. When dealing with the afterlife, and not just a pure metaphor about current spiritual life, it always refers to something that happens to a body. As Wright points out, even in 1 Cor. 15 the phrase 'pneumatikos soma' refers to a material body totally empowered by the Holy Spirit, not a body made out of non-material substance, which would have been a non sequitur for someone like Paul anyway.

You make a good distinction between what the Scriptures teach and what they merely mention. I agree with this distinction, however it is clear enough that the NT teaches a bodily resurrection both of Jesus and of us, when he returns.

I wonder how you deal with all the evidence of post mortem communication from the dead to the living, for example the famous case of C.S Lewis appearing to and conversing with J.P. Phillips?

I've been on the circuit with monists. There arguments are weak for the very good reason that they have no empirical evidence or non-evidence about the condition of the person in the afterlife. Their entire reasoning is based on the limited knowledge of our current fallen physiology and makeup, a not very good basis for hypothesizing about the afterlife. And the monists I have debated admitted this problem.


Ben W.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,
Wright's book is most definitely on my 'to-read' list. Perriman's argument (as I understand it) is that the first resurrection, as anticipated by the apostle Paul, is in fact a bodily resurrection. There are probably some loose ends to tie up, but his overall argument is quite persuasive (I recommend his 'Coming of the Son of Man' to everyone).
As far as the philosophical arguments are concerned, I think they're sufficient to show that average-Joe/Jane dualism (where 'soul' is essentially a synonym for personality) is wrong-headed. Beyond that, there's obviously room for disagreement.
I actually had never heard of CS Lewis's conversation with JP Phillips before. Do you know where (preferrably online) I could read about this (you also mentionned it in the comments of this story)?

Alex said...


Thanks for your comment. The only step I know, so far, that must be the right thing to do in the grieving process is just what you have done by calling a spade a spade. You recognize what death really is. Death is a nightmare.

I think the only glimmer of hope to be found when faced with that horrible, yet undeniable truth, is that God agrees with you. I imagine that in some way, He wakes up with the same nightmare and heartache every morning.

I feel you when you say it is treated as an obscenity to mourn. But I think if we don't mourn, we are missing the point and denying the truth of what has just happened: namely the opposite of everything God ever created the world for... Life.

I also have that difficulty you mention when you say some "form, totally inexplicable". It's not only inexplicable to a child. It's inexplicable to all of us and that's what I think makes resurrection a little more appealing than an eternal disembodied state.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Great post as always. It did clear a couple of things up for me. My grandfather died in 2005 at the young age of 96 and I was one of the pall barers. Although I was sad about his passing (and still am) I do know that he is indeed in a better place. Probably chopping that cord of wood and grumbing about people monkeying around where they shouldn't. :)
I knew, knew he was with God and that I'll see him again.

Dan said...

Love your blog. I visit it often and am almost always enligthened and encouraged.
I lost my mom to cancer about two years ago. She is a believer (and I am a soft dualist) and thus have confidence that she is with the Lord in a joyfull yet not fully glorious state. Never-the-less it has been a trying couple of years to say the least.
Along with my father and two brothers I miss her terribly. For better or for worse-I question my ability to fully and accurately assess familial disfunction yet am aware that my family, like all families, functioned at a less than perfect level- we have found that my mother was the glue and that figuring out what life means without her as individuals and as a family is incredibly hard and often painfull.
So yes we greive the loss of my mother, at times we do so with hope, faith and joy, but at times I find that I as well as my family slip into despair and that the way out is not through simply stating theological axioms.
As I was reading this blog entry I found myself torn between affirming the truth and validity of it's statements and deeply uneasy with the seemingly indifferent tone towards those who are in a season of grief. How long is an appropriate time for grieving? When does it become self-centered? And how in the world could anyone make a blanket statement of generality of such magnitude? After reading others comments and thinking about it for a while I have realized my problem with it.
I find that as I study Scripture and theology it is easy to make blanket statements about how things should function in the Church and the world. We can easy address abstract situations but the concrete realities are always more slippery. The danger is in becoming like Jobs "companions", always looking for a tight theological mold to place the ubsurdity of life into.
What I am getting at is that this entry is good advice-this assumes that this was part of the intent-for those who greive but only if they are in the context of a very healthy Church or community. However I have found that that this is rarely the case. I do not believe that those who grieve are the problem, or rather that this is the place to start when looking for a solution. If for no other reason than that those who are greiving most likely don't have the emotional or spiritual strength or resources to make a paradigm shift of such magnitude, at least on thier own. A better place to begin would be by addressing those inside the Church on how to greive with those who greive.
Yes we do not grieve and lament with no hope as non-believers, yet we greive. I liked what you said... "Eschatological comfort is offered to those currently mourning, and this is what we have to make viable and real to our people. And more to the point, the living presence of Christ and the Spirit is what we have to offer now in the present." I think that this gets to the point. Maybe part of greiving with those who greive is helping them find the eschatological comfort that is present for them now. That is offering it to them by being the ears of Christ to listen to their pain, the mouth of Christ to remind them that God's love is for them now; in the midst of their anger, confussion, doubt, anxiety, not by reminding them of their lack of faith or their spiritual unhealth. You are right that counseling or talking to a pastor is a good place to start when faced with these problems, I know cause I am in the process, but the way that you have stated it makes an implicit statement equating the binary opposition of grieving/non-grieving with that of spiritually healthy/spiritually unhealthy when the case might be just the opposite. Anyways I already wrote to long so I'll stop but just wanted to voice my discomfort with this post and say that I think that there might be a better way of addressing this problem. All and all love your blog and am so thankful for your scholarship and ministry.


Ben Witherington said...

This story is found in a variety of places. I read it in a Philosophy of Religion book, whose editor escapes me at the moment.

Here is an excerpt from Loy Shimer's blog at

"J.B. Phillips and the ghost of Lewis

C.S. Lewis had some fascinating thoughts on this, and he himself appeared in one of the most celebrated and redemptive recorded ghost sightings ever: Moments after his death at Cambridge, he appeared in the bedroom of J.B. Phillips at Oxford [a dear friend of his, the one who translated the Bible in the Phillips translation. Phillips also wrote the fabulous little book, Your God is Too Small].

At the time, J. B. Phillips was in a deep depression that threatened his life. He refused to leave his chambers, refused proper food or exercise, and seriously questioned the love and election of God [in his life]. It was in this state of detachment and depression, leading to his early death…that suddenly, a ruddy and glowing Lewis stood before him, entering his room through closed doors -- a “healthy Lewis, hearty and glowing” as Phillips was later to record.

In this vision, Lewis only spoke only one sentence to Phillips: ‘J.B., it’s not as hard as you think.’ One solitary sentence, the meaning of which is debated! But what is not debated is the effect of that sentence. It snapped Phillips out of his depression, and set him again following God. After Lewis spoke that cryptic sentence, he disappeared.

Phillips came out of his chambers only to find that Lewis had died moments before the appearance, miles away. He pondered this in his heart, with wonder, and never returned to his depression. Now, was this a case of God giving a detour of a soul on the way to heaven to a special friend, to save him? Who knows? But again, it is recorded evidence of the highest order, by persons of the highest order: Lewis and Phillips. It is a ghost story, a benevolent one, to all appearances – actually, not only benevolent, but redemptive [which I would take as an element of authenticity].

Again, we must allow for the freedom of God. This is His world, after all. He set up the physical and moral laws, and yet rules over these sovereignly, in love. What is needed for His children, He spares no expense."


Ben W.

Unknown said...

Hello Ben, this is strictly off topic, so I apologize, but I heard that you play guitar. Is this true? I play as well. I am in a bluegrass band and I love it. I see that in September you are coming to Columbus MS to speak. If you think you'll get any kind of break we should pick together. I am in Starkville, going to State. Also, in the fall I might be visiting Asbury so maybe we could pick then. Well, just let me know if your interested.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for the excerpt. While some questions cannot be settled empirically, others can. Assuming the people responsible for passing this story on are trustworthy (I have no immediate reason to think they aren't, least of all you), I'd say it works as a pretty strong empirical argument. The story is quite reminiscent of the 'apparitions' of Jesus to the disciples, once resurrected. So while this sits in a certain tension with Perriman's eschatological framework, a physicalist can still say Lewis wasn't 'disembodied'... but I've dragged out this conversation too long already, so let's leave it at that.

I whole-heartedly agree that stories like this remind us of God's sovereign freedom to work his purposes in ways he sees fit. We serve a living Lord.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Shea:

Yep I sing and play six and 12 string acoustic, Fender Stratocaster, and the piano and violin. I've been doing music since a child. My mom's a pianist. You know what they say-- you can pick your friends, and you can pick your guitar, but you can't pick your friend's guitar. I'd be happy to do some bluegrass Gospel with you.



Unknown said...

sweet thanks

SJBedard said...

As a pastor, I always try to focus a Christian funeral on celebration. There is much to be joyful for as you have said. But I also remind people that they need to be honest about their feelings of loss. Even Jesus wept at Lazarus' funeral even though He knew He was about to raise Him. Grief is important and is not negated by the resurrection. Christian life is defined by relationship and there is a radical change in relationship with death. This change deserves grief. We lost our first baby in a miscarriage. A friend told me that there was no reason to be sad as we would see each other in heaven. I asked how he felt if his two young children died, if he would be sad despite the hope of reunion in heaven. He was speechless. There is a loss, even if the deceased Christian is not lost. Also, we need to acknowledge that there is a different way to deal with the death of a 80 year old Christian and a 3 year old child. It is not the same.

Brittany said...

A poem I once wrote - sort of touches on what you have been saying:

“A Shining Shore”

I heard the voice of God say,
I will come to take thee home today.
You shall be with me,
And you shall be free.

I saw the things of the world,
Slowly slip away.
Dwarfed by a bright, shining shore,
And the dawning of a new day.

I looked beyond the grave,
And the cold, hard stone,
And saw a shining city
And on a silver throne,
I saw my Father coming towards me,
Coming to take me home.

So do not cry for days past,
Or things beyond control,
For we will meet again at last,
On that celestial shore.


Dan said...

It would help to remind many here that the opening statement of your post was about funerals, and to that end, I completely agree. I don't understand why, at Christian funerals, so many unChristian things are said and believed. "God needed another flower in his garden, so he chose you." "God needed another angel, so he called you home." "When you hear the wind in the trees, that is our beloved friend still walking among us." It seems everything BUT the true gospel is spoken.

I did a side study on the issue of eternal hope by looking at music over the last 100 years. Ever notice how many older songs sing of heaven and our hope there? - This World is Not My Home, In the Sweet By and By, I'll Fly Away, When We All Get to Heaven. . . How many songs do we sing about getting to Heaven now? Most (if not all) songs are about God providing in the here and now. I think it says something about our culture that we don't want to think about "what comes next," but only about "wherever I happen to be now."

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you so much Brittany for sharing your poem. It was beautiful.

Steve, I am afraid you like many another have badly misread John 11. If you look at this chapter carefully in the Greek you will find that Jesus wept over the unbelief of the living, not the loss of Lazarus. In fact the text says "When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jewish officials along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved and troubled."

Furthermore, the deep emotion he is said to have expressed on that occasion is anger-- the Greek literally means the snorting of horses.

Scholars are divided as to whether he is angry about the lack of trust in him shown by those present, or whether he is angry about the ravages of death, but in any case when Martha says "Lord he stinketh" Jesus blows up! "Did I not previously tell you if you believe you will see the glory of God?"

Her problem is that while she believes in the future resurrection she believes inadequately for Jesus is the resurrection and can do something on the spot.

Again at vs. 38 we find Jesus deeply angry at the question "Could not the one who opened the blind man's eyes have prevent this?"

Jesus doesn't come to mourn at the grave with friends, he comes to raise the dead, and he is upset at the lack of trust, understanding and belief shown on the occasion. Indeed he is so deeply troubled by all the incomprehension and lack of trust that he can hardly contain himself.

This story is not a good one to pick if you want to suggest a theology of mourning that does not take into consideration that Jesus is the resurrection, even now.


Ben W.

James said...

We live in a world of the living, and have no direct knowledge of any other, where the dead have risen or only their souls—if we can conceive of such a thing—survive. That undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns is not known to us, or is known only a promise of what is to come but experienced by no one like us.

It’s not surprising, then, that it is the world we vividly and fully apprehend that dominates our lives and sets our expectations. An aspect of this domination is that the loss of a loved one is not relieved in the least by a belief that after our own death we will be reunited. The dominant reality is that a life interwoven with our own has been ripped away and that for years to come we will have to live with that loss while trying to hem up the ragged edges left as best we can. Love and grief are equally a part of life, and the grieving scarcely need to be told they’re being selfish and going on too long. Rather, they’re entitled to deal with their pain by any means necessary. (Which is not to deny that many of those who grieve experience a keen sense of guilt and regret when a relationship they would have wished to have dealt with differently is not plainly to be seen beyond repair.)

As to what Paul tells us, and Jesus too, I and my betters as historians—Paula Fredricken, say, or E.P Sanders--find it obvious in verse after verse, chapter after chapter, that imbued in every fiber of their faith was the notion that “we which are alive
and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep, for the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” So that they foresaw an end to grief in their lifetimes. But of ours, grief remains a part, and, on the evidence of some of the foregoing comments and of the experience of us all, cannot be diminished by any belief however strongly held. No one today could share the belief Paul held, nor then could they grieve as did he.

Andrew Weaver said...

I appreciate the reflections on "Good grief." I especially found the reflections on John 11 interesting, but not exhaustive. Acts 8:2 seems to be a clear example of Christian mourning. "Godly men buried Stephen and deeply mourned (made loud lamentation) for him." This kind of deep mourning is not inconsistent with Christian hope. It seems that the above posts remind us of two opposite dangers: wallowing in unbelief (like those who have no hope) vs. upholding a stoic, inhumane kind of "joy" (denying real grief). How could a right-thinking Christian NOT grieve the death of a loved one? Death is ugly and abnormal! It's not the way God created this world! A fully Christian view of "joy" includes deep emotional grief. The Orthodox funeral service includes opportunities for deep mourning. Yet it also includes notes of victory & hope rooted in the resurrection of Christ. "Good grief" includes "joy" but let's not forget that it is still GRIEF.

Andrew Weaver said...

P.S. - I wonder if the original post conveyed an unrealistic rush to closure for the grieving. I'm not sure "closure" is even a biblical concept or requirement. Maybe there's an official duration of public mourning, but who says one needs to "get beyond it" (which seems to be just a euphemism for "getting over it")? I can rejoice that a loved one is with Christ, yet still miss them terribly. This isn't sinful - it's human.

Unknown said...

I found this blog in a search for writings about Christian grief. Here are my comments.

My husband, pastor, prayer and ministry partner and best friend of over 35 years died without warning four days ago.

I do rejoice that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is with the Lord and happy, and I am positive that we will know each other and be together with the Lord for eternity at the end of my life.

I also grieve beyond anything I could ever before imagine as possible. I also have periods of peace between the times of gasping in pain. I don't suffer more than I can carry, no matter how it feels when I am in the pangs of grief.

I am joyfully sad. It is certainly possible to do that, since I am doing it. And I also know for a certainty that God is comforting me and is carrying me when I am overwhelmed. I have great pity for those whose stubbornness keeps them from this help.

I am experiencing all the periods of "why?" and "what if?" and "Could I have prevented his death?" and "How could God possibly turn this for good?" that people experience in grief, but still, I know that the purpose of this life is the development of the spirit and soul for the real life to follow.

I have much more grief and the rest of my lifetime missing him ahead of me, but he and I gave ourselves to Jesus unconditionally many years ago, and no matter how much pain I am in I will never betray that trust and commitment to God and to him by becoming depressed (a condition I lived in before I surrendered to Jesus) or angry at God, and I expect that if God isn't finished with me yet then I will find the life He wants me to continue to live.