I’m a third grade teacher. At a Catholic school. And the following scenario is not at all unusual in my classroom. Also? My job is occasionally horrifying and scary.
A few weeks ago, after having our afternoon prayer time, one of my students raised their hand and asked why it was okay to say the word “Hell” in Mass but not anywhere else.
Now, most people would just go ahead and explain the difference between Hell the place and “Hell” the curse word and be done with it. But what most people fail to realize is that when it comes to kids, there is never a simple explanation, and you’re never fully “done with it”. Especially when it comes to third graders. Third graders are just about the most concrete, black and white, cut and dried type thinkers you will ever come across. It’s either good or bad, right or wrong, up or down, right or left. But there is no in-between, no gray area, no lingering questions. When a question is asked, a concrete answer is expected and once that is given, we can all move on.
Except when a concrete answer cannot be given (as is the case most of the time), then there will be no moving on. There will be continued questions and wonderings and incessant discussion until a proper and firm proclamation can be given. And then and ONLY then will anyone be allowed to move on. (Seven hour days with 20+ third graders can occasionally be exhausting.)
And so, it began. A tentative explanation between “Hell” the place and “Hell” the curse word was given and as I’m wincing and bracing myself for the onslaught of “But WHYS” that were decidedly coming my way, I’m greeted with an even more difficult question. “So, who goes to Hell?”
Oh. No. It’s moments like these I wish I had the parish priests on speed dial because how does one gently explain the concept of Hell to a third grader?
So, I take a deep breath, ask the Lord for His help and His words and His wisdom, and I offer the best explanation I can. I tell them that for people to go to heaven, they must acknowledge that the only means of salvation is through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified for our sins – and we must choose to follow Him and His statues to go to heaven.
“But what if you don’t? Will you go to Hell? Will my dad go to Hell?” (I seriously have got to get the fathers’ numbers put into my speed dial…)
So, inside my head I’m thinking, “Well, that’s kind of how it works,” but I’m certainly not going to tell that to a 3rd grader because seriously, what do I know? I’m not the judge of the universe. So I tell them that God knows our hearts and judges what’s in our hearts and as I’m limping through this explanation, another hand goes up and blurts, “But why would God do that if He loves us?”
So, I try to explain that we, as humans, have free will. God doesn’t make us do anything. He’s not going to force us to love him. We have to love Him of our own free will. So, if someone does go to Hell, it’s because of the choices they freely made.
And just as I’m about to distract them from the discussion at hand with the new shiny object providentially placed in my pocket the night before, one more hand goes up. “But you can earn your way out of Hell, right?”
No. That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works!
Jesus, take the wheel.
I can tell we’re in for a LOOOOONG discussion, so we may as well ditch everything I had planned for our language arts block, and prepare to hunker down.
So, I tell them, “No, Hell is forever. A person in Hell has already made their decision to accept or reject God’s plan for salvation. You cannot earn your way out.”
Another hand goes up. Please. Stop.
“But you can go to Hell once you get to heaven, right? If you do something really bad?”
Seriously? Have you been even semi-conscious during Mass, religion instruction, or prayer time at home???
So, as I bite my tongue to keep from snapping at these precious gifts of God for their lack of understanding, I gently tell them, “No. There is no sin in heaven. Everyone has been perfected in heaven. The goal is heaven. You cannot pass Go or collect $200. You’ve already won the game.”
One. More. Hand.
“So, what’s purgatory?”
Seriously, child? You’re going to ask the Protestant teacher about Purgatory? Are you sure you want to do that? Here, let me get one of the fathers for you…
But instead, I offer up the BEST explanation for purgatory that I can – taken straight from one of the fathers.
“Purgatory is for people who are already saved. People who have already accepted God’s plan for salvation. However, many followers of Christ will not be fully perfected and ready for heaven when they die. They may still have some lingering sin that needs to be taken care of. That’s what Purgatory is for. So, they can become perfected in order to enter heaven – because nothing imperfect can enter into heaven.”
And at that moment, I finally manage to wrangle the new shiny object from my pocket and distract them from the discussion at hand.
Later that day, I was sharing with some friends the depth of the theological discussion I had just wrapped up with my third graders, when they look at my quizzically and say, “But what’s so hard about explaining Purgatory? Hell is for the really evil people, Heaven is for the saints, and Purgatory is for everyone in between.”
Dear Catholic Church,
This is why the misinformation is rampant. Your own followers don’t even understand the nuts and bolts of what you stand for or what you teach. We’ve gotta get this cleaned up ASAP.
And through clenched teeth and eyes that were shooting darts, I “calmly” explained to them what Purgatory really was. And they collectively cocked their heads to the side and said, “But our confirmation pastors-” And I cut them off and maybe a bit too forcefully said, “But the Catechism of the Catholic Church would beg to differ.”
(I never know how I’m going to come off to cradle Catholics, but it’s gotten to the point that with the amount of misinformation out there, I just don’t care anymore…)
A few days later, I came across this quote from C.S. Lewis in his book “Letters to Malcolm”. (And remember, C.S. Lewis was Anglican. He never did convert. But his explanation of Purgatory was so perfect, I nearly wanted to cry.)
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’
God bless you, C.S. Lewis, for putting perfectly into words what so many Catholics and Protestants fail to understand. Because, let’s face it… Purgatory just makes sense.
And with that, I illegally copied all of C.S. Lewis’ “Letters to Malcolm” and distributed it to my third graders so I never had to explain anything to them ever again.
(PSSST! The ending was a joke. I didn’t really do that. The school secretary would have killed me.)