“How do I find peace when unsaved loved ones die?” This is a question that John Piper and Trip Lee explored in a recent episode of The Gospel Coalition Q&A. The thoughts the pastors offered on this challenging topic focused on the goodness of God, as well as our human limitations.
“The greater our trust is for God being merciful and good,” said rapper, pastor and author Trip Lee, “the greater we can say, ‘I don’t see it now, maybe I’ll see it later, but I trust you in the midst of this.’”
John Piper, a theologian and retired pastor, echoed the idea that it is difficult (if not impossible) for people to emotionally come to terms with the death of their unsaved loved ones. “I don’t think you or I have emotional capacities right now to deal with all the death in the way we will deal with it in the age to come,” he said. “I’ve got limitations on me now, and those limitations are guided by Scripture.”
When Unsaved Loved Ones Die
Piper started by observing that how he would counsel people struggling with the death of their unsaved loved ones “depends so much on where they are.” It’s possible to throw out a lot of theological truths that are completely unhelpful to people. But Piper did offer a series of Scriptures he believes speak to Christians in this situation—and the initial passages he tackled were fairly difficult.
The first was Matthew 10:37, where Jesus says, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Christians must love God more than anyone else in their lives. This is important, said Piper, so that believers do not lose their faith in God when their unsaved loved ones die.
Luke 9:59-60 also underscores the importance of putting God first in our lives. In this passage, a man asks Jesus if he can bury his father before following him. Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
“What in the world is that?” asked Piper. “Well, the least it is is a pretty radical prioritization of following Jesus.” Another challenging passage is Rev. 18, which describes the destruction of the city of Babylon. Verse 20 says, “Rejoice over her, you heavens! Rejoice, you people of God! Rejoice, apostles and prophets! For God has judged her with the judgment she imposed on you.”
“Is that loving?” asked Piper, referring to the idea that Scripture is calling God’s followers to rejoice over the destruction of unsaved people. Piper noted some might argue that rejoicing over the fall Babylon is not the same as rejoicing over the destruction of an unsaved spouse or child. To that he responded, “But you’re supposed to love everybody. So we’ve got the same essential problem of how we are someday going to exult with God in his justice.” This final justice, said Piper, is being carried out against the very people Jesus was referring to when he told us to love our enemies.
Piper’s answer to these difficulties is that, because of our human limitations, we simply do not have the ability to comprehend God’s love and justice right now. And the Bible speaks to our lack of understanding. 1 John 3:2 says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror [in a glass darkly]; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Piper believes that when we are with God in heaven, we will have the ability to grasp God’s love and justice in a way that we cannot right now. “I’m not going to be held hostage in heaven by hell,” said Piper, “and so there’s going be an emotional change wrought in me to see the way God sees.” In the meantime, Scripture gives us the freedom to grieve for those who have died in their sins. 2 Corinthians 6:10, which describes Christians as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” is “huge for me,” said Piper. The command in Romans 12:15 to “mourn with those who mourn” is significant also.
These passages show us that it is okay to grieve throughout our lives for those we love who have died and gone to hell because they do not know Jesus. Piper also pointed out that the truth about someone’s eternal fate is something only God knows for certain. “We don’t know the eleventh hour transactions that go on in a person’s heart,” he said.