“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” – Isaiah 43:25
What happens if someone wrongs you, and they die before you can forgive them? What happens when someone is a victim of sexual assault, or physical abuse, or infidelity, or lies, or sin; and at the end of an often long period of healing, the person they want to forgive can’t be found or is dead? What happens if you forgive someone and they don’t care? What happens if they don’t change? What happens if your forgiveness doesn’t result in reconciliation?
The bible is full of examples of forgiveness, but sometimes it seems like they’re only relevant when everyone is still alive or accessible. This post will go over what scripture has to say regarding these complicated life questions. The answer to these questions depend upon how God views the living and the dead, and who is really affected by forgiveness.
Who is really affected by forgiveness
When we forgive someone, how are they affected? When God forgives us of our sins, do we change? When Israel sinned against God over and over, Moses asked for God’s forgiveness:
“In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.”
The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times—not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.”
– Numbers 14:19-23
Did the people of Israel change because of God’s forgiveness?
When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!”
But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed!”
– Numbers 14:39-41
God’s forgiveness did not change them. They continued to sin. Likewise, even after God forgives you and me, we still experience temptation:
“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.'”
– Luke 11:24
As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.
– Proverbs 26:11
Forgiveness affects the one who forgives
Forgiveness doesn’t cause repentance or reconciliation. These things are a choice. If they did then Jesus would have never told us to forgive the same person over and over:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”
– Matthew 18:21-22
Instead, forgiveness caused God to not destroy Moses and all of Israel after they sinned in his holy presence. Forgiveness caused God to not kill King David after he slept with Bathsheba and had her husband killed:
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.”
– 2 Samuel 12:13-14
Forgiveness caused God to relent and not destroy Nineveh after Jonah warned them about their sin:
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
– Jonah 3:10
In all these events, it is the one who forgives that relents and does not give into sin:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
– Ephesians 4:31-32
These negative traits are simply not in the nature of God. He must forgive us to prove his nature of grace and mercy:
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”
– Isaiah 43:25
God’s forgiveness of our sins affects him dramatically. In that moment, it becomes his responsibility to blot out our sin. It becomes his choice to relent from wrath and anger, and instead focus on discipline.
With an understanding of who forgiveness really affects, the answer to our original question, “should we forgive the dead?” becomes clear.
For our own sake
“For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing.”
– Matthew 6:14-15
This is the clearest answer imaginable: Yes we should forgive everyone, including the dead. This has nothing to do with whether the people Jesus is talking about in this verse are alive or dead. This has to do with our nature becoming closer and closer to God’s nature. God forgives for his own sake to prove his righteous nature. Likewise, we should forgive for our own sake, that we do not harbor bitterness, resentment, thoughts of revenge, or sinful anger. We should prove our desire to be more graceful and merciful, as Christians, by forgiving.
God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others. God will not forgive us if we continue to willfully harbor bitterness, wrath, slander, and malice; especially for the dead, who we can never reconcile with. The dead will surely never change, so the only one who has the opportunity to change is us while we still live.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.
– Psalm 146:4
Forgive so that God can forgive you. God will demonstrate his grace and mercy, and you will have bitterness, sinful anger, slander, and resentment removed piece by piece from your nature.
How can I make sure I forgive everyone?
With the stakes so high, how can we be sure that we’re forgiving everyone, so that God can forgive us? What if we miss someone? What if we can’t remember? And if someone who wronged you died, as time goes on you might forget about them, but not the bitterness or pain that you’ve become accustomed to:
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.
– Ecclesiastes 9:5
If we forget, or miss someone, will God still withhold his forgiveness, as Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-15?
No. Jesus exemplifies why God’s forgiveness is not contingent upon our human limitations:
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
– Luke 23:33-34
But when we know full well what we’re doing, seek to forgive. Ask God to reveal opportunities in your life to forgive people while they’re still alive. Anything can happen while people are still living, anything like reconciliation, repentance, and evangelism. Forgiveness is powerful, and showing someone your increasingly graceful and merciful nature can impact them in a similar way Jesus’ life impacts you.
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!
– Romans 5:8-9
As for the dead who have wronged you, forgive them now and God will forgive you also, as he promised. Your forgiveness of them is for your sake, and in so doing your nature will look more and more like Jesus’ when he forgave you for crucifying him while you were dead in sin:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
– Ephesians 2:1-5
Should we forgive the dead? Jesus forgave us while we were dead in sin. Let us do the same to anyone who has sinned against us, whether they’re alive or dead.