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How Could I Be Happy in Heaven With a Loved One in Hell?
This question, surely one of the most wrenching that a Christian faces, arises from two New Testament teachings.

This question, which is surely one of the most wrenching that a Christian faces, arises from two New Testament teachings: some people will face eternal punishment in hell (see Matthew 25:46, 2 Peter 1:17) and the saved will one day enter a state where sorrow and tears will cease (see Revelation 7:17, 21:4).

… what about a man who was saved while all his friends and family rejected Christ?

But how can our tears be transformed into joy while countless others, including perhaps many of our own loved ones, face the excruciating horror of eternal damnation? 

One possibility, suggested by theologian Millard Erickson and philosopher William Lane Craig, is that God may protect the inhabitants of heaven from knowledge of the fate of the damned. For instance, God may erase memories of a wayward son from the mind of his mother so that she may enjoy the full bliss of heaven unaware that she even had the son who is now damned.  To say the least, this scenario fits poorly with Paul’s promise that in eternity “we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  And what about a man who was saved while all his friends and family rejected Christ? Will God wipe virtually his whole memory clear? A further difficulty with this proposal is that passages such as Isaiah 66:24 (“they will . . . look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me”) appear to assume that the redeemed will indeed be aware of the lost. 

A second possibility boldly suggests that this awareness will be a cause for joy and praise rather than pain. Shocking though it may sound, this position has been defended by many theologians including Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards and, more recently, J. I. Packer. As Edwards put it, the redeemed “will not be sorry for the damned; it will cause no uneasiness or dissatisfaction to them; but on the contrary, when they have this sight, it will excite them to joyful praises.”

Grisly though this may sound, it has some impressive scriptural support. The imprecatory psalms (such as Psalm 139:21-22) seem to anticipate with great relish the demise of the wicked. And one might reasonably infer that the saints who plead for their blood to be avenged (see Revelation 6:10) will extract satisfaction once this judgment on “the inhabitants of the earth” is underway.

Finally, in Romans 9:23 Paul seems to suggest that God might use the lost as object lessons for the saved to illustrate both His justice (to the lost) and mercy (to the saved).  Such tentative biblical precedents do little to soften the image of a redeemed host delighting in the agony of the lost. How could a mother possibly delight in the damnation of her child? How could Paul, who expressed his willingness to be damned so that lost Jews might be saved (see Romans 9:3), derive satisfaction some day from their damnation? Such a picture seems both counterintuitive and deeply distasteful.

Proponents of this second view might argue that our perspective in the future will be radically transformed, leaving us so wholly focused on God’s holiness that we will leave behind finite relationships (as suggested by Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:29-30 that there will be no marriage in heaven). After such a radical transformation, could something that now appears abhorrent (deriving joy from the suffering of the lost) become delightful? Perhaps.  However, there is a fine line between being unable to see how something could be true and being able to see that something just cannot be true. Would many of the Christians you know accept the idea that a transformed perspective could possibly lead to their delighting in the damnation of lost loved ones?

There are a few other possibilities remaining, with the most radical being to reject the doctrine of eternal conscious torment from which the whole problem arises. One might do this by embracing annihilationism (the view that the lost will ultimately be destroyed) or, more radically, universalism (the view that the lost will eventually be saved). The problem is that both these options require one to step outside the boundaries of historic orthodoxy. 

We need to stop here for reasons of space but, obviously, more could be said both theologically and pastorally. To dig deeper you may want to read The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (authored by a group at the Evangelical Alliance U.K.). Perhaps also consider Gregory Beale, et al, Hell Under Fire (Zondervan, 2004) or William Crockett, ed., Four Views on Hell (Zondervan, 1997). It seems likely that the final resolution of this problem, like so many others in Christian theology, will remain frustratingly beyond our understanding. But that admission can also turn the question back to us: Do we trust God?

Randal Rauser is associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2008.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2008.

 

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A ministry of
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada