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Suppose for the following scenario that both the Christian Heaven and Hell exist.

My mother is a good Christian and loves me dearly.

I am an atheist, and will therefore go to hell upon death. [If you don't agree that I will go to hell for being an atheist, simply consider me a sinner who will go to hell.]

When my mother dies she will go to Heaven.

How can my mother possibly experience eternal happiness with the knowledge that her beloved son is being tortured for eternity?

Note: I do not know the originator of this argument. I know that Matt Dilahunty has made it before, though do not know if he came up with it. I ask because I think it poses a valid inconsistency and I would to hear the Christian response.

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@DavidStratton you're right on all counts of the fitness of this question for the site, but I added an answer anyway, seemed like a good thing to do assuming the OP is honest in his or her questioning. –  Peter Turner Feb 25 '13 at 3:54
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@PeterTurner I actually voted it up. I honestly think it is a good fit, and phrased in a way that's constructive. I just think it's going to be hard to do justice to the question in a way that will be convincing or satisfying for an atheist, having been there myself. –  David Stratton Feb 25 '13 at 3:57
    
@PeterTurner It may be true that my mother would be hopeful of a deathbed conversion. This conversion may, of course, not happen. My Christian friends would up to Heaven and meet my mother. When questioned, they would tell my Mother that I had died years earlier an atheist [or sinner]. Surely then my mother would not be able to experience definitive happiness, with the knowledge that her beloved son is certainly being torture, and will be for eternity. –  Anon Feb 25 '13 at 4:05
    
@anon certainly that's a fair argument, but I think it's based on an assumption that we even can comprehend what is meant by happiness. –  Peter Turner Feb 25 '13 at 4:13
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These extended comments might be better in chat. –  David Stratton Feb 25 '13 at 4:45
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11 Answers 11

Short answer: We don't know for sure. The rest of this answer explores various "Christian answers", but the conclusion is "we don't know for sure".


This is a question that I struggled with when I was an atheist, and it's a question that Christians have grappled with and that has never been answered in a way that would have been intellectually satisfying to me as an atheist. There are several attempts to give answers, some okay, some blatantly out of line with what we do know of Heaven.

  • Some have theorized that we will not know of the suffering of the lost. That God may remove that knowledge from us. This would be inconsistent with the nature of God, and also 1 Corinthians 13:12, which teaches us that we will have increased knowledge, not decreased.
  • Some have theorized that Heaven is so wonderful that the thought of our loved ones will seem insignificant. That hardly fits with the Christian message of Agape (selfless) love being the ultimate expression and reflection of God.

Christianity.ca adds this:

A second possibility boldly suggests that this awareness will be a cause for joy and praise rather than pain. Shocking though it may sound, this position has been defended by many theologians including Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards and, more recently, J. I. Packer. As Edwards put it, the redeemed “will not be sorry for the damned; it will cause no uneasiness or dissatisfaction to them; but on the contrary, when they have this sight, it will excite them to joyful praises.”

Grisly though this may sound, it has some impressive scriptural support. The imprecatory psalms (such as Psalm 139:21-22) seem to anticipate with great relish the demise of the wicked. And one might reasonably infer that the saints who plead for their blood to be avenged (see Revelation 6:10) will extract satisfaction once this judgment on “the inhabitants of the earth” is underway.

I don't buy that interpretation, either.

Alwaysbeready.com says this:

The thought of being apart from your friends and family who do not know the Lord is a heart wrenching thought. But God assures us in His Word that in Heaven our joy will be absolutely full.

Psalm 16:11 says, “In Thy presence is fullness of joy; in Thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore.”

All who go to Heaven will experience “fullness of joy.”

Revelation 21:4 tells us, "He [God] shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."

Quoting C. S. Lewis again, "If you are concerned about your loved one's that won't be in Heaven, the most irrational thing you could do if you are truly concerned about those on the outside is to remain outside yourself."

The best thing you could ever do is to make sure you’re going to Heaven and then do all that you can to help wake up your loved ones!

Finally, this nugget from Ray Comfort is, perhaps, both the least intellectual, but closest to my belief:

"How can people be happy in Heaven, knowing that their unsaved loved ones are suffering in Hell?" Those who ask question such as these fall into the category of those who asked Jesus a similar question. They said that a certain woman had seven consecutive husbands, whose wife will she therefore be in Heaven (Mark 12:23)? Jesus answered them by saying that they neither knew the Scriptures nor the power of God. The unregenerate mind has no concept of God's mind or His infinite power. If God can speak the sun into existence; if He can see every thought of every human heart at the same time; if He can create the human eye with its 137,000,000 light-sensitive cells, then He can handle the minor details of our eternal salvation.

As for me, personally, my answer would be close to what Mr. Comfort stated. Quite frankly, I don't know for sure.. And neither does anyone else.

But what I do know is that for the longest time, I thought that God was a lie. I thought that Jesus was an invisible friend for weak-minded fools that were too weak to face life without some invisible friend helping them along. I thought that the Bible was a bunch of hooey, made up by a bunch of creeps that wanted to manipulate people for their own gain.

And I was wrong. God has proved Himself to me in ways that I would have never imagined. He has earned my trust. His word is trustworthy, and if His word says we'll be happy in Heaven, even with the knowledge of our loved ones suffering, I trust Him. I trust His word.


I know that the above is not going to be satisfying on any level to an atheist. I realize what it sounds like, but for some questions, there are no easy answers. Sometimes the only correct answer is "we just don't know for sure". But to make it a "Christian answer" we have to allow for that component of faith that says that even if we don't know, we trust in God.

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+1 - I don't know is the best answer for me. i also don't mind the only reason why we love sinners is that they are not totally separated from God in an ultimate sense, therefore they still reflect his image in ways that are likable and promotes mercy bit later there will be mo difference between the damned and Satan, therefore no different feelings. However, I do not know is more scriptural. Somehow I think our precious memories will be preserved in God's goodness without causing a sense of loss, when removed from the persons associated with them, but how who can know? –  Mike Feb 25 '13 at 9:10
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Simply put, at that point she would not be sad at all.

The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous, But is terror to the workers of iniquity. -Proverbs 21:15

Example: In the Book of Revelation we see God's judgment poured out upon Babylon. Here is the angel's instructions to the saints concerning this matter:

Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her.” -Revelation 18:20

This final judgment will be a final justice... a final settling of accounts... a final granting of eternal separation for those who ultimately were unwilling to be reunited to their God. Those who embraced God will be granted ultimate embrace by God. Those who refused Him will be granted ultimate separation.

Scripture does not present the coming judgment of God as an embarrassment, or as something the saints should be sad about, or reluctant about proclaiming to the world. It is coming. Saints: Praise the Lord. Sinners: Repent.

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I think this is one of those questions that is likely to be closed since it doesn't target a particular Christian tradition or whatever. But it's still a worthy question.

This line of reasoning instantly brings to mind the beautiful woman C.S. Lewis wrote about in The Great Divorce escorted through paradise by rabbits and other cute animals who is so blissfully happy, because she makes others blissfully happy that even something like her friend being unable to free himself from whatever bondage kept him in hell couldn't take away from her happiness.

The happiness of heaven is so unimaginable and complete that nothing can take away from it.

Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 1024

So, read the great divorce (which you can reasonably do in an afternoon) and see if you can see yourself or your mother in it. I had a hard time relating the part with that woman in it to my life. But she is the archetype for most good women who are plagued by bad men. Jesus says His Father's house has lot's of rooms. No one is checked in to any of those rooms kicking and screaming. Fortunately, there God's Mercy is His greatest attribute and many believe that Jesus comes to folks who are dying in their last moments and asks them personally to accept His love.

"God’s mercy sometimes touches the sinner at the last moment in a wondrous and mysterious way. Outwardly, it seems as if everything were lost, but it is not so. The soul, illumined by a ray of God’s powerful final grace, turns to God in the last moment with such a power of love that, in an instant, it receives from God absolution of sins and remission of punishment, while outwardly it shows no sign either of repentance or of contrition, because souls [at that stage] no longer react to external things. Oh, how beyond comprehension is God’s mercy! But - horror! - There are also souls who voluntarily and consciously reject and scorn this grace! Although a person is at the point of death, the merciful God gives the soul that interior vivid moment, so that if the soul is willing, it has the possibility of returning to God. But sometimes, the obduracy in souls is so great that consciously they choose hell; they [thus] make useless all the prayers that other souls offer to God for them and even the efforts of God Himself..." (Diary of St. Faustina, #1698).

And that really keeps me going because my brother died unexpectedly, well outside of the Church, and I don't have any reason to believe that in a lucid moment before death he wouldn't choose eternal happiness over eternal damnation.

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+1 You had me at "Read the Great Divorce" :) –  Affable Geek Mar 11 '13 at 16:23
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Preface: I'm a Christian, so I'm going to try answer this question as a Christian. You've asked an honest question, however, and so I want to try to give you as honest of an answer as I possibly can.

Firstly, you're assumption is that her pursuit and attainment of something wonderful and good is somehow limited by your failure to pursue the same thing. In a nutshell, Jesus is more important to her than you. I think that's the sense that you probably feel, and I think you're absolutely right.

As an atheist, you may see that and think: that's ridiculous and calloused. But you have to see it from her perspective in order to understand it properly. She believes that being with God is a good thing, in fact, she would tell you, I'm sure, that it's the best thing that can possibly happen to her. Her heaven is to be with Jesus, who rescued her from the penalty of her sins.

So who, in this situation is more important to her? The person she spent tons of sleepless nights raising, whose diapers she changed and spit-up she cleaned up? (Not trying to shed a guilt complex here at all... I just happen to have a 3.5 month old at the moment, so these things are on my mind), or the one who came, lived according to the law, then died to pay the penalty for those who didn't, whose death has saved her soul for heaven? Which of these two has done more for her? Just like a new lover makes the loss of an old lover more bearable, and eventually insignificant, the love of Christ, in perfect union in heaven, will eventually make the loss of her son more bearable, and even insignificant in comparison to what she gains in Christ.

That's not to say that she doesn't wish that you would be with her as well. I'm sure she most certainly does. Paul himself speaks of this way when he talks of his Jewish brothers in Romans 9:1-3:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

He has anguish for his brothers, but his anguish isn't going to cause him to abandon that which he knows is best for himself. While he can encourage those he loves to follow him in the direction that he is going, he can't force their hand. They're independent people. That doesn't mean that while he is here on earth, and while he can have some impact, that he won't hope for it. More than likely, your rejection of Christ is a very painful thing to her. Don't convert just to make her happy. It doesn't sound like you would do this, but if your only reason to convert is to make her happy, then you're not really a Christian. It's not about appeasing someone you love. Being a Christian is about valuing Christ, for his immense love on all of us who are fallen, messed up people, and for the sacrifice he made in our place. It's in this kind of conversion, that her value of Christ outweighs her value for you.

One last thought: Heaven is about Jesus. It's about Him. It's not about having a harp, sitting on a cloud, and partying all day. It's about Jesus. Put simply, God gives us what we want. If we find value in Christ and what he's done, and we wish to be with him, than God grants us heaven to be with Jesus. If we don't value him, then he'll also give us what we want: eternal separation from him. I'm certain that she would believe that the sense of loss you will feel having had not grasped Christ is nothing compared to the sense of loss that she will feel having had lost you. And again, this statement is not intended to belittle or minimize you, it's intended to magnify and glorify Christ. And Christ has stated himself, that those who seek Him will find Him. He will not turn away anybody who is looking to find him. But if you have no interest in Christ, then don't seek him.

For myself personally, I find His value immense, vast, and far above and beyond anything that I can find on earth. This is why I'm a Christian.

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To some degree parental love (Eph. 3:15) and marital love (Eph. 5:32) are shadows or imperfect images of a greater love. Also, one's love of the damned might increase one's appreciation of the fierceness and perfection of God's justice and the magnificence of God's mercy. –  Paul A. Clayton Feb 25 '13 at 16:05
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Excellent point. Parental love is simply a "type" or representation of the love that God has for his children. The greater love is between God and man, not parent and child. As much as one might love their children, God loves us infinitely more. –  David Morton Feb 25 '13 at 16:08
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Here's what the end of Isaiah says:

And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.

Revelation says that God will wipe all tears from our eyes. Perhaps we as Christians will weep greatly after seeing the terrible punishment for our lost loved ones. However, God will wipe away our tears, and cause us to forget our sorrow. Here's a verse in Psalm 126:

When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them.

I hope you will repent and turn to Christ before it is too late.

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Welcome to Christianity.SE. We are happy to have you participate here. Now it may sound odd, but this is not a Christian site. Although your answer here has some merit to answer the question, it is outside of the scope of this site to attempt to convert, persuade, pastor, or otherwise minister in your answers. Please see the faq and read the meta posts linked from there. Also, examine some of the highly upvoted questions and answers to get a feel of what is expected. With this in mind, you should edit your answer to exclude the last sentence. –  fredsbend Mar 29 '13 at 5:22
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The answer is very simple: despite dying as an atheist, if you wind up in hell, it will not be due to your being an atheist, but due to your being a totally evil, obnoxious, arrogant, life hating, love hating person. If that is not your character, then presumably, when you come face to face with the reality of the love of God, you will willingly and happily embrace it. Otherwise that same love will torment you. If the reality of God becomes 'hell' for you, then your mother, I am sure, will be glad to see the back of you, because there will be nothing left of you but evil and arrogance. Certainly no mother in her right mind would want to have anything to do with a son like that, especially considering that you would hate your mother anyway, due to your rejection of the source of all true love.

One thing is, in my view, certain. You will not go to hell through having failed to "tick the right religious boxes" before you die. I know that this is what so many evangelical Christians believe, but it is an insult to God to assume that he deals with people in this manner. When Jesus spoke about the "sheep and the goats", He was referring to two sets of people with completely different natures, as if they were, in fact, two different species. The sheep embrace the reality of the love of God, but the goats reject it. It is therefore wrong to assume that there will be essentially 'nice' people in hell, who are only there, because they failed to become Christians. Eternal reality is rather more profound than that!

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Welcome to Christianity SE! We're not a normal discussion forum -- in particular, answers need to represent the doctrinal position of a specific Christian group (and when possible, provide a source). When you get time check out the tour and help center. –  Ryan Frame Jul 8 '13 at 21:21
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In addition to Ryan Frame's comment, I'd suggest reaing How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Jul 8 '13 at 22:56
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This question is about (mis)understanding of the Christian love. A Christian love is not conditioned by the blood proximity. Blood is only a temporary link with no importance in an eternal world. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the kinship has spiritual bases. It is defined by the strength of believe, the attachment to God gained in this life.

But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! “For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12)

These words suggests to me that Heaven is not only a place, but is also a different state of consciousness. So if you are rejecting this state of consciousness (being atheist or unrepentant sinner) and your mother not, you will cease to be "beloved son" of your mother. Your mother will have other sons than you that will count in the other world.

When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19)

For her you will be only one within many which has brought Hell to existence, repugnant of the Creator which is the only source of eternal life, truth, happiness, wisdom manifested in Heaven.

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I wrote a near one thousand word answer to this question, but I have tried to condense it and my answer is now in over a third of that. I hope this helps and encourages you to learn more about what the scripture teaches about Heaven and Hell.

I see a lot of answers here which state, 'We don't really know' or something like that. This is true only for those who don't realise that the answer to this question is clear. The scriptures make it very clear just how the nature of our life in Heaven will be. It also reveals what the nature of death in Hell will be. It is important to know this second part. So let us consider what we DO know, not dabble in what we think we don't know which can be a seed of doubt. 'How can Heaven exist if we know that people in Hell will suffer?' Or as my question was worded, 'How can Heaven be heaven if there is a Hell?’ If you understand all that scripture tells us about Heaven and Hell, you can see that these questions answer themselves. We see now that with all that has happened in the world and with all that will happen, Heaven WOULDN'T BE Heaven without Hell. Heaven wouldn't be heaven if there evil in it to taint it and that which is good. And as it is, all that will be in Heaven is that which is good; Love, Joy, Peace, etc. Indeed, God's judgement is the definition of true Justice! We praise him that he is Just! Because it means that He will not allow ANYTHING evil to taint his creation! Heaven won't be tainted by the fact that there is a Hell, rather, Heaven wouldn't be heaven if evil was still there to taint all that is good. So since all evil will be thrown into Hell, there will be no unrighteous suffering anymore! Suffering is unrighteous if it is something good that suffers, but since there will be nothing good in Hell, nothing good will suffer. In Hell, there will only be the self-destructive nature of that which is evil. That which is evil suffers BECAUSE it is evil. There will be nothing which is good in Hell to suffer any more for evil, and for that, rejoice in the Lord and know that He IS God! He IS Righteous! He IS Just! And He is Righteous!

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Welcome to the site. As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page, How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Oct 19 '13 at 17:18
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One of the saddest things you could ever think about is the probable answer to this question. God said he will "wipe away all tears" on that last day. Did you ever stop to consider what all that might entail?? Heaven will be bliss. All sin, bad things (to include unpleasant memories, things of pain, etc...) all that will be wiped from our minds. So, what makes you think you will even be allowed to remember "ANY" of those who were condemned?? That's also part of the punishment for those who are condemned(The fact that they will know-and God will make sure they do- that they are now "alone" for the rest of Eternity). When I say "alone" it's in a way that you and I connot even begin to fathom! SO, this kinda makes you want to get out and try and win people over, doesn't it. We may think of how painful it would be to know a friend or loved one is in Hell while we are in Heaven, but...I truly believe that person (those people) will be taken away from our memories.

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Welcome to C.SE. When you get the chance, please check out our tour and specifically How we are different than other sites. This is an interesting hypothesis - and even has some adherents, but as it stands, this is really just a personal viewpoint rather than a sourced theological answer. –  Affable Geek Nov 5 '13 at 15:45
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I see where you are going... didn't Christ already address this in Luke 16... touché!

Are you making people in heaven feel bad for the people in hell? Is not guilt sin? She cannot go to heaven with guilt on her heart? Are you saying 'shame on you'? I mean if you are, that means that YOU REALIZE that you have an option to go to heaven or not. Free will. She is free to enjoy heaven.

Part of growing up as a parent, one has to realize that they have free will. Not to blame one-self for their mistakes. This is how sin traps you. One should let go. To be free in Christ.

i know sounds more like a parenting answer... well the bible is a father-to-son book... touché!

thanks for reading.

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Assuming you think there is an immortal soul and you will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell:

"Can Heaven really exist?"

There really is only one way to answer this: It's not going to bother you if you are in Heaven. In many places in the Bible, Heaven is described, and in most of them it paints a picture where there is no suffering, pain, tears, or other crappy feelings. Rev 21:4 stands out the most. After that it is a matter of faith that God is strong enough, good enough, and true enough that Heaven will really be like that despite anything else.

Assuming you think there is no immortal soul and you will not spend eternity in Hell but might in Heaven:

Let's say your question actually read "Can Hell really exist?"

There are quite a few Christian sects that think no one is tortured forever. Jehovah's Witness's and 7th Day Adventist are the most well known, although after that they are quite dissimilar.

For those groups it is a lack of belief in the 'immortal soul' that leads them to interpret certain verses differently. Rev 14:9-12 most notable. Their biggest point on the idea that there is no such thing as an immortal soul is two fold: 1 Tim 1:17 in the only place where the word immortal exists in the Bible and it is describing God (there are many other verses that imply it like 'I am Alpha and Omega' and 'I do not change'), and the other point is that the words immortal and soul are not even in the same sentence anywhere in the Bible.

Groups like the ones above generally describe Hell like an event, rather than a place, where the wicked are destroyed and die. Because there is no immortal soul they are simply dead and think and feel nothing, much like when you are asleep, save dreaming.

Other, more liberal sects, simply do not want to reconcile with the conundrum you have laid out so simply do not talk about it or have theologies that allow everyone to go to heaven at some point; this is usually called universalism.

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Universalism in this context for your edification. –  fredsbend Feb 25 '13 at 6:34
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