One question I see tossed around sometimes is how people could be happy in heaven knowing that their loved ones are suffering in hell. It may seem odd, but I never even thought of this problem as an evangelical. It wasn’t until later that I came upon it, already an atheist myself. Curious, I decided to look up how Christian apologists respond to this problem. I have to admit to being kind of horrified by the answers I’ve found.
“How can people be happy in Heaven, knowing that their unsaved loved ones are suffering in Hell?” Those who ask question such as these fall into the category of those who asked Jesus a similar question. They said that a certain woman had seven consecutive husbands, whose wife will she therefore be in Heaven (Mark 12:23)? Jesus answered them by saying that they neither knew the Scriptures nor the power of God. The unregenerate mind has no concept of God’s mind or His infinite power. If God can speak the sun into existence; if He can see every thought of every human heart at the same time; if He can create the human eye with its 137,000,000 light-sensitive cells, then He can handle the minor details of our eternal salvation.
I call this the “we don’t know but God is perfect so shut up” defense.
If it were the case that sorrow over lost loved ones destroys the bliss of heaven, then there would be no “heaven” for the redeemed, because all of the Lord’s people have had family members, whether local or extended, who have died outside the sphere of salvation (cf. Mt. 10:34-39). One must conclude, therefore, that the perceived problem will be remedied by HIM who does all things right (Gen. 18:25).
This sounds like the “we don’t know but God is perfect so shut up” defense, but the article does then go on to offer some possibilities.
God is a being of supreme love; love is intrinsic to his very nature (1 Jn. 4:8). The depth of his love for humanity is evidenced in the very gift of his Son (Jn. 3:16). Man’s sense of love cannot begin to rival that of the supremely compassionate Father.
If, then, it is the case that God himself is happy (see “blessed” 1 Tim. 1:11) — even though the objects of his love rebel against him and end up in hell — surely, it is equally certain that mere mortals, with a lesser capacity for love, can be happy in the eternal sphere of existence.
Is it not a reality that right now, as we live upon this earth, we are aware of the fact that some people, for whom we have entertained considerable affection, have died in a state of disobedience? In spite of that, can we not affirm that the God-fearing life is a happy, wonderful existence?
This . . . what? Heaven is not supposed to be the same as earth. Earth is supposed to be a time where we often face trouble and pain, while Heaven will be perfect. Further, I’ve watched my mother cry over the possibility of one of her children going to hell. So, I’m going to go with no, this does not answer the question. I call this the “why does it bother you anyway” defense.
But perhaps the most telling consideration of all is this. Can we not admit that our current perception of sin falls far short of that which is complete? Sin has not only affected us physically, it has dulled our perception of absolute holiness. Unquestionably we do not comprehend the magnitude of evil.
Note the language, in one of Jesus’ parables, regarding the wicked.
“But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Lk. 19:27, ESV).
Some folks are shocked at such a descriptive — even repelled by it. Then consider the following text:
“If any man worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead, or upon his hand, he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is prepared unmixed [undiluted] in the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest day and night” (Rev. 14:9-11).
Some have considered this passage so out of harmony with their own perception of divine justice, they have rejected altogether the concept of an eternal, conscious punishment in hell —in spite of the plain Bible teaching on the subject.
Here is a burning question for deep meditation. Is it not possible that once we have escaped the frailties and limitations of the flesh, that we will have a much clearer awareness of the heinousness of sin?
And might we not see those who have rejected serving the Lord in an entirely different light from that entertained on earth—even though we were connected to them closely in the flesh?
If I’m reading this right, the idea is that in Heaven people won’t grieve for their loved ones in Hell because they’ll fully understand just how evil their loved ones were and just how much their loved ones deserved to suffer eternal torture and utter anguish. Therefore, they’ll stop feeling bad for them. I call this the “in Heaven we’ll all be sociopaths” defense.
First, Jesus warned us about this. Jesus said, “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine” (Mt. 10:37 NLT). God is the greatest conceivable Good; therefore, keeping our families, but losing him, would be an unspeakable loss. It’s hard to imagine this – especially for me. I grew up in a great family, and now I have one of my own. For many of us, it’s hard to conceive of a love that surpasses even the love of our own family. And yet, Jesus says so right there. We need to keep our loves in their proper order. For instance, imagine if a little kid said, “I couldn’t enjoy heaven unlessmy dog Scruffy was up there with me.” Imagine if the child forfeited heaven for the love of his pet. This would be an unspeakable loss. In the end, there is nothing that we could say or demand that would or could replace the love of God.
Second, while we might not understand this, we are promised this. The Bible teaches that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). Paul writes that heaven will be beyond our comprehension or imagination (1 Cor. 2:9). He also writes that we cannot understand this now, but we will in the historical future (1 Cor. 13:12). While this objection is currently difficult to understand, the Bible promises that this will make sense in eternity (Rev. 6:10; 16:5-7; 18:20; 19:1-3). To describe this principle, Ajith Fernando speculates, “When a parent agrees with the decision of his son’s employer to dismiss the son for doing something wrong, he exhibits this harmony of love and holiness.” Perhaps, on the other side of eternity, we will agree with God’s decision to judge people for their sin.
This is a combination of the “we don’t know but God is perfect so shut up” defense and the “in Heaven we’ll all be sociopaths” defense.
Third, those who stubbornly forfeit heaven shouldn’t spoil heaven for those who accept it. Philosopher Norman Geisler writes, “The fact that some men refuse to be saved does not veto the right of others to go God’s way nor does it veto the right of God to make a world in which all may choose the way they will go.” Imagine if someone threw a large banquet with food of every kind. As you begin to dig in, your friend says, “This rich guy is always showing off. I’m not going to have a single bite. I hate this jerk…” While your friend is bitter at the generosity of your host, this shouldn’t stop you from chowing down! In the same way, no one in hell will be able to blackmail the joy of heaven; otherwise, God would not be in control of heaven.
WTF? No seriously, WTF? If I’m reading this correctly, it suggests that if people who go to Heaven feel bad for those being tortured in Hell, well, that’s all the fault of those stubborn people for getting themselves tortured in the first place. How dare they disturb the bliss of those in Heaven! If those in Heaven let all that torturing bother them, those who are being tortured will win! It’s blackmail!
I call this the “I’m a sociopath right now” defense.
I’d like to imagine that these are just crackpots on the internet, and that evangelical theologians have responses that at least make them sound less like sociopaths. Sadly, this is not the case. That last one quotes directly from Norman Geisler, a famous evangelical theologian, and this next bit is from Randy Alcorn, the evangelical author who literally wrote the book on Heaven.
Although it will inevitably sound harsh, I offer this further thought: in a sense, none of our loved ones will be in Hell—only some whom we once loved. Our love for our companions in Heaven will be directly linked to God, the central object of our love. We will see him in them. We will not love those in Hell because when we see Jesus as he is, we will love only—and will only want to love—whoever and whatever pleases and glorifies and reflects him. What we loved in those who died without Christ was God’s beauty we once saw in them. When God forever withdraws from them, I think they’ll no longer bear his image and no longer reflect his beauty. Although they will be the same people, without God they’ll be stripped of all the qualities we loved. Therefore, paradoxically, in a sense they will not be the people we loved.
While similar, this seems to go beyond the “in Heaven we’ll all be sociopaths” defense. Alcorn literally argues that those in Heaven will no longer love their loved ones who are in Hell. It’s not just that they’ll approve of the eternal torture their loved ones suffer, but that those loved ones will actually be former loved ones. Your beloved brother died unsaved? Don’t worry about it, once you’re in Heaven you will cease to love him. I call this the “once in Heaven you’ll cease to love those loved ones who end up in Hell” defense.
You know what? I actually think I like the “we don’t know but God is perfect so shut up” defense best. At least it avoids utter callousness that makes me wonder how these same people claim that God is loving. When I began this exploration, I didn’t expect to find a perfect answer. I did, though, think I would find at least a good attempt. Color me disappointed—and a bit horrified.