Isaiah 65:17-21 (NRSVCE)
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
What a wonderful image of the New Heaven and the New Earth! No weeping, no suffering, and cause for nothing but rejoicing! But one immediate concern comes to my mind.
No weeping? But not everyone will experience the joys of the New Heaven and the New Earth. What about those who go to Hell? More specifically, what if someone I love goes to Hell? Surely I will know this, both by the grace of the beatific vision or even simply by looking around and not seeing them there with me. How could there be no weeping in that knowledge, no suffering? I can’t imagine not weeping in that situation. How joyous could heaven really be if I know there are people I love who are not there?
This is not an easy question, and one I think we often avoid, not only in our conversations but also in our own thoughts. I won’t pretend like I can give a sufficient answer. In fact I’m not even sure if I have an answer. But there are some things which are worth considering, and in considering them maybe we can approach an answer.
Firstly, what is it that we are called to do? Obey God’s commandments, right? And Jesus tells us that the greatest of commandments is to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22:38-40) Love is something you must do. You must choose to love someone, even God. God did not create automatons. We have the power of choice, and we are called to choose to love God. To make that choice, to remain faithful in love to God, is to obey His commandments. It is those who love God who will be saved, who will rejoice together in the New Heaven and the New Earth.
The flipside of this coin is those who did not love God, nor their neighbor. These instead love only themselves. We speak of God’s love, and indeed love in general, as a gift of self. You give yourself to one another. God gives of himself to us. Those who have not love give nothing. They selfishly cling to what they have, to what they are. Instead of giving out of love, they grasp tighter and scream “Mine!” This is who populates Hell. Those who were unwilling to love anyone, including God. These are the selfish people, the people utterly turned in on themselves, to the point that when God reached out to them and said “Come,” they turned defiantly and walked the other way. This doesn’t satisfy the question, but I think it certainly merits a spot at the table in considering it.
Another thing to think about is with regard to both knowledge and God’s perfect justice. St. Paul says “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) He is not saying we will be omniscient, mind you. Only God is omniscient. But we will know “fully,” that is, the capacity we have to know will be fully satisfied. Though even that can be misleading, as we speak of beatitude as a continual process in which we move further and further into God, always understanding Him more and loving Him more, but never exhausting what He is. That’s quite a big tangent, however. The point I want to make is that we currently operate with such a miniscule understanding. It sounds incredibly banal to say “we will understand later,” but it is true, and very important to keep it in mind. Though we see in a mirror, dimly, now, we will know to the point that we will be fully satisfied. We will see God’s justice, and mercy, and love, at work in a much grander and more comprehensive way than we can see now. We will not see all (only God sees all), but we will see all that we are capable of seeing, or perhaps more accurately, all that we are made capable of seeing. We will see God’s justice for what it is, and we will see those in Hell for who they are.
This hardly exhausts the question, or even satisfies it. There’s much more that I want to say on this topic, and hopefully I will have time to do it soon. For now I will leave this in the realm of “I don’t know, but I look forward to when God makes me capable of knowing.”