The last time we talked, you asked a question I couldn’t answer. I remember the concern in your eyes and how helpless I felt to give you any assurance when you asked, “Does the Bible offer any comfort when we’re afraid someone we love has died without Christ?” ¶ Your heartbreak is understandable. So is your anger. I can see why you feel that your faith has turned against you. Beliefs that once gave you comfort are now robbing you of sleep. ¶ Other questions you asked have also been hounding me. Why didn’t our Lord help us with such an important issue? Why did the apostle Paul write as if his readers are concerned only about loved ones who “die in the Lord”? (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). Didn’t he realize the impact his words would have on those who, because of their faith, would agonize even more deeply because they would have no hope of ever again seeing someone they love so much?
Your questions caught me off guard. But the longer I have thought about them, the more convinced I’ve become that even in our concern for unsaved loved ones we do not grieve as those “who have no hope.”
There is a time to comfort
As there is a time to warn, so there is a time to console. That comfort goes beyond our Lord’s assurance that He will someday wipe all tears from our eyes (Revelation 21:4). We can also find consolation knowing that it is none other than Jesus who will judge all of the earth (John 5:26-27). Because of the concern He showed for people during His life on earth, we can be sure He cares more about our lost loved ones than we do.
We see a hint of that compassion when Jesus mourned the unbelief of those who rejected Him (Matthew 23:37). We hear Him teaching His disciples to love their enemies (Luke 6:35). And in the moment of His deepest suffering, we hear Him say of those who called for His death, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Ever since coming to know Christ, those of us who believe in Him have been learning to rely on Him more than on ourselves. We’ve been discovering that we can trust His goodness more than our own fears.
While believing that everything Jesus said about heaven and hell is true, we can cling to the truth that both mercy and justice have their origin in Him. The God whom Christ personified is not cruel. He will not add unnecessary pain to the fate of those who die rejecting Him. The suffering of judgment will be neither more nor less than it needs to be.
What we don’t know
We don’t know how our Lord will give “many stripes” (lashes of judgment) to some and “few stripes” to others (Luke 12:47-48), except that the punishment of some will be as severe as the punishment of others will be light. We don’t know the full meaning of the fire and darkness of judgment, except that the Hebrew prophet Isaiah first used the language of everlasting fire and smoke as a way of describing a battlefield defeat that is final and irreversible (Isaiah 34:9-10; 66:24).
What we do know
What we do know is that God will be fair, and good, and right in judgment. We know that not all will experience the same degree of pain and regret. All will be judged according to their works, which is one reason my grandfather Dr. M. R. De Haan said repeatedly, “To some, hell will be a little heaven compared to what it will be for others.”
The Scriptures show that those who suffer the severest judgment will be the devil, the Antichrist, the False Prophet, and those who accept the mark of the beast in the last days (Revelation 14:11; 20:10). In a similar way, Jesus reserved His strongest warnings for those religious leaders who used their influence to turn the crowds against Him.
There is a time to grieve
The apostle Paul grieved for lost loved ones without losing his mind or faith. He cared so much for Jewish family members that he would have taken their place in judgment if he could have. He said, “I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2-3). Yet Paul’s concern for others didn’t rob him of his affection for heaven or his confidence in Christ (Philippians 1:23-24).
There is a time to rest
We cannot afford to let fear of what we don’t know about the future rob us of what we do know about our Savior and Lord. There is no better person to trust with the souls of our lost loved ones. He alone is their judge. He alone understands all of the factors that make faith and character more difficult for some than for others.
Most of our fears for those who have died lie not in what Jesus said, but in what we add by our own imagination. This is where we need to doubt ourselves and trust that even as He judges our lost loved ones the Lord will give us reason to worship and love Him forever.
Al, with you in mind, I bow my knees and pray, “Father, in heaven, at the end of our own fears, and at the end of our own wits, we cast ourselves upon You. We take comfort in the fact that You take no joy in the death of lost people. We cling to the assurance that You, our Father, the Judge of all the earth, will do right.” —Mart De Haan