How to talk to your kids about hell

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If you’re a parent and you’re not following Cindy Brandt’s series on raising kids un-fundamentalist, you should. Cindy explains her motivation for the series in her first post:

I am in desperate need of a robust discussion regarding how in the hell to talk to my kids about hell. In other, less eternally-damning words, how do those of us who have grown up evangelical and yet suffer some damaging effects of fundamentalist theology, do the delicate parenting dance of communicating the love of God to our children without transferring some of the harmful teachings we have internalized? 

As the parent of two young kids, one of whom is just starting to learn about God, I need that conversation too. I want to be able to nurture their faith without manipulation or coercion.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have an idea for how to talk to your kids about hell:

Don’t.*

Not just because the biblical doctrine of judgment is more complicated than most of us realize. (Though it is.)

Not because it’s hard to know what we’re even talking about when we use the word “hell.” (Though it is hard, since most Bibles use the same word for three different terms in the New Testament, each of which had a distinct meaning and origin.)

Not just because “eternal conscious torment,” the prevailing view among evangelicals, is hardly the only orthodox view and probably owes more to medieval literature than the Bible. (Though it isn’t and it does.)

You shouldn’t talk to your kids about hell because, as Cindy writes in her second post, kids don’t have “the emotional maturity and logical capability to process a belief in eternal punishment.”

Put another way, their brains aren’t done cooking yet. The young brain is like “soft, impressionable Play-Doh.” What we tell kids about God when they’re young will stay with them for years—even if they grow up to believe something very different.

Pediatric neurologist Marcel Kinsbourne writes:

What we experience contributes mightily to what we are and what we become… what people experience indeed changes their brain, for better and for worse.

Teaching our kids to believe in an angry, vengeful God affects who they grow up to be. In my experience, it tends to yield one of two outcomes. Either they grow up to be angry, vengeful Christians; or they grow up terrified of an angry, vengeful God, convinced they’ll incur his wrath over the slightest infraction.

In my case, it was both. One minute I could be arrogant and dismissive of those who believed differently than I did, the next moment convinced I was destined for wrath myself—that God couldn’t possibly love me, that God might not be loving at all.

My relationship with God (if you can call it that) was based on fear. And make no mistake: I was terrified.

I don’t want my kids to be terrified of God. Have a healthy respect for God? Sure. Reverence and awe? Absolutely. But my impression of Jesus is that he didn’t go around inflicting terror in kids’ hearts.

Which leads me to another reason we shouldn’t talk to our kids about hell: it makes for a terrible gospel.

I can hear the objections already. You’ve probably heard them too.

Truth is hard. We shouldn’t soft-pedal the gospel just because it might scare our kids.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about hell. After all, Jesus talked about hell more than he talked about heaven. (He didn’t, actually.)

I’m a firm believer that we shouldn’t soft-pedal, dumb down, or otherwise misrepresent the gospel to our kids. But what if “pray this prayer so you don’t go to hell when you die” IS a misrepresentation of the gospel?

The core of Jesus’ proclamation was not, “Follow me so you don’t go to hell.” It was, “The kingdom of heaven has come.” This is what he told his disciples to proclaim.

Not “you might end up somewhere very hot and very far from God” but “God is near.”

When the children came to Jesus, he didn’t preach them a sermon about hell. He didn’t warn them about God’s impending wrath. He put his arms around them. He blessed them. He said the kingdom already belonged to them.

Instead of talking to our kids about hell, let’s talk to them about God’s kingdom.

Instead of talking to our kids about some terrible place to avoid, let’s talk about what they get to be part of.  

By the way, this doesn’t just apply to kids. This should be the rule whenever we’re talking about the gospel with someone. Look at the great evangelistic sermons in Acts. How many of them mention hell?

Zero.

If hell was so important, why did the apostles fail to mention it even once as they went from place to place, announcing the—what was it?—good news about Jesus?

If hell is such an indispensable part of our gospel, why was it so utterly absent from theirs?

So don’t talk to your kids about hell as you share the gospel with them. Don’t prey upon their fears just to get them to say a prayer. Instead, talk to them about the life God invites them to experience. Talk about the kingdom they get to be part of.

Who knows? If we do that instead, maybe they’ll stop fearing the world-to-come long enough to start changing this one.

* A few friends and commenters have observed that, given our cultural obsession with hell, it’s likely that many of us will have to talk about it with our kids—if nothing else, to answer their questions about what other people say. That’s true. The good news is, we have a choice how we talk about it. We don’t have to pass on fear-based religion to the next generation. We can seek to prevent unnecessary fear instead of cultivating it. 

Photo by Palo on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

21 thoughts on “How to talk to your kids about hell

  1. Amen. Really I would take this approach for anybody, unless they bring it up – which is somewhat inevitable with how many preach a false “get out of Hell free” gospel. If my hypothetical future children hear about the idea of Hell somewhere else and ask about it, I don’t think I’ll avoid it but I’ll definitely make sure the emphasis is on the amazing love of Jesus and his Kingdom. This is an answer I give to adults, too: I don’t really know exactly what Heaven and Hell are, but I do know that I trust Jesus to make the most loving judgement possible. I have my opinion on what makes the most sense to me (purgatorial conditionalism), but whatever details we believe has to be consistent with “Jesus loves every single human being so you never need to be afraid of him.” That is good news, regardless of what exactly Hell looks like.

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    • Good point…I added a postscript addressing the fact that most of us will, in fact, have to talk about hell at some point—if nothing else, to address the way others talk about it.

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  2. Thanks for this. My kids recently came home from a week of vacation bible school with a daily flier outlining the “truths” they learned. The answer to every question like “How does God show his love for us?” “How did Jesus show humility?” “How did Jesus do what was right?” was: “Jesus died to pay the punishment for our sins.” My first reaction was to have a mini-meltdown. But I then was able to write down and articulate what I want my kids to learn about God and what I want them to learn about Jesus. I’m going to do my best to teach them about and demonstrate God’s love and kingdom here and now.

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      • It’s all still in my journal at this point. 😉 For a long time, I didn’t really know what to say to my kids about God. It feels good to know a few things now. This is what I want my kids to know about God: God created us, and what God creates is good. We wander away from God, but God never stops pursuing us. God is present with us. God works through the everyday ordinary if we are looking and paying attention. God wants our trust. We are God’s beloved, and God desires to be our beloved. God is Real. There is More. I want to invite my kids to keep their eyes, ears, and hearts open. A good place to start is by showing up and saying “Here I am God.” I want my kids to know what Jesus talked about, who he hung out with, and what he did. I want them to know that Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is near, is here, and is in you. That we should pray for this kingdom to come. That he taught us to seek this kingdom. We can do this by loving like Jesus loved-tangibly. We can ask Jesus to show us how to follow him. This all gets so lost when it’s covered by layers and layers of “he died for your sins.”

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    • Mini-Meltdown! I can relate to that SO MUCH. This is me every day whenever my kids come home with their bible homework. It’s so hard because I don’t want to swing the pendulum and have transfer my spiritual baggage to them either. I don’t want them to grow up and say, “remember when every time we talked about God, Mom melted down?” 😉

      I’d love to hear what you wrote down too.

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  3. We recently (as in January) left an evangelical church. Our kids are still very much plugged into many of the ministries there, and I cringe sometimes knowing I have to undo things like this.

    Thanks for the very thoughtful discussion. It was something my husband and I both talk about often.

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  4. I enjoy studying the great Christian mystics. They tend to center on the reality of our being inseparable with God, and that just as the Kingdom of God is discovered within our own hearts, so is hell – no focusing on “places.” To fear such damnation type places is hell enough.

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  5. Ben, this touches on a difficult area for those that in truth “came to Him,” accepted and embraced Him fully, as very young children. I cannot say of other forms of Christianity, but within evangelicalism, there seems no “place” for such ones. These don’t have the “right” salvation story, and I think a great many become “unchurched” largely for the issues connected to this.

    The very young that have accepted Him, embraced Him fully, to whom He is “real,” and most trusted and beloved, their Jesus is the one of Jesus Loves Me, Jesus loves the little children of the world, if you’re saved and you know it say amen, What a friend, He walks with me and talks with me, and He will be with me always, even unto the end of the world. And then the day comes…. the grown-ups decide it is time for the child to “know the truth.” They are told its time to put away childish ways, recognize their sinful nature and lost condition, repent and accept Jesus, or they are going to go to Hell when they die. Their beloved Jesus would burn them in Hell??!! And all the other little children of the world that never heard of him or never repented and accepted Him as savior are doomed to Hell, without hope?

    That was a major trauma for me, and in talking with others of early childhood faith, is for most. We are being asked to deny Him, deny our often very deep and personal personal relationship with Him, a REQUIREMENT, before we can “really be saved.”

    Many of us just cannot do it, cannot deny already knowing Him, so as to take the step needed to be “really saved.” And for those of us that do, in hopes of being accepted, it is as a kind of death of something precious to us.

    There is no acceptable “place” for such ones in the evangelical “salvation plan.”
    I don’t know ‘what’ we are, why our experience is different, maybe we are the born mystics? I can’t say I know. But I know there are a good many of us.

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    • Yes…introducing young children to a loving Jesus, only to tell them later this same Jesus will send them to hell when they die, causes severe emotional whiplash to say the least. (What’s more, this notion cannot be reconciled with how Jesus interacted with children in the gospels.) This is one reason why I appreciate traditions like my own (the Episcopal Church) which baptize infants. We receive them into the family of God before they can do anything—it’s a free gift. They can choose to reject that gift later, but the starting point is acceptance, welcome, and belonging. So we can say with integrity to our kids, “Jesus loves you,” without an asterisk. I think it’s possible for evangelical traditions to take this approach without necessarily changing their views on baptism, but it would take rethinking what it means to be part of God’s family. It might just be that belonging comes before believing.

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      • Hi Ben,
        Could you tell me where it says in the bible that baptizing (with water) of an infant saves them from sin? or where it says that baptizing with water saves people from sin in general? Jesus talks about baptism of the Holy Spirit and baptism by water in John 3:5 “Jesus answered, Verily,verily, I say unto thee (you), Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” Seems to me God is mentioning two baptisms…Could you clarify this?
        thank you
        Andrea

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  6. Once you learn to “love your enemy” (and you realize that you are, indeed, your own worst enemy) then hell begins to fade away. Hopefully, you’ll learn to practice “love thine enemy” DAILY without fail, whenever things get tough, *before* you commit a hellish act that plagues you for the rest of your life.

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  7. Pingback: Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist – Part III

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  9. Pingback: Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist Part IV

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