Rachel Held Evans died a couple of weeks ago. Myles Munroe, Paul Crouch, Jan Crouch, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Oral Roberts within the last several years. Eventually, Joel Osteen, Beth Moore, Andy Stanley, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Bill Johnson, and Priscilla Shirer will die.
Death comes for us all, including false teachers and heretics.
And how do we find out, and express our feelings about, the deaths of evangelical celebrities? It used to be via the newspaper and around the water cooler. Now it’s on social media.
There are three typical social media responses when a false teacher dies: Her fans laud her and turn her into a virtual saint. A few who claim to be Christians dance on her grave in celebration. And doctrinally sound Christians are kind of left groping for how to respond, biblically. There’s a feeling of wanting to have compassion for the family who has lost a loved one while not appearing to endorse or approve of the deceased’s false teaching and sin merely because she has died.
So how can we respond biblically to the death of a false teacher?
Distinguish the Biblical Response
from the Cultural Response
“Don’t speak ill of the dead.” Where is this idea taught in Scripture? I can’t find it anywhere, can you? Does that mean we should speak ill of the dead? Of course not, because we don’t find a command to do that in Scripture either. I’m just trying to point out that a lot of the notions we have about death and other issues in life don’t come from the Bible, they come from our culture, etiquette, tradition, etc. If we truly want to respond to a false teacher’s death – or do anything else, really – in a biblical way, we need to be able to separate what the Bible tells us to do from what culture and society tell us is the right thing to do. In all aspects of life, that ability has never been more crucial than it is now.
To Respond or Not to Respond; That Is the Question
There’s absolutely no biblical requirement for anyone to proffer an unsolicited public comment on the death of a false teacher. Or anyone else for that matter. Other than mentioning her name in this article, I have not publicly commented on the death of Rachel Held Evans for several reasons, though I found out about her passing shortly after it happened. My friends Gabe and Elizabeth did decide to comment on her death, and, in my opinion, both did a lovely job. Commenting or deciding not to comment can both be perfectly biblical.
The only time it’s really incumbent upon a Christian to speak to the issue of a false teacher’s death is when someone you know asks you about it directly. And even then, if the person seems to be overwrought with emotion, it might be wisest to simply postpone your comment until after a “cooling off” period has taken place.
How to Respond
Briefly. Because the longer your comment, the greater chance you will either slip into eulogizing the false teacher or, conversely, making unnecessarily inflammatory remarks that will only serve to stir the ire of her family and followers and will make you look like a jerk.
Gently. Because even the gentlest remark is going to pour salt into the wound of someone who’s grieving if you’re not outright praising the deceased. And though “Don’t speak ill of the dead” isn’t a biblical concept, if you’re addressing the followers of a false teacher, you’re probably not dealing with people who are going to split that biblical/cultural hair. If they were overly concerned about distinguishing biblical concepts from worldly concepts, they wouldn’t be following a false teacher in the first place. Be sensitive to their cultural mores of gentle speech in this instance or you surely won’t get a hearing.
Non-speculatively. Because you do not have God’s omniscience, and speculation can serve no helpful purpose. Is it possible God ended the false teacher’s life as judgment for her unbiblical teachings? Yes. It is also possible He ended her life for a completely different reason known only to Him. Is it likely she will be spending an eternity in Hell? Yes. But unless you were at her bedside listening to her blaspheme the name of the Lord with her final breath, you don’t know that for certain.
Evangelistically. Because the greatest thing that could come out of the false teacher’s death, or anyone’s really, is for someone whose ultimate hope was in the hopelessness of false doctrine to find her ultimate hope in Christ.
Prepare for Backlash
One of the reasons I intentionally chose not to comment on Rachel Held Evans’ death is that I knew I would receive tons of vitriolic, possibly even threatening, backlash from her disciples if I said anything about Rachel that wasn’t pure praise of her. At that moment in my week, due to various things going on in my life, I had neither the time nor the spiritual strength to deal with an onslaught like that. It’s not that I was afraid or didn’t know how to answer the barbs I’m sure I would have received, it’s just that it would have been a distraction from other things that were a higher priority in my life than responding to strangers about the death of another stranger.
If you choose to make a non-laudatory statement about the death of a false teacher, even if it’s gentle, compassionate, completely biblical, and annotated with Scripture, you must be prepared to be attacked by her followers. No matter how much the teacher claimed to be a Christian or how much her followers claim she helped them grow in the Lord, the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of people who steadfastly follow, love, and defend false teachers over a long period of time are very likely not saved and will respond to your biblical remarks in the angry, emotional, often abusive way that can be characteristic of lost people.
This, in fact, happened to a Facebook friend of mine who has a growing platform. She made just such a gentle, compassionate, completely biblical statement on Facebook about Rachel Held Evans’ death. I would link to it except that she had to delete the statement because some of Rachel’s followers found pictures my friend had posted of her child and proceeded to make vile remarks and threats against her child.
This is the kind of thing you can expect if you comment with anything but praise for the deceased, so keep it in mind when you’re deciding whether or not to say anything.
Romans 12:15b tells us to “weep with those who weep.” It is absolutely good and kind to be compassionate toward someone – anyone – who has lost a loved one, whether it’s your brother or sister in Christ, the widow of your atheist nephew, or even the family of a false teacher. Take a look at what Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-45:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
But another reason to be grieved by the death of a false teacher is that she is most likely beginning her eternity of death in Hell. Because people who continually and unrepentantly harden their hearts against God’s Word and godly rebuke and correction are displaying the fruit of an unsaved soul. And that is no reason to celebrate. As Ezekiel tells us:
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
God does not giddily damn people. His heart is for all to come to repentance and faith in Christ. And that should be our heart as well. Could it be that, in His infinite mercy and grace, God gave that false teacher a final opportunity to repent and trust Him moments before her death? It could, and that is what we should hope for, not only for the false teacher and her eternity, but for the glory it brings to God every time He washes a sinner in the blood of Christ.
But while we demonstrate compassion for the family and grieve the likely condemnation of the false teacher, there is also a righteous, Kingdom-focused, and biblical reason to rejoice: one more voice of blasphemy, lies, and deception has been silenced. At least in the sphere of influence of that particular teacher, no one will be led astray from Christ any longer.
But the wicked will perish;
the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.
God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
and those who hate him shall flee before him!
Will another false teacher step up to take her place? Almost certainly. Where there are those who clamor to have their itching ears scratched, a wicked confidence man will arise to peddle his ungodly snake oil. But for today, for a short time, perhaps, no wares will be sold to this crowd of customers. And that is reason enough to rejoice.
Commenting on the death of a false teacher can be a tricky needle to thread. When we choose to do so, let us exercise the common grace of compassion, reflect the kindness of a merciful God, and always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us with gentleness and respect.