Question and Answer

Christian Condolence to a Non-Christian

Question:

What is the proper Christian condolence to a Muslim co-worker?

Answer:

Your question is a common one, especially because the Muslim is just one type of the unbelieving persons whom Christians know, work with, and befriend. Christians struggle to know what to say to an unbelieving friend who mourns the death of a loved one precisely because their mourning occurs on the other side of the line between our belief and their unbelief.

We can best answer your question by turning to the primary passage in the Bible to comfort Christians in the face of death, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

But we don't want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you don't grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so those who have fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left to the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with God's trumpet. The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

Our comfort when loved ones who belong to Christ die is the resurrection of the dead. That is, our separation from them is only for a time, and death will hold them, and us, only for a brief while. All our pain and sorrow will be resolved, ultimately, in the glorious return of Jesus our Savior. All of us will spend all eternity in resurrection bodies, like his, worshiping him with one another. Note carefully that the Apostle Paul does not tell Christians they should not grieve; rather, 1 Thessalonians 4:13 makes clear that we are to grieve with hope, that is, being comforted with the good news of the resurrection and the assurance that our grief is a temporary condition.

Of course, our possession of comfort is contrasted with "the rest," who must grieve without hope. This is because they have no Christian hope of the resurrection for themselves and thus cannot take comfort in any glorious reunion with loved ones at the Second Coming of Christ. This is the point at which many Christians stumble. What condolences can we offer to those whom the Bible specifically says are without hope?

We certainly must not offer any false hope; we cannot tell unbelievers, for example, that they will see their loved ones again in glory, for that would be a lie. However, we can—in fact, I believe we must if ours is to be a truly Biblical faith—sympathize and empathize with their grief. For as Christians we affirm the reality of death and its horrific grip on all mankind. We not only acknowledge this fact, we embrace it, for it, along with the genuine reality of sin, makes sense of the Cross of Christ. God's sympathy for human pain and suffering in the omnipresent face of death is the very reason for the Gospel: "Since then the children have shared in flesh and blood, he [Christ] also himself in like manner partook of the same, that through death he might bring to nothing him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver all of them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The proper Christian condolence to a Muslim, or to any other non-Christian, is to tell him or her that you know his or her pain is real and that your own conviction is that by his incarnation the Son of God testifies to all mankind that he dispels the fear and pain of death through his person and work. This, after all, was the message of the angel outside Bethlehem two thousand years ago: "Don't be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people. For there is born to you, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11). It may be, by God's grace, that the Spirit chooses to use your testimony to the compassion of God in the gospel and your understanding of the person's grief as a means to convince that him or her that the only true comfort regarding death is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


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