'If Christianity Is True, People I Love Will Burn in Hell'

A pastor struggles to answer his daughter's question about the fate of those who don't accept Jesus.

In this excerpt from "The Last Word and the Word After That," a fictional pastor who has been suspended by his church describes his struggles with the theology of hell.

My daughter, Jess, a second-semester freshman at College Park, Maryland, had come home from college for the weekend. She said she wanted to do her laundry and enjoy some of Carol's home cooking. College food, she said, was boring and was making her fat. But on Saturday afternoon, she made it clear that she had another reason for the early-semester visit. She sat down at the dining room table where I was working on a puzzle, a favorite hobby of mine since childhood and a hobby to which I had turned on Saturdays since I didn't have a sermon waiting to be touched up. "What's up, Jess?" I asked, not looking up from my welter of pieces.

"Can we talk for a minute, Dad?" she asked. "It's something serious."

At "serious," my head snapped up; I felt a rush of internal alarm and my thoughts raced from pregnancy to drugs to depression to bad grades. I nodded, feigning calm. You would think I might feel relieved when she said, "It's about God, Dad, and my ability to keep believing in him, or her, or whatever. It's my faith-I think I'm losing it." The internal panic that flushed through my soul at that moment was no less strong than it would have been if she had said, "I'm pregnant," or "It's cocaine," or "I can't stop thinking about driving off a bridge," or whatever.

I swallowed, nodded again: "OK. Tell me more," those four words being the best summary of what I've learned about both parenting and pastoral counseling through the years.


"Here's the problem," she said. "If Christianity is true, then all the people I love except for a few will burn in hell forever. But if Christianity is not true, then life doesn't seem to have much meaning or hope. I wish I could find a better option. How do you deal with this?"

My daughter's question stabbed me more painfully than I can adequately explain. She had found the Achilles' heel, so to speak, of my own theology, and with that one simple question, I felt something snap in me. No, it didn't snap: it softened, like a floor joist weakened by termites or dry rot. It sagged and crumbled and broke in stages over the days and weeks to come.

In my theological circles, universalism is one small step removed from atheism. It is probably more feared than committing adultery.
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