Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: I've never been able to reconcile a fair, just and loving God with eternal damnation. Could you shed some light on any fault in my reasoning on this matter? I start with the assumption that we're all born equally capable of good and evil. We then live out our lives in a world that's anything but fair. Our spiritual health is affected by many things not of our own doing. Karma may exist, but it seems to play a distant second fiddle to pure chance. This isn't to say we have no control, but humans don't appear to be equally "challenged" to exercise that control. And if we're not equally challenged, how can we be equally accountable? Since it's obvious that flawed souls cannot enter heaven, it makes sense that some kind of purgatory (or "spiritual weigh station" you may have called it) exists to make them whole again. But it doesn't make sense to me that simply because I was blessed with the right parents or the right teachers, I was never discriminated against, and nothing led me down the path of spiritual depravity, that I should be allowed into heaven over those not so lucky.
-- G., via e-mail
ANSWER: Let's begin by remembering the main purpose of heaven in God's plan. Speaking of heaven is the way religions teach that death is not the end of us. Heaven and hell are confirmations that we're not merely material beings, but imbued with an eternal soul. Death is the end of our bodies but not of our souls -- our spiritual essence. The journey of our souls to eternal communion with God continues beyond the grave. Heaven is the soul's home after death.
Heaven also serves as the final stage in the purification of our sins. All three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- believe that our souls are so tainted by sin that we need God's love and forgiveness so they can enter heaven in a state of purity. For Christians, this help comes through the atoning death of Christ for the original sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, which tainted all his descendants. For Jews and Muslims, it comes directly from God with no need for a spiritual intermediary.
All three faiths embrace a belief that the soul cannot enter heaven until it goes through a post-mortem period of purification, called purgatory in Christianity, barzakh in Islam and gehenom in Judaism. This period teaches us how and why we went wrong in life. Eery soul that repents and comes to understand God's unconditional love is allowed to enter heaven. Conversely, souls broken and distorted by cruelty and hate are destroyed forever, condemned to eternal damnation or hell.
Hell is not a place where good or repentant souls go because of some theological error or divine vengeance. Instead, it's a place of self-exile where souls that no longer feel love and compassion go to die; they're not exiled to hell, but choose hell. Their extinction is not based on God's vengeance, but their own.
As for your specific question, our circumstances in life have everything to do with our opportunities, but nothing to do with our goodness. Goodness can grow from the most grinding poverty, and evil can grow from the most lavish wealth.
The issue is always how hard we try to make something of ourselves despite what fate has bestowed upon us. Reaching for goodness is always possible. Beyond trying, everything else is God's business.