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The God Squad: Who goes to hell?

January 07, 2011|By Marc Gellman

"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.

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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 must be a place, a different kind of place, for Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and every unrepentant murderer, torturer and purveyor of cruelty to other human beings made in the image of God. Perhaps there is no hell and perhaps these human monsters find the same fate after death as saints and good Samaritans, but I don't believe that.

I believe in hell as the place where God sets the scales of justice right. This idea of hell is the opposite of stories of the gods of Mount Olympus; their demands on people were not moral but vain, self-serving and capricious. You must understand that difference.

The reason your grandson is not going to hell is not because God loves him more than you love him and the fact that you don't want him to go to hell. He's safe because he's a good boy, not an evil boy, and he hasn't done anything really bad. It's not just love that will bring him into heaven, but love and justice.

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