A few years ago (October, 2005) I attended the annual Philosophy Conference at Wheaton College. The topic that year was “Philosophers Think about Heaven and Hell.” I won’t go into detail other than to say that all viewpoints were represented: annihilationism, eternal conscious punishment, universalism, etc.
One argument against the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal conscious punishment was mentioned on several occasions. It goes something like this:
(1) Heaven is the experience of eternal, unbroken, unsullied joy.
(2) The sight or knowledge by those in heaven of the eternal suffering in hell of loved ones would destroy or at least seriously undermine such joy. Would not heaven be a “hell” for all who must spend eternity observing or thinking about the indescribable suffering of their unsaved friends and family members?
(3) Therefore, either there is no hell or, if there is, it isn’t eternal. Perhaps those who go there are eventually annihilated or are even reconciled to God (the doctrine of universalism).
I don’t believe those who appeal to this argument are suggesting it is logically airtight, as if the existence of hell “necessarily” precludes the joy of heaven. Its force is more emotional and visceral in nature. The argument carries weight with many folk because they simply can’t envision experiencing optimum joy simultaneously with the experience by others of optimum misery. Therefore, if the former truly exists, the latter does not (or, should not).
There are countless biblical texts that affirm premise (1) above. Indeed, that is part of what makes heaven heavenly! However, although few would wholly reject it, they might qualify it in some significant way. I suppose someone might argue that those in heaven will indeed know of those in hell but that the joy of being in the former will simply outweigh the misery of knowing that others are in the latter. In other words, perhaps heaven’s joy is not as absolute and unsullied as we have been led to believe. Perhaps part of our eternal experience will be the unpleasant and discomforting memory of lost loved ones and that such knowledge, though grievous and burdensome, will not diminish the essence of what heaven’s joy is designed by God to be. As I said, I suppose someone might argue this way. But I’ve never come across them as yet.
Those who believe in the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious punishment in hell cannot embrace (3) (see above). Neither annihilationism nor universalism is consistent with the biblical record of the afterlife.
So, we are left with a re-examination of (2). Some may want to argue that in heaven God somehow obscures or obliterates our knowledge of those who are in hell. I find this neither experientially realistic nor biblically grounded (as will be evident later on). It strikes me as bizarre to think that a husband could spend eternity in heaven oblivious to the fact that his wife of 50 years on earth is not there. Or that a parent would be unaware of the absence of his/her children. Countless other examples could be cited, each of which stretches credulity and transmutes heaven into a “fairy tale” experience rather than the glorious, albeit honest and forthright, reality of God’s consummation of all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
It would also require that there be no Bibles in heaven (or at least no memory of what the Bible contained)! But surely we will spend much (perhaps all) of eternity growing in our knowledge of the glory and mystery of God’s saving work throughout the course of human history. How could we possibly contemplate the gracious work of Christ, and that for eternity, without an awareness that not all are present with us? The existence of divine wrath and the certainty of divine judgment are themes simply too pervasive in the Word of God to be so casually ignored or easily forgotten.
And is not a good measure of the joy of heaven the gratitude and delight and thrill of contemplating the fact that we don’t deserve to be there? In other words, one essential element in the bliss of the eternal state is the overwhelming realization that we deserve to be elsewhere and that only sovereign, saving grace accounts for why we are not.
Others contend that those in heaven will be so utterly absorbed in the beauty and glory of God that such thoughts of hell will simply never enter their minds. It’s not that we “can’t” think of hell while in heaven but that we “won’t”. Some have pointed to the almost indescribable beauty and overwhelming splendor of Revelation 4-5. Will that not be sufficient to keep our hearts and minds so fixed on the exalted Lamb that we will not give attention to the reality of hell?
No. For even in Revelation 5:9-10 the new song being sung is that Christ has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Note well, it isn’t that he has redeemed everyone in every tribe, language, people, and nation (the unbiblical doctrine of universalism), but “from” or “out of” them. In other words, those who are in heaven even now are evidently aware that not everyone has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, yet their joy and fervor and worship seem unaffected.
I’m not saying that we will be anything less than utterly and absolutely enthralled with the splendor and majesty of God. I’m simply saying that this is not inconsistent with nor does it necessarily eliminate an awareness of the existence of hell. The bottom line is that whereas one might like to think that heaven’s happiness will so outshine hell’s horror that the experience of the former precludes knowledge of the latter, it is both profoundly unbiblical and “psychologically” bizarre.
I could go on for some time examining other options and possible implications of the above, but I’m not convinced it would prove helpful. The fact remains, at least as I see it, that those in heaven will inescapably and unavoidably know of (and perhaps even witness) the experience of those in hell. And the fact remains that heaven is portrayed in Scripture as unqualified and eternal joy. So, how can we reconcile these two? Or should we even try?
In thinking about this issue I’ve been driven back, yet again, to Jonathan Edwards. One of the more intriguing and challenging of all his sermons was preached in 1733 and is entitled, “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous.” It is also referred to by another title: “When the Saints in Glory shall see the Wrath of God Executed on ungodly Men, it will be no Occasion of Grief to ‘em, but of Rejoicing.” The sermon is based on Revelation 18:20. As best I can tell, it is not available in the Yale University Press edition of Edwards’ works (now at 23 volumes), but is found in volume two of the Banner of Truth edition of Edwards’ works (pp. 207-212).
I want to address this issue using Edwards as a dialogue partner. I may also occasionally appeal to others who have addressed it, such as J. I. Packer in a very brief column he wrote for Christianity Today magazine, titled: “Hell’s Final Enigma.” But our primary focus will be Edwards. Prepare yourself for some deep and, at times, difficult thinking. For example, one element in Edwards’ argument is that the knowledge of suffering in hell will actually be grounds for the saints’ joy throughout eternity, not their grief. As perverse as that may strike you on first hearing it, we need to let Edwards make his case. Only then can we respond to it with either affirmation or denial.
I’ll leave you to consider Revelation 18:20, to which, with Edwards’ help, I’ll return in subsequent installments. It reads as follows: “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” That’s right: “Rejoice!”