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Who goes to hell?

Q: Yesterday, my little grandson told me he was terrified of going to hell. For a moment, I didn't know how to reassure him. Then, I told him he shouldn't worry because very few people are going to hell. Most people who do bad things are actually going to heaven because they don't realize they're making mistakes.

Our talk got me thinking. How can we believe that God could create a place of suffering for certain people that no human being could endure? And those torments are supposed to last not one minute, one hour, or 1,000 years, but eternally? Does God's sense of justice require this? That sort of justice makes God look like not infinitely good, but like an infinitely horrendous ogre.

I read somewhere that when early Christian Church leaders were deciding on dogmas about hell, some thought it was not eternal but temporary, and that God is so good that at some point he would forgive even those in hell and bring them to heaven. The hardliners, however, won and defined hell as they wanted it. But doesn't the parable of the prodigal son teach us that for God, the highest form of justice is attained not through punishment but through love, compassion and forgiveness?

Are we stuck forever with this infernal dogma that scares little children, or are theologians talking of changes?

-- C.

A: Your grandson is lucky to have such a wise and loving grandfather. I agree with your comforting answer to him. Before getting into the thorny theological questions, let me first share with you my experience listening to children's questions about what happens after we die.

The most important thing is to listen to the questions behind the questions. Before you answer a child (or even an adult because this truth applies to both), ask, "Why is that question important to you?" In questions about heaven and hell, my experience is that what kids are really concerned about is not life after death but death itself. Death is the first thing they encounter that's forever.

"Forever" is a frightening concept for anyone. We want to know that everything will be OK, and death makes things profoundly not OK. We need to understand that death is a natural part of life -- that everyone dies. Death is not punishment, but part of the way God created the world.

Very young children can't fully understand these concepts, but in time, as long as they feel confident of your love, they'll grasp the ultimate decree of our finitude. I suspect your grandson is more afraid of death than hell. Hell just intensifies his fear because he's begun to imagine there's something even worse than death that comes after we die.

I think your loving response to him was perfect. You calmed him without painting a vision of death that's naive and false to the facts of our lives.

As for hell (and heaven) as theological concepts, there are things I'd say just to you. There's a part of the theology of hell that we want and need, and that a good and just God had to create. Hell serves as the place where our belief in the moral order of the universe is finally set right. Hell is the place where truly evil people receive the punishment they deserve. This is not vengeance, but justice -- justice often denied in this life but finally delivered after death.

There's one big problem with hell talk. What about the good people who don't accept Jesus as their savior? This theological dispute has divided Christians and non-Christians for 2,000 years. Christian theologians are still divided about whether good non-Christians can go to heaven, or whether their refusal to accept the "good news" (Gospel) of Jesus' atoning death and resurrection damns them to hell.

As a fairly decent non-Christian, I clearly have a vested interest in this debate, but I also have a calm attitude about it. Heaven and hell are not places, but mysteries -- mysteries that will be cleared up only after we die. I'm ready to wait for that theological resolution.

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