Heavenly Comfort is Hollow Without the Cross
Immediately after he passed away, a nurse came into the room making an empty and mechanical attempt at comfort. “He’s in a better place,” she said. As soon as the words were uttered they seemed to bounce around the room with nowhere to securely land. For the sake of context, this was spoken to a dear woman, only nanoseconds removed from the loss of her husband and best friend of 48 years. The widow later confided to me, “Such comforts are hollow without the cross in view.” She’s right—shallow sentimentality will not do.
For 2,000 years, the Christian church has confessed the “place” called heaven—and a future bodily resurrection of believers with Christ—without much issue on the big points. “Heaven is for real,” not because of all the heavenly tourism books offering anecdotal accounts of people’s so-called out-of-body experiences. Heaven, like hell, is real because the Bible teaches the veracity of both. Christians are too easily duped into throwing out the Bible and taking up second-hand experiences as proof of this and that. We should remember that the Bible is sufficient reason enough to believe that after our earthly existence, our souls will be immediately present with Christ and will await a future resurrection of our bodies in which the ultimate destination (i.e., place) becomes a new heaven and new earth. This I know because the Bible tells me so (John 14:1–6; Phil 3:20; Rev 21:1).
Could this be what that poor nurse was getting at? Was she attempting to emphasize that “he’s in a better place”? If so, it would seem that the weight of Scripture would be on her side. The great apostle surely indicates as much, stating that to be absent from the body is “to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8; emphasis added). Also, we believe in the immortality of the soul, so if the soul is not here then it has to be somewhere. If this were her intention, then, she would be theologically correct on a number of points. However, I don’t think this is what she was aiming for.
The problem of the nurse’s hollow comfort is one that is painfully acute with Christians. We want to say something, anything that might bring comfort, so we grab for aphorisms that have been handed down to us by our own experiences or poorly parroted from the self-help section at the bookstore. In so doing, we grab the mantle laid down by the likes of Job’s friends. He too had questions about “place” and the afterlife. A suffering Job wondered, “Man expires, and where is he?” (Job 14:10). His friend, Eliphaz, chimes in and says that such questions are “useless talk” and then proceeds to wax on about his life experiences.
You see, the problem is not with the technicality of the answer from the nurse. On the theological merits, she was correct—he was in a better place. The problem is that the suffering widow was not asking a question. She was grieving, sobbing, and her mind was undoubtedly racing in many directions. The nurse was answering a question that, at least in that instant, no one was asking. In such moments, it is imperative that Christians learn the discipline and wisdom of holding their tongues. This is not to say that we take up vows of silence when thrust into these situations, but less is more.
Proverbs speaks of the delight of a “timely word” (15:23). If we were to unpack the implications of this, then we would see that it is a word that is measured with wisdom, truth, and patient compassion. A timely word can be a word delayed either in a letter, email, or note of sympathy. A timely word may be a conversation over coffee, months later when important questions do arise. A timely word may be no word at all, at least in that moment.
I was reminded of this while reading a sad and angry essay. In Vanity Fair, the avowed atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who suffered and died from esophageal cancer, said something I will never forget:
So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
In this piece, Hitchens is bemoaning the dictum that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” This line, probably adapted from Nietzsche (1844–1900)—who borrowed it from Goethe (1749–1832)—rings hollow for Hitchens. It’s nothing more than a “facile maxim.” This led me to wonder if we Christians have our own mottos that have a ring of truth in the moment yet fail to deliver (“live up to their apparent billing”)? I know we do, and we’ve all said things trying to bring comfort that immediately feel forced or off the mark.
This will mean that when we do speak, it will be the truth in love with the goal of helping one another mature in Christ (Eph 4:15). As pastors, this will merit our careful shepherding of our flocks so that they will learn what it means to always speak the truth, yet always with loving care. Stating truths about heaven or anything else must not come at the expense of our care for souls on this present earth.
Paul Lamey is the pastor of one of our nine TES campuses, having served as pastor of preaching and leadership development at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL since 2002.