If you’re not aware of the “Classics of Reformed Spirituality” series or the good work of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society, you should definitely take a look. Their goal is “the publication and dissemination of historically important Reformed theological and religious literature originally published in the Dutch language.” (From their website.) One piece of such literature is Jacobus Koelman’s The Duties of Parents.
Just to get the review proper out of the way: this book is excellent and you should read it if you want to think about how to parent well as a Christian. Koelman gives 282 ‘guidelines’ for raising children (though in good reformed fashion some of the guidelines are several pages long and include multiple subpoints). Most of these guidelines are practical and solidly Biblical (not that those are two different things).
As with any good Puritan/Reformed book, there are the requisite things I disagree with. For example, infant baptism. One ought not intentionally baptize unbelievers. For my thoughts on that see this. Those disagreements are few and far between. Most of the book is a combination of good, solid, Biblical theology combined with practical wisdom.
So go and read this book!
Okay, on to the specific point of this review. As with any Puritan worth his salt, Koelman uses language regarding eternal punishment that I’m not comfortable with. That is, in his view hell is painful, sorrowful, and eternal (to say the least). Now I completely agree with that and will decry as a heretic anyone who pointedly refuses to preach such from the pulpit when the passage in question calls for it. The problem is, this is a book on raising children.
Which is really to say that my discomfort is the result of my sin. I don’t want to think about sharing the reality of God’s justice and the punishment of those who rebel against him with a child. My emotions have become the standard by which I think and act, and that is unacceptable for a Christian.
All that to say, I know what the truth is and that I should share it with my kids. Yet I remain reluctant to do so. Koelman, on the other hand, has no such reluctance. He writes about what we ought to say to those for whom we are responsible:
“Speak often and in the most serious tones with them about hell and the punishment of the damned, how they have fallen in a most dreadful way into the hands of the living God, who is most holy, righteous, and mighty, and an avenger of sins, and who wishes to glorify his infinite wisdom and power in their punishment. Their souls are punished with the loss and deprivation of the glorious, comforting presence of God and the blessedness of heaven, a lack that, after all, is little less than half a hell and will be experienced as such. But their souls will also be punished with dread and fear and torments by a sense of God’s fiery wrath resting upon them and by the arrows of the Almighty! What wretched and anxious thoughts, what a dreadful sense of their situation they have there! What depressive despair they have in their soul because God’s wrath has been poured out upon them like water and they are filled to the brim with it! What a hell they carry around within themselves, while they are in hell, on account of their conscience, which, like an undying worm, keeps gnawing at them and will tear them to pieces! What a storm there will be in their mind on account of the wind of God’s wrath!Their bodies too will be tortured after the day of judgment as they lie in the pool that burns with fire and sulfur.Their eyes will burn in their heads; their tongues will roar and simultaneously be chewed up by pain; their hands and feet will be fried and their flesh roasted–not not a single part of their body will be left untouched by the devouring flames of this dreadful fire of hell. The punishment will be more severe and heavier than if molten lead or pitch were poured into their intestines, or if their body were pulled to pieces by wild horses, or if their chest were torn open and their heart and flesh were pulled from their body with red-hot tongs. They suffer more and worse pains than if they simultaneous had all the diseases and pains that people suffer in this life: headaches, toothaches, gallstones, kidney stones, gout, hot fevers, festering boils, and so forth. Their souls and bodies will then be larger, more capable, and stronger to bear the most extreme and sharpest pains without being destroyed by them. Their punishments will never be ended or alleviated but will go on day and night, without rest, not having anything but weeping eyes and gnashing teeth, without any food or drink, without a soft bed or a pleasant walk and view, without light or the relief of a pleasant fragrance, without a comforting thought or a lovely sound, without any eye that will look upon them with compassion or bring them any refreshment….
Consider especially how those punishments will be forever and ever and ever! This hellish fire will be everlasting and never quenched. The smoke of their torments will go up in all eternity so that they will always die, roar, burn, and sink and still never, never, never be dead or consumed or reach the bottom of the pit. After they have lain in hell for so many hundred thousands of years as there are stars in the expanse of heaven, grains of sand on the seashore, drops of water in the sea, and specks of dust in the air, their pain will still be at the beginning, not any closer to the end than on the first day when they were cast into that place. And even if that incomprehensible and innumerable number were surpassed with pains a hundred thousand times over, they would not have advanced even a hairbreadth in making full the measure of eternity. O eternity, eternity, eternity! (pg 136-138)
“On the other hand, speak with the utmost appeal and faith about heaven and the glory and blessedness that are there. Even the bodies of the righteous will taste a heavenly bliss, since they are glorified bodies that shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father, conformed as they are to the glorified body of Christ, perfectly healthy and splendid.” (138)
To be fair, Koelman talks as much about the delights and glories of heaven as he does about the pains of hell–to say nothing about the necessity of faith and atonement as a way to avoid the latter and achieve the former. The problem is that nobody has trouble talking about the benefits of heaven. It’s the hell side of things that gives us pause.
Which brings me back to my original difficulty. I know the Biblical truth that whoever doesn’t believe in Christ will spend eternity in hell. Because of my fallen emotional sentiment–which puts the creature ahead of the Creator–this reality is not pleasant to think about. It is even less pleasant to contemplate telling children about. And yet, to fail to do so is to risk them ending up in that very condition which is so unpleasant to think about in the first place. Which is where Koelman’s charge comes in: we must share the Gospel with them. And this sharing must be of the full Gospel, including all the work Christ has done to save us, what He has saved us for, and what He has saved us from. To do anything less is to dishonor Christ’s work, deny the reality of the world, and endanger the lives and souls of our children. And when we put it like that, hopefully our fuzzy sentimentalism can be set aside and we can better fulfill our calling as parents.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where he eschews cheap sentimentalism whenever possible.