If you haven’t yet seen the video of Pope Francis assuring a grieving child that his atheist father went to heaven (because said dad allowed all four of his children to be baptized), I suggest that you Google it. Not because it should soften your stance on either the Roman Catholic Church or on Christ’s claim to be the only means of salvation (John 14:6), but because it puts forth a question that Bible-believing Christians absolutely must face as we console the bereaved.
Obviously, the pope failed to give the little boy either a Catholic answer or a Biblical one. I’d guess that many bloggers (both Christian and Catholic) are burning up their keyboards explaining why this pope erred in his response to the boy. As well they ought! But I want to explore an angle of this situation that probably hasn’t received the attention it requires.
As I watched the video, I cried. Since my dad died when I was 10 and my sister was 7, I understand some of that little boy’s heartache and confusion. He loved his daddy, and he desperately needs some way of coping with a loss that he can’t understand. Although I care passionately about sound theology, I also passionately believe that heartbroken children must be treated with compassion, and in age-appropriate ways. So despite my manifold disagreements with the Catholic Church in general and Pope Francis in particular, I appreciate the man’s tenderness toward a hurting child.
Alas, compassion never excuses perverting truth. And the truth is that good works don’t admit anyone into heaven. Pope Francis offered that poor little boy a false assurance about his father’s eternal state. Far worse, he reinforced the erroneous notion that salvation rewards human goodness. As a result, he inoculated the child (as well as everyone else in the audience) against the truth that salvation comes through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis should have allowed for the slight possibility of a deathbed conversion, but then he should have moved the focus to God’s perfect justice. As a just Judge, the Lord deals with each person justly, and according to His eternal purposes. Although we lack the prerogative to make a definitive declaration about anyone’s eternal destiny, we can encourage those who grieve to trust God’s authority to make the right decision.
At that point, it would have been best to acknowledge the pain of the very real likelihood that the loved one won’t be in heaven. When my mom died, many people suggested a deathbed conversion, and I admit that possibility. But the most comforting comment I received came from a man at church who said, “I’m so sorry. That must be hard.” Rather than offering a comfort that may or may not be true, this man acknowledged that I faced Mom’s death Biblically, despite the sadness involved. His words affirmed that my pain over her probable rejection of the Gospel is legitimate. Pope Francis should have given the little boy that sort of validation.
From there, we should gently remind the grieving person of his or her own responsibility to repent of sin and believe that Jesus died to bear the punishment for the sins of all who believe in Him. We can’t do anything about our departed loved ones other that trust that God will glorify Himself in how He judges them, but we certainly can make our own election sure by believing in Him.
In situations such as the one with this sweet little boy, of course we must extend compassion. But true compassion never sugarcoats truth with a false gospel. That little boy deserved so much better.