A number of years ago my wife took an adult instruction/membership class at one of the churches in our national church body. This was before she was my wife – at the time, just a pretty girl I had tricked into dating me. She loved the class, became a member, and attended again, this time bringing along a non-Christian friend. Her friend hadn’t had nearly as extensive of a Christian background as my wife had, and in applying some of the truths that she was learning to her own life, she struggled with answers to some of the big life questions. There was one in particular that bothered her: What if a loved one dies and he/she is not a Christian?
I remember my wife calling and asking me about it and feeling a little helpless. I’d been trained with “proof passages” for every doctrine I’d learned that I could typically rattle off pretty quick. I hadn’t, however, been trained to comfort someone grieving the loss of a friend or family member who, according to every biblical indication, is probably in hell. As it turned out, this friend’s dad had died of a drug overdose years earlier. Now she was wondering why she’d even want to go to heaven if there was no hope of her dad being there. Pretty good question.
Since this incident 6 years or so ago, I’ve had the same question asked numerous times in a variety of ways by both Christians and non-Christians. In the article I posted several weeks ago, I mentioned that people in our country are gradually becoming more willing to not identify themselves as “Christian,” which also means that there are fewer nominal Christians that we could reasonably hold out potential hope for, making this a question that could more increasingly be an issue for Christians in the future.
To start, I think that you’ve got to be careful about not falling off of either edge of this discussion into a valley of “no truth” or “no love”. The valley of “no truth” here would be a universalist attitude that holds out hope that a loving God might possibly contradict his own Word and either not send anyone to hell, or, possibly send people to hell but after a while, have a period of annihilation so that they don’t have to suffer any longer. This would be unscriptural. (cf. Matt. 25:41, 46; Matt. 3:7-12; Mark 9:42-48; and, for instance, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.)
The other valley, the valley of “no love,” would be to boldly proclaim orthodox doctrine about heaven and hell and why people go to one or the other, but do it in such a way that suggested you didn’t have any comprehension or sensitivity to the fact that this person would obviously like their loved one to be in heaven but they are powerless to change the dire reality. In doing so, you could inadvertently rob heaven of its attractiveness, which would be misrepresenting it, and could turn someone off of any desire to live in eternal relationship with God. And ultimately, this would be unchristlike. (cf. 1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 3:1-3; Jer 29:11; and, for instance, Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” ) Christ came to give hope to the weak, weary, lonely, and oppressed – those sick with sin. To lead with biblical teaching in a way that shatters someone’s hope would probably misrepresent the gospel. It’s sort of like doing a Bible study with a liberal feminist and starting with the doctrine of the roles of men and women. That’d probably close any lines of communication immediately. Rather, the more sensible thing to do would be to start with showing the love, sacrifice, and generosity of Christ, a man whom you can’t help but respect.
Demonstrating a perception of human integrity and sensitivity should be common sense, but with Christians who are passionate and fervent in defending doctrine, that just unfortunately isn’t always the case.
So, what can you say when someone asks about a loved one in hell?
I’ve sometimes heard people quote Christians or even pastors in saying that since heaven is a perfect place and there won’t be any sadness there, then since the knowledge/memory of a loved one who is not there would naturally be terrible, that memory must be erased. I don’t know that there is sufficient biblical evidence to support the blissful ignorance of a heavenly lobotomy like that though.
Rather, here are 2 things I’d encourage people to think about:
1) Those not in heaven never really wanted what heaven truly is anyways.
In the simplest description I know, heaven is the eternal blessing of being in God’s loving presence. An unbeliever doesn’t really want that.
I once read the story of a pastor who, after a debate with a non-Christian friend about heaven, said that it became very obvious to him that by not taking everyone to heaven, God was actually being very gracious. His friend had suggested that if God is truly loving he should really take everyone to heaven, regardless of their beliefs. The pastor then asked his friend if he would like to spend eternity under God’s rule worshipping Jesus with other Christians. The friend responded by saying that this sounded like his own personal hell and that he would be furious if God stuck him in a place like that forever.
What some believers don’t understand is that unbelievers have chosen life apart from God. Their unbelief wasn’t just some crime that they were a victim of. It was what their heart wanted. That doesn’t make the thought of them in hell easy, nor does it make their afterlife enjoyable, but it does at least give it the sense of ownership and responsibility that is deserved on the part of the individual.
2) It is possible to experience joy and happiness despite knowing that others are suffering.
Some of you are thinking that sounds like the most unchristian thing you’ve ever heard. Then answer me this question…..is God continuously miserable? NO ONE is as in tune with souls that have been lost as he is. In fact, no one has ever loved the souls that have been lost more than he has. And yet, he continues to reign over all creation in holiness and glory, apart from fear and sadness.
The truth is that it is still possible to be empathetic and compassionate as well as joyful at the same time. In fact, this regularly happens in our lives. If you cross the finish line first in a race or if you win the lottery, is your first thought sadness and mourning for those who didn’t win? That is by no means a perfect analogy, but hopefully it at least illustrates the point that we can be thrilled for our own good fortune, appreciative of God’s justice, and yet at the same time aware of those who by their own choice have not partaken of Christ’s payment for sins and promise of good fortune.
You know someone who is bound for hell at this moment. Some of you know people who are already there. Gut-wrenching. If this person is still alive, don’t ever stop working with them and praying for them. My goal today is not at all to cause you to care less about their spiritual well-being and eternal future. My goal is to remind you that while your passion for such an individual is/was unquestionably great, the passion that you find in, from, and for Christ will be unquestionably greater.
To say that you don’t want to go to heaven because a loved one won’t be there is to fail to understood that, no matter who you are, your greatest loved one, Jesus, is already there.