Should we tell our kids about hell?

Wrath, judgement and hell are hardly the stuff of children’s bedtime stories. But perhaps they should be. Gordon Cheng explains why.

Over the last year or so, I have been trying to get my eldest daughter to memorize Paul’s letter to the Romans. She started when she was nearly five. At the time of writing this, she is about to have her sixth birthday, and we are up to about verse 19. So you can see that progress is pretty darn slow. Well, what’s the hurry, I say, especially since, after verse 14, her mum gently suggested that a teensy bit of work on the comprehension side might also be in order; “Paul, a serpent of Christ Jesus, called to be an impossible, set apart from the gospel of God” really wasn’t making a lot of sense to anyone.

Anyway, following this strategy, we have not been going too badly. Our daughter occasionally knows, frequently forgets and sometimes remembers that resurrection is when someone rises from the dead and never dies again. She knows that the gospel is the good news about Jesus. She can tell you (usually) that an apostle is someone sent by God. I don’t know if she understands “descended from the flesh” (we’re using the ESV translation) but she seems pretty clued up that David was Jesus’ great-great-great-great-greatgreat-something grandfather—“You know, like grandpa, but a lot older and longer ago”. ‘Righteousness’ has been a struggle in more ways than one, but, on a good day, she will tell you that ‘faith’ means “trusting what Jesus says”. And “not being ashamed of the gospel” (Rom 1:16) has led to some interesting conversations about why you would be ashamed, and what would happen if we lived in a country where the government sent you to prison if you loved Jesus, and so on and so forth.

Now maybe someone who actually knows what they’re talking about will write in to the Briefing and say why this is all hopeless from an educational perspective—how rote learning is not true learning, how my daughter may be able to say the sounds, but they don’t actually mean anything to her, and so on. Or maybe this approach will turn out to be educationally on the money. Either way, I acknowledge ignorance. My purpose in starting this was that I just felt like memorizing Romans. It seemed like a good idea at the time to enlist Matilda’s help. She didn’t know that it wasn’t supposed to work. So, you see, it was a deeply thought-out strategy at every level.

So far, so good. But during the last couple of verses something quite astonishing and delightful happened. We memorized this:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom 1:17-18)

Then I asked Matilda what she thought the “wrath of God” meant. I explained what I thought: it means that God is angry with us for ignoring him. God gets angry just like I get angry, only not the same really, because God doesn’t lose his temper and God never makes mistakes.

Quite suddenly we were having a deadly serious conversation about how terrible God’s anger is, and how extraordinary and wonderful it is that the Lord Jesus, God’s only Son, takes the punishment that we deserved.

The plan from now on is to keep going—taking our time on chapter 1 of Romans—at least until I’ve figured out how to explain things like God “giving them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves” (that’s verse 24) and the somewhat M15+ concepts of verses 26 and 27. Perhaps when we reach those points, comprehension will once again take a back seat to rote learning.

One thing that has struck me about this exercise is how a fairly routine and occasionally fun part of the trip towards Destination Bed can suddenly become a real and unexpected opportunity for a serious discussion about the deep truths of God’s character. Up until now, I have always unthinkingly assumed, along with most people I talk to, that I shouldn’t scare kids with things they don’t understand. But is this right? Have we gone soft in our proclamation of the good news of God for various reasons that have nothing to do with truth or love and everything to do with rather unhealthier motivations? What part should the teaching about God’s anger, his judgement and hell play in our church children’s programs?

Sometimes our instincts let us down. The heart is, after all, desperately corrupt, sinful and deceptive (Jer 17:9). The presentation of God’s righteous anger against sin is a key part of gospel proclamation; anyone who wants to learn Romans by heart can’t miss it. Could it be that one reason our children’s programs from 40 to 50 years ago have not translated into megachurches is because someone simply ‘forgot’ to present an essential part of the gospel—namely, the judgement of God?

I wonder what an Old Testament believer would have thought of our reluctance. At Passover, the Israelites were instructed in no uncertain terms to tell their children, when asked, exactly why a lamb had to be slaughtered for dinner (Exod 12:26-27). It would be hard, in those circumstances, not to make the killing of the firstborn child and the angel of death a subject of conversation.

Naturally, if we begin to preach about hell and judgement to little children, we could potentially land ourselves in enormous strife. Those who have the privilege to teach children the gospel in schools would, in many cases, find it swiftly removed—through popular outcry in the school community or, eventually, through government legislation. The church, still seen as a community pillar in some places, might speedily become a community pariah. Funding would be withdrawn, tax breaks called into question and lawsuits would ensue. The pastor’s phone would ring hot. The children’s worker’s phone would go into meltdown. Jobs would be threatened, committee meetings would be held and nervous warnings would be issued. In other words, the gospel would be heard and God would be glorified.

Is this a called-for revolution? Will we really see results if we begin to speak more clearly of God’s judgement and anger to little children before we offer the antidote of the forgiveness available in Christ? One way to find out would be if the revolution began in our backyards and in our bedrooms. “Kids, come off the trampoline, get into your pyjamas and let’s have our bedtime story. What have we here? Luke’s Gospel, chapter 12: the parable of the rich fool who was a greedy man and who now must face judgement.”

Perhaps the reason Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belonged to little children is because they would be one of the few groups in society to receive this teaching with thankfulness and joy.

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