Lately, I’ve been pondering some of Thomas Talbott’s arguments against the traditional doctrine of hell (in his 1990 Faith and Philosophy essay “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment”).  He makes many interesting points, both in criticism of eternal conscious torment and in defense of universalism.  One of the things he discusses is how damnation of the lost will affect those who go to heaven.  I’m sure that most Christians have wondered how we could be truly happy in heaven if we knew that some of our loved ones were suffering the agonies of hell.  Talbott addresses a few popular lines of response to this problem.

First, some argue that when we get to heaven we will be see the justice in God’s damnation of our loved ones, so it won’t cause us sorrow or otherwise undermine our happiness.  But Talbott notes that seeing the justice in our loved ones’ punishment would not eliminate the sadness of their plight.  After all, even when our loved ones suffer just punishment in this life, we are still reasonably sorrowful about it.  Moreover, we could still regret that God did not move in the hearts of our loved ones to prompt repentance in them as he did those of us who are redeemed.

A second way of dealing with this problem is to propose that God will change our attitude towards our lost loved ones.  In short, God will turn our love for them into hatred.  We will despise them for their wickedness, just as God does (assuming that God truly hates those he damns, as the traditional view seems to entail). This approach is even more problematic, however, since (1) God commands us to love others, even our enemies, and (2) our love for those closest to us is so tied up with who we are that to so dramatically change such attitudes and affections would be to fundamentally alter one’s character.

So if these lines of response are of no help in explaining how we could be happy in heaven despite the on-going agonies of some of our loved ones, then what alternative explanation is more promising?  If there are no better approaches, then chalk this up as another point against the doctrine of eternal conscious torment.  

Talbott recognizes that affirming the eventual annihilation of the damned does circumvent this problem, which is somewhat of a relief to me, as a conditional immortalist.  Still, his analysis left me wondering whether even conditional immortalism supplies a sufficient shield against this problem.  After all, might we not also be saddened that some of our loved ones were destroyed and that we will never see them again?  This, too, appears to undermine our heavenly happiness.  Clearly, the problem is not as severe for conditional immortalism as it is for the traditional view of hell.  Given conditionalism, at least the sufferings of your loved ones will eventually end.  Not so for the traditionalist, whose loved ones’ unspeakable agony will continue for eternity.

7 Responses to “Hell and the Undermining of Heavenly Happiness”

  1. Cory


    Reading this post revealed to me that our concepts of what it will be like to have eternal life while others experience eternal punishment repeatedly draw analogically from what it is like to see others suffer in this life. I don’t know if that analogy is appropriate—I guess we’ll find out when it happens—but I’m inclined to believe that it is.

    If analogies from this life are appropriate then as a pastor I think I experience a little form of this dynamic in my pastoral role now. In the course of my ministry I watch my flock, people that I deeply love, change. Some of them grow in Christ. Some don’t visibly appear to go anywhere. But others when challenged to mature in faith and godliness fight to remain in their well-worn, complacent habits. The more the church as a whole matures, the more uncomfortable and hostile these people get. They grow cold and angry and begin detaching from people they used to regard warmly as friends, especially if they can’t convince them of their point of view. They gradually stop submitting themselves to the preaching of the Word and fellowship, eventually leaving altogether. They either go to another church or go nowhere, but wherever they are they nurse a grudge against the church with those who have already left. Such partings are grievous, not only because of the ruptured relationship but because it appeared so unnecessary. The person who leaves imagines that they have been forced out and they blame everyone around them, but the rest of us can see that they chose to leave themselves. So we who remain behind grieve, but eventually we get through our grief, let go of the person, and move on. We don’t remain fixated on the departed, and we don’t watch them experience their anger and bitterness—they do that out of our view, while we experience what God wants for us.

    Won’t eternal life be like this? At the last judgment we will see our damned loved ones reveal their hardness of heart. With all but their rebellion eroded away, they will seem to us transformed into different people than the ones we knew—something I have often seen as a pastor—and we will accept that they are not merely banished but are going where they choose to go, away from the unbearable glory of God and his holy ones. Will there be tears in heaven? Probably, but not forever. Those we once loved may continue in God- and self-imposed exile, but we will have moved on into joys they truly do not want to experience. Hard as it is to break ties, we will love them enough to let them have their way without us.

  2. Zane


    I think this is definitely an interesting problem for anyone who doesn’t hold to a universalist view. I must say I think there is some truth to the traditionalist’s first response though. It’s tough for us to see the justice in punishment of our loved ones because we don’t know the full righteousness and justice of God. Perhaps in heaven, because we will be in God’s presence we will clearly see God’s just nature and divine character, it will change our perspective on the punishment of hell. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the Bible seems to show that we will have a newfound clarity in our vision post glorification. In addition, Jesus notes that in heaven we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. It seems like relationships with even our spouses will be completely different, so can we assume that our feelings towards lost loved ones will be different as well? I don’t think these are proof texts, but they speak to a shift in perspective that is hard if not impossible for us to understand at this point.

    I’m certainly not an informed critic, but those thoughts came to mind…feel free to critique them!

  3. Marc


    Dr. Spiegel:

    Craig, himself a traditionalist, proposes* two other alternatives.

    His first suggestion is that God eliminates all knowledge of the condemned from the minds of the redeemed in heaven. To the objection that this would constitute an immoral act of deception, he claims that we can conceive of circumstances in which it’s appropriate–even merciful–to prevent people from acquiring painful knowledge which they needn’t have. Furthermore, if God removes all knowledge of the damned from the minds of the redeemed, the He alone bears this burdensome knowledge for all eternity, yet another magnificent extension of Christ’s love on the cross.

    Craig’s second suggestion, independent of the first, is that when the redeemed are in the immediate presence of God, they become so completely overwhelmed by the experience that all awareness of the condemned is utterly driven from their minds. Though the redeemed will technically continue to have knowledge of the damned, the redeemed will never actually be conscious of their being in possession of this knowledge, given the constant preoccupation engendered by the glorious presence of God.

    In my judgment, these two alternatives seem to be more promising and, therefore, more plausible than the other options. Even so, I don’t believe these considerations render traditionalism itself more plausible — only, perhaps, and at most, slightly more (explanatorily?) bearable.

    Talbott’s an interesting fellow. Your post reminds me that I need to acquaint myself with more of his work. In one of the recent issues of “Faith and Philosophy,” Eric Reitan defended the thesis, in support of Talbott, that it’s within God’s power to guarantee that everyone freely embraces salvation. Did you catch that one?


    — Marc

    * “Talbot’s Universalism”

  4. Kaitlyn Dugan


    Personally, I believe that the entire doctrine of predestination needs to be revisited. If I may humbly suggest that you should read Barth’s writings on the doctrine of election in his Church Dogmatics – particularly paragraph 33 in volume 2.2 – two sections entitled “Jesus Christ, Elected and Electing” and “The Eternal Will of God in the Election of Jesus Christ” are very insightful and helpful for tackling these exact problems. If you ever do read them, I’d love to talk to you about how Barth avoids speculation that is the greatest weakness for reformed views of the doctrine of predestination, particularly for Calvin.

  5. PaulE


    I think the second way can be repaired (at least of the two objections that you put) with a twist. It’s not that our attitude changes from love to hate, but that because of our surpassing love for Christ – for whom, because of that love, we seek justice – we consider even members of our household enemies by comparison (Matthew 10:34ff). Moreover, in the Matthew text we see that our character is, in fact, fundamentally altered by our love for Christ – we take up our cross and die to ourselves.

    I think we see a picture of this in the martyr who loves his enemies and even prays for their forgiveness (Acts 7:60), yet also prays that God would avenge his blood (Revelation 6:9-10).

  6. Andy


    I think the more likely solution is that we will imitate to some extent God’s mentality: satisfaction that justice has been kept, while nevertheless taking no pleasure in the suffering of the lost.

  7. Glenn


    I’m not sure how legitimate it is to say that there exists a genuine problem in any scenario where we can imagine that we might wish that things were different, and yet it seems to me that this is what Talbott’s arguments here boil down to. Let’s say that one is an annihilationist (as I am), and there’s no problem of what we will think of the present torments of the damned. Maybe there are things that we will value then even more than we now think that we will value the eternal life and happiness of other people?


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