Will those in heaven understand or be aware of those suffering in hell? Aquinas famously believed they did and even wrote, “Whoever pities another shares somewhat in his unhappiness. But the blessed cannot share in any unhappiness. Therefore they do not pity the afflictions of the damned.” Many defenses have been given for what sounds like a calloused response, and one of them has been that those in heaven just won’t be aware of the pain of their condemned loved ones. Maybe we will be gifted with a divine amnesia, that will allow us to enjoy an eternity of blissful ignorance.
I don’t believe this to be true and neither did George MacDonald, the Scottish writer and mentor of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. And it is worth quoting him at length here,
And what shall we say of the man Christ Jesus? Who, that loves his brother, would not, upheld by the love of Christ, and with a dim hope that in the far-off time there might be some help for him, arise from the company of the blessed, and walk down into the dismal regions of despair, to sit with the last, the only unredeemed, the Judas of his race, and be himself more blessed in the pains of hell, than in the glories of heaven? Who, in the midst of the golden harps and the white wings, knowing that one of his kind, one miserable brother in the old-world-time when men were taught to love their neighbour as themselves, was howling unheeded far below in the vaults of the creation, who, I say, would not feel that he must arise, that he had no choice, that, awful as it was, he must gird his loins, and go down into the smoke and the darkness and the fire, traveling the weary and fearful road into the far country to find his brother?—who, I mean, that had the mind of Christ, that had the love of the Father?
This isn’t just the sentiment of a 19th century poet and mystic, but also that of the apostle Paul himself when he wrote in Romans 9:3, “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.” This belief is also the foundation of the gospel, that Christ himself left heaven and united himself to humanity. And not just one race or one ethnicity, but as the scripture repeatedly state all of humanity, so that, “in the … fullness of the times He might gather together in one ALL THINGS in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.”
The Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart takes the sentiment a step further in his recent work, That All Shall Be Saved, in it he makes the argument that only someone fully devoid of love could possibly hope to enjoy the never-ending pleasures of heaven with the knowledge of their own children suffering in hell, or even worse, hoping that God will make them unaware of their offspring’s torments. Hart not only appeals to emotions but makes a strong scriptural case for his arguments.
When a particularly difficult question about our faith is raised and a very unpleasant answer is given it frequently comes with the cliché, “God’s ways are not our ways” as a shallow defense. Our faith, however, is supposed to foster a deep love for all of humanity, even for our worst enemies. And it is worth remembering that holding a grudge a refusing to forgive is a common human attribute, not a divine one.