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Encouragement From the Ministry Hope For Unbelieving Loved Ones

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Encouragement From the Ministry Hope For Unbelieving Loved Ones

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Unexpectedly, I spent the first few days of January in England, in my hometown of Grimsby, which is in the north of the country on the east coast. I had received word early Sunday morning, December 27, that my father had died suddenly and unexpectedly-if you can say that the death of anybody aged 75 is unexpected. I had accompanied both my parents in early September of 1998 on a bus tour of central Europe. At that time my father had seemed healthy and alert. I expected him to live for a few more years. But it was not to be.

He woke up with a pain in his leg, which then spread to his abdomen. He went to lie down. Within minutes, he was gone. It had been so many years since he had seen a doctor that at first the family physician would not give him a death certificate and wanted to do a post-mortem. He changed his mind when he looked at my father's medical history. He had had two heart attacks in 1986. All indications were that this was a third and fatal heart attack.

Dealing With Painful News

Dad was not a religious man. In fact, he was very much against all forms of religion, especially the Christian kind. He had been a lifelong committed atheistic communist, dismissing religion as "the opium of the masses," using the words of Karl Marx, founder of modern scientific communism. The statement is much discredited today but seemingly the guiding light to the future as recently as twenty years ago.

When my brother called to tell me the news, he said that my mother did not want me to go over for the funeral. She considered it an unnecessary expense. If my father had been sick she would have seen the sense in my going over to see him, but to spend hundreds of dollars on a plane fare to attend a funeral seemed a waste to her. But I wanted to go. I needed to go. I also wanted to officiate at his funeral, with my mother's consent. I couldn't bear the thought of some generic minister getting up there who didn't know him, talking about dad going to heaven when he never believed in the place nor would he have wanted to be there if he did. He couldn't stand to be around sanctimonious "religious people," "psalm singers" as he often called them. He certainly would not have wanted to be sentenced to eternity in heaven with them.

The earliest flight I could get to England was New Year's Eve, when nobody wants to fly. Most of the people on board were Asians who celebrate New Years at different times to people in the western world. The British Airways staff tried to create a party atmosphere for the 60 people on board, bringing out champagne as soon as we embarked in Detroit, Michigan, and even doing the conga for us down the isles. In spite of all this, I am not tempted to fly on New Years Eve again this year, with all the uncertainty surrounding Y2K!

Making Funeral Arrangements

When I arrived in Grimsby, I called the funeral director to discuss arrangements with him. My mother had chosen to have my father cremated, which is more common in England than burial. The crematorium only allows 20 minutes for each service, with only ten minutes available for all the people attending a funeral to leave the facility before the next party comes in. Every thirty minutes they hold a funeral. I felt like I was on some sort of assembly line. The speed at which families have to say goodbye to their loved ones gives little time for anybody to think about the meaning of death and the hope of eternal life. Perhaps that's the way most people want it in post-Christian England, where only three percent of the people attend church with any regularity.

My brother and his wife wanted to sing "The Lord's My Shepherd" at the funeral. Their daughter, my niece Judith, had written a poem about granddad, which she wanted to read. All this was to be a part of our allotted twenty minutes. Included also was the actual walk into the hall as the family slowly followed my father's coffin. My mother had also requested that the hymn "The God of Love My Shepherd Is," be sung prior to my speaking. So, I ended up with about ten minutes for my message. What can you say about your father in ten minutes?

Except for my brother, David, who has been associated with the churches of God for about twenty years, nobody else in the family, immediate or extended, has any religion. None has ever read a Bible. I have four brothers. All of them know that I am a church pastor and know some of our beliefs. An additional challenge was that a number of old family friends, not seen for thirty years, from the Methodist church were there. I used to be a Methodist. In fact, as I was coming into the Church of God in the mid-sixties, our local Methodist minister had told me that he felt I was being called into the Methodist ministry and would I consider it. Well, I am a minister but in the United Church of God.

What To Say?

I decided to be honest and open about dad, which is the way he always wanted it to be. He felt no shame or embarrassment about not having a religion. To the contrary, he was proud of the fact. Religion, in his mind, was for "weak people who needed a crutch to lean on." So I began by saying that he had no religious beliefs and always ridiculed the idea of going to heaven.

I then went on to show that in this respect he was biblically quite sound-that we don't go to heaven when we die. In that brief ten minutes of time I read from Ezekiel 18:4 Ezekiel 18:4Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins, it shall die.
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showing that the soul is not immortal; Ecclesiastes 9:5 Ecclesiastes 9:5For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
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, "the dead know not anything;" John 3:13 John 3:13And no man has ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
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"No man has ascended into heaven;" and Acts 2:34 Acts 2:34For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he said himself, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit you on my right hand,
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, "David has not ascended in to the heavens." But then I asked the question: "Does this mean that we will not see dad again?"

Quoting from 1 Corinthians 15:19 1 Corinthians 15:19If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
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, I continued: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of those that slept.... For as in Adam, all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at His coming."

They that are Christ's. But what about everybody else, the vast majority of people who, like my dad, never knew Christ? What about them? Second Peter 3:9 tells us that God "is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." These are very encouraging words for those who lose loved ones who have not believed.

Revelation 20:4-6 Revelation 20:4-6 [4] And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. [5] But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. [6] Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
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puts it all together for us, with a little help from the Old Testament. This passage in the book of Revelation takes us forward in time to the 1,000-year rule of Jesus Christ, the Millennium, that follows His return. At the beginning of the one thousand years, those who are Christ's (1 Corinthians 15:23 1 Corinthians 15:23But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.
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) are resurrected to rule with Him, to sit on thrones with Him (Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
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). This resurrection is to eternal life. Verse 6 goes on to say: "Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years."

...And You Shall Live

We learn from this that there is a second death for some. This means that there must be a second life, a second physical life similar to this one. If there weren't, there could be no second death. Verse five helps us understand this: "But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished." Who are the rest of the dead? By definition it must be those who are not Christ's, those who never knew Jesus Christ or never knew Him well enough to accept Him as their personal Savior, through whom one can receive eternal life. Verse five ends by describing the resurrection to eternal life of those in Christ as "the first resurrection." These words show that there is a second, subsequent resurrection for those who were not "in Christ." Upon these, the second death does have power, so it is a resurrection to a physical existence.

It is described in more detail in Ezekiel 37. Here Ezekiel describes a vision where he was projected into the future into a valley full of dry bones, of the skeletons of people who were long since dead. Verses five and six follow: "Thus says the Lord God unto these ones, Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you and you shall live. And I will lay sinews [muscles] upon you, and will bring flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."

Could it be any clearer? Here is a prophesied resurrection to a second physical existence. If it weren't physical, there would be no need for muscles, skin and breath. Spirit beings given eternal life don't need these. Only physical human beings do. Then we see clearly that once God has put these dead people back together, they have the opportunity to "know that [He] is the Lord." This is their opportunity for salvation. This is my father's opportunity for eternal life.

Don't Lose Sight of the Future

I intend to be there when he wakes up, one thousand years after my resurrection to an eternal spirit existence as one of those who is "in Christ," one thousand years during which we have the opportunity to transform this world into a perfect world ruling with Jesus Christ in the kingdom of God. One thousand years is not too long a time to wait, especially when you are a spirit being and a part of God's spiritual family. Second Peter 3:8 tells us that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." Time will simply fly by when we are working with Jesus Christ to prepare the world for the second resurrection, the biggest resurrection in terms of numbers, as most people in the world today and throughout history are not "in Christ."

What a glorious future we have to look forward to. Trying to encourage people through a time of great persecution, the Apostle Paul pointed the Thessalonians to the hope of the resurrection in each of the five chapters of his first epistle to them. After describing the first resurrection towards the end of chapter four, the apostle adds the following words in verse 18: "Therefore comfort one another with these words."

What a comfort it is to know the truth of God, that God "is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9 2 Peter 3:9The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
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) and (as many other verses indicate), receive eternal life-including my father, and yours, and everybody else's.

Through all the confusion within the churches of God during the last few years, many have lost their understanding of God's plan of salvation, of the fact that our great God is offering every single individual who has ever lived an opportunity to be in His family. Sometimes we can get so worked up about problems in the church and so disgruntled over things that have happened in the past that we can lose sight of the precious truths that God has revealed to us.

Let's not lose sight of the goal of God's kingdom. Let's all strive to make sure that we are in that first resurrection, ready to welcome our unbelieving loved ones in the second. UN