You probably have not seen this headline in recent days. You likely have heard only positive things, even that he went to church. But leaving aside his personal convictions, the public reaction is most interesting.
When one’s god dies, his entire world is shaken to the core and it is practically mandatory that everyone else feel bad too. Kobe was uplifted for his exploits on the court, especially his mental toughness, work ethic, and willingness to take the high-pressure shot, no matter the difficulty, results, or critics. He embraced this image by calling himself the “Black Mamba.”
But one’s legacy is just a reputation, not the Word of God. What people think of someone else does not define reality or mean they are good. Society lifts up a few select people for their achievements, while it criticizes the rest. But is Kobe deserving of our mourning? It is blasphemous to the world to not mourn his death, but biblically, he got exactly what he deserved—as will you.
Christians see death, not as random and untimely, but as release from this world of sin. Did not Job, St. Paul, and many other faithful of God look forward to death in Christ? Is death, in faith, loss or gain? This world is not our hope—we trust the promise of a much greater life with Christ glory. The Christian does not avoid death, he believes it has been vanquished in the resurrection of Christ.
For the Christian death is an enemy that has been defeated. But the world mourns because it is in slavery to death—fear holds bar over all caught in sin. “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn’ ” (Matt. 11:17). The death of a celebrity is a national tragedy. You are expected to put on a great show to display how it hurts, to pretend it is Good Friday—but it is not, nor should this have been unexpected for a sinner. Death is the consequence of sin. It simply proves that Kobe, no matter how deified by fans and the culture, was a poor, miserable, sinner—just like you. His basketball legacy amounted to nothing, in the end. He will not be remember forever—in fact, only our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, will. How many express sadness and make childish public displays of honor for an adulterer, but care nothing for our righteous Lord’s death in the flesh for all mankind? Death shocks the unbelieving world. It cannot get above the tragedy and power of death in its unbelief.
Dealing with Kobe’s Christian confession is less clear, despite the reputation of being a church-goer. He did publicly admit to adultery while in Vail for surgery in 2003, in order to demonstrate his legality, that his fornication was not coerced. In the course of the investigation, all while being married for over two years, he admitted to regularly fornicating with another woman, in order to demonstrate the alleged illegal sexual activities were “normal” for him, and not denoting assault. That is a stark admission of living as an unbeliever. It does matter how we live in the body Christ promises to resurrect—and Kobe was clearly not living a Christian life at that time. In the immediate interview, “the Los Angeles Lakers standout used profanity and gave graphic descriptions about the encounter” in Vail. This was not a man to look up to or worship. Basketball is a mere game. God does not respect or give preferential treatment to its stars. Is this what the world is really mourning?
While Kobe did “save” his marriage, the “cause” seemed to be laid at the feet of a gift: a “rare 8 carat purple diamond ring that was reported to be valued at approximately 4 million dollars.” Is this ring, given just two weeks after admitting to a pattern of adultery, a sign of repentance? Or is it more like a pay-off or Roman indulgence to get out of marital purgatory? “I know that my husband has made a mistake—the mistake of adultery,” Vanessa, Kobe’s wife, said. “He and I will have to deal with that within our marriage, and we will do so.” Adultery is not simply one “mistake” among many—it breaks the marriage union—-and “dealing with it” is not forgiveness in the name of Christ.
Did Kobe ever talk about real repentance for his adultery and living in sin? He seemed to care more for preserving his legacy: “He told the investigators he was concerned about damage to his marriage, his career and his image if word of the rape allegation got out.” “If my wife, if my wife found out that anybody made any type of allegations against me she would be infuriated.” But adultery is a sin against God and the indwelling Holy Spirit, who made our bodies. It is God’s wrath and our adulterous hearts that we should be mourning.
Kobe had the veneer of Christianity to his earthly life: “One thing that really helped me during that process was talking to a priest and that was the turning point,” Kobe told GQ Magazine. “It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ‘Did you do it?’ And I say, ‘Of course not.’ Then he asks, ‘Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ‘Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.” There is nothing Christian about this, in fact, it is of Satan. The “do it” refers only to the crime in the eyes of U.S. courts—rape—not the crime he freely admitted against God Himself. This Roman priest did not speak God’s Word demanding repentance, nor discipline him until true repentance is voiced, as the Bible expects.
We cannot change our past sins but we can turn from them in word and deed. While we do not know a person’s heart, and should not judge it, we can judge someone’s confession of Christ. Having a great lawyer is worthless before God. But celebrities get special treatment now and it is not likely you will get this kind of posthumous adulation Kobe has gotten—but the praise of God, in trusting His justifying Word is much greater. The world’s praise is worthless. God’s forgiveness is everything, and the world cannot stand a faithful confession of the biblical Christ: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:19). We should be suspicious of those the world loves and mourns unconditionally, but attentive to those the world hates and ignores, especially Jesus.
It has been reported that Kobe went regularly to Roman mass, perhaps even on the morning of his death. That is good, if God’s Word was spoken and believed. But we have no indication it was confessed by Kobe. In fact, he would have alienated his fan-base and the world for speaking Christ’s Word that he was a weak, deadly, adulterous sinner in need of a Savior. Going to church is an external action, that anyone, even an atheist, can do. But to confess oneself the chief of sinners, and also Jesus as Lord, to the world requires the Spirit.
The Catholic News Agency reports that after these events, Bryant, in 2015, “credited his Catholic faith with helping him move past a challenging period in his own life and the life of his family.” “Moving Forward” is the opposite of repentance, which is turning back and away from your own sin and rebellion, towards the living God.
It does not matter what the world says when you leave—or how you leave—as you must for your sin, unless Christ returns first. But Christ, true God, is speaking His Word in the Gospel now. While death did not respect Kobe, we have Christ who swallowed death whole for you. Heed and mourn your sin, dying with Christ, not the just consequences faced by other sinners. Your earthly legacy will not prevent your guilt from the execution of divine justice. Repent and turn to Christ’s forgiveness, before you get what you deserve, of which earthly death is the least of your just deserts.
You deserve the same—do you not? “Tragic” implies undeserved, but your eternal death in hell, along with a temporal death, are quite deserved. The question is: will you repent of your death-deserving deeds before their punishment finds you? Go to church yes, but to hear God, turn from your sins, be forgiven by Christ, and confess Jesus as Lord over death and your sin. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:9-10). Amen. —ed.