Funerals and the Doctrine of God
It was a joyous occasion. As they approached the graveside they lifted up their voices and sang: “When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away! Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away! I’ll fly away, Oh Glory! I’ll fly away. When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away!” Family and friends gathered around the body of a man they loved and celebrated that he had finally left this wicked, suffering filled world to join God in eternity on the celestial shores. Soon after, the pastor arose and found his place next to the casket. Here he delivered a sermon that brought tears of happiness to their eyes. His text was 1 Corinthians 15:55, which reads, “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” With a booming voice he shouted, “This body that lies before you is not our brother, for he has departed from this miserable place and has now joined God in spiritual bliss! When he lived here on earth he had to deal with pain, heartache, toil, and opposition—but no more! And when he closed his eyes in this body of death, he awoke to the splendor of eternity.” After a short prayer, the body of their loved one was lowered into the earth as friends and family departed, while thinking to themselves, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be!”
If you ever want to know what a community of people believe about God, you simply need to attend a funeral. Chances are a bulk of Evangelicals have attended funerals that have a similar feel to what is described above. The problem is, there isn’t really anything here that would clearly mark this as a Christian funeral. Sure, there are a couple of Gospel songs, Scripture readings, a sermon, and the focus on their loved one in the presence of God, but what is specifically said that makes this Christian? Furthermore, this whole scenario misses the culmination of the Christian hope. Salvation is not about escape from this world and this body, but the eager expectation that all of creation will one day be renewed. Heaven is often thought of as a spiritual place where we will float about on clouds with some sort of spiritual body, but the resurrection of Christ, which Paul argues for in 1 Cor 15, was physical and we are promised to experience the same resurrection. The hope of salvation is consummated in resurrection (Christ’s and ours).
Our misunderstanding about heaven is rooted in the doctrine of God. Since the dawn of Christianity, many false teachers sang songs about God (Arius), read the Scriptures, preach sermons, and believe that death is in reality entrance into true life. Believing these things does not necessarily constitute Christian belief. The Gnostics were pros at sounding a lot like Christians, but were way off. As Dr. Jeff Bingham once said, “Gnosticism has the same lyrics as Christianity, but none of the melody.” The foundation of their skewed thought was creation was carried out by an evil god (The Demiurge), and the God and Father of Jesus Christ aimed to save us from this world. They believed that Jesus died on the cross to save them, but their “salvation” was deliverance from this earth and body. So, as Christians, when we speak of death as escape from this world and we neglect the reality of the resurrection, echoing Gnosticism.
Biblical and theological clarity is not simply “nit-pickiness” or a claim to the “right tradition.” It is not a matter of who gets to sit in the ivory tower. It is a matter of either speaking of the true God, or a god who does not exist. Your doctrine of God influences everything, even the way you bury your loved ones.