This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 3 (2018). For further information about the Christian Research Journal please click here.
“Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe — really and truly and deeply believe — in hell,” writes Dr. Richard Dawkins, “but I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.”1 He speculates that research likely would indicate such a belief to be more damaging than the sexual abuse he experienced as a child.
Is teaching children about hell abusive? While it certainly is the case that certain ways of teaching children about hell would fall into the category of abuse, Dawkins seems to indicate that any belief in hell is intrinsically dangerous to a child’s mental well-being. Though inflamed with his characteristic hyperbole, the statement does reflect something of the spirit of the age.
We struggle with the concept of eternal damnation, and though it is hard to imagine it a comfortable topic in any era (as a topic of this nature should be!), our modern discomfort is unique. Thinking of the doctrine in terms of its impact on mental health is indicative of this. One could say that more than ever our minds are on earthly things; we may preserve our mental health but lose our immortal souls. It is thus important to understand the sources of our modern distaste for this teaching, for these are part of the strongholds characteristic of our times. In critically exploring these sources, we can best instruct children in the essential biblical doctrine of hell, for (despite Dawkins’s disapproval) to refrain from teaching our children about hell would be an abuse of greater severity.
Dawkins cannot offer the child an eschatological orientation that is any easier on the mind. How can it not also be a source of mental anguish to believe that an inescapable nonexistence awaits them at death? The eternal torments of hell are frightening, indeed, but if taught in connection with the gospel, these are shown to be entirely escapable, unlike atheism’s meaningless annihilation. Elsewhere, Dawkins likens theism to an infantile delusion. He extolls atheism because it enables humanity to “leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age,”2 ostensibly to face this inevitable future of nothingness. One wonders how this is less detrimental to a child’s mental well-being.
Still, Dawkins is not alone in his disgust and disbelief in hell and God’s final judgment. Through the centuries, Christians have sought either to downplay or outright deny these, the most popular modern version being Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, wherein God’s righteous judgment is sacrificed to a distorted understanding of His love. Embedded in Dawkins’s self-congratulatory rhetoric and, to a lesser degree, the poor exegesis from the likes of Bell are two of the modern assumptions that create our struggle with hell — namely, a blind faith in human progress and an inadequate understanding of the seriousness of sin.
In his book Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking, Peter Kreeft argues that one of the greatest barriers to accepting the biblical doctrine of hell is an irrational faith in moral progress. It is perhaps the most dominant myth of our age, what Kreeft calls “our overall structuring concept, our uncriticized assumption.”3 It is astonishing that this myth has taken hold, considering the atrocities of the last century. Despite these, we remain incredibly naïve about sin and its consequences. Kreeft puts it succinctly: “We are still Chamberlain in Munich when it comes to the soul.”4
What drives this faith in progress is a false belief that we know more than we did in the past about what is good. We no longer believe in a supernatural order that sin distorts and justice repairs. In his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller notes that the ancients believed that “if you violated that metaphysical order there were consequences just as severe as if you violated physical reality by placing your hand in a fire.”5 Modernity reverses this principle in its view that the natural world is all that there is and that it can be conformed to our wants and desires.
Today, we tend to be repulsed by any manifestation of shame, again out of concern for our mental health. Mercy and forgiveness are emphasized to the neglect of other virtues, such as justice and righteousness. To be sure, in our culture, it often seems that mercy and justice never kiss. Part of the reason is that we no longer appeal to the supernatural order that could make them do so. The virtues are thought of in isolation and in self-referential terms. They wander wildly in our world inflicting damage, as G. K. Chesterton observed, since we no longer have an objective means by which we can understand their essence. “Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless,” Chesterton writes, and “some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity…is often untruthful.”6 This creates a defective view of both good and evil and their relationship with each other. Dawkins’s diminishment of the abuse he received reflects this.
To understand the need for hell, we must resist the myth of progress and remember that our vision of goodness is dimmed, especially with regards to ourselves. Kreeft reminds us that even the greatest of saints have never failed to affirm their deep sinfulness and the dire state of their soul apart from Christ. Do we think we know more than they about “the mystery of iniquity?” Kreeft asks.7 Just as “Socrates, the wisest man, knows that he knows nothing,”8 the best among us know that his “heart is deceitful above all things.”9
In light of these false assumptions, how do we teach children about hell? A well-rounded instruction on God’s character as the source of all that is good is essential for understanding this doctrine. Children should be steeped in all aspects of God’s attributes for them to comprehend the consequences of rejecting Him. Hell should never be discussed in isolation from a consideration of who God is, as best displayed in Jesus, the one who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”10
What Jesus Taught
Contrary to popular opinion, the fiery judgment of God from the Old Testament is not absent in the New Testament, but finds its home in many of Jesus’ teachings. We are prone to forget this, especially given that the church has tended to emphasize His mercy over and above His justice. Chesterton writes that this emphasis “is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct,” for “the mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God.”11 We see this compassion on display in the Gospels. Yet it is far from all that we see. Beyond healing the sick, caring for the poor, and expressing in “almost heartbreaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts,” Jesus was intent on exposing the evil in those hearts as well.12
The Last Judgment is a theme that Jesus returned to again and again, and He depicted the suffering of those that reject Him as anything but mild. Though He used metaphors to describe hell, these only serve to increase its inexplicable nature in terms of what we know here and now. He described it as fire, darkness, and eternal exclusion from the presence of God. While the precise details are less than we would like, they are enough to convey a place of torment and destruction. These hard teachings cannot be dissociated from His entire mission, for “the primary thing that He was going to do was to die” to offer an escape for us.13 Hell is inextricably linked to His Cross.
Imaginative engagement here is indispensable. Actually, imaginative engagement with all the propositional statements of the faith is important, for it helps us to enflesh more abstract doctrines. There is tremendous value here in moving children toward a real apprehension of the self-imposed nature of hell and the effects of rejecting God. Arguably, this is what Jesus was doing in all the His parables involving hell. C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle provides a vivid look at sin, judgment, and the afterlife for young children, whilst the more complex themes of his The Great Divorce can be grappled with by older teens.
Discuss and do not hide the disturbing aspects of hell with your children — again, always within the context of the Good News. It is best that your children are introduced to this reality in a safe environment where they are invited into the conversation and have the freedom to ask questions. Talk through the various metaphors that Jesus uses in age-appropriate ways with your children, always keeping the discussion within the framework of all of God’s attributes — His justice as well as His goodness, mercy, and love. Prepare them for statements such as Dawkins’s, for embedded within these are the hidden presuppositions of our culture that they certainly will encounter. Help them think through these in clear and compassionate ways.
One question that will likely arise involves the fate of unbelieving friends. Kreeft calls this the problem of the precise “population statistics” of hell,14 remarking that Jesus does not give us these apart from warning us that “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”15 We can tell our children that the reality of hell underscores the exigency of the Great Commission. It is not the Lord’s will that any be lost, and He rejoices over the recovery of one lost sheep amongst the many.16 Finally, we must teach children that hell is not a place that we stumble into unawares, and then find ourselves hopelessly trapped; it is a place where people find themselves after a lifetime of saying “No!” to God. The horrific conditions realized in the finality of hell are self-inflicted.
HELL AND THE CROSS
To teach the reality of hell to children without the gift of salvation would indeed be abusive. More importantly, it would be untrue. In Christ, our Judge and our Redeemer are one. Unlike Dawkins, we cannot forget that the One who spoke in such vivid metaphors with respect to the torments of hell is also the one who eats with tax collectors and sinners, offers to carry our burdens, and assures us in the most comforting words to take heart and not be fearful. Our Judge wept over Jerusalem like a mother weeps for her children — a city that would hand Him over as a criminal worthy of crucifixion just a few days later. With respect to children, Our Judge reserves some of His harshest statements for the person that leads them into sin, saying that “it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”17
There is a rich context to the biblical teachings on hell, and Christianity tells us it involves a moral order that we have been given the freedom to violate. Thomas C. Oden notes that “the teaching of Hell rightly calls to mind the dignity of human freedom and the high costs of its abuse.”18 It also points to the high cost of our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. We see, then, that the reality of hell is intertwined with the gospel in such a way that to try and remove it necessarily unravels the entire gift. C. S. Lewis described this tension in The Problem of Pain when he wrote, “So much mercy yet still there is Hell.”19 This is the awful goodness of our Lord.
“Safe?” said Lewis’s Mr. Beaver about Aslan to the children after entering Narnia, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”20
Rebekah Valerius is a student in the MA Cultural Apologetics program at Houston Baptist University and a part of the Mama Bear Apologetics Ministry team. She is a wife and homeschooling mother of two.
- Richard Dawkins, “Physical Versus Mental Child Abuse,” Richard Dawkins Foundation, January 1, 2013, https://www.richarddawkins.net/2013/01/physical-versus-mental-childabuse/. Please note as of October 28, 2021 when accessed the link says, “Evolution is messy. Our website was recently redesigned, and some older links may have broken. Use the search bar or look around in the menu, chances are you can still find what you’re looking for!” We are unable to find a new location on this Website for this article; however, using the Internet archive wayback machine, they have a screen capture from November 25, 2020 that you can see here https://web.archive.org/web/20201125201023/https://www.richarddawkins.net/2013/01/physical-versus-mental-child-abuse/.
- Richard Dawkins, “Thought for the Day,” BBC Radio, January 2003, quoted in Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? (Downer’s Grove, IL: 2007), 19.
- Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 226.
- Kreeft, Everything, 226.
- Tim Keller, The Reason for God, (New York: Dutton, 2008), 71.
- K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Christian Classics, 2006), 26.
- 2 Thessalonians 2:7 KJV, quoted in Kreeft, 223.
- Jeremiah 17:9 ESV.
- K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2013), 176.
- Colossians 1:15 ESV.
- Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 161.
- Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 161.
- Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 178.
- Kreeft, 242.
- Matthew 7:13 ESV.
- Luke 15:7 ESV.
- Matthew 18:6 ESV.
- Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 829.
- S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 121.
- S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 81.