God is not looking for repayment, but repentance. What heals a broken relationship is sincere love and contrition. What’s wrong with us isn’t a rap sheet of bad deeds, but a damaged heart, a soul-sickness, that plunges us into fearful self-protection, alienation from God and others. Paradoxically, this leads to death: "whoever would save his life will lose it" (Matthew 16:25).

This sickness elicits not God’s fury but his indomitable love, much like the urgent, grieving love a parent has for a wandering child. (Jesus’ parable was about the Prodigal Son, not the Indignant Accountant.) "It is not that God grows angry with us," said the 3rd century Desert Father, St. Antony the Great, "but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us."

Who will end up in hell? Nobody knows. God has not shown us the guest list. And "Judge not" (Matthew 7:1) means it’s none of our business. We can’t guess by looking at external behavior, because we don’t know whether someone, in private, is begging God for forgiveness and the strength to change. That’s the lesson of the Publican in the Temple.

The safest bet, and a venerable spiritual discipline, is to assume that you, personally, are the worst sinner in the world. St. Paul set an example, referring to himself as "the foremost" of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). And, while God has not told us who he will or will not save, he has given us a safe harbor. Christians have agreed on certain spiritual helps from the earliest centuries: the Eucharist, personal spiritual direction and confession, public worship, private prayer, and the intercessions of the "great cloud" of saints. In this way we can become light-bearers, even in this life.

If you hammer together your own stairway to heaven, you won’t know which rungs are missing. The practices upheld by the consensus of the community is a surer bet for the humble.

So, yes, we need "hell"--or rather, we need an urgent awareness that eternal misery is a horrifying possibility. And I don’t see any permission to imagine that "hell" sits empty, with the deck chairs stacked and folded. Jesus was emphatic, not that a place named hell exists, but rather that some will be in torment, with "weeping and gnashing of teeth." He nowhere encourages us to hope that he was just kidding and everything will turn out fine.

We don’t know, of course, how things will turn out. We hear that "God desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4), but we don’t know if that desire will be fulfilled, and in a way we could now understand. We don’t know how God deals with hard cases. All we know is that we’re commanded to go and preach the Gospel. If God has some emergency back-up plan in case we fail to do our job, he has not told us about it. He’s only told us as much as he thinks servants need to know.

What we know is not facts, but a Person, and even in this life we begin to be softened and warmed by his love. Every ordinary moment is turning us either into a light-bearing saint or a monster. The Judgment on the Last Day will reveal what we did with all that time, and how our choices shaped us, one by one.

And if Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats is correct (Matthew 25), Judgment Day will be less like judging a criminal trial and more like judging a livestock show. You don’t need a cross-examination to tell a sheep from a goat. Day slips into day, and after decades of goatish deeds, it will be nearly impossible to turn back.

"‘Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’…While the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be found to have failed to reach it" (Hebrews 3:15, 4:1).