“How can people be happy in Heaven,” my friend asked, “knowing that their unsaved loved ones are suffering in Hell?” Although this question is often asked by atheists we should have more than apologetical reasons for examining it. We have probably all been confronted with this question or even pondered it ourselves. After all it is a valid question, especially when confronted with the fact that people we know and love are very far from God and it would hurt us deeply to know they ended up in hell. A close examination is merited because the web is filled with responses from well-intending Christians that make Christians look like unthinking sociopaths. Never one to avoid the hard questions, St. Thomas Aquinas offers us an answer to this sticky question in the Summa Theologiae (Supp. Q.94).
In order to understand St. Thomas’ response, we have to first admit that the question seems unanswerable. It seems that either we do not love both God and neighbor perfectly in Heaven or we are not perfectly happy there. Seemingly, the only way out of this dilemma is to deny one of the two contraries. This is why St. Thomas is such a master at these types of questions—because he lived and taught by the Scholastic dictum that we should “Never deny, seldom affirm, and always distinguish.”
His point was not that we should be wishy-washy about things but that when faced with a dilemma like this, the answer lies in “both-and” rather than not in “either-or.” In that regard, it is not just a Scholastic principle, but an eminently Catholic one. And, for the question at hand, St. Thomas makes an important distinction about the way we love in Heaven.
In asking the question as to whether the blessed in heaven pity those in hell, St. Thomas formulates the following response to the objection that because pity proceeds from charity and charity is perfect in heaven, the blessed ought to pity those in hell.
Charity is the principle of pity when it is possible for us out of charity to wish the cessation of a person’s unhappiness. But the saints cannot desire this for the damned, since it would be contrary to Divine justice. Consequently the argument does not prove.
It seems he does not answer the question. But what he is doing is clearing up the misconception that love on earth and love in heaven are the same thing. Love on earth causes not only joy, but also suffering. The amount of our suffering is in proportion to our love of the other person—the more we love the beloved, the more we suffer (and the more we rejoice in their good). This earthly love has both an active component in that we work to alleviate or share their suffering and a passive component in that seeing them suffer causes suffering in us. This is when we “feel sorry for” them. This is felt most acutely when the beloved is engaged in something that is particularly self-destructive. We both want them to get better (active), but also feel sorry for them (passive). In heaven, love is wholly active and the passive component passes away. The blessed will still love the damned person from heaven, but the passive part of love will cease. They will no longer “feel sorry for them.” In other words, the blessed will not suffer because of the sufferings of the damned.
An analogy may help to clarify more fully. The experience of many who do prison ministry is almost universal—they find themselves torn. While they know the prisoner has done something that cries out for justice, they also feel sad for the prisoner’s loss (this is passive love). This sorrow moves them to work for the prisoner’s conversion (this is active love). Now in heaven, when the time to convert has passed and they no longer feel the passive love of sadness, all that is left is the joy of justice.
While the argument so far may seem to make sense, it seems awfully cold. How can one rejoice in justice at the expense of the suffering of the damned? St. Thomas puts the objection this way:
Now it is most reprehensible in a wayfarer to take pleasure in the pains of others, and most praiseworthy to grieve for them. Therefore the blessed nowise rejoice in the punishment of the damned.
And his reply
It is not praiseworthy in a wayfarer to rejoice in another’s afflictions as such: yet it is praiseworthy if he rejoice in them as having something annexed. However it is not the same with a wayfarer as with a comprehensor, because in a wayfarer the passions often forestall the judgment of reason, and yet sometimes such passions are praiseworthy, as indicating the good disposition of the mind, as in the case of shame pity and repentance for evil: whereas in a comprehensor there can be no passion but such as follows the judgment of reason.
What St. Thomas is saying here relates to our ways of knowing. In our fallen state as wayfarers, our passions often run ahead of reason and either cause us to judge wrongly or judge slowly. Using the prison minister being torn as an example is illuminative here as well. Once he gets emotionally invested in the prisoner, justice seems to fade into the background. Justice is seen merely as an abstract principle, while the prisoner is real flesh and blood (concrete). He may eschew justice altogether or he may need to constantly remind himself the just reason for the prisoner’s incarceration.
In heaven, two things will change. First, justice will no longer be something abstract but something concrete. What this experience is like we do not know, but there are no abstractions in heaven. Second, passions will no longer go ahead of reason. This means the blessed will be able to separate the reasons for their joy from the causes of their sorrow. In other words, they will rejoice because God’s justice is done while still having active charity and goodwill towards those who are damned. What they will not do however is feel sorry for them.
In essence what St Thomas is saying is that the blessed do not take pleasure in the sufferings of the damned. The pleasure that they take is in the goodness of divine justice. Neither do they feel pity for the damned because they have no reason to. Yet, they still actively will the good of the damned just as God does.
While this discussion may be philosophically satisfying, will it ultimately satisfy an atheist interlocutor? Probably not. The reason is because of their conception of happiness. Without a proper understanding of what it means to be happy none of this makes sense. To the modern mind, happiness is synonymous with contentment. It is seen subjectively as a temporary feeling that is dependent on external circumstances. That the word happy comes from the Old English word for “chance” is a perfect illustration of this. Classically understood though, happiness is a translation of the Greek word eudaemonia which defines happiness as a condition of the soul that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the beatific vision. The point is that this is a question that can only be answered satisfactorily from the inside. Until one is convinced that having God means having everything and that not having God is nothing, it becomes little more than a red herring. Best to turn the tables on them Socratically and ask them what they mean by “happy.”