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What do I tell my child about hell?!

There are those giant billboards that we see driving south from Louisville: red letters on a black background, ringed in flames, letters that scream, “Hell is real!” and “Your pretty face is going to hell!”

There is the six-year-old whose father brought him to my office because he couldn’t sleep at night, wondering if the devil is going to get him if he doesn’t make good choices.

There are all of the good Episcopal youth at All Saints’ Camp who stuffed the “Ask the Priest” box last summer with detailed questions about who gets sent to hell.

There was the time that I lowered the Gospel Book and authoritatively proclaimed, “The Gospel of the Lord,” after having read Jesus’ words about “unquenchable fire,” and looked straight up into the pale, solemn face of a frightened child.

No matter how much divine love we preach at home and at church, our children are surrounded by images and words of divine judgement, most of which focus on hell. If we choose never to talk about these images, our children are left to wonder alone. And yet, how do we talk with our children about something that we ourselves are uncomfortable with? How do we share with our children a faith that is free of fear? A faith that is free of our own guilt and our own hang-ups?

The Foundation

Before our children are confronted with “hell talk,” we have a chance as a church and as parents to lay down a firm foundation of love into which these more challenging words can one day be absorbed. Young children need to know first and foremost that God loves them, that Jesus is their friend, and that they are beautiful in God’s eyes. They need to hear that a strong and loving God has power over death and over the evil that even young children can sense in the world. Praying together and sharing with God about fears and worries, and reading together from a “love focused” children’s bible such as the Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu, are ways to foster a compassionate spirituality.

My Friend Says I’m Going to Hell

In the elementary school years, your child is likely to run across messages from our Bible-belt culture or from the media that cause him to worry about hell. When I was a third-grader, I remember running home to my mother with the news that we needed to be “saved” right away! Two of my Southern Baptist friends, practicing their childishly blunt evangelism skills, had told me that my Presbyterian family and I had not been saved, and that we were therefore going to hell. I will always remember my mother’s calm demeanor as she smiled and dismissed their scary words. I don’t remember the theological details of her explanation, but what reassured me was that she clearly did not feel threatened by my friends’ words. I was relieved to hear that it was all right for groups of Christians to see things differently. She didn’t ridicule my friends, but she made it very clear that we didn’t need to pay a lick of attention to their warning.

We can point out to our children that frightening words and menacing billboards are attempts to make people afraid so that they will behave in a certain way, and that we don’t believe that God wants us to be afraid. We believe that God wants us to feel love and joy and a desire to please God out of love for God.

The Unquenchable Fire

There’s no denying that Jesus himself mentions hell throughout the Gospels. It is helpful for us to realize, however, that many of the images that we Christians now associate with hell and the devil come not from scripture, but from the medieval imagination of Dante’s Inferno. For Jesus, the word for hell is “Gehenna,” an actual valley outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem. It was a place made infamous to the people of Israel by the pagan Canaanite sacrifices which were originally supposed to have taken place there. That place of death and godlessness became by Jesus’ day a huge garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. Night and day, trash fires burned there; refuse smoldered and stank. It was literally a place where, as Jesus declares in Matthew 9:48, “the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”

Garbage is something that can be discussed with elementary school children in a non-threatening, almost playful way. They can understand that a smelly, rotten garbage dump is about as far from life and beauty and joy and God as we can get. I can imagine a conversation that goes something like this:

“What if someone took all of your toys and threw them in the garbage? How would you feel? How do you think God would feel if everything ended up in the stinky garbage instead of in God’s caring hands? I bet God would be so, so very sad. God wants most of all to spend time with us. God wanted to be with us so much that he sent Jesus into the world so that we could see God and touch God. Jesus was sad when he saw people refusing to love God and to love each other. It must have seemed like they were choosing to jump into the nasty, smelly garbage rather than to enjoy life with God…. Can you think of what the opposite of being in the garbage dump would feel like? Treasured? Cared for? Beloved? Washed and dressed in new clothes? That’s what Jesus wants for us more than anything.”

Teens and Hypocrites

To teens, who have noses that will sniff out hypocrisy miles away, much of the over-the-top Christian judgmentalism that swirls around us is grounds for outrage at the Church. It might help them to know the true targets of Jesus’ “hell talk.” In the Gospels, Jesus does not direct his heated language toward the same sinners attacked by today’s “fire and brimstone” preachers. He does not rage against people when they break God’s commandments. Unlike many Christians today, he does not direct his ire mainly against sexual behaviors, either. Instead, he lifts up the woman caught in adultery, protects her from her earthly judges, and tells her to “go and sin no more.” He hangs out with prostitutes and traitors. Who then does Jesus condemn to the unquenchable fire? The hypocrites! He goes after those who claim to be religious but who do not act as if they love God and neighbor. He goes after those who claim to have all the answers, those who judge others and lord it over them. He paints exaggerated pictures of their folly in order to try to wake them up.

Read Matthew 9:42-48 with your teen, picturing a Jesus who is fed up with religious hypocrisy, and then engage in an open conversation with them.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."

Most of all, it is OK for our children to see that we don’t have all the answers. None of us needs to have an airtight theological system all worked out before we launch into talking about God—thank goodness! With young children, it’s always a good idea to find out what they think and exactly what they are wondering about before we pile too much heavy information onto them. With teens, it’s OK (although admittedly uncomfortable) if their outraged objections to traditional beliefs leave our own defenses in tatters. The important thing is for them to sense in us a committed and authentic desire to wrestle with God over difficult issues.

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