By Chen Pei Fen
My Dad is losing his mind. There are days when he looks at us blankly, not registering what we are asking him. As a Parkinson’s disease patient, we know Dad could eventually develop dementia as the disease progresses. We are worried. What if Dad loses his cognitive ability to respond to the gospel? Will he spend eternity in heaven or in hell?
We ask these questions because we believe in an afterlife and that there are only two places we will go: heaven or hell. As Christians, we believe that heaven is a place of immense joy and hell is a place of immense suffering. And that’s exactly what the Bible says.
Revelation 21:3–4 gives us a glimpse of what heaven will be like: “God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” It’ll be a place where we’ll enjoy the comfort of God’s presence for all eternity and be free from the weight of sin and pain that’s been wearing us down in this life.
Luke 16:23-26, on the other hand, describes the horrors of hell. It is a place of torment, and once there, it’s the point of no return. Jesus taught His disciples that there is “a great chasm” between heaven and hell. It “has been set in place, so that those who want to go from [Heaven] to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from [Hell] to us” (Luke 16:26).
Realizing the Implications of Heaven and Hell
So, as we think about the horrors of hell, we shudder. It’s a place of irreversible suffering. And as we think about the blessings of heaven, we grieve. It’s a place of eternal joy that our departed non-believing loved ones will forever not have a share in.
How can we be happy knowing that our loved ones are suffering? We struggle with guilt and ask ourselves: Have I not been earnest enough in sharing the gospel with them? Is it because I haven’t been praying for them consistently? Could I have been a better testimony at home?
And for those of us whose loved ones are still with us and have yet to know Christ, perhaps we feel the weight of an impossible burden in drawing them to Christ. Perhaps we feel like our efforts to pray for them have been futile. Or, we feel the pressure to bring Christ into every conversation and interaction. We’re constantly anxious that something might happen to them before they have an opportunity to get to know Christ.
That’s how my sisters and I feel. However, we also recognize that while we should try our very best to find every creative means to bring the gospel to our family members, pray for their salvation, and be a good testimony, ultimately, it’s their personal decision to receive Him as Lord of their lives. We also take comfort that “salvation and glory and power belongs to the Lord” (Revelation 19:1). God can save despite our failures and weaknesses. He is not limited by our actions and inactions. He will have His own ways of drawing them to Him, in His own time.
But what if God doesn’t save my family members?
Understanding the True Character of God
When confronted with confounding situations, we often quote Isaiah 55:8–9 to comfort ourselves: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
We tell ourselves that as finite creatures, we wouldn’t be able to grasp the mind of the infinite Creator, so we should just accept God’s mysterious ways.
However, if we were to take a look at the full context of this verse, we will see that Isaiah 55 is not really about God’s incomprehensible ways. Rather, God is telling us through Isaiah that our view of His love and compassion is way too small. In the two preceding verses, it says:
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Instead of merely serving as an explanation for what we can’t understand, Isaiah 55:8–9 speaks of God’s compassionate heart. Christian author Dane Ortlund explains it this way in his book Gentle and Lowly, “God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts in that his are thoughts of love and ways of compassion that stretch to a degree beyond our mental horizon.” God is infinitely more compassionate and desirous to save than we think He is. He wants to show mercy. He desires to freely pardon.
Ortlund adds, “He isn’t like you. Even the most intense of human love is but the faintest echo of heaven’s cascading abundance. His heartful thoughts for you [and your loved ones] outstrip what you can conceive.”
What this means for us is that we can be happy in heaven because we can rest in God’s love and compassion. He is good, really good. God wants to show mercy and desires to freely pardon our loved ones of their sins and also change the way we approach evangelism.
Understanding this has been hugely comforting to me as I consider my family members who have yet to know Christ. And knowing that I can shift my focus from my own efforts and actions to God’s saving power, I will:
- Reach out to my loved ones courageously to bring them to the saving knowledge of Christ.
- Rest in the power and love of the One who is able to save us all.
- Rejoice in God, regardless of the outcome.