Posted in theology

How can we deal with knowing someone we love is probably in hell?

By Elizabeth Prata

EPrata photo

Yesterday I posted an article about the fact that hell exists, why it exists, and why people go there (and how to avoid it). Here-> Betty White talks about her own death with Larry King. I was asked about how to handle knowing a loved one is very likely in hell enduring eternal torment. It’s a troubling question, an important concept to dig though – if tough on the heart and mind.

In the approximately 7000 years of human history, not all of those people born upon the earth, lived, and died, have appealed to the one True God for forgiveness of sins and thus entered heaven thanks to his grace & mercy. Where did the others go upon death? They went to hell.

We can’t know for sure who is there, we don’t know who might have repented out of our sight or knowledge, or at the last minute (like the Thief on the Cross did). But there are signs we can use to make an educated guess, leaving the finality up to God.

Knowing someone died outside of Christ makes a heavy burden on my heart. There was someone in my close family who died apart from Christ, I’m pretty sure. I often wonder, now that things are final, does he regret the sins of his life? Or is he still wailing and gnashing his teeth with raised fist at Jesus in hell as he did in life? I might wonder for a brief while, then I deliberately turn my mind away from those musings. It doesn’t do any good to mull over that which cannot be answered and that which is out of my hands. So that is method #1, don’t dwell on the person and his anguish (if you think he may be in eternal torment).

For people who have had an abuser or someone who did them wrong, who died outside of Christ, we can take the opportunity to rest in God’s perfection in justice. Knowing the person is probably in hell makes me have all the more compassion for that person now. We are to love the people who do us wrong in life, and in death, anything I could do or feel against the abuser is swallowed up by knowing God’s wrath and justice are perfect. The person is enduring much more than I could level at him. It actually makes me have compassion and mourn all the more.

If the people you are worried about dying outside of Christ haven’t done you wrong, and you love them dearly, it still is an opportunity to rest in God’s sovereignty. I had a friend who is wonderful. She is the kindest and most giving person I ever knew. She is lost. I fear for her future, and I’ll mourn her departure into the lake of fire if it comes to that. She is not in my sphere any more, but for people in your sphere who you love, keep witnessing. If the person seems to be hardening with your witnessing to them, then quit with the words of the Good News (pearls before swine…) and simply be the Light of Christ so that they may see your good deeds and glorify the Father. (Matthew 5:16). That way, you have done all you can and when the time comes for final judgment, there will be no blood on your hands. (Acts 20:26). And then guess what? Still rest in God’s perfection in justice. So tip #2, look to Christ’s perfection, not the person’s sins or their eternity.

I try not to dwell very long on the wrath that my friends or family might be enduring, and instead I turn my head to look to Him and know that He is the captain of our souls, and there but for His grace, go I. I deserve the punishment in hell as much as anyone, but His grace plucked me from that dangling gossamer and set me upon the rock. “And the rock is Christ”, 1 Corinthians 10:4b. So tip #3, look to myself and realize that hell was created for me too, and it is only the love of Christ that plucked me from that mire.

In addition to looking down only briefly, looking up lengthily, looking inward positionally, I also look forward. I know that when we ‘get there’ our joy in heaven beholding His glory will be so overwhelming that we will finally see sin for what it is. The contrast in glory of understanding the infinite ugliness of sin will propel our hearts toward Jesus all the more to behold His light. Cling to the verses that show His plan is perfect and we will finally understand, like the Corinthians verse below or the one after from Isaiah. So tip #4, look to the Word and what it has to say about our sin, God’s justice, and eternal righteousness.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I also have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12).

This is how Isaiah ends, chapter 66:

For just as the new heavens and the new earth,
Which I make, will endure before Me,” declares the Lord,
“So will your descendants and your name endure.
23 And it shall be from new moon to new moon
And from Sabbath to Sabbath,
All mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the Lord.
24 “Then they will go out and look
At the corpses of the people
Who have rebelled against Me.
For their worm will not die
And their fire will not be extinguished;
And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.”

So, our mourning of friends and loved ones in hell will turn to amazement and joy in Christ. I know that sounds unbelievable, but it will happen. Our love for Him will overwhelm the love we had for fleshly humans on earth and we will simply see that our God is tremendous to save us sinners.

Don’t dwell long on the negative aspects, look to Christ and trust Him, and ask the Spirit to renew your fervor for sharing the Gospel and living as a Light unto His glory as a witness.

Further Resources

Essay GotQuestions: How can heaven be perfect if all of our loved ones are not there?

Essay GotQuestions: Will we be able to see and know our friends and family members in Heaven?

Video clip 8-min (Sproul): How can I be happy in heaven when I know loved ones are in hell?

Essay Randy Alcorn Eternal Perspective Ministries: How Will I Be Able to Enjoy Heaven If My Loved Ones Are in Hell?


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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