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Just before gametime, a young football player received notice that his father had died unexepectedly. Given the tragic circumstances, his coach told him that no one expected him to play that day. But the young man insisted. He went out and played the game of his life. Afterwards, the coach approached him, “You played like a different person today. How could you do this after hearing of your father’s death?” 

“My father was blind,” replied the young man. “Today was the first time he ever saw me play.”

To my chagrin, I’ll admit that I used that story in a sermon decades ago. It was well received, as I recall. Today it feels pretty cheesy and manipulative. Not to mention that it really isn’t how I envision life-after-death.

I’m pretty agnostic about the particulars of life-after-death. Perhaps it is only St. Paul’s admonition that “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are most to be pitied” that keeps some of us from nearly dismissing “the hope of glory.”

This downplaying of life-after-death has some good, solid reasons — primarily a desire to emphasize the this-worldly nature of the Christian faith. Loving our neighbor. Sharing with the poor. Welcoming the stranger. There’s also the realization that whatever we might want to say about the afterlife is confined to our imagination, vocabulary, and experiences. Everlasting life with God by definition has to be much, much more than that. 

If we’re honest, this afterlife agnosticism is also propelled by embarrassment of the pie-in-the-sky, heavenly obsession of some of our siblings in faith. Lampooning their certainties, their literalism, and their escapism is nearly irresistible.

It’s touchy, and very personal

As a pastor, I sat through more than a few family eulogies at funerals that made me wince. Glad reunions with uncles and cousins. Watching us from on high. Golf courses and fishing holes. Wings, halos, and sing-alongs. I kept my thoughts to myself. Suggesting slight theological corrections to grieving people did not seem like the pastoral move to make. 

After my grandfather died, my grandmother was visited by her young pastor. He thought it his duty to tell my grandmother that her beloved husband was now in God’s care — but at rest, unaware, unconscious until the last day when the dead shall be raised. (A view with which I generally concur.) 

My grandmother was deeply disturbed. She heard the pastor saying that her husband was basically “in cold storage” or some sort of suspended animation, essentially just dead, nothingness, for now. In contrast, she believed he was fully alive and enjoying the glories of heaven. 

Our beliefs about our dead family and friends are both tender and explosive. We don’t want them trifled with. And there’s enough non-definitive scripture to support various views. How we understand the status of our beloved dead matters deeply to us. And my aim today is not to convince you that my views are right.

I finally get to my point

My aim, Instead, is to tell how I found myself surprisingly changed by the recent death of a “friend-of-a-friend.” I won’t offer many other personal specifics out of respect for their privacy, and because this person was more of an acquaintance than a close friend. I will say that they died by suicide.

The changes to my views weren’t carefully thought through. I noticed them after-the-fact. And no, they weren’t specifically about suicide. I hope by now the belief that those who die by suicide are automatically damned is debunked and rare.

As a child, this person endured every sort of abuse. Family life wasn’t just awful. It was dangerous. Of course, even as an adult, this continually tormented and undermined them. Despite this, they went on to achieve many of the markers of “success” — education, respect, a good career, financial security. 

What I remember most about them was their intense desire to affirm, to love and be loved. They were eager to connect with other people. They were wonderful with children. They went out of their way to be kind and generous. My relationship with them was not deep, but when I was around them I always felt appreciated, interesting, and valued. Maybe it is because of this that I seemed to grieve them inordinately.

Did they have any sort of religious inclination? Not that I know of. Did they consider themselves a believer? Had they any sort of faith experience? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Given their background, it’s not surprising to me that they never listened to an AM radio preacher inviting them to pray the “sinner’s prayer.” If they ever felt a desire to wander into a church on a Sunday morning, I would be astounded. Nonetheless, I trust this person is loved, accepted, and a recipient of God’s grace. The label “universalist” is not something I own for myself. Let’s say instead that I believe there’s a wideness to God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. But again, this is not what was changed by this person’s death.

What did change? As I mentioned before, it changed more inadvertently, involuntarily, not because of careful theological considerations. 

I found myself wanting and praying that this friend-of-a-friend would have an active and conscious awareness of God’s love. My view of the state of the departed has been something akin to sleep. When I sleep, I am still God’s care, but I am asleep, unaware, passive. But in this case, for this person, that just wasn’t enough. 

I desperately wanted them to experience the love they sought so desperately, now. To be freed of all the wounds and nightmares of their childhood, now. To find that deep connection and security they were always seeking, now. To know a peace and a rest, not of a good sleep, but of freedom and release and joy and wholeness, now. 

Yes, something more — better and indescribable — may await at the resurrection of the dead on the last day. But I wanted this person to know the goodness of God in an experiential and conscious way, now. And if I want and hope and trust this for my friend of a friend, should I want and expect it for all the departed? 

I also found myself praying for them. This was something I’d never done before. I never felt the need. As a good Protestant, praying for the dead is certainly not my practice. Now it just seemed the thing to do. I couldn’t help myself. And why not? Isn’t the whole issue of praying for the dead really a tired and trivial debate from the Reformation, an overblown cultural marker, more than something of genuine theological importance? Do the departed enter a zone where prayer is of no avail? 

The Penitent Thief & Christ, artist unknown

Still, it wasn’t a theological debate that I was interested in. I simply had an urgent and undying desire to pray for this person, that all that they wanted so badly, all that their life has lacked would somehow be given to them. Not that they would be accepted or forgiven or loved. I trusted all that. But rather that they would know and feel and enjoy all that. This was my prayer and is my prayer for them still.

Lines get blurrier. Uncertainties increase. And yet, it almost feels as if hope increases as well. 

Today, you will be with me in paradise. 

Sunlight photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is a very good place to wander in, very good considerations to explore. At least I think so. Conclusions maybe not as important as desires and prayers.

  • Mary Dieleman says:

    Thank you!

  • Lisa Vander Wal says:

    Powerful! Thanks, Steve.

  • Jodi M says:

    Ah, I love this one. Love your ending. As uncertainties increase, so does hope. And I think that’s the kind of hope we need right now, along with a more generous grace than what many of us grew up with. Thank you!

  • Cheri Scherr says:

    Thank you Steve. I always am awed by how you come at beliefs. I wouldn’t say I am agnostic about life after death as I certainly believe there is. However, I am always hoping that people who have rejected God will be met by God as they are dying and God will ask, “do you believe in me now? ” My mother was agnostic. My brother was a strong Christian until he was through college. There are so many people that I love and have loved that I can only pray that will be true.

  • RZ says:

    Can’t help but think God smiles at one whose compassion overwhelms the echoes of his doctrinal traditions.

  • Kathryn Vilela says:

    Thank you for this, Steve – it filled my heart to the brim.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    I dunno. Sure wish I did. I do believe today I’m in paradise with my dog. Sitting beside trusting. Can’t say it’s happy. But I get to love her. I guess I don’t like it because all it means is leaving.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    So good and so honest Steve. Wes reminded me of a quote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty” – Anne Lamott
    Kind of says it all for me.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I remember well my first experience of praying for the dead. I mean I had already learned from Charles William’s novel Descent into Hell the idea of interceding retroactively (the young woman interceding for Charles Cranmer at his burning) but I first did it for the child of a loved one, three days after the child’s death, while standing at the altar of a colleague’s weekday noon Eucharist. If prayer crosses space, why not time? Now I not infrequently pray for the dead, just by name, and leave the particulars to God.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Steve – your uncertainties resonate with me.
    I too wince at some of our memorial services and obituaries that make us feel sorry we’re still here.
    My hope and trust lie simply in Christ’s promise – “I go to prepare a place for you.”

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    One of your phrases reminded me of one of the first essays that I read in RJ (in paper version, of course) when I was a young faculty member.

  • RZ says:

    “If prayer crosses space, why not time?.”
    “Retroactive intercession” Wow!
    Einstein has suggested that time may prove to be an illusion. What does that do to our concept of eternity? Or the concept of before vs after-death? And what exactly is time to a God who has no beginning or end? I feel a headache coming on. AND you are messing with our manipulative motivation for getting saved!

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Interesting Steve, that you touched on “praying for the dead.”
    Just yesterday, I learned where Roman Catholics get that notion.
    2 Maccabees 12:43-45
    Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition
    43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.
    Well, there you have it. The intertestament period had a lot of curious things going on. Since there is life after death, we may and can pray to and for those living there. Hmmmm.

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