A couple years ago my dad had this cheesy bumper sticker on the back end of his truck. It said, “Live So the Pastor Doesn’t Have to Lie At Your Funeral.”
There’s some truth to that bumper sticker.
I have worked about 3,000 funerals in my 10 years as a funeral director and I have never heard a pastor state conclusively that the person they are memorializing is going to hell, although I’ve heard thousands of messages that state CONCLUSIVELY that the deceased is in heaven!
There’s been some fancy preachwork done by pastors for those who lived less than clean, God-honoring lives. I remember one pastor saying about a man who blatantly hated God, “This man didn’t like God, but he was a man who loved the outdoors. And anybody who loves the outdoors is like a lover of God because God created the outdoors.”
Honestly, contrary to my dad’s cheesy bumper sticker, I don’t think pastors are actually lying. I think pastors honestly have the hope that—despite evidence to the contrary—the deceased finds himself or herself in the presence of God.
I see two types of universalism: one that’s a doctrine and another that’s expressed as a hope: Hans Urs von Balthasar, the esteemed Catholic theologian, makes the distinction in his book, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? between the hope of universal salvation and the doctrine of universal salvation. The former wishes that all men would be saved, while the latter asserts that all men WILL be saved. For example, The New England Universalists (rebellious Calvinists) held the doctrine of universal salvation based on their causative assumptions of God’s salvific work, coupled with their strong assertion of the universality of God’s love. In other words, IF God can choose who will be saved and He loves all, then the doctrine arises that he will choose to save all.
I believe that God himself is a hopeful universalist when it states in both 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 that he wishes all men to be saved and that none would perish. This isn’t a soteriological doctrine but an eschatological hope, which is the major distinction that—if not acknowledged — will cause you distress.
And when it comes down to it: when the rubber hits the road; when preachers show their cards; when they stand up before a grieving, hopeless family who has just lost their loved one to an overdose, suicide or alcohol, all the preachers I have ever heard, either imply or state the same thing as Rob Bell–they, too, hope that love wins.
Maybe if Rob had spoken his thoughts at a funeral, nobody would have had a problem with it.
Editor’s Note: How do you handle funerals for those who are unsaved? Do you think Caleb’s observation is accurate—are most pastors hopeful universalists at funerals?