My little girl is four years old and I’m in no hurry to burden her with concepts like afterlife and judgment, especially not the dour and literal conceptions her mom and I grew up with. Gloria barely understands what death is at this point. But we are trying to raise her in the way of Jesus, and eventually certain questions are inevitable. This is my attempt to rehearse what I might say in response to the question, “Daddy, what is hell?”
Sweetheart, “hell” is a word that means a lot of things to a lot of people. Basically it’s a way of talking about the pain and sadness caused by the bad things people do to each other. Some people go through hell during their lives because they get sick or hurt, and prophets warn us that the world can turn into a kind of hell if we don’t take care of it and each other.
In Jesus’ time people didn’t really talk about hell, they talked about “Gehenna.” Gehenna was a real place, a valley near Jerusalem. It was a nasty place. A long time ago some really bad things happened there, and Gehenna was known as the scary place where people died. When Jesus lived, people used to talk about their enemies being “thrown into Gehenna” as a punishment from God for being bad guys, but Jesus didn’t see it that way.
Jesus knew the same Gehenna story that everyone else knew, but he told it in a different way. He agreed that really bad things can happen because of the mean things we do to each other, but he disagreed with the idea that Gehenna was only for his country’s enemies. He warned his friends that if they didn’t learn to love peace, they would all be in trouble too. He also said that it wasn’t God who threw people into Gehenna, it was the people’s own weapons, their armies, and the enemies they made by being mean who would bring disaster.
So Jesus told his friends to repent, to change their minds and learn to love peace and to love their neighbors and even to love their enemies. That’s how the world can be more like the Kingdom of God and less like Gehenna. I know all of this sounds very serious, but Jesus said we never need to worry or be afraid. In fact, he said we should all be happy and have fun like little kids!
There’s a lot more to talk about, but this is a good place to start. I love you, kiddo. Now, for the last time, please pick up your Duplos.