When we are faced with the death of those in the public eye, like the recent tragic death of Whitney Houston, followers of Christ seem caught in the between of praising them while wondering how to remain faithful to the gospel without being callous.
Sometimes, as in the cases of Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens, even when there is little to zero evidence of saving faith, the hesitancy to plunge into eternal realities is palpable. It’s easy to stand and preach or teach to a friendly audience on the realities of heaven and hell, but it’s much harder to consign a public figure to the eternal flames in a written form that can be accessed by anyone with a web connection.
When the life of such a celebrity features some amount of tragedy–Houston’s drugs and marriage woes or Heath Ledger’s accidental overdose, for instance–the storyline can become much more muddled. Musical or acting performances become the focus. A sterling performance of the National Anthem by Whitney Houston has been all over the Internet. Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight was elevated to mythic proportions, and for which he was awarded a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture. Amid the remembrances and celebrations of worthy performances is the hesitancy to address the eternal realities surrounding all who die.
Is the difficulty experienced by Christ’s followers the fear of being viewed as insensitive? Or does it stem from an inability to maintain the truth of the gospel in the face of the death of a “good person”? Many of the same people who claim the name of Christ will expect both Billy Graham and Heath Ledger to go through the “Pearly Gates” even though there has been no evidence that both hold/held the same view of Jesus Christ, who is the Way, Truth and Life, and through whom alone there is access to the Father. Sloppy, sappy, sentimental theology does as little to shine the Light as morbid, rank judgmentalism.
Even the death of Hitchens, simultaneously a formidable public intellect and rabid opponent of God, Jesus, Christianity and religion in general, brought much more hope from Christians that he had been converted between his penultimate breath and expiration, rather than the much more probable fulfillment of the Scriptures that Hitchens died without Christ entering an eternity of condemnation. It is not without reason we are taught, “He that often stiffens his neck will suddenly be destroyed and that without a remedy” (Prov. 29:1) and “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:20).
Who are among those consigned to the lake of fire? The unbelieving (Rev. 21:8). It’s interesting that Hitchens, who popularized the “hit-obit” by excoriating the recently deceased with blistering memorializations, could scarcely be found to have a negative word written against him. Who had Hitchens hit? Mother Teresa, Princess Diana of Wales, Jerry Falwell, and others. So intent was Hitchens insistence that no one posthumously preach him a “deathbed salvation,” he went out of his way to say if he ever were to claim Christ it would not be evidence of faith, but of the loss of his mental faculties.
I do not believe in piling on in the death of celebrities. Condemning them to hell is as pointless and wrong as ushering them into glory. We should be willing to leave all judgment to God where it concerns the eternal destiny of those who have left this life. However, I think that Christians need not neglect the opportunity to bring the gospel to the fore in situations where people are focused on death. After all, one out of one people die.
We need not condemn the celebrities in order to present the gospel. The fact is, the gospel transcends who has died. Thousands and thousands of people die every single day and all of them need Jesus Christ. Far from being a time for silence, death is a time to speak with wisdom, grace, sensitivity and truth. It can be done. We need to do it.