Thanks for your patience hearing back from me. I noticed on the “Joy in Heaven” thread that a couple others have chimed in with their thoughts, which are helpful. Here are some of mine.
As I said, this question has been weighing on me this week. My wife has just lost a relative, and we’re not as confident as we’d want to be about his faith. When I mentioned to her the question you raised, she identified with it right away.
You’re right that the contrast is arresting. If we just took Revelation 21-22, in the new heavens and the new earth we have both a description of a city with “no more mourning or crying” (21:4), as well as a city with people outside its walls (22:15). How can these realities hold together?
After thinking and praying about it much this week, I’m afraid I don’t know.
But here are a few thoughts I’ll offer nonetheless.
I do think it’s helpful to recall what Christians believe about hell in the first place. Part of what makes hell “hell” is the very absence of God, just as God’s presence is what makes heaven “heaven.” Why would God “create” such a place, it’s often asked. When I asked my fiancée to marry me, I couldn’t do it with a gun pointed at her, because that wouldn’t sustain a relationship of real love. Love has to be free. She has to have the chance to say “no.” If the Lord wants a relationship with us marked by real love that means He has to give us the chance to say “no” to Him. As CS Lewis put it, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ As Lewis frames it, in an enigmatic way, the reality of hell is the outworking of the love of God – love could never be real if it were not freely chosen.
We ask this question about loved ones in particular because, though we’re aware that Scripture tells us there will be many kept outside of heaven, it’s those we care about who grieve us most deeply. Because we love them, we cannot conceive of joy in heaven if they are outside. But of this, at least, I think we may be sure: God loves our loved ones far more than we do. If there were to be weeping in heaven, surely it would be our Lord’s weeping, for those whom He pursued at such a cost.
Michael Ramsden often says, “when you’re pushed to your limits, the real you comes out.” When I’m pushed to my limits – when I’m tired or stressed, often what comes out of me is not pretty – but Michael’s saying would mean that the person I am at my worst, is the person I really am. When Jesus is pushed to “his limits” what comes out of him is pure love. He asks God to forgive those even who are putting him to death. What that tells us is that God’s love (and his pursuit of rebels like us) is at the heart of His being, so that even if I struggle to understand how God could be loving and good when it comes to something like hell, from the cross I know that He is.
Even so, what does this mean for our joy in heaven, if our loved ones are outside? All I can venture, humbly, is along the lines of another CS Lewis quote: “There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious.” I wonder if the joy we will have in heaven, face to face with God, might be a joy of this kind – a joy tapered by a certain seriousness. When we read some of the greatest stories ever written, often there is tragedy in the midst of them, but when we come to the end what we experience is often a sort of sombre wonder. We put down the book with the feeling that we’ve just read something deeply good, but also deeply hard, and perhaps even sad. I wonder if our joy in God will be a joy of this kind – we will be enraptured by His glory, but His glory will be complex, and in the sombre outworkings of it perhaps we will feel a serious kind of joy – more aware than ever before of the perfect love of God, and yet sombre in light of its outworking in our broken, rebellious world.
I think this question is one of those which must make us cling in faith to the goodness of God we see in the cross, and trust that if he was good and loving then, so He is and will remain in all things, world without end.