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Can We Enjoy Heaven Knowing Loved Ones Are in Hell?

Heaven is far too perfect, far too sinless, far too other for us to imagine in our fallen minds. Our attempts to put brush to canvas have led to depictions of cherubs on clouds, idyllic colors of dawn, Christ as a blinding light, a faceless adoring throng. Some of these attempts to capture heaven’s splendors are beautiful and even captivating, yet we know they are also incomplete. They are, at best, the barest reflection of what awaits. Our imaginations must always fall short of heaven’s glorious perfections.

Revelation 21:4 assures us that in heaven God himself will wipe away our tears, that there will be no death, no sorrow, no crying, and no pain. There is a deeply comforting certainty in our future—a certainty of joy, bliss, comfort, peace, love, and perfection. However, those of us with non-believing family members and friends can find this certainty an area of intense struggle. Why? Because we know that not everyone will be there with us. Many we love today will have an eternal experience of pain, torment, and separation. How could we ever enjoy heaven if our loved ones are in hell? R.C. Sproul tackled this question at a Ligonier Ministries conference years ago and I appreciate his answer.

Sproul begins by recounting a humorous moment from his seminary days. After attending an event in which a speaker unabashedly tore away at Reformed doctrine, young Sproul, disturbed by what he heard, quipped to his professor, “If John Calvin would have heard that sermon, he would have turned over in his grave.” His professor gravely responded, “Young man, don’t you know that nothing can disturb the felicity John Calvin is experiencing right now?”

He reflected little on their interaction, but shortly after heard that same professor’s answer to how a Christian can enjoy heaven knowing of loved ones in hell: “You will be so sanctified that you will be able to see your own mother in hell and rejoice knowing that God’s perfect justice is being carried out.” Sproul’s knee-jerk reaction was to scoff, even laugh, at the lunacy of such a statement.

At face value his professor’s answer felt wrong, insensitive even. However, if we can be certain that our future in heaven is one of undisturbed joy and that at the sight of God’s perfect justice our hearts will cry in adoration, nothing, not even the just fate of the unsaved friend or family member, will disturb our gladness.

Why, then, does our knee-jerk reaction match Sproul’s on this side of eternity? Sproul provides three answers:

We do not know God. That is, we do not really know God. We do not know him as he actually is. We especially don’t know him as the God who is holy, holy, holy. In fact, we are often even offended by his holiness, as if it is an ignoble or capricious trait. We cannot imagine how we could be content in heaven while loved ones are in hell because our knowledge of God is too small.

We do not know ourselves. We do not know God as we ought but we also don’t know ourselves as we ought. Try as we might, we remain oblivious to how truly heinous our sin is, how truly filthy we are in the sight of God, and how incredible our salvation is. It is so human for us to sin that we may even feel as if God is somehow obligated to forgive us. We need better self-knowledge—the kind God gives by his Spirit through his Word. We cannot imagine how we could be content in heaven while loved ones are in hell because we do not know ourselves as well as we ought.

We do not know what glorification means. The last link of the Golden Chain of Romans 8:28-30 is glorification. Though we tend to focus most on predestination and justification, they are simply the means to that great end of glorification. We ought to long for the day when we are glorified, when we and everything else is purified of all traces of sin. Heaven is so much more than the absence of death and deterioration—it is also the absence of sin. Can you imagine a place where there is no sin? Do you look forward to a place of no sin? That is our hope! We cannot imagine how we could be content in heaven while loved ones are in hell because we think too little of the beauty of glorification.

Until we are glorified, our sympathies will rest more easily with human beings than with God—his glory and perfect justice. But as Sproul explains in his talk, “once sin is removed from my life… and I love the Lord my God with all of my heart and all of my soul in undiluted perfection, my compassion, my love, my concern will be much more for the vindication of God’s holiness than for a corrupt fallen kinsmen of mine.” And so we pray for the lost, we share the gospel with them, we plead for their souls. And all the while we trust in the God who is good and who does only what is good.


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