Could you enjoy heaven knowing of the agony of those in hell? What if those in hell are your loved ones?
Medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas turned the problem around by embracing that torment:
In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.
Many Christians have seized this lemons-to-lemonade opportunity. Thinkers from the early church such as Tertullian and Augustine down to Jonathan Edwards in his famous 1741 sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry god” and beyond have not avoided but celebrated the pain of hell, imagining those in heaven looking over the ramparts and delighting in the anguish of those far below (more).
That doesn’t provide much support for C.S. Lewis’s famous claim, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.”
(This is argument 28 in a list that begins here.)
Such thinking continues today. Popular Christian theologian R.C. Sproul told of one of his teachers saying,
In heaven, you will be so sanctified that you will be able to see your own mother in hell and rejoice in that, knowing that God’s perfect justice is being carried out (video @19:35).
Who’d want to go to heaven if you’ll turn into that?
How to deal with a hideous heaven, part 1
Christians often rationalize hell by pointing to Revelation 21:4, where “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes . . . [and there will be] no more mourning or crying or pain.” If God will remove all sorrow in heaven, then somehow hell won’t bother us. It’s not clear how (the Bible doesn’t even admit the problem), but Christians have come up with various ideas to insulate those in heaven from hell.
Christianity StackExchange cites a popular though childish rationalization:
A common argument goes: There is no sadness in Heaven. If I knew that this person I loved was in Hell that would certainly make me very sad. Therefore it must be that I won’t remember them.
That the doctrine of hell isn’t fully explained and justified in the Bible is a clue that the Bible comes from simple people rather than God, but let’s let that pass.
The Stand to Reason podcast (here @12:11) expands on this:
So we are not going to spend eternity reflecting on the anguish of our loved ones who have not received the mercy of God through the love of Christ. That would put a damper on things. But those things are going to be forgotten. . . . [Even if there were a fleeting memory of them,] it will be a reflection from God’s perspective, that they are getting judged justly, and that’s a good thing, and we have escaped justice and received mercy instead, and that’s a good thing, too.
Yeah, thinking of billions in torment in hell—or even just a handful of loved ones who didn’t make the cut—would put a damper on your pleasure in heaven, wouldn’t it? We certainly can’t have a loved one’s anguish ruining our picnic. But don’t imagine God would actually solve the problem and eliminate the injustice of perpetual conscious torment in hell. Instead, we either lose memories of those loved ones or smother any tender memory with the thought that, but for the grace of God, that could be us.
This is the “Sucks to be you” approach to justice. I got mine, and you’re burning in hell. God approved both placements, even though no human merits heaven. But of course if the tables were turned (you in heaven and me in hell), the justification would be equally valid—one of us is where justice demands they go, while the other subverted justice and lives in heaven.
What about the importance of absolute, celestial justice? I’ve read many Christians who are incredulous that anyone could be an atheist because then Hitler got away with it. For example, here is Bobby Conway, the One-Minute Apologist:
Suppose we were to step into atheism—I’d have a harder time living with the [lack of] ultimate justice than I would with . . . the Problem of Evil (STR podcast @10:20).
I think he’s saying that the problem of no ultimate justice would be a greater burden to him as an atheist than the Problem of Evil is to him now as a Christian.
He claims ultimate justice for his worldview but now has a new problem, how to make sense of God violating that fundamental principle by letting unworthy Christians into heaven. Is justice in the afterlife essential or not? If it is, why give some subset of Christians a pass? And if mercy is being given to some people, why not all?
I guess Christians set it aside when they can exploit a loophole to get to the Good Place. (More on the Christian claim of ultimate justice here.)
William Lane Craig (WLC) has something to offer on this topic. He is quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
[Craig hypothesizes] that God could simply “obliterate” from the minds of the redeemed “any knowledge of lost persons so that they experience no pangs of remorse for them.”
The Encyclopedia ticks off a couple of puzzles this brings up and then rests on this one:
The main issue to be resolved here is whether blissful ignorance qualifies as a worthwhile form of happiness at all.
“Welcome to heaven! It won’t be so bad once we erase your memory.”
WLC tosses out another possibility.
The experience of being in Christ’s immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell (Source).
So where does that leave us? Christians themselves tell us that heaven is so hellish that to endure it, one’s memory of loved ones must be erased. Alternatively, one must be distracted, forever.
I think this is the point where someone with a heart says, “If that’s heaven, I want nothing of it.”
Concluded in part 2, where we explore another way to make heaven less hellish.
they’re your rules—
you burn in hell.