A morbid question, hm? But I have gotten into arguments on this topic rather often lately, usually with the same people.
The Catholic Church does not actually say who goes to hell. Even Judas, who probably went to hell, was never declared definitively to be there. And Dante's imagination sent all kinds of people there, but of course he didn't know for sure.
What we do know is what we are supposed to do if we want to go to heaven: believe in Christ, be baptized, keep the commandments, avoid sin.
And yet, what about people who can't even do the first on the list because they don't know any better? What about babies who die before birth, people from uncontacted primitive tribes who have never heard of Jesus, or people who faithfully follow a religion their parents taught them and avoid looking into Christianity because they think God wouldn't want them to study heresy?
That's where the disagreement comes in. The Catholic Church, at least in recent years, has been pretty open about the question. Pope Benedict said he thought unbaptized babies can go to heaven; he didn't say how, but said that a God that is infinitely merciful wouldn't deny them salvation for something (not being baptized) that wasn't their fault. And the Church accepts baptism of desire, that a person could receive the grace of baptism without being literally baptized with water, simply by desiring baptism. Some say you can receive baptism of desire by living a good life and seeking God -- because implicit in this is the understanding that they would desire baptism if they knew God wanted it. And some say, "Well, all we know is God's regular way of saving us, but perhaps he has other ways that we don't know."
The other side of this debate adamantly declares that baptism is required, and that any person not baptized with water goes straight to hell, no matter how good they are otherwise. One person told me that a person who had never heard of Jesus, but spent their entire life serving others, bathing lepers and feeding the poor, would go to hell; whereas a person who never did anything good other than receive the sacraments and attempt to avoid sin would go to heaven.
Can you guess which side I fall on?
It just seems that from what we know of God -- all-powerful, all-merciful, all-just -- he would never punish a person who did their best. It goes against a basic sense of fairness. Why would God create people only to damn them through no fault of their own?
I also think that in what we call the general judgment, we judge ourselves. We look at God and his infinite goodness, we see ourselves with total clarity, and then we know if we are fit for heaven or not. Our life is spent shaping ourselves into the person we choose to be, and that is a person who is like God, or is not. If we have spent our lives loving and serving others, I think it will be obvious to us that we want to be with God. If we have spent our lives serving ourselves and hurting others, I think the very notion of being with God would be repugnant. Like the devil, we will prefer to be alone forever than to accept God's company.
What if we have been trying, but aren't ready yet? Well, that's what purgatory is for, right? I've always thought the doctrine of purgatory was very comforting. It's the place where people who did their best can really get ready for heaven. We all know people who mean well but are aggravating to be with because of one fault or another. God will heal us of that; heaven will not be full of people we can't stand.
Someone argued that this renders all of our effort meaningless. Why spread the Gospel if people could get to heaven without it? This person believed that it was so important for us to have a share in other people's salvation that there were people in our lives who could be saved with our help, but damned without it.
That just didn't sit right with me. What kind of merciful God would let me suffer eternal damnation through no fault of my own, just because another person didn't do their job?
That doesn't mean we don't sometimes save people. It's just that we'll never know what would have happened to them without our effort. Imagine this scenario. You are first to arrive at a burning apartment building. You rush in and save a baby. A moment later, the fire department arrives. They go in and rescue all the other residents.
Does that invalidate what you did saving the baby? Maybe the baby would have been saved by the fire fighters if you had stayed outside. Maybe not. You can't know. But that isn't what happened -- what happened is that you really did save the baby. You don't need to know the baby would have died without your help for your heroism to really count.
Also, is knowing Jesus in your lifetime a bad thing? A person I spoke with seemed to think it was, that the truly charitable thing would be to leave people alone so they wouldn't be culpable for not knowing about God, and they could just live how they wanted. But that's just so wrong. To know God is always better than not to know him. And the commandments he teaches us aren't just a test so we can get to heaven -- they help us live better. I know I would certainly rather know what the truth is, what right and wrong are, than have to guess. And I can't see what the disadvantage is of a relationship with God.
I think that when we die and see Jesus face-to-face, some of us will rush to him immediately because they already knew him well. It will be like the continuation of a conversation that's been going on all their lives. Others will be surprised, because he isn't quite what they expected to see, and yet he will be familiar -- he will be the face of all the goodness they loved and pursued in their lives. And some will see him and recoil -- "WHAT? He is like THAT? He saved THOSE people? He forgives THOSE sins? Forget it -- I refuse to be in a place run by a person like that."
Are there people who would really do that? Sadly, I think that there are. I imagine Hitler would turn and walk when he found Jews there. The Pharisees would walk when they saw Gentiles and Samaritans made it in. Some rich people would leave because there wouldn't be a special place for them, no first-class section for the gifted. Some people just wouldn't like God. His love would seem like weakness; his mercy just unfair.
There are people who say "I think to get to heaven all you have to do is be a good person." Well, fine. But is it that easy to be a good person? How many of us love our neighbor .... all of our neighbors? How many of us daily seek to be closer to God and know him better, based on what we know so far? How many people do you know who are good at forgiving things that seem unforgivable, loving the unlovable, bearing wrongs patiently without resorting to hate?
With God's mercy being what it is, I think he'll take our best effort and fill up the rest with his own power. But are we giving our best effort?
I think that's the only question we really need to be asking. After all, on judgment day, the only person we will be judging .... is ourselves.