Imagine entering into heaven. Joy fills your soul. But you see some object that triggers a traumatic memory from your life. What happens to that joy now? Or say you had lived a life without trauma, yet your loved one did not share your faith. Can you rightly enjoy heaven when your spouse, child, or loved one perdures in eternal perdition?
Could we really call it heaven if we experience memories of trauma or grief over loved ones who do not reside with us? Since God does not delight in the death even of the wicked (Ezek 18:23; 33:11) and desires all to be saved (2 Pet 3:9), would we not be right to lament the suffering of our loved ones—even in heaven?
At the heart of these questions lies the concept of memory and what happens to our memory in heaven.
When we consider memory in heaven, we have about three options to consider. First, we could say that we have full recollection of memory at all times but the experience of goodness contrasts so sharply our trauma in life that good simply would not be good without the experience of the bad. Further, we could say that we will know God’s justice so completely that we will agree and glory in his judgment of sinners.
Yet a number of problems face this view (although it still could be true). First, goodness requires no evil to be good. God alone is good, and his life in that goodness requires no privation of that goodness to be good. God also created the world as good and declared it very good (Gen 1:31). He did so before evil entered into the world. So his creation was very good, and in this way creation experienced goodness.
So the nature of God and his enjoyment of his good nature and the primordial declaration of creation being “very good” apart from evil belie the assertion that goodness requires evil to be experienced as good. Further, the experience of joy ever increasing in the infinity of God does not require any evil experience to enjoy. That misunderstands God’s inner-life of goodness that the three enjoyed for all time. And that same joy believers gain in Christ without the need for suffering to enjoy it.
Second, God has already shared his justice with us—he punishes sin but laments even the wicked who die. So we will share in his justice, but justice differs from grief. We may agree that a sibling should go to jail for a crime but grieve that he or she does in fact go to jail. So even if we align with God’s justice at the end (which I believe we will), we would still have grief—or at least it would seem so.
Another view would be that we forget our trauma and loved ones in perdition so that we no longer have to experience the grief of pain or loss. In its best expression, Miroslav Volf argues that we will first reconcile and deal with our grief and sin before forgetting or no longer bringing to remembrance our past grievances.
Even if we go this route, we will still remember our loved ones in perdition. And the above kind of forgetting does not seem to explain how we can deal with the traumatic memory of grief—even after reconciliation.
But if we forget all negative memories and so even loved ones who reside in perdition, then we would lose our identity. As one author explains: “the memory of evil can be healed, and even redeemed; the real absence from our lives of those we love and who love us in turn, and who therefore make us who we are, cannot; even in reconciling ourselves to it, something of ourselves would be irrevocably lost.”
So even if we deal with past grievances and so stop remembering the past, we still cannot shed the relationships that have so shaped our identities. To lose memory of our mother, for example, would require losing memory of ourselves. And who would we be then?
Bringing to mind
A third view is that we will in fact retain all of our memories but we will not actively bring to mind traumatic or grievous memories. I think this view has advantages over the prior two without excluding their insights. In considering the memory retention view, I take my cue from Isaiah’s prophecy of the New Heavens and Earth in which God says:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind (וְלֹ֤א תִזָּכַ֨רְנָה֙ הָרִ֣אשֹׁנ֔וֹת וְלֹ֥א תַעֲלֶ֖ינָה עַל־לֵֽב׃) (Isa 65:17).
The two claims here around memory work out like this. First, the former things—the times of trouble and exile—will not be remembered passively. That is, the memories will not act on us. The Hebrew verb takes the nifal stem, which generally signals passive action—being acted upon. Second, the former things will not (as personified actors) come into our heart. Put another way, memories of former evil will not invade our hearts.
Note what is not here said. Memory itself does not disappear. It simply does not passively act on us, nor does it as an actor assault us. We have, it seems, control over what we remember of the former things.
We need to understand anthropology better to grasp how memory works and so come to understand what controlling our memory might mean. In general, our mind interfaces with our brain and body. When we are tired, our brain signals that we are tired. When we are hungry or sick, we sometimes think poorly or feel awful. In this sense, our body affects our mind through its union with our bodies. We have passions in this sense, which control us—or at least vie to do so.
But in the resurrection, Christ clothes us with incorruptibility and immortality (1 Cor 15:53). The passible life that we now live carries on into the next but not quite in the same way. We do not really know what that will look like. But somehow we will receive a perfect body in which tears, sickness, and death recede. Our body no longer will suffer passions as it does now.
Yet today it does. And a number of physiological and psychological conditions affect our thinking and emotive life. So we often remember trauma in times we should not; we remember worry when it can not help us; our memory often fails to do what it ought because passions control us.
Not so in heaven. We will have perfect control over our passions, or our affective life. If a tree triggers trauma for us today, a tree in heaven will trigger joy for us in heaven because we will have control over the passions of our body and have created new and perfect memories of God’s goodness. Hence, we will have perfectly ordered memories and affections for our greatest good. What triggers shame in us today will create joy in us tomorrow.
With our memory and passions ordered, we will therefore not undergo the suffering of memory. We will have access to evil in the past. But as we often go multiple hours without thinking about past evil, so we will keep that memory in our mind’s safe. It is there and has formed who we are as a person. But it no longer tells our story for us—our past does not identify us in the ever-unfolding present of eternity. God in Christ will.
We will have the mind of Christ perfectly formed in us. And so not only will our memory serve us for the greatest good and enjoyment of God, but we will, I suspect, somehow not suffer grievance for those in perdition.
I am not sure how this can be true—I admit. The other options I mentioned above (perfect alignment of justice and forgetfulness) likewise cannot paint the full picture. In this regard, Volf rightly points out that theodicy is impossible until we can settle the internal meaning of all events (2019: 338). Still, as the alignment view claims, we will know God’s justice (more) fully in the end. And I suspect we will know more about hell and its nature than we do now since Scripture does not provide us with many details.
Were I to hazard a guess (and it is a real hazard to do so), I would say we will know that hell forms the persistent place of privation—where those who have abandoned goodness dwell in a state of not only spiritual death (Eph 2:1) but bodily death too—the second death which is a double death (Rev 21:8). They will be less than what they were on earth.
Hell will have a light of fire that will never illumine its darkness nor burn the worms in it (Mark 9:48; Isa 66:24). That hell’s fire cannot illumine the darkness suggests the total privation of light, and God is light (1 John 1:5). The unburning worms likely signify the eternal state of death since worms likely here refer to maggots as the term for worms in Isaiah 66:24 may, in fact, mean maggots (HALOT, 1702). In this sense, darkness points to the privation of light or God, while the worms signify eternal death.
Despite the horror of contemplating it, we will somehow order our minds, memory, and affections to rightly consider that: yes, all who enter into hell go justly, and yes, that any go is lamentable—but that memory will not be actively accessed by us because we will bring to mind the fullest of goodness always.
The fullest goodness will include God’s just condemnation and the rightness of eternal perdition—though we can not grasp this completely now. Perhaps forgiveness works in a similar way. Speaking of God’s people, the LORD “will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34). Yet this statement cannot possibly mean God no longer knows the facts of our past. It has to mean that he no longer uses that memory to judge us—he has forgiven us and no longer sees us according to our past sins. In a similar manner, we no longer access the memory that brings us grief.
And we will not bring to mind the privative existence of imperfect good—spiritual and bodily death. Rather, we will agree with God’s justice because we will know, in some fuller way, the full course of justice and human injustice. Because this agreement will have “dealt” with injustice, we will not have cause to contemplate anything but the fullest and perfect good that we will experience.
Admittedly, this answer can only be plausible in trust of a future and fuller understanding of the course of history. It is an answer in hope that God will be just, good, and love—since that is who God is. And we live in hope of God whose plan and purposes go beyond our finite understanding, yet remain coherent and rational since God does all things with excellence—even the creation of heaven and hell.