At a time of great national loss the church has an opportunity—and a responsibility.
“How often do you wonder, If I were to die today, do I know for sure that I would go to heaven?”
18% Not sure
The death toll from COVID-19 has been staggering. In 2020 total deaths from all causes in the United States topped 3 million with a half-million related to the pandemic. This is not the first time, however, that our nation has dealt with staggering totals of death. During the Civil War, 2.5% of the U.S. population died, according to History.com. If we lost the same percentage today, it would be close to 8 million deaths.
While numerous societal changes are attributed to that war, one often overlooked impact is that 200,000 to 300,000 soldiers from both sides of the conflict are reported to have accepted Christ during the Civil War.
As we wonder how society will react to losses in this generation, are Americans considering their own death and, more specifically, whether they are ready to meet their Maker? In short, many are not.
Lifeway Research asked Americans, “How often do you wonder: If I were to die today, do I know for sure that I would go to heaven?’” For the majority of Americans, this question is left unconsidered. Thirty-seven percent say it never crosses their mind and 18% are not sure how often they think about it.
Within a given month, more than a third (36%) wonder if they will go to heaven when they die, including 15% daily, 11% weekly, and 11% monthly. Another 9% think about it yearly.
Two seemingly opposite groups are much more likely to say they don’t often consider if they will go to heaven—those who don’t believe in heaven and those who are confident they’ll reach it. Almost half (47%) of the nones—atheist, agnostic and those with no religious affiliation—say they never think about it. Similarly, 46% of those who identify themselves as Christian and attended worship services four times a month or more before the pandemic say they never consider the question.
OPPORTUNITY WITHIN THE CHURCH
Church leaders should think about their own church, as 37% of Protestants wonder about their eternal destiny each month. The coronavirus pandemic provides an opportunity to help attendees understand from Scripture what God’s criteria is to be a citizen of heaven. This eternal hope does not waver because it rests on one firm foundation: Jesus Christ.
To be designated as having evangelical beliefs in our research one must strongly agree with the authority of Scripture, that only Jesus’ sacrificial death could remove the penalty of sin, that only through Jesus Christ alone can one receive salvation, and that it is important to encourage nonbelievers to trust Jesus Christ as Savior. Even among this group, 45% wonder each month if they will go to heaven when they die.
“While they have seen death during the pandemic, Americans are rarely honest about their own mortality.”
Rather than judging this inconsistency, let’s notice opportunities within your own church:
• Some may be glossing over key doctrinal hinges such as Jesus saying he is the way in John 14:6, and Peter saying there is no other name given for salvation in Acts 4:12. Helping our congregations better understand such specifics keeps the focus on Christ and ensures the gospel is spread accurately.
• It is worth continuing to call those who say they believe what the Bible says about salvation to personally accept it for themselves. Let’s not assume everyone who knows this truth has surrendered to it.
• As we repeat how to be saved, we should remind listeners of the certainty Scripture itself displays: “You will be saved” (Rom. 10:9) and “You may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
A group of Christians who believe they should share the gospel will be far less effective if they are only wishing their salvation is sure. Our hope is firm not because we want it to be, but because Jesus Christ has made it so.
OPPORTUNITY OUTSIDE THE CHURCH
In his book Unashamed, Lecrae says, “If you don’t know you’re lost, you can’t be led. And if you can’t be honest, you can’t be healed. Before I could be rescued, I needed to realize I was stranded.”
Similar to Lecrae’s experience, two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated can’t be led, healed or rescued today. To them, they are not lost, dying or stranded.
While they have seen death during the pandemic, Americans are rarely honest about their own mortality. Even when we do reflect on the deceased, as many did recently when John Lewis and Billy Graham laid in state, we focus on their lives and the causes they represented rather than the God they went to meet.
For most Americans who do not believe in God, there is often no trepidation about meeting him or awareness they have any shame or guilt connected to him. That doesn’t mean, however, we never should lead evangelistic conversations with the hope of heaven. It is an important truth, particularly during troubling times. And some of those who are religiously unaffiliated (24%) do wonder each month if they will go to heaven. Even more of those who are affiliated with non-Christian religions do so (48%), likely because other religions do not promise such eternal certainty.
“Let’s not assume everyone who knows this truth has surrendered to it.”
The death of George Floyd forced Americans to consider the value of every human life. The number of deaths from COVID-19 is raising similar questions. If anyone should be known as the people who value those who have died, it should be followers of Christ. Not that we dwell on sadness, but that we reverberate the worth of those we lost. For Americans fearful they may be next, we have an opportunity to offer the assurance that each of us has purpose and meaning.
Around 3 in 5 Americans (59%) agree they have found a higher purpose and meaning for their life, including only 20% who strongly agree. The biblical truth that we are all created in the image of God and that he gave us purpose and meaning should resonate as society witnesses both deaths by injustice and deaths that do not discriminate.
OPPORTUNITY IN THE DELAYS?
Pastors repeatedly have shared with us how painful it has been for them to help families within the church bury loved ones alone. The support normally provided by the church body has been kept at a distance. But think of those families with no connection to Jesus Christ who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. They have often been missing the support close at hand and from a distance.
Nationally, Memorial Day was begun as a way to help our country deal with the grief of its greatest tragedy, the Civil War. Some families began to use the day to remember more than those who served in the military, taking time to contemplate all family members who have passed.
Helping our neighbors get honest with themselves about death may include helping them deal with grief long after they typically would have without a pandemic. Whether it is a Memorial Day remembrance (or something similar later in the year), paying for grief counseling or starting a grief support group, consider proactively addressing this need in your community.
The research doesn’t promise anything, but it does show opportunities exist inside and outside our churches to help people consider their eternal destination.