Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell?
—William P. Bunnell, Redlands, California
First, I resonate with the question to the depths of my soul. Loved ones of my own, some living, some dead, have not shared my faith in Christ. That is painful.
Second, belief in the outright annihilation of nonbelievers after final judgment (as opposed to an eternal punishment) seems to me biblically illegitimate. I suspect some Christians whose loved ones die without accepting Christ are tempted to embrace the annihilationist view. Scripture, however, seems to show that one aspect of human dignity is that we are built to last. Whether for joy or for sorrow, our souls are eternal.
Third, Scripture and good biblical theology indicate that none will be in hell who did not effectively choose it by following in the footsteps of Adam and preferring their own way to God's. In some fashion, God reveals himself and his will to everyone, and everyone responds in one way or another (see Rom. 1:18-2:16). But nonbelievers universally make the anti-God choice, and hell is God giving people what they chose. That is reality—retributive reality—and an abiding consequence of following our heart and doing what we want to do; I wish I could persuade more people to face this seriously.
Now pose the question in its toughest form. Imagine a believing spouse or parent who loved, prayed for, and agonized over a dear one who resisted the gospel and died suddenly in an accident. There are no grounds for thinking that this or any other memory will be erased in heaven. So how can it not keep the bereaved one from heaven's total joy?
Significantly, this is not a Bible problem; instead, Scripture rules out all thought ...