To Dust You Shall Return (and Other Wishful Thinking)

My Uncle Mack is a cheerful, decent middle-class fellow who thinks religion is a fraud perpetrated by charlatans for gullible weaklings.

He doesn't say so up front because he knows we're Catholic and he's polite, but that's what he really thinks. A recent death in the family found me and Uncle Mack discussing life after death.

He said he thought religion, heaven and hell and the whole package was a matter of make-believe on a colossal scale. “Some fellows thought up pie in the sky because it would be easier for them to keep control of the peasants.”

“So you think heaven is just a load of wishful thinking?” I asked.

“That's about right.” “Do you believe in life after death or do you think death is the final curtain — the last gasp and then nothing?”

“That's right,” Uncle Mack said. “Death, then nada. Nothing. Zilch. The end. That's it.”

“But,” I replied, “that really sounds like wishful thinking to me.”

“Why's that?” “Because most people who believe in heaven also believe in hell, and if I have to give account of myself and if I might go to hell, then it's hardly wishful thinking, is it? On the other hand, imagining that there is no heaven or hell is the most amazing piece of wishful thinking.”

“How so?”

“Well, if you wish there is no heaven or hell, then you're hoping that you'll get away with it after all.”

“Get away with what?” Uncle Mack said. “I'm not a criminal!”

I wanted to point out that in my opinion God doesn't send anyone to hell. They choose to go there by turning away from him. If someone regularly turns away from God (even in a nice, polite way) then in the end, they would turn away from him just as they'd always done. To deny such a conclusion is the wildest kind of wishful thinking.

Which reminds me of another relative — my Uncle George. George is an evangelical Christian of a Calvinist slant. He believes in eternal security. George therefore believes that because he accepted Jesus into his heart he has a reserved seat on the train to heaven. Unlike Uncle Mack, Uncle George professes a belief in both heaven and hell. But George's Calvinism effectively puts him in the same camp as Mack because, although he believes in hell, he doesn't believe it is a possibility for himself.

What really interests me is that both Mack and George are cheerful, decent fellows who (for different reasons) don't believe hell is a possibility for them. In that way they're also like the liberal Christian who doesn't believe God will send anyone to hell. What the liberal Christian (more accurately called a universalist) really means is that they don't believe in a God who would send them to hell.

All three are indulging in a dangerous form of wishful thinking. Uncle Mack gets rid of heaven in order to get rid of hell. Uncle George believes in hell but not for himself, and the universalist Christian doesn't believe in hell for anybody — especially himself. The bottom line is that none of them consider hell to be a real possibility, and this leads to a most alarming form of complacent self-righteousness, for who is more likely to end up in hell than the one who doesn't believe in it? St. Padre Pio was once asked what he thought of modern people who did not believe in hell. He said, “They will believe in hell when they get there.”

The only other option is the Catholic one.

Later in the evening I tried to explain to Uncle Mack why Catholicism was anything but “wishful thinking.” First of all, none of us really know what will happen to us after we die. Any belief that tells us just what will happen to us has to be either a lie or wishful thinking because we just don't know what will happen.

In that sense Mack and George are both far too dogmatic. One firmly believes he will go to nothing and the other firmly believes he will go to heaven. In this respect they need a bit of saintly uncertainty. In contrast to their wishful thinking, the Catholic belief is sober and realistic — as sober and realistic as an insurance salesman.

Catholics admit that we will all die. We admit that no one can know for sure where he will go when he dies. We therefore remind ourselves, like Boy Scouts, to be prepared. The essential Catholic sermon on hell consists of two words: “Fear hell.” There could be nothing further from wishful thinking than that.

To be fair, Mack, George and the universalist might not believe in hell because they know deep down that few of us are good enough to go straight to heaven and few of us are wicked enough to go straight to hell. Once again, the Catholic belief comes across as admirably realistic and fair.

The vast majority of mediocre folks like you and me will go to purgatory first. Purgatory is where we have the chance to finish the training course, learn from our mistakes, get our act together and scrub up for dinner.

The recent death in my family has made me face facts. Death comes to us all, and after death the judgment. My Lent this year will be grimmer and leaner than it's been for some time. I want it to be because it is one of the ways I can get ready for that summons I cannot avoid.

Dwight Longenecker is the author of Adventures in Orthodoxy.

Visit his Web site at