Laying R.I.P. to Rest
I have great admiration for non-Christians who have contributed to the improvement of society through their inventions, production, leadership, literature and art. My wife and I were recently reflecting on the remarkable ways in which Steve Jobs' labors helped changed the world in which we live. I love so many of the beautiful works of art and music that have been the product of secular artists; and, I do not, for one second, believe that we should sequester ourselves from the use and enjoyment of the contributions of self-avowed unbelievers in the world arounds us; otherwise, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "you would need to go out of this world" (1 Cor. 5:10). There is a common grace principle at work in the world by which God allows men to benefit their neighbors, making life in this fallen world a little less painful than it would otherwise be.
That being said, I've noticed something of a concerning trend over the past several years. It is the way in which believers speak about culture-impacting individuals at their deaths. Instead of simply expressing appreciation for their life and achievements, it has become commonplace for Christians to use the shorthand R.I.P. ("rest in peace") on social media when speaking of individuals--in whose lives there was no evidence of saving grace--at their death. At the risk of sounding ill-tempered, I wish to set out several reasons why I am troubled by this occurrence.
First, when we employ the abbreviation R.I.P. we are inevitably admitting a state or condition inseparably linked to the idea of the afterlife. We are not speaking of something indifferent to the truth of the hereafter. Someone might push back at this point, suggesting that R.I.P. is nothing other than a way of expressing appreciation for an individual's life and achievements. However, while certain words and phrases can be fluid in their meaning (e.g. "goodbye" has taken on a different meaning than its Old English sense, "God be with you"), "rest in peace" gives the sense that the deceased are "in a better place"--a place of rest and peace. If we care about the eternal salvation of men, and whether or not they are trusting in Christ alone for eternal life, then we should painstakingly avoid giving the sense that we believe in any form of universalism whatsoever.
Second, as Christians we should revolt at the idea of "praying for the dead," since there is not a single ounce of biblical support for such an idea. By saying "rest in peace," we necessarily run the risk of giving the impression that we are saying a prayer for the deceased--whether for self-professed unbelievers or self-professed believers. This alone ought to give us pause as to whether we should seek to abandon the practice.
Third, the Scriptures teach very clearly the costly nature of both rest and peace. The biblical narrative is one of the redemptive rest that God has promised to provide through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, intercession and return of Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:1-10). The eschatological rest that Jesus has purchased for believers comes at the costly price of His blood (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Peter 1:19). Additionally, the Scriptures are clear that there is "no peace for the wicked" (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21). The LORD warned, through the prophets, of the false prophets' message of "Peace, Peace!" when there was no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that God has purchased peace only "through the blood of the cross" (Col. 1:20). The rest and peace for which we should long--both for ourselves and for those around us--is grounded on the nature of the Person and atoning death of Jesus. If men have spent their lives rejecting the Gospel and have not professed faith in Jesus, we should not be offering them posthumous well wishes. It puts the nature of the exclusivity of Jesus and the Gospel in jeopardy--even if that is not our intention.
This does not mean that believers are to be hasty or uncharitable in the way in which we speak of the death of those who most likely died in unbelief--or that we are to speak in such a way as to indicate that we know with certainty where someone has gone when they have died. Surely, we have comfort and joy when someone who has professed faith in Christ--and in whose life there was fruit that they are in Christ (Matt. 7:16, 20)--departs from this life. It is the great comfort of believers to know that their fellow believers are now "resting in peace," as they "rest in Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:14). The Old Testament speaks of believers as being "gathered to their people" at their death (Gen. 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:29, 33). This is reserved only for believers. It is set in contrast with how the Scriptures speak of unbelievers at their deaths. However, when asked about those who never professed faith in Christ--someone who has spent the better part of his or her life adhering to some particular false religion--we should remember that none of us knows what God the Holy Spirit has done in the hearts of men and women moments prior to their death. None of us knows whether the regenerating grace of God has come at the final moment; and, therefore, we should only now be seeking to warn the living of the wrath to come in order to hold out the hope of redeeming grace in Christ.
In a day when the biblical doctrine of Hell has virtually disappeared from pulpits across the land, and the social conventions of the time demand more seemingly congenial speech than the Scriptures exemplify and require, we should give great personal examination to what we are saying and why we are saying what we are saying. We should weigh the implications of our speech, both in verbal and written form, remembering that the same Jesus who said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 1:28-29) also said, "for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36).
*This was first published at Reformation21.