Ask Pastor Paul: Answering Questions About the Afterlife

Ask Pastor Paul Paul: Spiritual Advice for the Real World.

Have a spiritual question, ethical dilemma or religious curiosity? Don't be shy! People of all backgrounds, ages and creeds are encouraged to submit questions to

Dear Pastor Paul,

When I was 8 years old I was taught two things in the same week that have forever baffled me. The first was that accepting Jesus was the only path to heaven; and the second was that there were a billion people in China who had never heard the name Jesus and would never have a chance to hear that name.

How is that possible? Are these billion Chinese throwaway people to God? Practice people in God's eyes? I asked my religious studies teacher this question and she had no answer. I'm in my 20s now and still no one has been capable of giving me an answer. Cab you shed any light on this?

Dear Friend,

Determining the eternal fate of virtuous people who are not Christians has been a puzzler for a long time. Augustine raised the question in connection to babies who died before baptism, and Dante created a whole area in his Inferno for "virtuous heathens" such as the philosopher Plato and his guide Virgil who didn't deserve hell, but who were not Christians so couldn't make it to heaven. So, people have struggled with this question since the beginning -- now it is your turn.

There is an instructive joke about a new arrival to heaven being shown around by St. Peter. While passing one door, St. Peter warns the newbie to be very quiet. Once they had gone on a distance the new arrival asks, "Why did we have to be so quiet next to that door?" St. Peter smiles conspiratorially and answers: "Oh, the Baptists are in that room and they think they are the only ones in here."

I can tell that joke because I am a Baptist, but you could substitute Baptist with just about any denomination or religious tradition. People with absolute conviction are going to insist they know all about who goes to heaven. However, most tradition has a mix of responses to this question and the important thing to remember is that nobody really knows, as we are not God. Like Dante and Augustine, you have to decide what you believe about this faith quandary.

I can tell you how I have resolved it. As someone who comes from a mixed religious background, and whose closest cousins are Jews, I will say that any place where my cousins can't come doesn't sound like heaven to me. I believe and trust in a loving God whose grace and embrace exceeds even my wildest imagination, not some punitive deity who cares about what creedal boxes have been checked, or is restricted by geography or time.

Concentrate on your own practice, love God and neighbor as Jesus mandated. Feed the hungry, liberate the poor, and visit the prisoners. Appreciate the wonder and beauty of this world. And leave the question of who gets into heaven up to God.

Dear Pastor Paul

My father was a quiet but devout Catholic. He passed away after an illness right before Christmas. He never was overt or forceful about his beliefs, but they were strong and I knew at the end of his life, Scripture in particular was of comfort to him. I was obviously raised Catholic, and I believe in God but struggle with the judgment side of the faith in particular -- I lean much more toward a loving and comforting God.

But now I am really struggling with the concept of an afterlife, of heaven, and why some people seem to suffer so much (as my Dad did) when others do not. Is my Dad enjoying his final resting place or is he just gone? People have told me I will feel him, his presence, but all I feel is emptiness and sometimes even anger.

Dear Friend,

I'm so sorry about the loss of your father and the grief that clearly comes through your question. While I believe that your father is now with God, my faith can't substitute for your own and provide you the solace you seek.

Many traditions prescribe a formal mourning ritual that offers a process through which the bereft can travel. For instance, observant Jews say prayers and wear certain clothing for up to a year after the death of a loved one. Perhaps such a ritual might be helpful to you.

During the upcoming Lenten season, I hope you will consider going to church every day and lighting a candle for your father. Spend at least 10 minutes in prayer, and read those scripture passages he found comforting. In this way you honor his memory, create a container for your grief and invite a communion with your father's spirit and God's comfort.

Have a spiritual question, ethical dilemma or religious curiosity? Don't be shy! People of all backgrounds, ages and creeds are encouraged to submit questions to

If you are in spiritual or emotional distress, please contact a clergy person or mental health professional who can help you. If you are in crisis, please contact the crisis hotline.