Evangelicals & Death
We are often intimidated by big words and in the field of theology there are plenty of words where even the average Evangelical or religious person would posit no understanding. Soteriology is one such word. Soteriology concerns the biblical doctrine of salvation. It is no small, pedantic issue of consequence. Martin Luther believed this doctrine was so vitally importance he courageously posted his theological issues of dispute on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517.
Luther could not have conceivably understood the historical import of his act of defiance to the powerful Roman Catholic Church, yet it would be of supreme importance in the Gospel being rescued and preached to desperately needy citizens of that day. That need is still present before us and the ignorance present in that day is ever before our society today. The issue in Luther’s day was whether the Bible taught Salvation by Grace (the Reformed/Protestant view) or whether the Bible taught Salvation by Grace plus Work (the Roman Catholic/Rome view).
It is beyond of the scope of a blog article such as this to delve into all the machinations of the Protestant vs. Roman Catholicism debate, but all should understand I write and live from an exclusively Protestant Evangelical worldview. Thus, I do not believe a Roman Catholic is my brother in Christ. Unlike most Evangelicals I understand and apply the term Protestant with theologicalclarity and theological precision. You will never witness me promoting someone or something from the Catholic church as a paragon of virtue. I keenly remember someone scolding me for not supporting the candidacy of the then Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, strictly on the grounds of his alleged Christian identity. While I affirm the conservatism of a Kavanaugh’s judgeship I still recognize he is part of the Roman Catholic faith and reject the notion he is a member of the authentic Christian community. I acknowledge there are well-intentioned followers of the Evangelical community who will take exception to my thesis, but I believe the record is clear Rome does not preach nor possess the Gospel. Any theological organization that does not possess or preach the Gospel (see Galatians 1:8-9) cannot be properly understood to be neither orthodox nor orthoprax.
I believe it necessary to belabor the point to adequately deal with today’s topic. I have come to dread it when a major public figure dies. There is the ubiquitous presence of extreme emotional angst and heartbreak when a celebrity dies. It happened with Princess Diana, it happened with Michael Jackson & Prince and most recently it has taken place with the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. While it is natural and proper to lament over the loss of any life there still remains no justification for Evangelical compromising their fidelity to the Word of God concerning the eternal destination of the deceased, absent evidence of confession consistent with fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8). In plain terms what is permissible for Evangelicals to posit when someone dies concerning regarding their ultimate destination. It is readily conceded Evangelicals are never able to do so absolutely but we can declare a fellow person has lived in accorded with the Bible with express some level of confidence. Ultimately, of course, the individual is in the only position to know their genuine heart condition, but Evangelicals have no biblical warrant for recklessly advancing people into heaven when the alleged person has demonstrated no consistent or declared walk with Jesus Christ.
When a public figure like Kobe Bryant dies, we seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy reacting to the news. People immediately flocked to Staples Center (place where the Los Angeles Lakers place their basketball and where Kobe Bryant played for twenty years) and left mementos and other expressions of grief. I am in the minority, but I don’t even make it a practice of visiting loved one at the cemetery because the Bible continually reveals the dead have no awareness of what takes place in time and space after they die.
Now, it must be clearly stated upfront there is nothing inherently wrong with people reacting in whatever fashion they chose to display after hearing the news of Kobe Bryant’s sudden and tragic death. My heart immediately grieved when I saw the headline news that Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash. I was getting a pedicure at a local Walmart after church. I responded to the news of Bryant’s death much like those of any person I did not know personally.
Kobe Bryant would not have recognized me if our paths crossed before he died. I knew of him only due to his notoriety as a famous basketball player. Bryant’s life was marked by great feats of accomplishment, both basketball related and in other endeavors such as producing a short film that won an Academy Awards only last year. His life was marked with scandal as well with his infamous rape trial. Thus, there were tremendous highs and equally tremendous lows associated with the life of Mr. Bryant much like most people.
Yet, for all of his public exposure there never was any real “connection” between Bryant and me. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects report (dated March 5, 2018), approximately 7,452 people die every die in the United States. In other words, a person dies in the US approximately every 12 seconds. For me, this is a sobering reality that does not in any way minimize or marginalize the tragedy of Bryant’s loss but only highlights the stark reality that death awaits all with no exception.
One of the major reasons I dread the loss of a public figure is the horrible theology that is applied by most people, to include professing Evangelicals. The only social medial platform I frequent is Facebook and the references to Kobe Bryant were understandably, given our culture worship mentality, very prominent. Again, people are free to respond in whatever fashion they chose but that is not the same as it being okay to be theologically incorrect. This blog post, as are all of my blog posts, is concerned primarily with a theologically correct Evangelical worldview. I know, from many public surveys, the vast majority of Americans still consider themselves as Christians. For example, The Pew Research Center, in a study titled, In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace (2019), found Christianity is the most adhered to religion in the United States, with 65% of the polled American adults identifying themselves as Christian in 2019. The United States has the largest Christian population in the world, with approximately 167 million Christian adults.
Time and time people were expressing sentiments on Facebook along these lines: Kobe RIP, or Kobe is looking down from heaven or Kobe is now at peace. There is only ONE problem with such expressions. There is not one scintilla of reasonable evidence to support such a claim unless Evangelicals adopt a doctrine of Salvation by Death. Such a doctrinal embrace would fly wildly in the face of the Protestant Church’s long embrace of the Doctrine of Salvation by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, by the finished work of Christ Alone, to the Glory of God Alone.
Nothing from Bryant’s many public declarations give any evidence of substance of any fidelity or identification with Jesus Christ and there can be no dispute that Bryant was uniquely given an ample platform to demonstrate, proclaim or model any connection to the God of the Holy Writ. I do not believe anyone can muster a serious argument Bryant considered himself a follower of Jesus Christ. The closest I have seen is an article which Bryant spoke of his identity with the Roman Catholic Church. Back in 2003 Bryant said, “The one thing that really helped me during that process- I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic- was talking to a priest.” (The process referenced is when Bryant was charged with rape while playing basketball for the Los Angeles Laker. It should be noted Bryant settled out of court with his accuser and the charges were eventually dismissed.)
This is the most I was able to find regarding Bryant’s identity with Christianity and his identity with Roman Catholicism is problematic at best as I regard Roman Catholicism as qualifying as a cult and not a member of the Christian community but again that is beyond the scope of what I want to entertain as a topic today. My paramount concern is the lax attitude Evangelicals posit toward one’s final deposition, one’s final resting place. I know many share in my experience of attending a funeral of someone who has lived an aberrant lifestyle, devoid of any connection with the church or God in any real form yet almost without fail there would be some obligatory mention of the deceased “acceptance of Christ and their baptismal date.” Please note I am advocating there must be a brutal declaration of the deceased’s abject pagan rejection of the Jesus Christ at a funeral, but Evangelicals are similarly not permitted to go to the other extreme and usher people into the kingdom because we want to be considered kind or non-loving. One of the most non-loving things Evangelical could ever do is communicate false hope or even more importantly inaccurately represent God
It is not theologically proper to blatantly disregard or overlook the deceased person’s subsequent lifestyle. Evangelicals are never permitted to proclaim confidence the unrepentant sinner is now resting safely in the arms of Jesus at the time of their death. While I readily concede Evangelical do not possess the ability to offer absolute declarations about anyone Evangelicals do possess the Word of God to direct us in this matter. Are we not authorized by the Holy Writ to be “fruit inspectors?” Does the Bible not admonish us, “we shall know them by their fruit (Matthew 7:16)?” Does Christ not warn unless we confess Him to others, He will not confess us to His Father (Matthew 10:32)? Thus, if a person displayed fruits consistent with faith then it would be visible to others, both within and outside of the Evangelical community.
If you can engage with an Evangelical for any reasonable amount of time and NOT come to understand their identity with Jesus Christ, then there is something profoundly wrong amiss. There are no Undercover Evangelicals. Evangelicals are called to live out our faith in the midst of a dark and depraved generation. This does not mean we ostentatiously preen before others; no, the Holy Writ condemns that source of display in the strongest terms possible (see passages like Matthew 6). It is not so much that we are parade around quoting scriptures and piously interjecting the name of Christ in every conversation, but it does mean Christ takes up the central part of our life. Anytime anything or anyone takes up central place in someone’s life that central reality becomes readily apparent very easily to a waiting and watching world.
I do no write as an advocate of the Us for & No More or as part of the Frozen Chosen community. I write as one who, like God, does not delight at all that the wicked shall die (Ezekiel 18:23). Like God, I implore men everyone to turn from their ways and live. According to the Apostle Paul, if a person genuinely comes to that point in their life that they will confess with their mouth and believe in their heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead (Roman 10:9-10). Out of the many times I witnessed Kobe Bryant speak I never heard or read of any such declarations of faith. Granted, Mr. Bryant could have awakened the very morning of his tragic death and came to know Jesus Christ as His personal Lord & Savior and that is my very hope, but I remain reluctant to embrace blind declarations of RIP. The default response for Evangelical is not RIP anytime someone dies. That sentiment is reserved for those who transgress the narrow road, not the broad road. The Bible reveals, “and only a few find it” and only those who have expressed faith in Jesus Christ and lived out the implications of the Gospel RIP when they die.
That will never make us popular, but it will make us Biblical. I do not delight in the death of anyone but at the same time I do not naively believe that many who perish are resting in peace. Let me know what you think. Until then keep your hands to the plow and serve for an Audience of One.