The death of actor and comedian Robin Williams hit me hard, resulting in a strong jolt of grief that jarred my otherwise uneventful day. A deep sense of loss and lament filled my thoughts, as did memories of the many roles played by this fine actor, from his early TV sitcom Mork and Mindy, which I first saw in 1978, to more dramatic roles in films such as Good Morning, Vietnam; Dead Poets Society; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. Even though I’d never met Williams, a tragic sense of loss overshadowed my thoughts, as it did for his fans the world over. Similar feelings of grief have affected others, most recently with the deaths of celebrities such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joan Rivers, Lauren Bacall, Harold Ramis, and James Garner, to name a few.1
In a culture permeated with celebrity fascination, the sudden loss of such an individual instantly impacts millions. The reality of our need to cope with death speaks to our knowledge that some day we, too, will die. However, celebrity deaths can present us with opportunities to discuss a variety of significant topics with non-Christians tactfully—topics such as the meaning of life, what happens to us when we die, what we can know about death, and biblical views of death. This is a tremendous opportunity to share Christian truths with others, especially since it is common under normal circumstances to avoid any discussion of mortality, death, and what awaits us.
Too often our culture either avoids the topic of death or awkwardly makes light of it, but the death of a celebrity often overcomes such barriers. Since so many have experienced the work of celebrities via their acting, music, or other accomplishments, there’s often a sense of personal loss following their deaths. We feel almost as though we knew the celebrity. What can we do to help non-Christians during such times, while also sharing the hopeful message of Christ? Here are a few ideas for how we can engage our non-Christian friends in conversation following the death of a celebrity.
Death and the Meaning of Life. One of the ultimate philosophical and religious questions throughout human history is, “What is the meaning of life?” The death of a celebrity can bring this question to the fore as we contemplate not only the celebrity’s mortality but our own as well. After all, we all will one day die ourselves, so what is the meaning of our brief time in this world? Is there purpose to what we are doing? What should we devote our earthly time and efforts to accomplishing? In the end, what really matters?
There are a limited number of worldview responses in relation to the question of death and the meaning of life. To the existentialist or nihilist, there really is no meaning to life or death; it simply happens. This is clearly a hopeless viewpoint, but is it true? Pondering death can present us with an opportunity to discuss the nihilistic outlook, particularly contrasting it with the Christian hope that death is not the end of life or the end of meaning, and that life does have great meaning and purpose. This can lead to a discussion of human nature. If we are truly made in God’s image, then we have inherent value—our lives are significant to God, rather than merely the products of an undirected, impersonal process.
The Christian view is in stark contrast to the atheistic or materialistic worldview that believes only the material world exists and, as a result, death is the ultimate extinction of everything a person was. Christianity also is in opposition to Eastern views based on concepts of reincarnation. These are essentially rooted in a works-based system of spiritual liberation. While the Christian view is firmly established in the reality of human sin, our need to repent, God’s abundant grace, and Christ’s sacrificial atonement.
Especially in cases where the celebrity takes his or her own life, we can gently stress in conversation with a non-Christian that even though this individual seemingly had everything from a materialistic, wealth-oriented perspective, he or she was still troubled. This is an important lesson for a culture that often sees material wealth as the ultimate sign of success and means to happiness. In short, everyone can suffer great personal pains and struggles, even celebrities we naively thought were immune to such predicaments. The solution to human angst is not the accumulation of wealth, but reconciliation with our Creator on His terms, not ours.
What Happens When We Die? Another perennial question raised by the death of a celebrity is, “What happens when we die?” There are only two logical options upon death: either we cease to exist or, in some form, we continue to exist. As with the matter about death and the meaning of life, views of what happens when we die are driven by worldviews—how we see and make sense of reality. To the strict materialist, death is the ultimate end. As we cease to exist, everything we were is gone forever. Spiritual or religious options vary. The reincarnation option, mentioned earlier, allows for either a return to earth in another embodied form or absorption into an impersonal force.2 A popular alternative view today is universalist in nature, believing that after death everyone will continue to exist in some state of bliss, usually with a grandfatherly God presiding over an eternal heaven or paradise.
Once again, the Christian view is in definite contrast to popular views of what happens when we die. The Christian worldview believes that we will continue to exist after death, but only two destinations are possible: in God’s presence or not (hell).3 In contrast to universalism, Christianity does not teach that everyone will be saved, but only those who believe in Christ. At this juncture we must proceed carefully when in dialogue with non-Christians, as the exclusive Christian view of salvation is in opposition to popular views of tolerance, while hell is viewed as something only a barbaric God would allow and a tactic intended to scare people into compliance. We would also do well to seek to understand the biblical view of hell in our efforts to interact with others gently on this topic.4 Along these lines, we must be careful not to condemn a deceased celebrity to hell, as we lack sufficient data to make such firm pronouncements on their eternal destiny.
Another fruitful discussion point regarding what happens when we die is the topic of Christ and His resurrection. When faced with the objection, “No one knows what happens when we die,” we can respond by making the case for the resurrection of Jesus. If indeed Christ died and rose again, this miraculous event lends strong credence to the reality of Christianity and all that it entails, however unpleasant its doctrines may be to the non-Christian.
Finally, all too often when a celebrity dies, the responses we hear and read are well intentioned, but simply confused or wrong. For instance, we’ll hear the celebrity death remembered by pithy sayings such as, “He’s an angel now,” “She’s in a better place,” “He’s finally free,” “She’s at peace,” or, “He no longer has any worries.” We must be prepared to respond tactfully, reasonably, and with biblical truth. This may require us to spend some time studying Christian views of our final state, such as are found in any good systematic theology text. Depending on the circumstances, moreover, our interactions may need to be more pastoral than academic (or vice versa), so we must always seek to be attuned to the temperament of the person we are speaking with, and the situation we find ourselves in, and respond accordingly.
A Time to Mourn. Romans 12:15 reads, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” while Ecclesiastes 3:4 observes that there is “a time to mourn” (NIV). The death of a celebrity makes us aware of widespread feelings of loss over death, the need to grieve, and the power of lamentation. Intuitively we know something is not right with the world: death is inevitable, we are not invincible, and, as C. S. Lewis put it, “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”5 Given these truths, we must prayerfully seek opportunities to engage non-Christians about weighty questions of life, death, meaning, and eternity, but do so with tact and empathy, not in a preachy manner, with superiority, or with insensitivity. To this end, we can ask gentle, probing questions and carefully point out unreasonable conclusions and viewpoints. We must also avoid coming across as callous or too detached from the existential reality of pain and suffering.
We should grieve and lament the loss of human life. Contrary to popular views, death is not the natural order, but is the result of human sin. There are no opportunities to repent after death (Heb. 9:27). Still, for the Christian, our hope is in Christ, who conquered death. In the end, we can do nothing for those who have died, but we can do something for those who live—we can share truth with them. —Robert Velarde
Robert Velarde is author of several books, including A Visual Defense (Kregel Publications, 2013), Conversations with C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press, 2008), The Wisdom of Pixar (InterVarsity Press, 2010), and The Heart of Narnia (NavPress, 2008). He received his MA from Southern Evangelical Seminary.