Can you imagine yourself enjoying perfect happiness and bliss in heaven if you knew that a beloved spouse, child, or friend was suffering everlasting torment in hell?
In his wonderful parable The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis presents an interaction between an inhabitant of hell, the Tragedian, and his redeemed wife, the Lady (chap. XIII). The Tragedian tries various ways to evoke pity in his wife; but she steadfastly resists. She will not be held hostage to the unhappiness of her husband.
“Stop it. Stop it at once,” she commands him.
“Stop what?” he replies.
“Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity.”
This exchange troubles the narrator greatly. He feels that it is wrong that the Lady should be untouched by her husband’s misery, and he shares his concern with his guide, George MacDonald.
“Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her?”
“Well, no. I suppose I don’t want that.”
“I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”
“Ye see it does not.”
“I feel in a way that it ought to.”
“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.”
“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”
To be honest, until fairly recently I have long thought that Lewis had given the irrefutable solution to our dilemma. There must be a point where the sufferings of the damned cannot affect the joy of the redeemed.
Two years ago I read philosopher Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God. Talbott raises the question of the damnation of loved ones anew: If we truly love someone, if we truly will their good, if we love them as we love ourselves, how can their interminable misery not affect our enjoyment of heaven? I remember being impressed by the argument. Maybe Lewis was wrong. Hmmm, I need to think about this further … And then my son Aaron died, and the question acquired for me a burning intensity. And I immediately knew the answer: no! Of course I could not be perfectly happy in heaven (assuming, of course, that heaven becomes my final destiny—may God make it so) if I knew that my wife, my daughter, one of my sons, my parents, or any of my departed relatives and friends were not also sharing with me the eternal life of Christ. Talbott puts it this way:
Consider first a curiosity about the nature of love. Not only is a disposition to love essential for supreme happiness; it can also be an instrumental evil, making a person more miserable, not less. Indeed, the more one is filled with love for others, the more the unhappiness of others is likely to jeopardize one’s own happiness. … Curiously, the very thing that makes supreme happiness possible—namely love—also makes us more vulnerable to misery and sorrow. If I truly love my own daughter, for example, and love her even as I love myself, then I simply cannot be happy knowing that she is suffering or that she is otherwise miserable—unless, of course, I can somehow believe that, in the end, all will be well for her. But if I cannot believe this, if I were to believe instead that she has been lost to me forever—even if I were to believe that, by her own will, she has made herself intolerably evil—my own happiness could never be complete, not so long as I continued to love her and to yearn for her redemption. For I would always know what could have been, and I would always experience that as a terrible tragedy and an unacceptable loss, one for which no compensation is ever conceivable. Is it any wonder, then, that Paul could say concerning his unbelieving kin whom he loved so much: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Romans 9:3)? Nor is there anything irrational about such a wish. From the perspective of Paul’s love, his own damnation would be no worse an evil, and no greater threat to his own happiness, than the damnation of his loved ones would be. (p. 137 [1st ed.])
Yesterday I went back and looked at the exchange between the Tragedian and his wife and noticed something I had not noticed before: the Lady is able to ignore her husband’s misery because in her eyes he is no longer the same man. He has become someone else, or perhaps something else.
“Where is Frank,” she said. “And who are you, Sir. I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me.”
“You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.
“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”
There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place … Presently the Lady got up and began to walk away. The other Bright Spirits came forward to receive her, singing as they came:
“The Happy Trinity is her home: nothing can trouble her joy.”
The scene answers to Lewis’s conviction that the condition of damnation is eternal and irreversible. Once it happens, then there can be no other alternative than for the saved to move into a state of indifference and to see their reprobate loved ones as no longer being the persons they once were, perhaps because they no longer really are; perhaps they are no longer persons at all. As observed by others, at this point Lewis appears to move very close to the annihilationist position. Can it then be inferred that the blessed, and presumably also God, have ceased to love the damned, have ceased to desire their eternal salvation? I think the answer must be yes. How can one desire the salvation of those who are, by definition, irredeemable? Note the judgment of St Thomas Aquinas:
Mercy or compassion may be in a person in two ways: first by way of passion, secondly by way of choice. In the blessed there will be no passion in the lower powers except as a result of the reason’s choice. Hence compassion or mercy will not be in them, except by the choice of reason. Now mercy or compassion comes of the reason’s choice when a person wishes another’s evil to be dispelled: wherefore in those things which, in accordance with reason, we do not wish to be dispelled, we have no such compassion. But so long as sinners are in this world they are in such a state that without prejudice to the Divine justice they can be taken away from a state of unhappiness and sin to a state of happiness. Consequently it is possible to have compassion on them both by the choice of the will–in which sense God, the angels and the blessed are said to pity them by desiring their salvation–and by passion, in which way they are pitied by the good men who are in the state of wayfarers. But in the future state it will be impossible for them to be taken away from their unhappiness: and consequently it will not be possible to pity their sufferings according to right reason. Therefore the blessed in glory will have no pity on the damned.
It’s a very short step from indifference to rejoicing in the sufferings of the damned. The redeemed do not rejoice in their sufferings directly, explains Aquinas (“To rejoice in another’s evil as such belongs to hatred”); but they do rejoice in their sufferings indirectly: “in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy.”
In my judgment Talbott has the right of it. If we love a person, we can never be reconciled to their eternal punishment and misery. If we love another, their suffering must become our own. We are joined in a solidarity of love.
Heaven can never be truly heaven without my son.
Is my judgment being clouded by grief? Perhaps. Or perhaps Aaron’s death has caused me to finally apprehend the gospel of Jesus Christ truly.