Question from a reader:
Is there any consolation for me concerning my parents who both died without a personal belief and faith in Jesus? It is all very well for me to know that I have since been saved, but I still feel deeply upset about the outcome for my parents whom I love dearly. How can you not grieve in Heaven while knowing your parents (and anyone else for that matter) will suffer so terribly for all eternity?
Answer from Randy Alcorn:
Many people have lost loved ones who didn’t know Christ. Some people argue that people in Heaven won’t know Hell exists. But this would make Heaven’s joy dependent on ignorance, which is nowhere taught in Scripture.
So, how could we enjoy Heaven knowing that a loved one is in Hell? J. I. Packer offers an answer that’s difficult but biblical:
"God the Father (who now pleads with mankind to accept the reconciliation that Christ’s death secured for all) and God the Son (our appointed Judge, who wept over Jerusalem) will in a final judgment express wrath and administer justice against rebellious humans. God’s holy righteousness will hereby be revealed; God will be doing the right thing, vindicating himself at last against all who have defied him. . . . (Read through Matt. 25; John 5:22-29; Rom. 2:5-16, 12:19; 2 Thess. 1:7-9; Rev. 18:1-19:3, 20:11-35, and you will see that clearly.) God will judge justly, and all angels, saints, and martyrs will praise him for it. So it seems inescapable that we shall, with them, approve the judgment of persons—rebels—whom we have known and loved.
In Heaven, we will see with a new and far better perspective. We’ll fully concur with God’s judgment on the wicked. The martyrs in Heaven call on God to judge evil people on Earth (Revelation 6:9-11). When God brings judgment on the wicked city of Babylon, the people in Heaven are told, “Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you” (Revelation 18:20).
Hell itself may provide a dark backdrop to God’s shining glory and unfathomable grace. Jonathan Edwards made this case, saying, “When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the damned, how will this heighten their sense of the blessedness of their own state, so exceedingly different from it.” He added, “They shall see the dreadful miseries of the damned, and consider that they deserved the same misery, and that it was sovereign grace, and nothing else, which made them so much to differ from the damned.”
We’ll never question God’s justice, wondering how he could send good people to Hell. Rather, we’ll be overwhelmed with his grace, marveling at what he did to send bad people to Heaven. (We will no longer have any illusion that fallen people are good without Christ.)
In Heaven we’ll see clearly that God revealed himself to each person and that he gave opportunity for each heart or conscience to seek and respond to him (Romans 1:18-2:16). Those who’ve heard the gospel have a greater opportunity to respond to Christ (Romans 10:13-17), but every unbeliever, through sin, has rejected God and his self-revelation in creation, conscience, or the gospel.
Everyone deserves Hell. No one deserves Heaven. Jesus went to the cross to offer salvation to all (1 John 2:2). God is absolutely sovereign and doesn’t desire any to perish (1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9). Yet many will perish in their unbelief (Matthew 7:13).
We’ll embrace God’s holiness and justice. We’ll praise him for his goodness and grace. God will be our source of joy. Hell’s small and distant shadow will not interfere with God’s greatness or our joy in him. (All of this should motivate us to share the gospel of Christ with family, friends, neighbors, and the whole world.)
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.
I cannot prove biblically what I’ve just stated, but I think it rings true, even if the thought is horrifying.
Not only in Heaven but also while we are still here on Earth, our God is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Any sorrows that plague us now will disappear on the New Earth as surely as darkness disappears when the light is turned on. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain” (Revelation 21:4, ESV).
This is God’s promise. Let’s rest in it.
Of this we may be absolutely certain: Hell will have no power over Heaven; none of Hell’s misery will ever veto any of Heaven’s joy.