Facing Death with an Eye on Heaven
At death we put the signature on our life’s portrait. The paint dries. The portrait’s done. Ready or not. ~ Randy Alcorn, The Law of Rewards
Interview: Luis Palau
The numbers and facts about Luis Palau are well known. Palau was only a youngster when his father died, plunging his family into poverty. He rose to become “the Billy Graham of Latin America,” an indefatigable evangelist whose ministry brought at least a million people into God’s kingdom through the years.
He influenced presidents and popes; he spoke in seventy-five nations; his elaborate festivals preached Jesus in major cities; his radio program was heard in Spanish and English on 4,200 stations in nearly fifty countries; and he wrote a string of books, including A Friendly Dialogue between an Atheist and a Christian, which he coauthored with a former Chinese Communist official. His recent spiritual memoir, Palau: A Life on Fire, focuses on key people who influenced his life, and the 2019 feature film Palau: The Movie portrays the inspiring story of his early life and ministry.
Palau met his wife, an aspiring missionary, while they attended Multnomah School of the Bible (today Multnomah University) in Portland, Oregon. Now they were approaching their sixtieth wedding anniversary, although they calculated they had been apart a total of fifteen years while he had been away on speaking engagements.
All of this is common knowledge within evangelicalism, where Palau is a revered figure. What is less known were his personal, one-on-one efforts to tell people about Jesus, whether it was the Hispanic busboy at a Mexican café or the young clerk at a grocery store — or especially among his large and growing family.
I saw this up close in the early 1990s when my ministry associate Mark Mittelberg and I had dinner with Palau at a rustic restaurant in suburban Chicago. Somewhere between the rainbow trout and the apple crisp, as if he were suddenly gripped by an urgent impulse, Luis reached out and clasped our forearms.
“Friends, I have a favor to ask,” he said in his Argentinian accent. “Would you pray for my son Andrew? He’s far from the Lord, and we’re very concerned about him.”
We weren’t sure if Palau meant for us to drop our forks and pray right then and there — but when Luis Palau asked you to pray, you did it immediately! By God’s grace, Andrew, the third of his four sons, did end up coming to faith several years later.1
In fact, when Andrew was born in 1966, his grandmother made a spontaneous prediction to her son-in-law Luis: “This one is going to be an evangelist!” Sure enough, today Andrew is Luis’s preaching successor at the Luis Palau Association.
I had always admired Luis’s passion for Jesus, his fidelity to the Bible, his fearless proclamation of the gospel, and his winsome emphasis on the love of God. But I have to say that the unabashed fatherly concern he showed that day in a crowded restaurant was what really endeared him to me.
On this day, Palau’s black hair had fully surrendered to gray; his face was drawn. His legendary energy was flagging, and walking up a short flight of stairs left him winded. After our interview, he sent me a text: “Apologies if I came across as very tired. Ever since the first treatments, tiredness is one of the unshakable side effects. Thanks for your patience.”
Still, if you wanted to see Palau’s enthusiasm flare, all you had to do was tell him the story of someone whose life had been radically transformed by Jesus. Invariably, he would call out with excitement to Pat in the next room: “Honey, have you heard this? Come listen to what the Lord has done!”
“Which Is Better by Far”
Palau and I started the day sitting across from each other at his dining room table. He was casually dressed in a dark blue pullover sweater with a checkered shirt and khaki slacks. When I confessed that I felt awkward — even ghoulish — for coming to talk with him about death, Palau waved off my concerns.
“I tell people I’m dying, and they say, ‘Hey, some weather we’re having,’” he told me. “People don’t like to talk about death, but I want to. So don’t feel bad about bringing it up.” He flashed a reassuring smile. “I think it helps me.”
“How did you get the diagnosis?”
“I came back from a trip with a cold that I couldn’t shake. My doctor told me I’d be all right — but then, at the end, he said, ‘Hey, just for kicks, let’s take an X-ray.’ He looked at the X-ray and said, ‘Oh, man, I don’t like this. It looks bad.’ I thought it must be a mistake, but he sent me to an oncologist.”
“What did the specialist say?”
“Well, he was blunt. He said, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s stage 4. It’s incurable. Surgery won’t work. I’ll give you treatment to make your life as pleasant as possible, but in nine to twelve months, you’re gone. If you don’t take the treatment, you’ll be dead in four months.’”
“You must have been shocked!”
“I was. I’d never been in the hospital a single day. Hardly ever taken any aspirin and then, suddenly — boom! You’re on your way out. It grips you.”
“What were your first thoughts?”
“They were almost childish, really. I thought, I won’t be able to pick up the phone and talk to Pat or the boys. That saddened me. Then I thought, Do I have all my documents and financial stuff in order for Pat?”
“Right,” he said. “And since then I’ve turned into a bit of a crybaby. Not that I’m especially sad or weeping all the time, but poignant things bring tears to my eyes. Grandchildren. Nostalgic memories. Things I’ll miss. Tears well up. It can be embarrassing.”
“Did you pray for healing?”
“Actually, I didn’t. You have to die from something, and I was already approaching my mid-eighties.”
“Did you ask God why He was allowing this?”
“Yes, you wonder why. But think about this. We worked for fifteen years to transfer the ministry to Kevin and Andrew, yet I still kept my foot in the door. Now it became urgent — I had to totally get out of the way and let them lead. And that’s a good and necessary step.”
Shortly after his diagnosis, about seventy key participants in his ministry flew to Portland for a meeting that became quite emotional. “This was my chance to say things I needed to say. I apologized to anybody I may have hurt. I wanted to clear the decks. A couple of people I had personal conversations with. I didn’t want to leave without saying I was sorry if I had inadvertently offended someone over the years.”
Palau told me that his life, which had been consumed by frenetic travel and ministry, had now slowed so he could be more introspective, more attentive to Pat, and more at peace.
“I’ve been obeying God and serving him for such a long time that I had forgotten how to simply delight in Him,” he said. “Now I’m taking time to revel in His grace. That’s so refreshing! My prayers are deeper and richer and full of gratitude and wonder and awe.”
“Do you fear death?” I asked.
“No,” he said quickly, then he paused briefly. “No,” he repeated, more emphatically this time. “I don’t really. I’m so convinced from Scripture that after I close my eyes for the last time, I go to be with God. The apostle Paul says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.2 I’ll be honest with you — I’m a little disappointed He hasn’t taken me sooner. I got myself all ready. My conscience is clear. I have everything in order. But — not yet.”
Instead, he continued with regular chemotherapy sessions, which sapped his energy, and he endured tests and radiology treatments to stem the cancer’s spread to his spine.
“You know,” he said, “after they do the bone scans, the technicians put a warm blanket over me. It feels so good. And I said, ‘Lord, that’s how I want to go. Put a nice warm blanket on me, and I’m gone.’”
“Were you present when your father passed?” I asked.
Palau glanced off to the side as he collected his thoughts. “I arrived home right after he went to be with the Lord. I was just a boy, but they told me what happened. Not long before he died, he sat up in bed and sang a hymn about Heaven: ‘Bright crowns up there, bright crowns for you and me.’ His head fell back on the pillow, and he pointed upward.”
“Did he say anything?”
“He said, ‘I’m going to be with Jesus,’ then quoting Paul’s words in Philippians, ‘which is better by far.’”3
“Those were his last words?”
“Yes — in this world,” he replied. “He taught me how to die — with a hymn in my heart and Scripture on my lips.”
Seeing the Face of God
I asked Palau, “How has your view of Heaven changed since you were diagnosed?”
“Not changed — enhanced,” he said. “Now I read the Bible with very open eyes. Every mention of Heaven is underlined in green, with a little dot. Things that didn’t seem so important before now have taken on a whole new meaning. They’ve become personal. I’ve started visualizing me seeing the great throne of God, me walking the glorious streets, me reuniting with those who have gone before.”
“What do you especially want to see in Heaven?”
His eyes lit up. “Of course, the very face of Jesus, my Savior,” came his reply. “The first thing I’ll do is fall before Him with a heart overflowing with gratitude and praise. And I want to encounter the Father and the Holy Spirit in a personal way.”
“In the middle of the 1700s,” I observed, “Jonathan Edwards said that seeing the face of God in Heaven will be a ‘truly happifying’ experience.”4
That prompted a grin. “Happifying,” he said, drawing out the word as he considered it. “Yes, yes. I like that very much.”
“Do you want to hear Jesus say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant?’” I asked.5
“Don’t we all desire that? I don’t dare presume to say how Jesus will greet me. That’s not for me to know right now. Just seeing Him — that will be incredible. Of course, we all have mental images of Him that we’ve picked up through the years. But soon, I’ll look into His face.”
“Who else do you want to see?”
He swallowed hard. “I want to see my dad,” he said, eyes glistening. “I haven’t seen him since I was a ten-year-old boy. I wonder, Has he been able to watch what transpired since he left this world? Is he aware of the legacy he left? The Bible says to honor your father and mother. I want to ask him, ‘Dad, do you feel I’ve honored you with my life?’ I hope that I have. He left such a great example for me.
“And I want to spend time with my mother and with all the great heroes of the faith,” he continued. “I want to meet Augustine, Wesley, Whitefield, Moody. And, of course, I want to see Billy Graham again. He was an incredible encouragement to me. And Spurgeon. I was recently reading a sermon he wrote on Heaven in which he said, ‘Think of this: we’ll never sin again.’ I had never pondered that before. We’ll never have to say, ‘O God, forgive me.’ I mean, that’s an awesome thought, you know?”
“It is,” I said. “What else do you want to see?”
“The throne of God,” he replied. “Just read Revelation 4 — it’s magnificent, it’s breathtaking, it will blow your mind. The One sitting on it has the appearance of jasper and ruby. There’s a rainbow shining like an emerald; there are flashes of lightning and peals of thunder; there’s a sea of glass, clear as crystal. There are the twenty-four elders and fantastic creatures, with everyone praising the Lord — ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty’! How much of that is literal? How much is a word picture to point us toward something we can’t even comprehend at this point? Well, I can’t wait to find out.”
With that, a chuckle. “Lee,” he added, “I wish I could send you a text from Heaven and tell you all about it! I know that the journalist in you would want every detail.”
- I tell Andrew Palau’s prodigal story in The Case for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 143–62.
- 2 Corinthians 5:8.
- “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:21-24).
- See Jonathan Edwards, “The Pure in Heart Blessed,” www.biblebb.com /files/edwards/heart.htm.
- This phrase is from Jesus’ parable of the bags of gold in Matthew 25:14-30.
Excerpted with permission from The Case for Heaven by Lee Strobel, copyright Lee Strobel.
* * *
None of us know when Heaven will come for us. Some have an idea because of a diagnosis like Luis’, but we still don’t know the hour. Let’s make sure we’re ready to see the Lord face-to-Face!