Bad People Go to Hell and Other Parental Panic Moments

My lovely blue-eyed seven-year-old daughter giggled. “Bad people go to the devil when they die,” and my charming bow-tie and button-down-shirt wearing son giggled, too, “Yeah, but we’re going to heaven because of JESUS.”

I stuttered and stammered, “Well, it’s true that Jesus saves us,” I said, “but I’m not sure about the devil. It’d be a bad place to go, that far away from God.  I don’t know about the devil.” Or something like that. Yammer. Stammer. Pause. Continue eating pizza. End of theological discussion.

Oh, Lord.  Lord, Lord, Lord.  It’s moments like this that cause my adult brain to short circuit. What do I say?  What do I believe?  How do I say what I believe without oversimplifying to the point of error?  Can I even communicate a non-deistic, grace over deeds, mercy over judgment concept to my children?

Can I just hand them some Popsicle sticks and glue?  Here, stick these together. They make a cross! Wee!

I’ve thought about and pondered the existence of God for twenty years, ever since my best friend scribbled, “At least I know where I’m going when I die,” in a folded and creased sheet of notebook paper, ever since I asked my mom, “Do you believe in God?” and I thought to myself, Of course she does, everyone believes in God, but she sat on the beach blanket next to me and said, I don’t know.

I don’t know.

It’s possible that the greatest gift my mom ever gave me was this uncertainty.  Maybe that sounds crazy.  Maybe if she had said, “Of course I do,” I would have nodded and thought, “well then, there you have it. There is a god.”

But wrapped in that single, simple, honest answer was this: permission. Permission to doubt. Permission to seek. Permission to question. Permission to believe.


She could have said, “Of course I do,” her heart racing, ready to deliver the sinner’s prayer to me right there on the shore of Lake Erie, right there, perform the accept-Jesus-into-your-heart prayer, and maybe it would have meant something to me.  She could have said, “No, I don’t. I think it’s ridiculous to believe in god,” and I might have nodded, okay, that takes care of that, Lisa can eat her perfect cursive handwritten note.

But no, with one sentence a door opened, because paired with faith is always doubt, and what is the good news of Christ if not freedom?  Freedom to question?  Freedom to wonder?  Freedom to demand answers and freedom to rest in mystery?

And then there was that note.  I think about that note often, how it’s hot poker burned and I flinched.  Where will I go when I die?  Is there an afterlife?  Oh, the many ways I’ve answered this question, heaven, hell, dust, earth, eternity, purgatory, asleep in the ground, awake in the clouds… and yet even today Idon’tknowIdon’tknowIdon’tknowIdon’tknow.

Oh, I believe in an afterlife.  I believe in heaven, the love of Christ, ever-presence in a place as good as and better than this world, a place of wholeness and healing.  But also there is (or can be) heaven on earth, healing and redemption here, now.  That is a message I can hear and understand with more clarity and immediacy than any eternal heavenly location – that which is unfathomable, mysterious, but no less real… or possible.

But the question of the devil, well, maybe?  Why not?  I don’t know anything about hell, its physical location, whether a loving God would condemn a mortal being to burn for all eternity, but I know there is (or can be) hell on earth, a life spent in bitterness and ruin, destruction and vanity and greed, a life spent entirely separate from God, serving one master, serving one’s own interests, or maybe even serving the burning desires of Satan who wants to kill and destroy, to drive people away from God.  Maybe?

“At least I know where I’m going when I die.”  My best friend’s note was a catalyst.  What do I know?  What do I believe?  That note was followed not by condemnation but by invitations, to Bible studies, dinners with her parents praying, the Billy Graham revival in Cleveland, our shared college dorm room, worship services we attended together, prayers we uttered together, and Bible verses we exchanged. All of the merciful, miraculous, and mysterious ways our paths have intersected these twenty years are an entirely other kind of testimony to the grace and power of Christ.

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Grace.  Permission.  Freedom.

So what do you give your children?  I want to give them an open hand.  I want to invite them into “Here’s what I believe, but.”  Yes, I believe in a huge, loving, powerful, merciful, just, faithful, mysterious God of the universe.  Let me show him to you as best I can.  I hope that you will see him and feel that presence in your life, that faith will surpass doubt.  I hope that the love of Christ will be real to you, that it will ever change you, ever humble you, ever shape you into a fuller version of yourself, the very best version of yourself, and that the same love of Christ will compel you to love others deeply and fully, so they too may experience the love of Christ.

And when you ask me a question I don’t yet know the answer to, please dear God let me have the humility to simply say, “I don’t know,” and may the mystery be enough to keep both of us searching.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

4 thoughts on “Bad People Go to Hell and Other Parental Panic Moments

  1. Amen, Sarah. Amen. And cheers to all us parents who have the courage to say, “I don't know,” but are willing to hold our children's hands while standing in the mystery.


  2. Great post, Sarah! My name is Heather and I was hoping you would be willing to answer my question about your blog! My email is Lifesabanquet1(at)gmail(dot)com 🙂


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