What to Say at the Funeral of an Unbeliever
Joe McKeeverJoe McKeever says he has written dozens of books, but has published none. That refers to the 1,000+ articles on various subjects (prayer, leadership, church, pastors) that can be found on his website -- joemckeever.com -- and which are reprinted by online publications everywhere. His articles appear in a number of textbooks and other collections. Retired from "official" ministry since the summer of 2009, Joe stays busy drawing a daily cartoon for Baptist Press (www.bpnews.net), as an adjunct professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, writing for Baptist MenOnline for the North American Mission Board, and preaching/drawing/etc for conventions and churches across America. Over a 42 year period, McKeever pastored 6 churches (the last three were the First Baptist Churches of Columbus, MS; Charlotte, NC; and Kenner, LA). Followed by 5 years as Director of Missions for the 135 SBC churches of metro New Orleans, during which hurricane katrina devastated the city and destroyed many churches. Joe is married to Margaret, the father of three adults, and the proud grandfather of eight terrific young people. He holds degrees from Birmingham-Southern College (History, 1962), and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (Masters in Church History, 1967, and Doctorate of Ministry in Evangelism, 1973). Joe's father was a coal miner who married a farmer's daughter. Carl and Lois McKeever, both of whom lived past 95 years of age, produced 6 children, with Joe and Ronnie being ministers. Joe grew up near Nauvoo, Alabama, and attended high school at Double Springs. Joe's life verse is Job 4:4, "Your words have stood men on their feet."
- 2018 Apr 18
Recently, when I sounded forth on how pastors should conduct funerals for saints, a friend pointed out that a harder assignment is officiating at the services for an outright unbeliever. He looked forward to my points on that.
I was tempted to say, “Yeah. Me too!”
But, as always, I appreciate a good suggestion for an article in this blog, particularly something that would help pastors and other church leaders.
We will begin with questions which pastors frequently ask among themselves concerning the funerals of unbelievers…
Should I acknowledge in the service that “Mr. John was not a believer in Jesus Christ”?
My answer: Not unless it was the most obvious thing about the man. In that case, I imagine he would not have wanted a Christian minister to say anything over his casket. So, the answer is almost always “No.” Either everyone already knew this about “Mr. John” or it’s unnecessary to point it out.
Should I preach the service as though he were a devout believer?
What if he joined the church as a youth but lived an ungodly life ever since?
We’ve all done such funerals. In most cases, my advice is to have someone who knew and loved the deceased to eulogize him while you follow that with the Scriptural message. But be wary of “sending him to heaven.”
You don’t want to leave the impression that how a person lives has nothing to do with where he spends eternity.
So, should I “send him to hell”?
No. You are not his judge. (For which you should give thanks every day!)
Leave the judging to the One who will get it right every time.
But should I do a little research to find out if the man ever made a profession of faith at any time in his life?
In my earlier years of ministry, I did this. But it was time poorly spent. Even if you learned that the deceased started right but ended wrong, it would be a mistake to “celebrate the homegoing” of one who lived a Christless life. Best not even to mention his religious position and just stick to the basics.
So, what are those “basics”?
Preach the gospel. Celebrate what Jesus Christ did by His death, burial and resurrection. Remind everyone of the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ and Him alone. Preach that “neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12) and “no one comes to the Father except by Me” (John 14:6).
Any other Scriptures come to mind on this subject?
In Genesis 18:25, Abraham struggled with the idea of the Lord sending fiery judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah. Finally, he said, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” And that’s where you and I come down regarding so much of these issues concerning the destiny of the uninformed, untold, unconverted, and unbelievers. We simply do not know the heart of anyone. We do not know what has gone on between a person and the living God in private. We do not know what took place in the hours before the death of the individual.
God will do the right thing.
Psalm 130:3 reminds us that none of us are in a position to point the finger. “If the Lord should keep a record of sins, no one would stand.”
Someone asks, “Are you saying that some of the unsaved might possibly go to Heaven?” My answer: Not according to anything I read in Scripture.
Let me end with a story from former President George W. Bush:
Late one night he and his mother Barbara were sitting in the White House discussing “religion and who gets to go to Heaven.” Then he says:
I made the point that the New Testament says clearly that to get to Heaven, one must believe in Christ. Mother asked about the devout who don’t believe in Jesus but do God’s work by serving others. She then took advantage of one of the benefits of being first lady. She picked up the phone and asked the White House operator to call Reverend Graham.
It wasn’t long before his reassuring Southern voice was on the line. He told us, as I recall, “Barbara and George, I believe what is written in the New Testament. But don’t play God. He decides who goes to Heaven, not you.”
Mr. Bush ends: “Any doctrinal certitude gave way to a calm trust that God had this figured out better than I did.”
(The story is found in the Special Commemorative Edition of Decision Magazine, published following the death of Billy Graham.)
What is the bottom line?
Always seek to serve the Lord, to do His will. Always go into these things prayerful, asking God to use you to draw people to Christ, and never ever to misrepresent Him.
Remember that people are going to be making decisions about Jesus Christ by what you do. And if that doesn’t drive you to your knees in prayer, you’re not paying attention.
Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/kzenon