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#598 Is My Wife in Hell?

September 30, 2018
Q

I am a Christian, but am at loggerheads with some who say my late wife, who had clinical depression and killed herself is in Hell. She caused me to have a brain-injury through her actions and yet I forgive her and am sorry too. Can God not be as forgiving as me? Thank you for your good works.

Peter

United Kingdom

Dr. craig’s response


A

Wow, your Christian friends deserve a failing mark, if not for their theology, then at least for their pastoral skills, Peter! It boggles the mind how anyone could be so inept and presumptuous as to tell a bereaved husband that his mentally ill wife is now in hell. They should have at least confined themselves to agnosticism about her fate.

Theologically speaking, as I emphasized in my recent debate with Erik Wielenberg, someone who is mentally ill is not morally accountable for his actions, at least not to the degree that a healthy person is. That’s why a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” is recognized by our courts, even in cases of murder. As a just God, God will take into account such disabilities in His judgements of people.

We mustn’t infer from mental illness and suicidal action that the person involved was not a true Christian. Genuine Christians are not exempt from such afflictions. This is not to say that your wife is now in “heaven.” I’m not in a position to know. I hope that she was a Christian and is now in heaven.  But if she is not, it will not be because she in the depths of depression committed suicide, but because she had earlier rejected Jesus Christ as her Savior and Lord and so refused God’s gracious pardon.

As a result of my recent study of the doctrine of the atonement, I’ve come to appreciate the enormous difference between human forgiveness and divine pardon. Human forgiveness is typically analyzed in terms of one’s relinquishing feelings of anger, bitterness, resentment, or what have you with regard to a wrong that someone has done. But God’s forgiveness is about so much more than His having such a subjective change of mind toward us as wrongdoers. His forgiveness has much more the character of a legal pardon. Just as a ruler’s pardon removes a criminal’s liability to punishment and so sets him free, so God’s forgiveness is a legal act whereby He pardons us for our sins and blots out our guilt.

For that reason it is very misleading and even dangerous to compare human forgiveness to divine forgiveness. For personal forgiveness is not the same as legal pardon. A victim of sexual assault may find it important to forgive her assailant in order to become emotionally free of him; but she may nonetheless want him prosecuted and found legally guilty of his crime. By the same token, an executive authority might pardon a criminal without extending to him personal forgiveness (think of Pilate’s pardon of Barabbas).

For that reason we must reject questions like “Can God not be as forgiving as me?” That sort of attitude could justify any horrendous wrongdoing on the basis of someone’s personal forgiveness. Personal forgiveness does not equate to legal pardon. So your quite proper forgiveness of your wife for her injurious act should not be equated with pardon on God’s part. Whether or not God pardons her will be based on other factors than your personal, subjective response. My hope is that she was a Christian believer who had been the beneficiary of God’s pardon of all her sins, however impossible she found it to cope with the stresses of life.

- William Lane Craig