Here they go again, planning to picket another funeral. This time it’s the funeral of Apple, Inc. founder Steve Jobs. Margie Phelps tweeted to the world their latest plans…via her iPhone. The irony was quickly noted by several media outlets. Ms. Phelps responded as expected, filled with condemnation: “Rebels mad cuz I used iPhone to tell you Steve Jobs is in hell. God created iPhone for that purpose! :)”
Seriously? Is that why God created Steve Jobs with his exceptional talents…talents that would eventually give the world innovative and efficient technology products, like the iPhone? God did this just so Ms. Margie Phelps could use an iPhone to celebrate Mr. Jobs death? Memo to the universe: neither the Phelps family nor the Westboro Baptist Church are accepted by true followers of Jesus Christ as legitimate spokespeople for the Christian faith.
How are we as Christians to respond to the death of those who seem to be outside of our faith? A good start would be not to ascend the throne of God and assume we know whether someone died in a state of sin or a state of grace. We can rarely know what goes on in a person’s heart in their last moments on earth. Steve Jobs made his last public appearance back in early June at a Cupertino, California City Council meeting. He made his last public statement on August 24th. He died exactly six weeks later. How Mr. Jobs dealt spiritually with his death in those final weeks and moments is known only to God, Steve, and perhaps some close family members and friends. We can assume he knew the basic story about Jesus Christ, and may have known the message of the Gospel. Everything else, at this point, would be pure conjecture. By recognizing our limited knowledge of the situation, we realize it is not our place to be the judge of his eternal destination.
But what if the evidence is overwhelming that a person had never repented of their sin and place their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ? How, then, should we respond? The BIble acknowledges the reality that when wicked leaders die, the masses rejoice (Proverbs 11.10). Plans have been in place for years for the anticipated celebration that will occur in South Florida when Fidel Castro finally passes. But that is not the heart of our Lord… “For I take no pleasure in anyone’s death” (Ezekiel 18.32) and “As I live…I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33.12).
As Christians, when it comes to the dead, we should focus on the positive. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum is an old Latin phrase that dates back to the 6th Century B.C. It’s come down to us in the English as “Speak no ill of the dead.” Though apparently not Christian in origin, it aligns well with the Scriptural imperative: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable —if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise —dwell on these things” (Philippians 4.8).
When we reflect on the death of those who seem to be outside of the Christian faith, we can still focus on the positive. An excellent example of this is the elegy released by Union University’s theology dean Greg Thornbury. The elegy reflected on the positive impact Steve Jobs made on the word and Dr. Thornbury himself, as a lifelong customer of Apple. The common grace of God to Steve Jobs and through Steve Jobs enabled millions of people to be more productive and efficient as well as experience much happiness. For this we can be thankful to God.
Any death of any person, famous or common, righteous or wicked, young or old, also affords us the opportunity to challenge the living to consider their own mortality and present to them the marvelous news of atoning sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, along with His glorious resurrection from the dead. Repentance from sin and faith in Jesus will enable a person to have no doubts about their eternal destination.
As we think of the dead, we focus on the good and hope they died having made peace with God through Christ. As we interact with the living, we point them to Jesus.