A special place in hell.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus is teaching the people and some children want to gather round this remarkable man, who has caused such a stir among the adults of their town. The disciples, perhaps not wanting their teacher to be interrupted, try to keep the children away, but Jesus, of course, sees this and says,

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.   Matthew 19:14

When the children are allowed to gather round him, Jesus places his hands on their heads, blessing them. This is a ritual the Christian church carries on to this day. In our Lutheran church up here in northwest Wisconsin, when we adults come to the altar for communion, young children who accompany us are blessed by the pastor with a symbolic laying on of her hand on their heads. Being blessed by a human pastor is not quite the same as being blessed by Jesus Christ himself, but it’s the next best thing.

If Jesus rebukes adults who merely want to keep children from bothering him, what would he say about adults who actually harm children? Who kill them? Well, there’s a guy in Minnesota who’s going to find out.

 

A boy lost, then found.

On the evening of October 22, 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, his brother Trevor and Jacob’s friend Aaron Larson were out riding their bikes and a scooter in the town of St. Joseph, Minn. Watching them from his van was Danny Heinrich, then 26. Several months earlier, Heinrich had abducted and sexually assaulted another young boy in Cold Spring. He had released that boy, who was never able to identify his assailant.

Jacob would not be so lucky.

A story on the news site twincities.com tells what happened, and why it’s coming to light now, more than a quarter-century later: http://www.twincities.com/2016/09/06/jacob-wetterling-suspect-danny-heinrich-court-today/

In the days to come we will no doubt find out more about Heinrich, perhaps more than we want to know. What we do know is that he’s a self-described “dirty old man” who collected kiddie porn. He’s confessed to two abductions, and who knows how many more he might’ve committed over the years? Several cases similar to the one in Cold Spring, occurring around the same time, remain unsolved.

Why would someone do something so horrific to helpless young children? The psychiatrists will have a field day with this guy, if they bother to try to figure him out. Personally, I think that would be a waste of the Minnesota taxpayers’ money. In fact, keeping him as a guest of the state for the next 20 years, probably longer, is also a waste of money. One wonders to what lengths the prison system will go to ensure that Heinrich is kept safe from retaliation by other inmates, who tend not to treat child molesters with much sympathy, to say the least. If one of them decides to make Heinrich pay a steeper price than incarceration will provide, I’d venture to say not too many tears will be shed.

 

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This is what evil looks like.

 

I’m a father of two. My daughter and son are grown now and live some distance (too far, if you ask me) away. At the time Jacob Wetterling was abducted, we were living in La Crosse, across the Mississippi from Minnesota, and of course the case was all over the news. My daughter was seven years old at the time, my son only two. There were more than a few nights I lay awake in bed, trying not to think about what I would do if I were in the position that Jacob’s father was in at that time.

What was Jerry Wetterling thinking yesterday in that courtroom? We may never know, although the reporters will surely ask. Any father would be able to tell you, though. Undoubtedly he was thinking about what he might like to do if he could get Heinrich alone in a room for even five minutes. The killer evidently did not display any remorse, never asked the Wetterling family for forgiveness. What kind of man is that? I’d say calling him a warped, twisted bastard is being too kind.

 

What should a father do?

I can assure you that if anyone had harmed my children, I would have been ready to visit great bodily harm upon that person. At that time I hadn’t yet begun my martial arts training, so my knowledge about how to inflict bodily harm was quite limited, but it would’ve been enough.

Our society doesn’t function like that, of course, and while the thought of allowing that kind of retribution is enticing in many respects, we have to take a step back and remember who we are as a people, what we stand for, what we strive to be. That can be hard to do when we’re forced to confront people like Danny Heinrich, who is a walking endorsement of the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” philosophy. In the New Testament, though, Jesus appealed to our better natures, calling on us to rise above that kind of thinking, to be forgiving, to allow God, who knows all, to pass the ultimate judgment.

I don’t know what religious faith Jerry and Patty Wetterling might profess, if any. If they’re like the vast majority of Minnesotans, they have a pretty fair amount of faith, and surely that was tested severely in the past 27 years. One has to applaud them for keeping that faith in all those lonely, terrible nights. If Jerry Wetterling can forgive Heinrich for what he did to Jacob, well, he might well be a better man than I am. I’m not sure I could do that.

As a man of faith, though, I believe strongly that God will judge each and every one of us by what we did with our time on this Earth. There are a lot of people, too many, who will have a hard time passing muster, that’s for sure, and without doubt Danny Heinrich will be one of them.

 

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Human judgment often appears insufficient for the crime.

 

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God’s judgment might very well be something else entirely.

 

Christians will almost always say they believe in heaven. After all, that’s what we’re all striving to achieve, isn’t it? Eternal peace and glory with God, and with the loved ones who passed before us, and the ones who will later join us. But many modern Christians here in the West aren’t really comfortable with the concept of hell. In our do-your-own-thing society, the idea of punishment for one’s choices of behavior can be uncomfortable. Most cases are not as cut-and-dried as the case of Jacob Wetterling’s killer, but doubtless there are many people who would say that Heinrich does not deserve eternal punishment, and many others would say the very concept of hell, along with heaven, is nothing more than a fairy tale. Heinrich will die, they’ll say, and when he’s dead, he’ll be just as dead as the rest of us. No heaven for us, no hell for him, just a dirt nap that never ends. No salvation for the good, no punishment for the wicked. In the end, therefore, nothing we do on this planet, good or bad, matters one iota.

But I believe heaven exists, and therefore so does hell. You can’t have one without the other. The concept of salvation through belief in the Almighty, and adherence to his rules, is a powerful incentive. So is the concept of eternal damnation. So yes, I’m convinced hell exists, and that’s where Heinrich is going to go. It’s possible, I suppose, that someday he might ask God for forgiveness for his crimes, and then it will be up to God to decide if that request is sincere. From what I have read about this guy, that’s not likely to happen.

 

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Heinrich’s fate is not one we want to share.

 

The only thing that would keep me going if Jacob had been my son was the belief that I would be reunited with him one day in heaven. Then we would have eternity together to do the things that we did here on Earth, and the things we never got to do. If it had been me sitting in that courtroom yesterday, listening to Heinrich describe the last minutes of my son’s life, imagining the pain he went through, the fear, the despair, the only thing that would have saved me from going insane was the belief that God was with Jacob, even in those terrible final minutes, and that when Jacob’s soul left his battered and violated body, it was embraced by a loving God, and that Jacob is there right now, waiting patiently for his parents and his siblings to join him when their time comes.

 

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On October 22, 1989, the Lord welcomed little Jacob, and his pain was forever gone.

 

Last night I prayed for the Wetterlings, who at last have some closure. They will be able to give their beloved son a proper burial. I’d like to say that Heinrich will get as much punishment as the law allows, but we already know that won’t happen. He’ll be imprisoned for the rest of his life, but that’s about it. Is that justice? The state of Minnesota has evidently decided that’s the best they can get in his case, and no doubt it was a tough call for the prosecutors to make.

The rest, though, is up to God. And if I was Danny Heinrich right now, I’d be thinking about what’s waiting for him. It won’t be pleasant.

 

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Jacob Erwin Wetterling   2/17/1978-10/22/1989
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