I’ve been starting to think a lot about Heaven and Hell lately. I don’t think it’s my age, or anything -although I do feel the need to capitalize both words, just in case- but I do sort of wonder about the carrot-and-stick thing they keep using. And where did they get those funny names? I mean, it’s not as if words for bribery and threats were unknown in the neighbourhood, eh? So why try to camouflage them? Was it just a tart-up job?
Neither were particularly important words in our house when I was growing up, although I did once ask my father why Heaven wasn’t a swear word like Hell was. After stammering around for a while, he referred the matter to my mother who, at the time, was busy cleaning my room. I didn’t really want to get roped into helping her, so the official family position on the question remained unsettled.
I remember something a little girl was asked sometime around then in the Sunday school my parents sent me to. The woman leading the class was large-framed, elderly, and obviously frustrated that none of us seemed to be taking her seriously. We, on the other hand, were merely thankful we didn’t have to sit on those hard seats in church listening to adult-talk.
Anyway, in a fit of desperation Mrs. Bottom -who could forget that name?- decided to introduce the concept of Hell and damnation to quieten us. We had all heard of it, of course -Hell, not Heaven, was a standard threat in those days.
“So, does anybody know anything about Hell?” she shouted above the mêlée that our class had become.
We all stopped talking for a minute while we tried to decide whether she was swearing, or talking Bible. A little girl who found herself the closest to Mrs. Bottom, made eye-contact with her at exactly the wrong time.
“Cindy?” -I think that was the girl’s name. “What do you think Hell is?”
Cindy looked around her, hoping there was another girl of the same name that had just walked in, but when Mrs. Bottom actually pointed at her, she shrugged.
“It… It’s the place you go when you die if you’re bad, or something…” I remember she tried to make it sound as if she wasn’t really sure.
“And what is ‘being bad’, Cindy?”
“Uhmm…” Cindy glanced around the room again, still hoping for a rescue, but we were all quiet in case we, too, got dragged into the uncomfortable glare of Mrs. Bottom.
“What is ‘being bad’, Cindy?” she repeated in the unlikely event that Cindy had forgotten the question already.
“Well, my dad says it depends…” She looked down at the floor, hoping that maybe if she stared at it long enough, Mrs. Bottom would forget what she’d asked.
But that was not to be -Mrs. Bottom was on a quest. “Depends on what?”
Cindy blushed -she was obviously uncomfortable sharing her father’s opinion in a Sunday school class. “Depends on whether or not you know you’re being bad…” she mumbled, all the while examining the tiles on the floor beneath her feet.
Mrs. Bottom’s eyebrows slowly inched upwards, forcing the little wrinkles on her forehead to rumple like the sheets on an unmade bed. “That’s very interesting Cindy,” she said, after thinking about it for a moment. “But, is it really possible not to know…?”
For some reason, that conversation has niggled me all these years -long after the possible retributive or redemptive powers of Hell or Heaven had faded from my vocabulary. Was badness really dependent on whether or not you recognized on which side of zero you’d placed the deed on the behaviour ordinate? And did anybody other than my accountant father measure it that way? Anyway, it seemed much too arbitrary to leave the guilty party in charge of the guilt.
It was only after I had accumulated children myself, that I seriously wondered whether or not Retributive Justice could be reliably assumed to be meted out in the much-touted Afterlife. It wasn’t my children, though, but one of their friends who raised the subject after one of the most innocent of injustices.
Sandi, a frenetic four or five year old, was just one of a maelstrom of friends who had gathered for that particular yearly acknowledgment of Time’s passage which seems to require children to smear cake on walls, and be sick under tables. I saw Sandi sitting quietly in a relatively untouched corner of the room, staring at the floor. Even from across the room I could see a few tears rolling silently down her cheeks.
I wondered if somebody had been mean to her, so I put one of the few remaining pieces of birthday cake on a little plate and walked over.
“Thought maybe you might need some cake,” I said and smiled. But she only glanced at it, shook her head, then looked away. I sat down on the floor beside her and broke off a piece for myself.
“Careful,” she said in a soft voice I could barely hear above the shouts around us in the room. “That might be Jonases…” And she stared at me for a moment with a frightened look on her face.
“I don’t think so, Sandi. It was just sitting on the table all by itself…”
She fixed her eyes on the floor again. “That’s what I thought, too,” she said shaking her head. “I just took some cake from the table and he said it was his.”
I sighed and offered her the cake again. “And was it his?”
She looked up at me and blinked away a tear. “He wasn’t eating it.”
I patted her hand. It sounded like he had done something to make her sit by herself. “So did Jonah hit you, or something…?”
She shook her head. “He just told me I was going to go to Hell.”
I took a deep breath; I hadn’t expected an existential crisis in a five year old. “Friends sometimes say hurtful things they don’t mean, Sandi… Especially about things they don’t know much about.”
Sandi looked into my eyes and nodded. “But he knows all about Hell.”
It was my turn to blink. “Why do you think he knows about Hell?”
“Because his father is a mister… in the Church,” she added, in case there were other kinds. She began to cry again, and her face contorted in a way that only a child can manage.
I have to say that I was at a loss for words for a moment as she buried her head in my shoulder. It was then I remembered what Cindy had said so many years before.
“So you didn’t know it was Jonah’s cake, right?”
She sat up and shook her head. “No, there were a whole bunch of plates on the table…”
“And you didn’t know you were doing anything wrong?”
She shook her head again and wiped away a tear.
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about, sweetheart.”
She looked at me with a skeptic’s expression on her face. I could almost see her wondering about whether she could believe me. “How do you know that though…?”
I thought about it for a moment; I needed an appropriate authority figure. “My father told me,” I finally said.
Sandi stared across the room for a minute, then turned her head to me. “Was he a Church mister, too?” she asked, innocence dripping from her eyes.
“Better,” I said. “He was an Accountant.”
Her face lit up, and I could see she was impressed. “Wow!” she said. “So’s my dad,” she added proudly, and skipped off to join her friends.
I only wish my father had been around for the endorsement. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have consigned her to Hell -well, at least as long as there was some cake left for him…