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The God Squad: Who goes to hell?

January 07, 2011|By Marc Gellman

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.

Next, I said to him. "I love you, right? If it was up to me, do you think I would send you to hell?"

"Never!" he replied.

"Then, how could God send you to hell when he loves you much, much more than I do?"

He was relieved.

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. By comparison, the cruel and capricious Greek and Roman gods look like angels.

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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.

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