I started thinking more seriously about heaven and hell around the age of seven. I didn’t grow up in a religious household, but I did own a bible. I even went to church without my family, securing rides from an older couple who made my salvation their personal mission. I had known about death for a while, but it wasn’t until around second grade that my investigative skills started to catch up with my natural curiosity.
I’ve always liked to think about things. I mean, just sit in one spot and work out a theory until it becomes exhausting. I truly believed I could reason out the answer to anything if I thought about it long enough. I still believe it, but I have since figured out that the length of time it takes to reason out an answer may vary; from a moment, to an entire lifetime. Sometimes the answer is that the answer is out of reach- which can be a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.
The information a seven-year old can find in the bible about eternity is disappointing. Up until then I had pulled most of my knowledge from television. Adults were always talking about heaven as this magical place where everyone meets up someday. I couldn’t find that story in the bible.
If it is true, and you think about it long enough, you might believe that heaven must be some kind of matrix. I prefer my relationships to exist in mutual reality, so I found a strange relief in the bible’s lack of detail. The bible focuses less on joyous reunions and more on golden streets and days without night. It looks like praising God 24/7 could cut into our social life a bit, but I hear it’s amazing.
In the immortal words of John Entwistle, “Why can’t we have eternal life and never die?”
There are good reasons, but none of them are reasons you tell a kid. That’s the kind of philosophy you let someone else teach them during their college years. You gloss over the sketchy details and assure them that it all works out in the end. Everyone they love will be in heaven, and everyone they want to be with will also want to be there with them. Maybe you will tell them that God has powers we don’t understand, and spending too much time wandering around those logistics is a sign that the devil is tempting them to doubt God.
Doubters go to that other place, which is a topic seldom played out on the Sunday school felt board. Hell is for people who hate God and offer candy to children as a way to lure them into their vehicle of death. Maybe the adults in your life used it as a tool to give you courage to invite friends to church events. There are plenty of kids carrying around the weight of not saving their friends from never-ending misery. That guilt takes years to wash off. But for most kids hell is something that happens to other people. It’s too scary for children- all that gnashing of teeth and eternal torture.
Our children are not going to gain intelligence; they are going to gain experience. There is a big difference. They have a higher capacity for learning than we do. They have the luxury of thinking about things with less clutter in the way. Maybe it will be a while before they can articulate their thoughts, but there is a lot going on in there. They have already soaked in plenty of the world around them; they just haven’t gotten around to filling in all the details yet.
I know I’m still working on it.
I worry about something happening to us. How would we explain it to Teghan? I once had a conversation with a five-year old who confessed, with tears in her eyes, that she didn’t ever want to leave home and go to heaven. She had recently become aware of her own mortality, and I imagine her parents thought the idea of heaven would be a comfort to her. They hadn’t anticipated how much time she might spend thinking about how it worked, or that she would gather feedback from any stranger.
She had basically been told that if she dies, she will be taken from her home and sent to some strange place where dead relatives she doesn’t know are going to take care of her until her parents finally join them. To a five-year old, fifty years separated from her parents is the length of eternity. Paradise sounds terrifying; and I’m pretty sure no one had filled her in on the hell option yet.
I don’t remember being afraid of heaven. I didn’t ask questions about it at home, school, church, or in the company of strangers. As with everything else, I preferred working it out for myself in secret. That’s what some of us do. I assumed that if heaven were paradise, there must be some missing pieces to that puzzle. I would simply look for them. I’ve been looking for them ever since.
Some of us are afraid to truly believe in anything, because believing means we have made a singular choice among all the possibilities; and endless possibilities can be comforting. For others, uncertainty is frightening and unacceptable. Which child do I have? It’s hard to know when your daughter can’t ask questions yet. If Teghan has any philosophical concerns I am certainly unaware of it. Of course, so were my parents- and I had endless chatter to offer. Maybe she’s too young; but I am sure my parents thought I was too young, too.
I don’t want her to understand heaven and hell. How could she? Whether you believe in it or not, it is impossible to walk through life without any ideas on the topic. Children who attend church get a particularly early introduction to complex spiritual questions of mortality. She doesn’t go to church. I just want her to be okay with the way life and death unfolds throughout her lifetime, even after I am gone. I suppose that’s an unreasonable request to make for anyone. Or maybe not. I’m still thinking about it.