What hope can we have for lost loved ones?
George Mueller, the British pastor who loved orphans and lived by faith in a most remarkable way, prayed daily for some people for fifty-two years. He never saw their conversion, but his biographer tells us that a couple of them were converted at his funeral.
That is an incredible thought. The Bible says, "Don't grow weary in praying! Keep knocking at the door! Keep going to the judge! Don't give up!" And Mueller would say, "Keep on praying and believe that God will work his good will in the lives of the ones you love." Mueller died not knowing if they would be saved, but it happened after his death and he was able to look on from heaven.
So my first encouragement is to say that there are examples where prayer worked but the people praying didn't know it.
But that doesn't answer every situation, because some of the people we love die before we do, and we have to watch them go to their grave. And for all that we can see, they never professed faith in Christ.
I once did the funeral of the brother of a godly woman at our church. He lived by himself and, as far as we knew, was outspokenly anti-Christian until he died.
There were about 30 people there and it was a stormy winter day outside, so we weren't going to the graveside. So I invited everyone to walk to the front and gather around the coffin together. The sister knew that her brother was an outspoken unbeliever. So what was I going to say around this coffin?
I said, "We don't know finally and decisively where Harold is because of the story of the thief on the cross who was saved in the eleventh hour. Harold knew the gospel, and he had a godly sister who prayed for him. Maybe in the eleventh hour, alone in his apartment before he was found dead, he cried to the Lord. I don't want to be artificial and create unrealistic hope. But it is a possibility. Nevertheless, here is our bottom line hope...", and I quoted Genesis 18:25: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?"
Then I told them that we just have to trust that God will do what is right and what is best. In the age to come we will be granted the emotional framework to feel satisfaction and approval whether Harold has been destroyed and punished in hell or whether he was plucked from the fire and taken to heaven. We will not live our eternity in endless remorse and regret. We will approve the wisdom and justice of the living God.
And that's where you leave people. Whether they find hope depends on how deeply they trust in the sovereign wisdom and goodness of God.
What about the person who knows and feels their need for the gospel but just can't seem to turn away from their sin?
Jesus used language that would make us think that the danger for them is great. He said that anyone who looks upon a woman lustfully has committed adultery in his heart. And "If your right eye causes you to sin then pluck it out because it is better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be cast into hell."
So Jesus warns of hell as the consequence for not battling seriously with sin. I say it carefully because I don't want to say that Matthew 5:30 proves that if you fall again into lust then you go to hell. What it says is that you must be serious about sin to the point of plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand. (Jesus isn't being literal here. Gouging out your right eye would still leave you with your left, and the problem would remain. With this language Jesus is simply connoting how serious the battle is.)
So for the person who is struggling with sin in this way, I would say that the gospel exists precisely for failing imperfect people. So don't think perfection is necessary in this life for you to make it to heaven. Jesus is the perfection.
However, you better not become lax about the warfare against your sin. "Be killing sin or it will be killing you," John Owen said. Undertake the battle and do—by the Holy Spirit—all you can do. And then cast yourself upon the mercy of God in Christ every day.