July 9, 2020

Helping the Spiritually Helpless

By Chaplain Mike

Last week I visited a family in a common hospice situation. The patient was non-responsive and near death. The patient’s daughter, though saddened by the impending loss of her father, was even more concerned about his spiritual welfare.

He had lived most of his life saying he was an unbeliever. He’d had little to do with God, cared nothing about spiritual matters, and gave no time to organized religion. He felt no need. He preferred to make his own way in the world. This is what she told me. I had no reason to doubt her.

Now he lay dying and his daughter feared for him. Surely this hospital bed would be his final stop in this earthly life—what destination lay beyond it? This had become her question: “What hope could she have that God would forgive him and grant him eternal life?”

As for this daughter, she’d had quite a different life experience. Always a person with spiritual interest, she walked to church alone as a child, because her parents wouldn’t go with her. At one point in her life, she had a conversion to Christ and now professed to be a devoted believer.

In her view, God accepts us and gives us the gift of eternal life, and it is not on the basis of points we earn by living exemplary lives. However, it is a matter of choosing to trust in Jesus and what he did for us. By dying for our sins and rising again, he purchased salvation for us, a gift we receive by faith.

This is a fair summary of my own theology as well. I too believe in the reality of conversion and the necessity of personal faith.

However, that theological position put us in a dilemma.

If it is required that people consciously acknowledge faith in God in order to have eternal life, what hope is there for those who are unconscious, non-responsive, and unable to make such a confession? (By the way, this not only includes the terminally ill—think about those who live for years or decades without the mental capacity or consciousness to respond to the Gospel.)

This was one of the first spiritual issues I had to face as a hospice chaplain, and during the past year I have had to deal with it every week.

How would you address this daughter’s question? I have come up with three answers for people in this dilemma.

  • First, I point them to a conversation that Abraham once had with God, recorded in the Bible in the Book of Genesis. While praying about the judgment that was to come on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the possible deaths of innocent people, Abraham said, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). In other words, God knows the hearts of people; he alone knows who truly believes and who doesn’t, and we can trust him to make the right decision about someone’s eternal destiny, regardless of our limited perspective.
  • Second, I remind them that we know very little about the mysteries of how God works. Jesus put it this way, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Whenever I pray for someone who is non-responsive, I always pray this prayer: “Lord, we look only at the outside of this person. But you know what’s on the inside, in the secret places where we cannot see and where we as limited human beings have no influence. I pray that you will work in the secret places of this person’s spirit. I pray that your angels will minister to him there and bear him up. I pray that your Holy Spirit will be his Comforter and his Helper, and that he will minister the grace, mercy and peace of Jesus to him in his heart of hearts.”
  • Third, I tell a story from Jesus’ ministry from Mark’s Gospel. One day, Jesus was teaching in a house. It was so crowded that people were crammed in the doorways and windows. Two men were trying to bring their friend into the house to see Jesus. He was a paralytic, and they wanted Jesus to heal him. But the crowd was great and they couldn’t get through. So they climbed on the flat mud roof of the house, dug a hole through it and lowered their friend’s cot down right in front of Jesus. The Bible says that Jesus saw their faith and was amazed at this display of love for their friend. Then he healed the man and forgave his sins. I don’t know how to understand or explain this in precise theological terms, but what I see in the Gospel story is that these people helped a friend who could not help himself spiritually. Through their faith and actions, this man found healing and forgiveness.

As we prayed at the bedside, I asked my patient’s daughter to picture us lowering her father down in front of Jesus, and hearing Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven.”

I think she found some hope in that. And I was caught up again in the mystery of God’s grace in Jesus.

Whatever happened that day, the Judge of all the earth will do what is right.


  1. JoanieD says

    This is a beautiful post, Chaplain Mike, and the prayer you pray for the non-responsive people is both wise and filled with love. The people you minister to are very fortunate to have you there. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom with us all.

    • Christiane says

      from the Book of Romans Chapter 8

      26 ” Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;
      for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
      but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. “

  2. I agree with JoanieD that this is a beautiful post. What a great sentiment to think of the faith of a friend leading to another’s sins being forgiven (I know that opens up theology issues taken out of context, but I also know that’s not the point).

    How do you counsel when it seems, though, that the person doesn’t want to be helped spiritually? My wife’s parents are not Christians and it brings her to despair frequently. I also recall a situation where I went with a pastor to visit a terminally ill young man. The man was essentially unresponsive, just waiting to die at home. The pastor just spoke through the gospel, told the man how to pray for salvation, prayed over him himself and then left. It was nice really, but what got me was that the young man actually made a sound with great intensity right at the point the pastor asked if he wanted to be saved—as far as I could tell, the sound was “NO” and it was very intense. He made little other response besides this. What do you say in a situation like this?

    • When I visit patients who are not religious, I tell them I am there to be their friend, to support them, listen to them, talk with them about things they enjoy. Then I say that if they want to talk about spiritual matters somewhere along the line, I have training and background to be able to do that. Most breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that the pressure’s off. Some eventually look to me as their pastor in one way or another.

  3. Thank you Chaplain, these are words I need to be reminded of far too often.

    Your first point in particular really gives me hope. When I sit and think about many of the people in my family, who aren’t Christian not because they have any issue with the theology, with the story, or with the faith, but instead because they have been deeply hurt by Christians or the Church itself , I can’t help but feel that G-d is being unjust. How could I get up in the morning thinking it could be my fault that someone I knew wasn’t “saved”.

    No, I have to think that if G-d ever seems unjust, its not a problem with His justice its a problem with my perception. I have to think that there is at least a chance that G-d allows room for misunderstandings.

  4. It is a painful question to deal with those who have rejected God because they’ve been hurt by Christians. I know people like that. I was like that. It is a very common yet little discussed issue with Christianity.

    But even in a more minor sense, there are intra-Christian issues. My father-in-law, a cradle Methodist and a life-long active church member, was on his deathbed. His son, who had been re-baptized into membership in an independent church, went to see him and evidently the subject was salvation. I was not privy to the conversation. I suspect it had to do with a view of infant baptism as invalid with the resultant need to be re-baptized by immersion asap to avoid hell. I know is that it really upset everyone involved, including both the dying Christian and the Christian son.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I was not privy to the conversation. I suspect it had to do with a view of infant baptism as invalid with the resultant need to be re-baptized by immersion asap to avoid hell.

      Or that the independent church was the only True Church and all others (like the Methodists) are Apostate and False. A LOT of independent splinter churches cop that attitude.

      What a time to fight over paedobaptism vs credobaptism or any other parsing of theology — though approaching death WOULD up the ante on My Theology vs Your Theology to the point of Wretched Urgency.

      Bad scene all around.

  5. I faced just this circumstance when my father was on his deathbed, dying of Mesothelioma. Dad was a good man all his life, who always rejected the Church and Christ because of something that happened that involved a priest when he was young. He never told me, or my mother for that matter, exactly what that was. (Though with the stories coming out now, I have my fears…)

    My cousin, who is much more the standard Baptist Christian (not a heretic like me) says that she knows Dad accepted Christ before he died. She says she shared the Gospel with him while he was comatose and he smile. Perhaps.

    I saw a lot of facial activity that often had little to do with what I was saying or what was going on in the room… but perhaps.

    However, I think we may need to rethink our whole concept of what “salvation” would have meant when the Bible was written. I am not so certain it means that only those who are “saved” get to go to heaven. I certainly have a problem with the idea that the sum total of those who are saved are those who are in the church, at least at the time of death.. or who accept Christ, however that is defined. Lots of those who say Lord Lord don’t get in. Maybe lots of those will be like the Sheep in Jesus parable, surprised that they DO get in.

    I think the Church was “saved” from the Destruction of the Old Covenant Priesthood community that was destroyed in AD 70. In the world transforming event, the Priesthood and Israel was re-centralized in the converted Jews (the Remnant) and the engrafted Gentiles; i.e., the Church.

    The Church is the New Covenant Priesthood community, like the nation of Israel was in the Old Covenant. Now many in Israel in the Old Covenant were not destined for Heaven; I also read that outside of Israel many were so destined (“I have not seen such faith even in Israel”).

    So I think our concern should not be so much who is destined for heaven, but our responsibility to act as Priests to the World; not in doing sacrifices–that’s over–but like Adam should have done, being examples of Grace, Love, and Generosity to the World; informing them that Jesus is King and they need not fear the Power of Death anymore.

    Universalism. No. I think an active, informed, rejection of Christ’s Kingship destines you for the Trash heap of History. However, as I remember something of a quote from Michael Spencer, there are not as many of those as you would think, “I am not a universalist…but I am pretty close.”

    I am certain that daughter upheld her priestly function as best as she could, as did you, Chaplain Mike. Leave the “going to heaven” part to God, who is–as you said, infinitely Just and Merciful.

  6. Chaplain Mike,

    Do you believe in Hell? I would think that in your line of work believing in an eternal hell would be a thing of torment as you watch so many people drift away without any typical signs of faith in God and Christ.

    If you do believe in Hell as a place of eternal torment……do you see your hope that God’s grace will cover those who are unresponsive or mentally deficient in some way as being an evasion of Hell?

    And…if so…..what’s the difference between not really believing in Hell and believing in it but finding ways that God will work around it?

    • You ask an important question. I do believe that God will judge the living and the dead, and that some will be eternally separated from God. My job as a chaplain is not specifically evangelistic, though on many occasions I wish it were. I have to rely a lot on the first text I mentioned–will not Judge of all the earth do right? Like most people, I have to trust that God will use me in my limited role to advance his redemptive purposes in the lives of those I serve.

  7. I see a couple of options (and I hope I missed one)

    1) you believe that a person who spent his life in rejection of Christ and who will die in rejection of Christ will (in the end) be saved, regardless of his rejection of Christ (it being you and the man’s daughter doing the “lowering”)

    2) you lied in order to give the daughter a false hope of her father’s salvation

    or 3) you hope that the “lowering” to bring the man in front of our Lord will result in enough consciousness for him to accept Christ as his Savior in his last moments.

    • I hope God extended his grace to him and gave him the gift of faith.

    • Mzellen, if you believe one must consciously “accept Christ” in order to be saved, what hope do you have that any infant who dies or mentally incapacitated person will ever be saved?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        This is starting to remind me of something I heard from anti-Christian sources about some of the weirder facets of Medieval Catholicism, when faith and superstition got badly mixed up. Specifically, how if a woman had a breech birth that stuck in the birth canal, they would either let her die or do what’s now called a partial-birth abortion AFTER they went to great lengths to inject holy water into her womb to baptize the unborn infant/fetus. Allegedly they had special holy-water syringes especially for this. Because Baptizing the Child (to Save His/Her Soul) was all that mattered, and God couldn’t do it any other way. Substitute “Consciously Accept Christ” instead of water Baptism — say the magic words instead of squirt the magic water — and you have the Evangelical analog. At least that’s the vibe I’m starting to get.

        • Enoch Chee says

          (I just had a revelation: if you have a headless unicorn, you can’t tell it apart from a horse =)))

          I know, irrelevant to the post.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Weird side comments come with the territory.

            I’ve been going to various types of SF cons since NASFIC 1975, and it’s a rare panel that stays on-track instead of going off on tangent after tangent. Why should a blog be any different?

      • Chaplain, it sounds as if you are making the realistic comparison between a person who actively rejected Christ, and one who never had the chance to. I make a distinction between hearing and rejecting the Gospel, and a human being who has never made that moral choice.

        I work with the mentally incapacitated and I lost 5 babies before they were born. I don’t compare them to a man who has been given the Gospel and rejected it.

        I have the hope that God is able to save those who have not heard and those who cannot choose. The man you wrote of had the 1) the Gospel given to him, 2) the ability to embrace and reject it and 3) the chance to do so – and he rejected it.

        • I should add – we don’t know that he rejected it, but according to all the knowledge that you’ve been given, he has.

          The Mormons baptize their relatives – we cannot act on behalf of others in order to make sure they are saved.

          If this man has/had enough cognitive awareness to accept Christ in his dying days – praise God! But to offer the “lowering” as hope is as difficult a concept for me to accept as Mormon baptism for the dead.

        • First of all, as you say later, I really don’t know if he rejected it or not. That’s what his daughter said, and I’ve had enough pastoral experience to know that I shouldn’t base everything on hearing only one side of the story.

          Second, on what Biblical and theological grounds do you make a difference between someone who has not heard or cannot choose, and someone who may have once had a chance to choose, but is now in an unresponsive condition?

          When I walk into a room of a non-responsive patient, I must deal with the situation of the moment. I may take other reporting into account, but I can’t absolutely count on it. If a family member has faith, I feel perfectly comfortable encouraging them to lay their loved one before Jesus and ask for his word of healing and forgiveness. That’s what the paralytic’s friends did, after all. They brought a man to Jesus who could not come himself, and asked for Jesus’ help.

          • Second, on what Biblical and theological grounds do you make a difference between someone who has not heard or cannot choose, and someone who may have once had a chance to choose, but is now in an unresponsive condition?

            Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. (John 9:41)

            A child who does not “see” has no guilt.

            For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

            If the unborn and mentally impaired have not “perceived”, they have an excuse.

            If you truly compare a man who heard the Gospel and rejected it with an unborn child who has not heard – I’m done with this site.

          • I guess also, that every dying unbeliever who has a believer praying for them should trust that God has saved their unbelieving loved one?

            Where do you draw the line?

            Or perhaps we should be baptized for the dead.

          • MzEllen, please read more carefully. I never said I gave her “assurance that her loved one was saved.” I said she should place him before Jesus and ask for his word of healing and forgiveness like the friends of the paralytic did.

        • I’m very sorry about your losses.

          Regarding the comparison between infants and an adult, I can see a comparison between the two cases, but it does not amount to an exact parallel. Surely, there are differences, some of which you have pointed out.

          For me, the issue for the man and his surviving family–even if we knew for sure that he had rejected Christ at some point in his life prior to his unconscious condition–is that in God’s mercy, there still may be a chance for him to respond to God’s grace, even in his unconscious state. It would be related to the example of a person who had previously rejected Christ but later in life repented. In this case we just can’t see what’s going on in the person’s mind. I think it may be possible that God could use the unconscious state (and the prayers of the loved ones) to further pursue that person.

          I think the lack of any observable “conscious” response to God is the main similarity.

        • I think Chaplain Mile is doing just the opposite. He’s trying to avoid drawing man-made clear lines and distinct categories of who’s going to hell and who’s not. He is reminding us all that it is God who judges and he always judges wisely, justly and with mercy.

          “I have the hope that God is able to save…..” You hope that God is able? I’m sorry but I’m certain God is able to do anything. With all due respect, you seem to be limiting God, especially his grace and love. You cannot fit God into a book and a set of human go/no-go rules. God’s grace is broad and far beyond our understanding.

          May the peace of Christ be in your heart. I cannot imagine your pain at the loss of your babies. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

          • First, Fish (and others) – thank you for your thoughts of sympathy. After years, there is still a sense of loss.

            Second, if “hope” is limiting God, I’ll stand with St. Paul on that one. Romans 5:2 “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” – in the Biblical sense of the word, “hope” doesn’t mean “wishing in vain”; it means to have “joyful and confident expectation of eternal salvation” (per Strong’s)

            So yes, Fish, without putting “God in a box”, I have hope – for that matter, I’ll stand with St. Peter as well: “Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God. (1 Peter 1:21)

            I’ll go back to the story of the paralytic that Chaplain Mike used – his emphasis was that the friends helped those who COULD NOT help themselves. What do you think the grieving daughter grabbed onto? I’ve been there. Eleven years ago, my husband was looking at a life expectancy of six to eight weeks. While he was in surgery, the wounds of a friend delivering prayers in honesty meant much.

            Nine years ago..well, today. Mother’s Day, 2001. My husband was released from the hospital to 1) see our daughter baptized and 2) go home and die. It was not until that time that I saw any fruits of his salvation. So I’ve been in the daughter’s shoes – not with a father, but within a one-flesh covenant.

            In the weeks leading up to those final days, I came to the hard realization that my faith could not save my loved one. My prayers were that God would reach him, not that I could save him through my “lowering him through the rood” (in the terms of this story.

            What I learned is that if a pastor (or friend) is to be trusted, they must be trusted to share even the hard truths. The hard truth was that if this man died in rejection of Christ, my laying him at the feet of Christ was not going to save him…he had to be the one to make that move. That brought an urgency to the Gospel – not only for my husband, but for others that God brings into my life.

            Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. (Prov. 27:6)

            I know what it is like to be tempted to grab onto a baseless hope.

            The first two points that Chaplain Mike made were right on. The third gives the wish that through our actions, we can bring the salvation of another.

            • MzEllen, you have been through some hard experiences. May God be to you the God of all comfort.

              As to the problem of our faith being used to help another find spiritual peace, I would simply ask how you might understand the words of the text, which say plainly, “When Jesus saw THEIR faith” (the faith of the man’s friends), he spoke the word of forgiveness. This is what was so striking to me, and which gave me confidence to do what I did.

              I say plainly in my post that I do not understand this, but was given confidence by the Word of God to encourage this woman to simply apply her faith in the same way.

              • I believe that the fact that the man apparently consented to being lowered (I work with paralytics and most of them are able to raise quite a fuss when they want to and Scripture doesn’t say he was lowered against his will) would lead me to believe that the “they” that Scripture speaks about includes the man who could not walk. There is nothing that would lead me to believe that not being able to walk would leave him not being able to talk.

                I would ask why you think that “they” doesn’t include the man who was forgiven – or why the story rules out that man being the one who asked his friends to bring him in the first place?

                The bottom line for me is whether or not my faith can work the salvation of another. If my faith is the faith that will save others, I’d be a lot less concerned over the salvation of my children.

                But there is an urgency to the Gospel. Spread it quickly, because the souls of the dying are at stake.

                • MzEllen, this may be. The text is not clear. One thing is clear, if the friends had not carried the man, dug through the roof, and lowered him to Jesus, he never would have made it there by himself. Their faith played some part. In situations like I face, loved ones often feel helpless, as if there is nothing they can do. I often try to find some way of giving them opportunity to exercise their faith in an active way to help their loved one if possible.

                  Again, though, please remember I did not give this woman assurance of her loved one’s salvation. I gave her an example of how people of faith carried their friend to Jesus who was unable to get there himself, and placed him before him with a request for grace and mercy. I don’t think I would summarize the lesson of that as baldly as “my faith can save someone else.”

                  In the kind of setting I was in, without knowing the full story, I don’t think it is illegitimate or giving false hope to suggest that someone might do the same kind of thing—bring their loved one to Jesus (through prayer)—and leave the results to him.

                  • Then I hope it works out for her.

                  • I can see what MzEllen is saying.

                    I have tried putting myself in this story – so take a trip with me. I hear that guy Jesus is going around doing great miracles so me and my mates carry our cripple friend to him and when we get there all Jesus says is, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” I stand there thinking Huh? Only God can forgive sins! Then The Pharisee says the same thing out loud. Then Jesus says, “Why are you thinking like this in your hearts?” Dang I feel real guilty all of a sudden. Then Jesus says, “Which is easier? To say your sins are forgiven’, or to say, “Get up and walk’? Duh, thats a no brainer I think to myself. Then Jesus says something about just so we’d know The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins he turns to my friend and says, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Straight away my friend stands up and I am like…..

                    So I am just guessing if this third one is something you told this girl you may as well have tried telling her Dad to get up and go home. **Insert grin**

                    I do think your first two were the best. I have oftened wondered why we tell John 3:16 to an unbelieving world and then leave off verses 18-21 and then wonder why there is no power in our words. It isn’t easy telling someone they are already condemned if they are unbelieving. It seems God has already decided to write that down in black and white.

    • One more thought. If someone, like this daughter, tells me about her father’s spiritual condition, how can I be sure that she knows the whole story? Wouldn’t I be assuming a lot to take the position that this man was definitely lost?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        There are a lot of Christians out there who’d “assume the lot” and inform the daughter of such in Utter Certainty. (I believe we had a commenter some months ago who claimed they had “The Gift of Discernment whether someone was Saved or Lost. “) Better you on the scene instead of one of them.

  8. It’s posts like this that helped me leave the evangelical world for the lutheran world.

    Great post.

    We really don’t know if someone is “saved” or not. It’s really not ours to know.

  9. Chaplain I don’t envy your job. Theology and humanity meet in the most sensitive situations. Let the dead bury the dead probably wouldn’t go over so well.

  10. Thank you very much for this post!

    I worked in a Long Term Care Facility several years ago and asked myself the same question about the residents who were living with end-stage dementia. As part of my job, I was responsible for providing passive range of motion exercises for the residents. As I moved their still limbs I often thought to myself: if this person isn’t a believer, do they have any hope left? I ended up coming to the conclusion that God is not limited and in spite of this persons lack of cognitive capacity, God may yet speak to their spirit and they might yet receive his gift of Grace.

  11. An excellent post.

    I believe that God is gracious, and that He can reach those we cannot reach. We are simply the messengers, not The Savior.

    A few years ago, I lost a friend to suicide, in part, because she had been sexually abused as a child. The experience of the abuse was so traumatic that developed dissociative identity disorder — multi-personalities, with no co-consciousness between the alternate identities.

    Strange as it may seem, and remember this is personal experience I am discussing here (the loss of a loved) — I came to see her disassociations as an act of mercy from God. It was the only way she could cope with such a traumatic experience. She was a believer in Christ as well. While most people would ask Why? I can see the glory of God through her struggles today, His infinite mercy, His unending love, and His eternal faithfulness to those He has claimed as His own. This is not escapism, but faith. Faith that what Jesus Christ did is bigger than what those pedophiles did to her. Faith that The Author of her faith IS The Finisher.

    Jeffrey Dahmer did a lot of very bad things, but he became a Christian in prison — which not very many people, including Christians, want to believe. It is never my place determine the eternal destiny of another, but I will be the first shout from the mountaintops that God is love, that He is gracious, and that what Jesus Christ did is bigger than what Jeffery Dahmer did.

  12. Josh T. says

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for your insight on how you deal these issues sensitively. The scenario you present leads us to another related issue:

    How does one talk Christianly and sensitively with people who are grieving over the loss of a loved one who has already died, but did not overtly “accept” the Lord while living. I’m sure the answer is related to what you’ve already said. I think the same goes for a minister speaking at the funeral of a (presumed) unbeliever, but I’d love to hear any additional words you may have on that subject.

    Thanks for addressing these difficult issues, Chaplain Mike. I think it is the right thing to say that God is both just and merciful, and that only He truly knows a person’s heart.

    • In general, I would say it is always better to put the emphasis on God’s mercy and grace, and not on whatever “evidence” of faith we might be aware or unaware of.

  13. I wrote down what a preacher said once, and it fits here I believe:

    “I will not let what I don’t understand about the Bible negate what I do understand.” [Pastor GM]

    I understand “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). By faith I will find peace in that.

    Good post, Chaplain. That’s the stuff of life.

  14. Well said, Chaplain Mike. An excellent post. Very reminiscent of the spirit in which Michael Spencer wrote

    God and His work are so much bigger than we can imagine, and He is good. There is much reason for hope.

  15. Several decades ago I hemorraged after childbirth. I had been seeking God for a while although I wouldn’t say I had a relationship with God. I won’t go into the details of what happened right before they called a code on me but let’s just say it got my attention. I was having a conversation with God in my head. I was pretty sure if I fainted I wasn’t going to come back. After I fainted and came back I had quite the conversation with God between then and when I was put under anaesthetic for emergency surgery. It has stuck with me that no one would have had any idea of that conversation and neither could they because I was too weak to talk audibly had I died. The bottom line I believe, is that we just can’t know the state of someone’s soul.

  16. cermak_rd says

    I remember my mother’s father’s funeral. Grandpa had never been a religious man, I think he may have been baptized Catholic, though not real clear on that. In his salad days he’s been quite the rake with a fondness for drink and good times. Anyway, when he got aged he had a stroke and was unable to communicate and stuck in a wheel chair. This reverend apparently had come by the house to express the need for religion to Grandpa a couple times before the end.

    So at the funeral he mentioned that he could tell that Grandpa had taken what he’d said seriously because everytime this reverend mentioned faith or the Devine, Grandpa’s eyes would turn to heaven. At that point, there was a suppressed giggle heard round the chapel–Grandpa had a habit of rolling his eyes when he heard nonsense and we all knew it.

  17. Christopher Lake says

    Right now, I am dealing with having lost my 92-year-old grandmother (last week), and I have little to no evidence that she believed and trusted in Jesus Christ. It is very hard, emotionally, especially in light of the fact that my mother committed suicide many years ago, also without evidence of faith in Christ, and my grandmother then essentially became my second mother. I tried to talk with her about God, the Bible, and faith, but she generally seemed to want to change the subject to something– anything– else. I do find a measure of peace in the two facts that God knows the ultimate truth about a person’s soul, and that He is a God of both justice and mercy. I pray that in the end, she experienced God’s mercy. His will be done.

    • Tim Van Haitsma says

      I really like this story.

      As an unbeliever, I find stories of deathbed attempted conversions to be distastefull at least, and emotionally abusive and dishonest by and large. I understand the logic of doing it to comfort the religious relative but it is very disrspectful of the the one facing the end.

      When I find myself on death’s door I hope that my last days are not filled attempted conversions. In fact I should find a way to encourage it not to happen. Perhaps something in the will to write out anyone that brings a pastor to me in my last days.

      • Christopher Lake says


        Out of curiosity, what is it, specifically, that you like about my story? Is that I didn’t attempt to “push” my grandmother to a profession of faith in Christ? Or, perhaps, is it that she didn’t profess faith in Christ just to bring me peace about her eternal state?

        To be sure, I never tried to “shove Christianity” down her throat. However, as one who believes that the objective truth about God and humanity is found in Christ (as He is revealed in the Bible), I did try, at different points in my life, to talk with her about what I believed and what I hoped she would come to believe– not because I wanted to force anything on her, but because I loved her and wanted for her the Truth that I believe to be objectively best for *any* person.

        Honestly, I’m not sure that I spoke to her *enough* about putting one’s trust in Christ. It was difficult, as I wrote above, because she almost never brought the subject of God up at all, and whenever I did, she seemed to want to change the subject. I am certain, though, that I never attempted to force a profession of faith out of her, and I do feel good about that fact. Is that what you liked about the story? Just seeking clarification.

        One last thought– in the end, each person must come to his or her own conclusions about God and Christ and then live with (and I believe, answer to God for) those conclusions. This is why I pray that my grandmother experiences God’s mercy. The alternative is very hard for me to think of, on an emotional level– but the Bible does teach it.

        • Tim Van Haitsma says


          Sorry I posted my comment to the wrong post. It was the one above this. That the minister took an eye-roll for looking to heaven.

          I am sorry for the loss of your grandmother.

  18. One thing is for sure: if you present the gospel to an unbeliever and they reject it outright and pass away they have no hope whatsoever in the life after. Though we must be pastorally sensitive to those who are on their death beds suffering from terminal illness we must not sugar-coat the gospel message and give blanket assurance of salvation when they give no evidence of faith or regeneration. A true pastor knows when to draw the line.

    • Mark,

      How are you to know the reasons that a person rejected the gospel. Sometimes clear to us, is a foggy night to another.

      Also, not knowing another’s history, it might be presented in an insensitve way. Not all people abused by their fathers wear a sign saying that. An emphasis on God the Father might turn them further away rather than being attractive and drawing them closer to Him.

    • Donalbain says

      Then surely the best and most ethical thing to do is avoid telling people about the Gospel.

    • Mark, read again more carefully. I did not “give blanket assurance of salvation.” I said the woman should place her father at Jesus’ feet and ask for his mercy as the friends of the paralytic did.

      • Even though her father passes into eternity with no sign of personal faith or new birth? I don’t know about that Mike.

        • Mark, let me meet you where you are. How do you know this unconscious man had “no sign of personal faith or new birth”? Just because his daughter said so? He was a total stranger to me. All I had was her report. Any pastor worth his salt will not simply accept as factual a one-sided testimony. In that context, why would it not be appropriate to ask Christ for mercy? What would give me the right to pronounce any kind of hard or fast judgment?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Don’t you know Mark’s Perfectly Parsed Theology gives him that discernment? And the right to pronounce such hard and fast judgment?

            Christ must really be glad to have him at His side telling Him which are the sheep and which are the goats!

            (Yes, this is as snarky as they come. I’m 54 and I’ve run into too many Christians with that attitufe. I’ve gotten very cranky in my old age.)

  19. I believe that a crucial part of faith is trusting and relying on God when it comes to situations and circumstances that are completely beyond our control — and I think having a loved one in an unresponsive state definitely qualifies. I think God would want us to petition Him for grace and mercy on behalf of someone who is no longer capable of doing so — and we should never underestimate the degree to which He might honor such prayers and show some truly amazing grace, even if it breaks somebody’s theological rules.

  20. If I were a pastor (and I’m not–not yet, anyway), I might tell her that on the Last Day her father will meet the Risen Christ, up close and in person. Then it won’t be a matter of mere belief, but a matter of accepting what Jesus will offer him.

    I don’t know, I’m sure it’s probably poor theology born of ignorance, but I just don’t see the point of a Last Judgment if we are tried, convicted and sentenced ten minutes after we’re dead. Why go through the motions? Would like to hear some thoughts on this, as well.

  21. Chaplain Mike,
    Beautifully stated. One of the hardest issues I have encountered is how to pray for those close to me who are not believers. I see very close family members struggling with sin and so resistant to the work God wants to do around them and in them. I am reminded by your article again of something I learned before – redemption is up to God. Only those He has called will come to him. Our own love, want or hope will not accomplish anything for the Kingdom. Our submission and obedience to God’s will is what is required.

  22. It’s time we torpedo the concept of Hell.

    It only takes one read-through of this thread to realize that all of the angst, pain and worry that most everyone has concerning the fate of unresponsive, “unsaved”, and uncertain people who die is directly tied to our imagining of the awful fate awaiting them…..some sort of eternal conscious torment, whether through the psychological torture of being “separated from God”, or the image of a fiery dungeon.

    We wring our hands because we intrinsically feel that torture and eternal conscious punishment os wrong. We feel that way as a direct consequence of our Christian faith. We are agonized because we know the power of love, forgiveness, and mercy and yet we keep forcing ourselves to reconcile those most transcendent qualities with the image of a God who must have his revenge.

    It doesn’t work.

    Universalism. Annihilationism.

    We need to seriously look at those ideas instead of constantly assigning them to the fringe of Christian thought.

    • I am not a universalist. I have been attracted to annihilationism, but have my doubts. However, even if its annihilation, I would not want my loved one destroyed.

      • True….but being annihilated with no consciousness of one’s own loss becomes a pain born by those who would miss the lost, not an unending pain for the lost one.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Utterly ceasing to exist?
          Or a continuing conscious existence in Hell forever?
          They’re both bummers.

    • Josh T. says

      I think there has been a move by at least some Christian thinkers to shift from the idea that “God must have his revenge” to something emphasizing that God, in his justice, will allow people to “have their way”. That’s not a comprehensive definition of such a concept, but I think it may be an appropriate summary. Think C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. As another example, N.T. Wright puts it in terms of self-dehuminization, i.e., people have completely lost the image of God in which they were created.

      Of course, sinners having their way (chosen separation from God) or chosen dehumanization is still an extremely ugly and sad concept of existence. It’s not that there is necessarily comfort per se in these ideas, but I think they may help us to better understand the personality of God who does not get enjoyment from the “punishment of the wicked”.

      But I believe you are correct that these issues are worthy of serious discussion, including their implications for both God’s justice and his mercy.

  23. Here are a few verses that I like and use, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God Who gave it.” (Ecc. 12: 7) “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of The Almighty hath given me life.” (Job 33: 4) ….”shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?” (Heb. 12:9)

    The mystery of life and death is alone in the hands of God! We are never to judge. (I am somewhat classic Reformed myself also. But God, and the theology of God are not the same, absolutely speaking.

    Fr. Robert

  24. Chaplain Mike, not to open a whole new can of theological worms, but what do you think of ideas like The Great Divorce by C S Lewis???? It is very similar to the idea from George MacDonald that there will be a chance that some one who has rejected Jesus in life will be able to accept him after the grave. That hell could be pugatory to those who finally accept his forgivness while in hell, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. I have a Hope that this is true & i don’t see much in scripture that would reject this idea. Just wondering. peace

  25. Of course we all want salvation for our loved ones, but perhaps it would be better to let go of the idea that somehow, not only do they have to be saved, but to be saved in such a way that WE know they are saved.

    Ultimately it’s a question between God and them, not between God and us. We may have to accept the fact that we will live the rest of our lives not knowing for sure what has happened between our loved one and God.

    That seems to me to be a situation where all we can do is trust in God’s mercy.

  26. I listened to a podcast today and the guy said that we all have authority to forgive people their sins based on John 20:22 and he said that he knows many a great scholar or pastor would disagree with him and come up with all their reasons why. Yet this same man sprouts a lot about legalistic people and them being blind fools and blah blah blah and I wondered the same thing I did up there. If we do have the authority to forgive sin then how come we don’t have the ability to open the spiritual eyes of the blind or to make lame people walk etc….I dare not ask this man.