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 and experience happiness and peace knowing or at least believing that it’s probable 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).
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.)
I share some more perspectives in this video:
Here are some additional thoughts:
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.”
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. (As I shared in the video, 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 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).
For those who have already lost a loved one who seemingly never accepted Christ: what might help on this—and I have reassured myself about this many times—is to realize that we do not know what happens inside a person before they die. We don’t know whether the Holy Spirit of God has done a work of grace in someone’s heart and life at the last moment. They may have been aware of the hours, minutes, and even just seconds leading up to their death and cried out to God for deliverance. The thief on the cross proves that “deathbed conversion” is certainly possible. And if someone is unable to speak, or too weak to respond, those around them would not know of that conversion. We may be surprised and delighted to one day see them in the presence of Christ.
Now, that should not be a false assurance for us say to ourselves about our still living unbelieving loved ones, “Then it doesn’t really matter whether I share the gospel with them, because maybe God will do a miracle in their lives shortly before they die.” Of course not—we should do everything we can to bring them the truth. But once someone has died, I think it’s appropriate to say, “I don’t know. Maybe they did come to faith in Christ, and if so, one day I will see them in God’s Kingdom.”
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.