God’s children await a glorious future. In answer 58 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess that after this life, we will share in “eternal joy” and “perfect blessedness”. Jude even says that God will present us before his glorious presence “with great joy” (Jude:24). And when John writes about the wedding of the Lamb, we hear the call: “Let us rejoice and be glad…” (Rev. 19:7).
Soon all tears will be wiped away and death, grief and sorrow will be no more. Being able to typify the future that awaits us as pure joy is something that runs deep.
But when you think about this, a difficult question may come to haunt you. The question is this: how can there soon be perfect joy, even as we know that millions of fellow people will be lost and in hell? How can it be: a heaven filled with gladness and simultaneously a hell filled with terror and pain?
To make it very personal: will you be able to rejoice soon, while your brother or grandchild is in the place of God’s wrath?
Heaven and Hell
There are Christians who do not struggle with these questions. To them the Lord is a God of such love, that the existence of a hell is too ridiculous for words. Indeed, then you are rid of the problem! But the Bible lets there be no misunderstanding that not only is there a heaven full of joy, but also a hell filled with suffering.
The Lord Jesus already warned about that hell (Matt. 5:29-30; 10:28). He spoke of “the fire [that] never goes out” (Mark 9:43), of the “worm [that] does not die” (Mark 9:48), and of “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). The apostle Paul says that those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thess. 1:9). Hell is the place where “torment” is suffered (Luke 16:23), where the “smoke of… torment rises for ever and ever” (Rev. 14:11). The Bible tells not only of eternal salvation, but also of eternal “destruction” (Phil. 3:19).
We cannot avoid it: our joy-filled future also brings unimaginable grief for all who did not want to acknowledge Jesus as Saviour and upon whom God’s wrath remains (see John 3:36).
Our questions become even more pressing when we realize how God’s counsel is realized in people’s persistent unbelief. The Canons of Dort speak of this when they confess: “That God in time confers the gift of faith on some, and not on others, proceeds from his eternal decree” (Canons of Dort Chapter I, Article 6). There are people whom he did not predestine, but whom he leaves to their own wickedness and hardness [of heart] by virtue of his righteous judgment. They eventually enter the place of pain as “the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22; see 1 Peter 2:8). No, therewith they are not “victims” of an eternal decree of the Lord. They erred of their own accord, just as Judas, “the one doomed to destruction” (John 17: 12), erred. We must not forget that the Canons emphatically refer to their “own wickedness and hardness”!
Yes indeed, our questions become even more pressing. Because although the agony of hell is fully deserved, there is also an eternal decree of our God that we cannot forget in the light of that pain!
And precisely that eternal decree can haunt us terribly. Let the pain of hell be deserved and in accordance with God’s righteous judgment—but still: how can you soon be rejoicing while so many [must] suffer unimaginably forever?
Of One Mind
In answer to this question I would evoke that which the Catechism teaches us regarding the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done…” Certainly, this refers in particular to God’s revealed will. Hence the NBV [Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling, New Bible Translation] also rightly puts it as “Let your will be done.”
The explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism sees this as a prayer for obedience. And that is correct. But therewith not everything has been said — because most profoundly, Jesus teaches us one-mindedness [to be of one mind] with our heavenly Father. And that ultimately also includes God’s hidden will, his eternal ruling! God punishes forever all those people according to his righteous judgment, because of their unbelief.
In connection with what we ask in this third petition, A.A. van Ruler speaks of “a frightening reality, which a person needs to go through”: the breaking [shattering] of our own will. In the end, we have to want what God wants and eagerly concur with his righteous judgment “without any argumentation”.
I think that in many ways this remains something of the future. In this life we can be rather upset about an unbelieving brother or a strayed grandchild, when we imagine the dreadfulness that awaits them as they persist [in their way of life]. At present we can hardly imagine the imminent exultant joy.
And Yet: Amen-Halleluiah
But what we now cannot yet imagine will soon be a reality. We will be praising our God in all his work. John already heard it: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages” (Rev. 15:3). The church father Augustine said it so powerfully: soon it will be “amen-halleluiah”. We will be saying “Amen” to all God’s work — including his righteous judgment on those who disobeyed the gospel. And yes, that also counts for those who are now so dear to us.
What today might still be “frightening” for us, to evoke Van Ruler, will soon no longer be troublous: we will be of one mind with the Lord completely, and nothing will disturb our joy.
Today we only experience a “small beginning” of that “saying Amen”. We cannot imagine that we will soon be wholly happy. But we may know that the Holy Spirit will appease our present-day questions in the coming [perfected] worship of him who in all his ways and work is holy and righteous. Because then Christ shall live perfectly in us (see Gal. 2:20), and our thoughts will be those of Christ (see 2 Cor. 2:16); of him who is perfectly of one mind with his Father. Because of that miracle of the Holy Spirit, it is really true:
Like fragile glass your joy on earth was transiently tarnished.
But one day shall the rapture of the wedding never finish.1