How Do I Serve Dying Unbelievers?
Today’s question is a follow-up. It comes from a listener named Michelle, in Wisconsin. “Hello, Pastor John, thank you for addressing a wide range of topics on this podcast,” she writes. “Your recent episode APJ 1605 was of particular interest to me: ‘How Can I Serve the Dying?’ I am a hospital nurse, and served as an oncology nurse for three years, in which I cared for many people in their final days and hours. I no longer work in oncology but do occasionally see patients who are near the end of life.
“In episode 1605 you assumed the dying were believers and talked about the fight of faith. But in my experience, very few dying patients are clearly believers. In that light, I battled intense anxiety knowing that I was likely the last Christian they would ever come into contact with on this side of eternity, hours or minutes from an eternal hell. This raised all sorts of questions for me. Do I share the gospel, even if the patient is unconscious? Do I offend family members in their saddest moment? How do I care for a lost person on the brink of hell, especially when their abilities to understand the gospel and respond in faith may be limited, and when the timing will likely feel inappropriate to the family? What would you say in this situation?”
Why We Avoid Sharing the Gospel
The answer to this question is going to depend in great measure on three things: (1) the confidence one has in the truth of the Bible’s teaching about hell; (2) the love that one feels for a dying person — that is, the longing one has for the eternal joy of the dying person; and (3) the courage one has to act for the good of the perishing against the wishes of those who do not believe the gospel.
“God’s call to glorify Christ and to love people takes precedence over all human authority.”
Or to put it another way, people avoid sharing the gospel with dying people for one or more of three reasons: They just don’t believe in hell. It’s not real to them. It’s not fearful. What’s real is the person lying there on the bed and the possibility that the person might experience some distress if you speak about Christ and sin and judgment. And they feel that the avoidance of that distress is a loving act because that distress is more real to them and more harmful than the prospect of hell.
Or second, they avoid speaking because, while they may believe in hell, they just don’t feel any compelling affection for the dying person, or any intense longing that the dying person would be rescued, or that he would have everlasting joy in the presence of Christ. The desire just doesn’t become operative.
Or third, they don’t share the gospel because they believe that their superiors in the medical profession or the relatives of the dying person have the greatest authority in determining whether you share the gospel, and that God’s call on you to share the gospel takes second place to that human authority.
When Not to Evangelize
Now, there are situations where we are not obliged to share the gospel. Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).
I think Jesus gave an example of this in Matthew 21:23–27, when he asked the chief priests and elders whether the baptism of John was from heaven or from man. And they huddled up, you remember, and said, “Well, if we say, ‘From man,’ the crowd might stone us, but if we say, ‘From God,’ he’ll say, ‘Well, then why didn’t you believe him?’ So, let’s say we don’t know.” And Jesus said, “Well, I’m not going to answer you either.” In other words, “I don’t deal with people who are so insidious in their manipulation of truth.” In other words, there is a kind of attitude that is so deeply devious and hostile to the gospel that there are times you don’t speak the gospel to certain people.
And another thing Jesus said was Matthew 10:14, “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” In other words, a group of people can show themselves so resistant that you stop speaking to them and move on.
There are situations in which you do not share the gospel, but I don’t know of any situation or any teaching in the Bible which would say that the reason we don’t share the gospel is because some human authority says not to. Instead, what we see is that when authorities did tell Christians not to speak, what the Christian said was, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). In other words, God’s call to glorify Christ and to love people by speaking the only news in the world that can save them, that call takes precedence over the prohibitions of all human authority.
So, there may be times when it is fitting not to share the gospel, but the reason will not be that human authority has forbidden it. And I think that applies to government authorities, religious authorities, professional authorities, military authorities, hospital authorities, and family authorities.
Now, what about the person himself that you would like to speak the gospel to? In general, I think if a person is cogent, it is fitting to ask their permission to speak to them about something very precious to you and something important for them — namely, Jesus Christ and God’s offer of forgiveness of sins through him. I think if a person says, sitting across from you at a restaurant or lying in a hospital bed, “I don’t want to hear about that,” then you are not obliged to force it onto them. Nobody is saved by coercion. And if a person turns away the gospel that you are freely and lovingly ready to offer, coercive efforts to make them hear probably contradict the very nature of the good news as freely believed.
“Jesus is a great Savior, even now. He is a great friend. He is very merciful, very patient, very gracious.”
Does that mean that a person who is dying and incapable of speaking — for all you know they may not even be perceiving what you’re saying — should not hear the gospel from you? I don’t think so. If the man who had been beaten on the side of the road when the Good Samaritan came along was unconscious, I don’t think the Good Samaritan was obliged to wait until he regained consciousness to ask permission to care for his wounds and take him for medical treatment.
So, I think it would be a beautiful gift to quietly and calmly and lovingly speak words of hope into the ear of a person who is unable to respond. I think this calls for a great deal of wisdom, gospel sensitivity as to what you would say. For example, I would say something like this:
Hello, John. This is Mary. I’m one of your nurses. I want to do everything I can to make you comfortable and to meet your needs. I don’t even know if you can hear me or communicate with me. I want you to know that you are loved. I love you. And God loved you by sending his Son Jesus Christ into the world to bear the sins of everyone who trusts him.
Jesus is a great Savior, even now. He is a great Friend. He is very merciful, very patient, very gracious. He has forgiven all my sins, and I am so thankful. And he wants you to know that he is ready to forgive all your sins. No matter what they were or how many they were, all you have to do is cast yourself on the mercy of Christ. Fall into the arms of Christ, and trust him as a precious Savior.
So, I’m going to pray for you, John. Father in heaven, thank you for your love. Thank you for the amazing grace that saves sinners like me and John when we simply trust in our precious Savior Jesus Christ. I pray that you would make yourself real for John as he lies here. In Jesus’s name, amen.
And if you ask me what to do if a loved one says, “Don’t talk to my father about Jesus,” I would say that I don’t believe that a human command takes precedence over the command of love.