Yesterday, our dear sister Aprel passed away. Though older in age and experiencing severe cancer, she was a Christian woman with a vibrant love for Jesus and an eagerness to put his word into practice. Even while on her deathbed, she was listening to the Bible/sermons and exhorting her sisters to trust in the Lord. On the basis of her genuine faith in Christ, we have every reason to be confident that she is now in the presence of the Lord in heaven.
But how should we feel about our sister’s passing? What emotions should Christians feel in response to the death of a fellow believer? Should Christians be happy, sad, or both?
Reasons to Rejoice
On the one hand, Christians have many reasons to find comfort and even rejoice at the passing of a fellow saint: the departed believer is now free from the pain, sin, and death of this world (Job 3:17-19; Rom 8:19-23); she was able to live well for many days on the earth, experiencing the Lord’s goodness and testifying of him to many people (Eccl 5:18; Ps 71:17-18); in her passing, the Lord has accomplished his good will and answered prayer perfectly, just as he always does (Rom 8:28; Mt 7:7-8); she is now safe in the paradise of heaven, a place so wonderful it cannot be described (Lk 23:43; 2 Cor 12:4); she is now seeing her Savior face to face, faith becoming sight, worship no longer inhibited (1 Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 3:2); she is now experiencing the reward and rest of a life lived for Christ (2 Tim 4:7-8; Rev 14:13); she is now reunited with a community of beloved, departed believers (Lk 16:9; Heb 12:22-23); and we shall join her also when we depart this world ourselves or when Christ comes to raise his church at the rapture (1 Cor 15:51-53; 1 Thess 4:16-17).
The Scriptures many times treat the prospect of departing this world to be with Christ as a wonderful reality. Paul says “to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” and that, while it is more necessary to stay on earth to minister for Christ’s sake, it is preferable to be with Christ in heaven, “for that is very much better” (Phil 1:21-24; cf. Ps 16:9-11). Therefore, in a believer’s passing, we have much cause to rejoice in the good that God has done and in all that our brother or sister has gained by death.
Reasons to Mourn
On the other hand, Christians have many reasons to be sorrowful and even weep at the passing of a fellow saint: the departed believer is gone because futility, death, and the curse of sin are still at work in the world (Gen 3:17-19; Rom 8:20-21); in the circumstances of her passing, the Lord’s will remains inscrutable, and he does not answer all our questions (Eccl 3:11; 2 Cor 12:8-9); the departed believer is no longer able to serve Christ or give praise and testimony to lost persons in the world (Eccl 9:4-6; Ps 30:9); and, most grievous of all, we are no longer able to fellowship with her, minister with her, or share life with her (cf. 2 Sam 1:25-26; Acts 8:2). We all know the pain of separation that exists in life when you cannot see or be with a loved one for a long time (Acts 20:25, 36-38); how much more the pain of separation that takes place with a loved one’s death (cf. Jn 16:16-22)!
While it’s true that, in Christ, death is no longer the crushing weight it otherwise would be, the Bible still treats death as a sorrowful reality for Christians. In the same book in which Paul testifies that dying in Christ is joyous gain, Paul also declares that God had mercy on Paul’s friend Epaphroditus and on Paul himself—sparing Paul “sorrow upon sorrow”—by not allowing Epaphroditus’ to die from sickness (Phil 2:25-30).
Even more instructive is Jesus’ response to his friend Lazarus’ death. Though Jesus is God and knew that he would shortly raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus still became “deeply moved in spirit and was troubled” when he encountered the mourners in Bethany; Jesus cried so much that the visiting Jews remarked that Jesus surely must have loved Lazarus greatly (Jn 11:33-36). Even when approaching the tomb to raise Lazarus, Jesus was “again being deeply moved within” (Jn 11:38). In his grief, then, Jesus not only testified of his love for his people in their suffering but also to the truth that death itself is not good. Death was not part of God’s original design for this world, and, as Jesus even foreshadowed in his raising Lazarus from the dead, God is determined to one day destroy our enemy, death (1 Cor 15:26; Rev 20:14). Until that time, there is still good reason for us to mourn a believer’s passing.
Sorrowful yet Always Rejoicing
So which is it? Should Christians rejoice or mourn over the passing of a fellow believer? The answer is that Christian should do both, never rejoicing to the point of forgetting the fundamentally painful reality of death but also never mourning to the point of forgetting the sure hope we have in Jesus Christ. It is indeed possible both to rejoice and mourn at the same time. Such, really, is fundamental to being a Christian, as Paul says in 2 Cor 6:10, “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”
Paul famously writes about Christian death in another place, 1 Thess 4:13:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.
Paul is not saying here that, because Christians have hope unlike the rest of the world, Christians should not grieve about departed loved ones at all. Rather, Paul says that Christians should not grieve in the same way as others do. We grieve in hope, we have confidence through the questions, and we have comfort through the pain because we know that we belong to Christ and that both we and our departed loved ones have eternal life in him (cf. 1 Thess 4:18). When one day we are made absent from the homes of our bodies, we know that we will then be made at home and present with the Lord until he prepares new, glorified bodies for us in the resurrection (2 Cor 5:6-8; 1 Cor 15:20-26).
So then, as we consider our sister’s passing, let us respond appropriately. Let us grieve with hope: sorrowful yet always rejoicing.