My 9 year old niece told me the other day that some Christian kids in her class told her that people who don't believe in Jesus are going to go to hell. When she asked, "Who do you mean?" they very flippantly said, "You know, Jews and Muslims. Anyone who isn't Christian."
Nine year-olds. Consigning entire groups of people to hell from the comfort of their plush suburban school desks. These children have been taught at home that--let's include the Chinese here--BILLIONS of the world's inhabitants are going to hell because they don't believe what the Christians of a small church in a small suburban town in a small state in the USA believe.
I was absolutely speechless when my niece brought it up. How in the hell does a grown-up make sense of that kind of statement for a child? That there is no way for her to achieve "salvation" but through Jesus. And not just "Jesus" but a very specific "Jesus" as defined by those kids' churches.
So how to answer? Should I give her the theology:
Genesis (8:21 and 4:7) clearly states that mankind was created with the inclination toward evil and the ability to master this inclination. That we can repent and do the right thing and find our way back to God directly. The Hebrew word for repentance is "teshuvah" which literally means "to return" to God. Malachi: "Return to me and I shall return to you." Most importantly, Ezekiel: "When the wicked man turns away from his wickedness...and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive." For sweet pete's sake I could go on and on with the chapter and verse, but something tells me these kids' parents would just say I'm misinterpreting my own damn scriptures.
So, should I give her the "F Them" attitude? I'm thinking not, simply because, unlike the parents of those kids, I'd really rather not teach her that other children are going to hell for their beliefs, no matter that I consider them to be erroneous at best and criminally insane at worst (the hell part, not the believing in Jesus part).
So what my mom and I did was just talk her through our own beliefs, rather than taking a swing at those of others. We talked about a few things:
--The fact that Judaism does not believe in Hell as a place. There is no eternal damnation in Judaism that we know of. Ecclesiastes says: "The dust will return to the earth, as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." In the paraphrase of Bill Cosby: God is the one who breathed life into us, and it is God who'll take it out. No demons involved.
--The fact that the word Satan in Hebrew literally means an adversary that comes to challenge us. God created temptation to test our loyalty. And, going back to Genesis where we are given the urge to temptation but also the ability to master it, we know that it is within our ability to beat a satan. So, no devil waiting for us in the foyer after we die.
As you can tell from my chapter and verse quoting, we were getting ourselves all worked up about how to competently explain things until we had some kind of theological harmonic convergence and started to say the same thing simultaneously:
If there is a hell, GOD will decide who goes there. Not your friends at school.
That seemed to work for her and she went about her business unfazed, as every 9 year old should.
It reminded me of a little blurb in an old and marginally funny book titled "Only In America" by a (Jewish) man named Harry Golden. It was published in the '50s, so many of his references are lost on me. But one anecdote made me laugh, especially in light of the recent press release by elementary students that I'd be flying to Hades first class:
The Downtown Luncheon Club is More Exclusive Than Heaven
I am puzzled by the letters and pamphlets I receive from Christian and Hebrew-Christian mission groups urging me to become a convert. I am also puzzled by the vast sums of money appropriated by many church organizations for the purpose of carrying on this mission work. The Downtown Luncheon Club I cannot join. If they don't want me for one hour at the Luncheon Club, why should they seek my companionship in heaven through all eternity?"