“Daddy,” my daughter said, from the backseat of the car. “Something’s bothering me.” 

“What is it, honey?” 

“The lady at church said most people go to – can I say a bad word?” 

“Go ahead.” 


“She said most people are going to hell?” 

“Yeah, like eighty percent of people. She said life is like a test and, if you fail, that’s where you go.” 

“No honey,” I said. “That lady is mistaken. Most people do not go to hell and life is not a test.” 

“Are you sure?” Natalie said, fearfully. 

“You know your dad studied to be a priest, right?” 


“Well, I’m telling you, you don’t have to worry about it.” 

Knowing my daughter’s recent anxiety over eternal perdition was probably my fault, I took a deep breath and then let it slowly out of my mouth, Not being a churchgoing person myself, I’ve been content to let my mother-in-law take our daughter to her church on Sunday a couple of times a month. Her church is of a more evangelical flavor but, since all reports have been that my daughter’s learning that God loves her and bringing home pictures of a smiling Jesus floating on clouds, I wasn’t overly concerned. But I knew, eventually, this kind of ridiculousness would rear its ugly head. 

 “Daddy,” Natalie said behind me, “Are you really sure or are you just saying that?” Since my daughter seemed unconvinced by my unilateral dismissal of some hack Sunday school teacher, I decided to engage in a little sophistry. 

“Okay Natalie,” I said. “Let’s say you go to heaven, and I go to hell, just a hypothetical.”


“So, you’re up in Heaven and you see me down there, how would that make you feel?”  

‘That’d be terrible. I wouldn’t be able to see you.”  

“Yeah, it would be terrible. How could you enjoy heaven then?”

“It wouldn’t be nice.” 

“So how are the twenty percent of people who make it into heaven gonna feel when they find out eighty percent of all the people they know are down there?” 

“I’d be really upset.” 

“And you should be,” I said. “Not being able to see your Dad? Sending most people to hell? That would mean God’s just a big old meanie. But they teach you God is good right?” 


“See the problem? How can he be good but send almost everybody to hell?” My daughter was silent. 

“Natalie,” I said. “Some preachers love talking about hell because it scares people – keeps them going to church and giving them money. But God doesn’t send people to hell. That’s all nonsense. Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son?” 


I told her the tale which, I assume, you’re familiar with. “But you know what’s the most interesting part of that story is, Natalie?” 


“That the dad spotted his son coming home while he was still a long way off. But was the dad lucky that he was at the right place at the right time? That he just happened to see him coming?


“No,” I said. “It was because the dad loved his child so much that he was always out there looking for him – twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And when his son came home, he didn’t punish him or give him a lecture. He just smothered him with kisses and hugs and threw a party. That, my dear is what God is like – a parent who loves their children no matter what. Like I love you no matter what.” 

“What about people who do bad things?” 

“You’re right, people do bad things, sometimes terrible things. And trust me, at some point that makes them feel awful – like that son who ran away. But, when they feel sorry for what they’ve done, they can always come home.” 

“I don’t know if I believe in God,” Natalie said. 

‘That’s because you’re a smart kid. You don’t believe things just because people tell you to believe in them.” 

“Do you believe in God?” 

“I do,” I said. “But it took me years to figure it out. Heck, I’m still figuring it out. Just try and be a good person and the rest will fall into place.” 

When we got home, I said, “You’re not going to that church anymore. I’ll talk to Grandma about it.” 

“Will Grandma be upset?” 

“She’s a good person. She’ll understand.”


“I’ll take you to my church. Maybe you’ll like that better.”

Natalie will have to figure out all this God stuff on her own – but I owe it to her to give her a good start. And a good start means not letting her conception of God get turned into a frightening ogre by a bunch of well-meaning but, ultimately, theologically misguided people. There’s an old saying, “The Devil’s greatest trick is convincing people he doesn’t exist.” That, of course, is wrong. The Devil’s greatest trick is turning God into Satan. In the words of the late Dominican priest Herbert McCabe:

Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us…

{God’s} love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense, he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God.

Of course, many people will recoil at McCabe’s notion that God doesn’t give a damn about sin. “Why should I even bother being good when sinners can just waltz into heaven?” they’ll say.  “If he lets everyone in that’s not fair!” Well, people in the Gospel grumbled about this stuff too; like the Prodigal Son’s annoyed brother or vineyard laborers pissed they worked a full shift while the guy who worked just hour got the same pay. Instead of being glad for their brothers’ good fortune or of the master of the house’s largesse, they thought they’d been cheated. Makes you wonder if those sheep resented the lamb who was lost. 

People cling, bitterly I think, to the concept of eternal perdition for sinners because imagining an empty hell creates too much cognitive dissonance. It upsets our idea of how things should work.  But Jesus was big on shattering people preconceived ideas, peppering his parables with zingers like, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” – turning people’s conception of how the world works on its head. But cognitive dissonance is a good thing because, when you feel that little buzz in your head that something’s not right, it usually isn’t.  And, if people are wrong about hell, what else are they wrong about?  Kind of screws with people’s salvific sense of security – and that freaks them out. 

But thinking salvation is some kind of individual achievement, a reward for passing a test, is utter ridiculousness. As Pope Benedict once wrote, “No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.” All our lives spill over into one another’s in an interconnectedness that binds us all together. Either we all make it into heaven or none of us do. And if Father McCabe’s insights are correct, then we are all doomed to be happy. Not that the afterlife won’t sting a bit, mind you. God is quite terrifying because unconditional love can be a scary thing. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of it and had nothing to give in return, or felt unworthy of it, you know what I mean. Perhaps, when face to face with a God who doesn’t give a damn about our sins, His love, to quote Benedict again, “burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation…. [healing] us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.” Of course, that fire might burn hotter for some than for others – but not for eternity. We damn ourselves, not God who, like a good parent, only wants the best for us. We can always go home. 

So, when you think about it, you’ve got to wonder who these hell spouting preachers are worshipping on Sunday when they’re not busy scaring small children. God? Or the other guy? No wonder my daughter has doubts. But that’s okay because doubt can be a stimulus for spiritual growth and, if my conversations with my daughter are any guide, she’ll probably turn out to be quite the amateur theologian herself. I mean, how many kids ask, “How can Jesus be God when he was a man?” or “How does the Trinity work?” at age nine? Chip off the old block if you ask me.  

Later that day, taking advantage of a break in the cold, I took my daughter to the playground. It was mobbed and, as Natalie and I walked towards the monkey bars, we heard a mother start screaming that she couldn’t find her baby. But before anyone could react, she spied him on the opposite side of the playground and ran to him, scooping the toddler up and smothering him with hugs and kisses. As I watched that mother cry tears of joy, I turned to Natalie and said, “You see that? That is what God is really like.” And all that bullshit about Hell?

Frankly my dear, God doesn’t give a damn. 

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