Could it be that we are horrified at the prospect of people suffering eternal torture in body and mind because we are insufficiently holy? At first blush, that claim seems to contradict in the most direct terms what it means to be holy. And yet, you don’t have to look far to find theologians suggesting that it just may be true.
Let’s engage with J.I. Packer as an interlocutor by looking at two of his books. I choose these passages precisely because they don’t represent the worst of hard-nosed, misanthropic Calvinism. Instead, they seem to be humane, charitable, measured, pastoral and humble. And yet, despite all that, the underlying claim is shocking indeed.
To begin with, Packer writes:
“It is certainly agonizing now to live with the thought of people going to an eternal hell, but it is not right to reduce the agony by evading the facts; and in heaven, we may be sure, the agony will be a thing of the past.” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 168).
Of course, if eternal conscious torment is, simply, a “fact” then it is not right to evade it. But is it a fact? That’s the question at issue. Regardless, Packer’s main point comes next: in eternity “the agony will be a thing of the past”. In other words, once people begin to suffer in hell, those in heaven will experience that agony no longer.
This raises an interesting dilemma which we can illustrate with the case of Jones.
At present Jones is a Christian man who is moderately holy. While he struggles with sin, he also has moments where God’s light shines through. And if you want to see the purest demonstration of divine love, altruism and sheer goodness in Jones, look at the way he agonizes over the thought that his daughter Sarah, who left the church some years ago, will end up dying outside of Christ and going to hell to suffer forever. Jones weeps out of compassion over his daughter and prays for her regularly.
In eternity, Jones is made perfectly holy and so he no longer struggles with sinful impulses. He is perfect and sinless, just like Jesus. Sadly, Sarah was indeed lost for eternity and now suffers unimaginable torment in hell. Does this mean that Jones suffers immeasurably more for her out of love, altruism and sheer goodness? Au contraire, this fact causes Jones no consternation, no sadness at all. Jones is now more joyful and happier than he ever could have imagined, even while his daughter suffers forever.
I take it that the paradox is rather glaring. When Jones is only somewhat holy he shows his best moments in his selfless love and care for his wayward daughter. But when he is perfectly holy and she is suffering horrendously, that selfless love and care will be gone, replaced by joy even as she suffers unimaginably. How can it be that when he is partially holy Jones agonizes over the mere possibility that his daughter might be damned, but when he is fully holy he does not agonize at all over his daughter’s actual damnation?
There are two possibilities. According to the first, God secures Jones’ perfect happiness in heaven by ensuring that Jones is never aware of his daughter’s fate. But surely this is an implausible suggestion, for it reduces heaven to a mere put-on in which eternal joy of those in heaven is secured by keeping hell out of sight and out of mind. This proposal reduces heaven to getting wired into the matrix so you are blissfully unaware of the agony elsewhere in the universe.
The second possibility is that holy Jones is fully aware of his daughter’s fate. The reason this fact causes him no suffering? Because when a person is perfectly holy, so this view proposes, their compassion for the reprobate is diminished to nothing. In short, the more we are like Jesus, the less we agonize over the damnation of the lost.
But how could this be? An additional quote from Packer provides a reason:
“The sentimental secularism of modern Western culture, with its exalted optimism about human nature, its shrunken idea of God, and its skepticism as to whether personal morality really matters—in other words, its decay of conscience—makes it hard for Christians to take the reality of hell seriously. The revelation of hell in Scripture assumes a depth of insight into divine holiness and human and demonic sinfulness that most of us do not have.” (Concise Theology (Tyndale, 1993), 261.)
According to Packer’s analysis (as I understand it), Jones is presently agonizing over his daughter’s fate because he fails to appreciate the heights of divine holiness and the depths of human sinfulness. But when he is perfectly holy and so perfectly like Jesus, he will no longer suffer at all over her damnation. Indeed, if anything, it will be a cause for celebration as it reveals God’s holiness and his righteous judgment of human sin, including the sin of damnable Sarah.
(You might object that Packer didn’t say that exactly. That’s true, he didn’t. But that is precisely the logic of his claim. To wit, imagine that Jones at present is informed in a revelation that his daughter will be damned in eternity. If Packer is correct in what he says here, this revelation should cause Jones no grief because God is perfectly holy and Jones’ daughter is egregiously sinful and wicked. Thus, the extent to which it does cause Jones grief is the extent to which he has failed to grasp divine holiness and human sinfulness.)
It is difficult to know where to start with a view such as this. But I’ll make two quick points by way of reply.
First, God loved us and Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). To describe the Father heart of God, Jesus gave us the story of the Prodigal Son.
Second, it seems to follow that growth in holiness (and Christlikeness) is expressed naturally in the self-giving love for others. Consider Paul’s agonizing declaration of his concern for his fellow Jews in Romans 9:3-4: “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” Are we to think that the agony which drove this desire to sacrifice himself to save his people was born of a faulty grasp of divine holiness and human sin? On the contrary, isn’t the exact opposite the truth? Isn’t Paul most Christlike when he expresses this desire?
A person might reply: when people finally reject God, then God finally rejects them. But this sounds to me not like the unconditional love of God but rather the tit-for-tat conditional love of this fallen world. And if we reject this logic and concede that God does love the reprobate eternally, would not the saved love them as well? And if the saved love the reprobate, how can the unimaginable eternal torment of the reprobate not entail a diminution in the joy of those in heaven? In which case we face a dilemma: either heaven is not as joyful as we’ve been led to think or hell does not consist of eternal conscious torment.