One of my coworkers told me today that on his way back from lunch, he heard a preacher say on the radio that Pope John Paul II was in hell right then.

I know for a fact that Pope John Paul II wasn’t in hell right then. He was in a bed in the Vatican, still alive. Some faux pas, huh?

Even still, no Christian has any business saying something like that. Never. Even after the person’s death actually is confirmed.Saying someone’s in hell when he or she has been confirmed to still be alive just makes you look like an idiot. No great harm done, I guess. But who’s in hell and who isn’t actually isn’t my decision, nor is it yours, nor is that radio preacher’s.

I grew up hearing poorly educated church workers tell my Dad that he was going to hell. They told others the same thing too, I’m sure. Dad wasn’t going to hell for the normal reasons people tell others that they’re going to hell–he wasn’t sleeping around, or cheating on his taxes, or stealing, or voting for the wrong political candidate. No, Dad was going to hell because he believed the wrong thing.

I’ll be the first to admit that Dad had an unusual combination of beliefs. But Dad had an unusual combination of degrees and life experiences too. But among those beliefs was the single sentence that will keep you out of hell: Jesus died to pay the price of my sins.

Believe that, and God doesn’t care if you believe the sky is orange and dogs say moo.

Don’t get me wrong. The Pope’s beliefs and mine differ in some very important ways. The Pope was wrong about a lot of things. That radio preacher’s beliefs and mine differ in some very important ways. He’s wrong about a lot of things too.

And I know God and I will someday have a very long conversation about where what I believed was wrong. I hope that conversation will be shorter than God’s conversation than that radio preacher, and His conversation with the Pope. But I’m not willing to bet the change in my pocket that it will be. Am I both smarter and less stubborn than either of them? Only God truly knows the answer to that question.

Is Pope John Paul II in hell? I can only answer that with another question. Did Pope John Paul II know why it was necessary for Jesus to come to earth and die? If he did, then he’s in heaven. End of argument. And only God truly knows the answer to that question.

So who’s in hell? To answer that question is to pass judgment. Is Adolf Hitler in hell? I can’t answer that. I wasn’t there during his final moments. Did he repent and accept Jesus before he pulled that trigger? Highly unlikely, yes. Impossible? No.

Is Judas Iscariot in hell? I think most people probably believe he is. But they probably believe it for the wrong reason. Judas’ mortal sin was not his direct role in Jesus’ death. Judas’ mortal sin wasn’t suicide, either. Nor was it his love of money. No, Judas is a good candidate for hell because he believed the wrong thing about Jesus. Judas seemed to expect a political savior, not a spiritual one. And Judas died before Jesus was fully revealed as that spiritual savior.

Of course, it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that changed the rules. Judas didn’t live under the same set of rules that you and I now do. Did Judas know that he was a sinner, and was Judas trusting that God would one day provide atonement for those sins?

It’s obvious from Judas’ actions that he realized he was a sinner, and even that he was penitent. And it appears that he knew about God–Judas cast out demons just like the rest of the disciples did. This tree had fruit. So the question becomes, did Judas die believing the right thing?

Were you there? I wasn’t. Only God was. And only God knows. Once again, I can say the likelihood that Judas made it to heaven is very low. But only God can say for certain, because only God knew Judas’ heart.

If I can’t say for certain that the greatest betrayer in human history and the man who Jesus Himself called "a devil" is in hell, then how can I say where anyone else is or isn’t?

The Bible is perfectly clear about where I’m going and why. And that’s a much more productive thing to talk about.