Is it right to promise heaven to a dying child?

When should we lie to children? The question was posed for me in its sharpest form yesterday by a friend - a priest - who sent me a copy of the funeral service for a six-year-old boy. The child had died of cancer, and he had some idea of what was coming. Some people believe that children can't understand death, but I have no doubt that they can understand as much of it as they need to; perhaps that is as much as adults do.

Part of the funeral service involved the congregation writing their memories of the boy who had died: things they had said to him, and he to them. And one of the things said to him was that he would go to heaven, and that there would be a great party there, with balloons and all the other things that six-year-old children love. I flinched when I read this. It seemed to make the cruelty of death unbearable.

About five years ago, another couple had sent me a booklet they'd had privately printed about the death of their child, killed as a result of a doctor's blunder. They bore no bitterness or even ill-will towards the doctor, so convinced were they that their child was in heaven, and that watching his death agonies they had seen a soul finding God. I found that story impossible to follow up. Even to think about such assurance made me almost too angry to speak. They seemed to be putting me in an impossible position: either to try to destroy their illusions - and what could justify that? - or to share them.

Tatters of this rage still warmed me yesterday as I thought about the funeral service - but only for a moment. The scale of this was different. It was a private affair, and clearly one which had been enormously moving and helpful for the people involved. And, contemplated coolly, what harm could it do to tell a child that when he died he would be received in heaven?

It was not like telling him he would get better. That does seem to be absolutely wrong, at least in situations where you believe you are lying. The difficulty comes if we assume that no grown-up could possibly believe in heaven. I don't myself believe in it. My wife does. I don't know what we'd do if our daughter were dying. Probably we'd both lie, but I would know I was lying. It still might be the right thing to do.

Telling a child that he is going to heaven is different from pretending he will live. It might even be true. And if it were not true, if death did extinguish the child completely, it would extinguish, too, any possibility that he might have felt betrayed. The only thing that might make it wrong to tell a dying child he is going to heaven - if that is what his parents believe will happen - is the chance that he might end up in hell instead, where he would presumably be tormented by the knowledge that his parents had lied to him, as well as by other things. Millions of christians have believed that such a hell exists, and millions still do today. But to ignore the chance they might be right seems to me a risk worth taking. Yes, I would lie. I see that now.

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