On average, 7,708 Americans die each day. Most of them are known primarily to their families, friends, coworkers, and so on. But when a space heater sparks a fire in the Bronx that kills seventeen people, including eight children, the nation grieves, as we should. When a cliff collapses on tourist boats in Brazil, killing ten people, the world watches the video in shock.
When a beloved actor like Sidney Poitier dies, his passing makes international headlines. It was the same with television actor Bob Saget, who died Sunday, and with Betty White after she died a few days ago.
Other deaths make the news less for who they were than for how they happened. A father in Virginia tried to walk home in a snowstorm last week; his body was discovered three days later. The body of a skier missing since Christmas was found last weekend. A Los Angeles Taco Bell worker was fatally shot last Saturday during an argument over a fake $20 bill.
Why aren’t Americans afraid of death?
As the news constantly reminds us, any of us could die at any time. And yet, if you ask Americans to name their top fears, their personal death ranks surprisingly low. More than half of us either are “not very afraid” (27 percent) or “not at all afraid” (25 percent) of death. Only 11 percent of us are “very afraid” of death, while 31 percent are “somewhat afraid” to die and 7 percent “don’t know.”
We are more afraid of the way we might die than the fact of our death. In a list of our “top ten fears,” “mass shootings” comes in at #3, followed by “terrorism” at #5 and “becoming terminally ill” at #7. Each points to how we might die rather than the fact of death itself.
Why are we mortals not more afraid of our mortality?
The answer is tragically not that we are prepared to meet God. Only 35 percent of American adults believe salvation comes through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And yet, 54 percent believe they will go to heaven, many of them because they think they have earned their place in paradise through their good works.
What of the rest?
- 15 percent say they don’t know what will happen after they die.
- 13 percent say there is no life after death.
- 8 percent expect to be reincarnated.
- 8 percent believe they will go to a place of purification prior to entering heaven.
- Just 2 percent believe they will go to hell.
“I don’t believe in the queen of England”
I remember a day when an intense fear of hell was commonplace. Even though our family never attended church before I heard the gospel at the age of fifteen, I have strong memories of fearing what would happen to me if I died. Evangelists and pastors could present the “plan of salvation” in the knowledge that most who heard them wanted to know and then follow that “plan.”
However, one of the many ways Satan is using the postmodern denial of objective truth is to convince millions that their opinion of the afterlife determines the afterlife they will experience. A man once confidently told me “I don’t believe in hell” as if that changed the existence of hell.
We would not make this assumption in any other dimension of reality. Imagine your response if I assured you that the queen of England does not exist because I don’t believe in her existence. On the contrary, we know that denying reality typically harms us far more than it helps us, as when a doctor tells us we have cancer or the meteorologist warns of severe weather.
But “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). This is because “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Unlike those who are directionally lost and stop for directions, most who are spiritually lost don’t know they are lost. If Satan has his way, they will persist in this condition until it is too late.
Four empowering prayers
What can we do to help them?
I doubt your first response is to inform them that they are lost and destined for hell. If a Muslim told you that you would go to hell unless you converted to Islam, would this make you more or less interested in his faith? While lost people definitely need to know their peril and need for salvation, four preceding steps can make this news much more effective.
1. Ask God to make our lives consistent with our message (cf. Romans 12:1–2).
People are far more likely to believe our faith is relevant to them when it is obviously relevant to us.
2. Ask our Father to give us his love for the lost.
We will risk anything for those we love. When we love others as Jesus loves us (cf. John 13:34–35), our words will be empowered and inspired by compassion and grace. While no one wants to be told they are wrong and we are right, everyone wants to be loved.
3. Ask the Spirit to lead us to those he has prepared for our witness.
He is actively cultivating the minds and hearts of the lost to hear the good news of God’s grace. He is thus preparing someone specifically for your compassionate witness today.
4. Ask the Spirit to inspire your words and actions.
He knows just what this person needs to hear and see from you. If you submit to the Spirit each day (Ephesians 5:18), even when facing skeptics and critics, your words will be God’s words because “it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:20).
If we will make these four requests of our Lord every day, our lives and our witness will be transformed. We will know Jesus and make him known with passion and compassion out of the overflow of his Spirit in our hearts.
The late Senate chaplain Richard Halverson noted, “New Testament Christians did not witness because they had to but because they could not help it.”
Will you join them today?
NOTE: For more practical advice on being used by the Spirit, please see my latest personal blog, “Going barefoot in winter.”