Reader’s Question: What About Unbelieving Friends and Family?

Helen D. asked the question in the title in response to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago (A Biblical Look into the Future). It is a familiar question. I initially responded in the comment section but we continued the conversation by email. Excerpts are included below. (Thanks, Helen!)

Helen: Pastor, I too enjoy your columns in the paper and just read the “New Earth” perspective using the train analogy. I’m curious where you see our unbelieving friends and relatives.

Shayne: I think there is clear biblical support for the idea presented in the newspaper column (A Biblical Look into the Future), some of which I outlined and much of which I did not have space to include. There is also other biblical data which must be taken seriously: the abundant support for the idea of judgment and loss for those who (variously) “do not know God,” “do not glorify God,” who “do not believe [in Jesus]”, are “unrighteous,” etc.

How these two sets of biblical data relate is the question. My understanding is that those who do not want God to be God, who reject him in his self-giving in Jesus Christ, will not enter the life of the new age. In my word picture from the column, they will deboard the one train but not board the other. For such people, the terminal at the end of the line is terminal. In the words of the Scripture, they experience “death” and do not have “eternal life” or (literally) “the life of the age.” One of the reasons I write is to help such people see the hope and beauty of the gospel of Christ.

Helen: The [church] where I went when I had my conversion experience at age 42, teaches that all souls live forever, but believers will live with God and nonbelievers will live without God, which seems terrifying to me since He is Light and Love, and who wants to live that way?!  You believe their lives just end without further consequence?

Shayne: No, not without further consequence, though I hardly understand what those consequences might seem to the person experiencing them. Read C. S. Lewis on this (the chapter on Hell in The Problem of Pain). It seems to me that the Bible teaches that a person – though “person” may cease to be accurate terminology for the damned – continues to exist. There are, however, some good men and great scholars (John Stott, for example) who believe that judgment will result in a final punishment that will bring such a person to an end rather than to ongoing torment.

The problem in talking about such things (or so it seems to me) is that we cannot imagine what damnation entails, just as we cannot imagine what glorification (its biblical opposite) entails. In both cases, I think, the person will be transformed. In the one, to something greater, wiser, and more beautiful (in which the redeemed senses of the enlarged self experience realities we cannot now know); in the other, to something less, something duller (with a diminution of self and – perhaps – of the corresponding senses). This is a horrible end. Those who insist on the keeping themselves inevitably lose themselves, just as Jesus said.

What we can be sure of is that God remains God; that is, he remains loving. He will give us the best we can receive and, sadly, for some people that seems to be damnation. But as Dallas Willard says, “Hell is not an oops!” People who experience damnation will be those who determinedly have chosen “not God.”

All that said, it is best we stay away from medieval images of punishment and stick to biblical texts.

(Have comments? Join the conversation!)

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4 Responses to Reader’s Question: What About Unbelieving Friends and Family?

  1. danishgary says:

    About 15 years ago I had a very good conversation with John Stott on this topic and actually he does not believe what you say. But saying more on this will be better left for a time when you and I might have a face to face conversation 🙂

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    • salooper57 says:

      I’d love to hear more. I certainly don’t want to put words into that good man’s mouth. Any corrections you can offer in the mean time might be helpful to readers. Thanks! – Shayne

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      • danishgary says:

        I’m so grateful for several conversations with John Stott over a period of several weeks when I was in London in the fall of 2004. When I asked him about the controversy over his views on what’s ahead for nonbelievers, he told me it came from what he had written in the book “Evangelical Essentials”, which is a dialogue between him and liberal theologian David Edwards. Edwards had referred to God as a “cosmic torturer” which greatly troubled John and led him to a deep study of what is in Scripture, as I recall specifically as to the meaning of “destruction”. So in his response (in the book) he shared the results of his research and reflections, suggesting that destruction could mean the end of existence. After a fairly extensive conversation, in which he made it clear that he was not advocating this view (I’m pretty sure this was all he had written on the topic), I asked him what he believed (eternal torment vs ceasing to exist). I’ll never forget what he said, or how he said it, as he looked me in the eye and said “Gary, I don’t know. On this, I’m agnostic.”

        I did not have a long-term, intimate relationship with John Stott. The fact that, with his reputation and standing in the Christian community, he would admit uncertainty to someone like me was extraordinarily powerful. His humility still encourages me.

        We live not all that far from you. If you’re ever in the Grand Rapids-Holland area maybe we can get together.

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  2. salooper57 says:

    Gary, thank you so much for clarifying. This is helpful – and how wonderful for you to be able to spend time with that good (and humble) man! I have sometimes been moved by waves of gratitude to give thanks for his life.

    I only occasionally get up your way, but I’d love to get together and will let you know if I’m coming that direction. Likewise, if you are any where near Coldwater (including Battle Creek or even Kalamazoo), let me know and we’ll plan to rendezvous.

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