A few years ago, evangelical theologian John Piper posted a video titled “Explaining Hell to Our Children.” In this video, he responded to a follower’s question:
A question from Michael: “Pastor John, how can I talk to my 6-year-old son about hell? When any loved one has died who has also been a Christian, I have told him they have gone to heaven. But if somebody dies who is not a Christian I do not want to lie and say they have gone to heaven, but I do not know how to teach him about hell. He has extreme anxiety about death and I am afraid talking about hell may make him more anxious. He also gets very upset when he makes any kind of mistake or when I have to correct him. I do not want him to worry that if he disobeys that he will be sent to hell. How in the world can I teach him this?”
Yeah, don’t. I get that I’m not someone Michael is likely to listen to—I am an atheist and don’t believe in hell—but I’ve heard from many, many, many individuals who were deeply scarred by childhood fears that friends or family members were going to hell. going to hell. If this kid is already anxious about death—and let me remind you that he is only six—teaching him that people who don’t have the right beliefs are be tortured for eternity after they die is not going to go great, to say the least.
But then, I’m not John Piper, and by now you might be wondering how he responded.
Let me start by turning the tables and saying, we should be one hundred times more concerned about a 6-year-old who has no fear of death and hell than we are about a child who fears death and hell. One of the reasons we may not feel that is because when a child has no fear, we tend to go along as though all is well. He’s such a happy little fellow, and she’s such a cheerful little girl. When a child has anxieties, nightmares, fears, then all of our parental instincts and mind go into gear, and action, because we want to help them, not realizing perhaps that the child with no fear needs even more help from parental vigilance and concern than the child with much fear.
So, basically, the answer is that Michael’s kid should be scared of hell and death, and that if he wasn’t scared Michael should be worried—and in that case, he should probably work on making his kid scared.
Scared kids good. Confident kids bad. Cool.
But of course, Piper has more to say.
I want to encourage Michael that the problem he is dealing with is a good problem to have. If he were not dealing with it, there would be more reason to be concerned than there is now.
How do we help a 6-year-old child deal with the terrifying reality of hell and death? The main thing is to realize that God intends for our real and wise fear of hell to be a means of clarifying and establishing in our hearts at least five great realities. … Look at this moment, Michael, in the child’s life as a golden opportunity for teaching him many wonderful things. Hell is simply the backdrop against which those things will now become gloriously real. Here they are.
“Hell is simply the backdrop” is not a phrase anyone should ever use in the same sentence with a six-year-old. But then, as I said, I am an atheist, and Piper is not. Piper, I assume, is going to argue that scared kids are kids who are open to the gospel, because they will do anything to avoid being tortured forever.
1. The fear of hell is a golden opportunity for treating God as big and glorious and utterly real. It is hard for human beings who are sinful to feel the reality of God, but if God is the one who created hell, and whose majesty makes hell just and understandable, then this is a golden moment. The reason hell is so terrible is because God is so great that despising him is so evil that it deserves this terrible punishment.
In other words, the horror of hell is a signpost concerning the infinite worth and preciousness and beauty and goodness and justness of God. If he were small, if God were small, hell would be lukewarm. Because he’s great, scorning God is a horrible thing. This is a golden moment for how to teach a child about how real and how great God is.
This argument is just so bizarre. The more we fear hell and believe it is a terrifying, horrific place, the more we will understand that God is great and precious and good and just? Say what now? Is this some sort of law of opposites? Because it doesn’t work that way. Entities that are especially good do not also have to be especially mean. Michael’s kid might conclude, based on how terrifyingly real he finds hell, that God is definitely real—and terrifying and awful and cruel. Where do we go from “I’m scared” to “the thing you’re scared of is just“?
When I was exiting Christianity I sought for better ways to understand hell, because I could not get on board with the idea that a just and good God would create a place of eternal torture, as Piper argues. One theological view I came upon was that God is so good and just that sin cannot be in his presence. In this view, God didn’t create hell to torture people, or even create it at all. It’s just that if we die with the stink of sin still on us, we cannot go to heaven, so we go to some other place characterized only by the absence of God.
But this isn’t what Piper is arguing. He’s arguing that because God was so good, he basically had to create a place where people would be tortured for eternity. “The reason hell is so terrible is because God is so great that despising him is so evil that it deserves this terrible punishment.” If anyone tried pulling shit like this in real life, we would recognize it for what it is—abusive to the extreme. Good and just beings do not act like this.
Ah, but Piper isn’t done.
2. The fear of hell is a golden opportunity to teach about the nature and the exceedingly great seriousness of sin. Hell is all about the outcome of a life of sin, and therefore a child needs to understand what sin is. Sin is all about falling short of God’s glory; that is, failing to see God as glorious and to honor him and thank him as glorious, and to follow him and praise him and glorify him. We need to make sure that our children see the direct connection between hell and sin.
The great and frightening tragedy of growing up feeling no fear of hell is that in a life like that, children will not be able to see sin as serious. It just won’t ever get to the point where sin is ugly and outrageous, because they haven’t schooled themselves on the penalty for sin, namely hell — that they will not see it as a great and horrible offense against God. Fearing hell is a golden opportunity for bringing our children into the light concerning the horrible darkness of sin.
I have never taught my children about sin. Sin is not part of my belief system. I believe that the things we do affect others. Gossiping about one friend to another friend behind her back is a bad thing to do. Supporting a friend when she is going through a hard time is a good thing to do. Screaming at your sibling because they left your toy out is a bad thing to do. Using words to address a disagreement with your sibling is a good thing to do.
Piper would have me teach my children that gossiping about a friend or screaming at your sibling could get you sent to a place where you will be tortured for eternity. I don’t think people need to be scared shitless to choose to do good things and avoid doing bad things. I don’t think that kind of fear is even productive.
Consider a workplace where you’re constantly afraid that any little thing you mess up will bring your boss down on you, with hell to play. Will you be actually more productive in that atmosphere than in an office where everyone works together and mistakes are addressed without demeaning comments or threats of being fired?
3. The fear of hell is a golden opportunity to bring the child to an awareness of the reality and justness of God’s final judgment. This is a great and central biblical teaching that all human beings will stand before God to give an account of their lives someday. Hebrews 9:27, “Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
What a gift for a child to grow up deeply convinced that the whole world will face judgment someday.
What in the blazes is this.
I think I need a reread.
What a gift for a child to grow up deeply convinced that the whole world will face judgment someday.
Nope. It doesn’t make any more sense on the reread.
This will give seriousness to the child’s life. Parents worry far too much that their children will be unhappy in the fear of judgment when they ought to worry that their children will be happy with no fear of judgment. Hell is a golden opportunity to bring children into the light and the reality of God’s final judgment.
What. I just. No.
As a child, I felt awful every time I thought about places in the world where the gospel hadn’t reached, where everyone born would live and die and go to hell to be tortured for eternity, without even the opportunity to be saved, based only on the accident of where and when they were born. I felt sick when I thought about this. I tried to avoid thinking about it. This seemed so wrong and so unjust that when I started reassessing what I believed, this was one of the things that drove me from evangelicalism. It just seemed cruel and wrong.
That’s kind of the opposite of good and just.
This post has gotten long enough, so I’m going to stop quoting Piper’s points in entirety and wrap things up. Piper argues that fear of hell is an opportunity to teach kids about the greatness Christ’s sacrifice.
I’ll quote one small paragraph:
Picture it this way: If a great army were coming against your village, and your child knew it and was terrified, how would you give him comfort? Would you lie to him, and say, “Well, those cannons are just firecrackers”? Baloney. You wouldn’t do that. You would point him to some real basis of hope, of deliverance, and that’s what Christ has achieved infallibly for all who trust him.
Children who live through wars tend to end up traumatized and often spend their whole lives dealing with PTSD created by these experiences. Did Piper pause to consider this?
Lastly, Piper argues that if children can stand fearless in this area (based on a belief in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for their salvation), they will be fearless throughout their entire lives, no matter what threatens them. Piper seems to miss that even if a child believes he is saved from eternal torture through Jesus’ sacrifice, a child afraid of death and hell is still going to be terrified that friends or family members who aren’t evangelical will face eternal torture. Unless Piper is promoting utter selfishness—an I’ve got mine, screw you approach.
Piper really does believe that God created a place of eternal torture, and that he sends anyone who does not explicitly call on Christ’s blood to pay for their sins there. Piper would probably say my concern about Michael’s son being terrified is moot if this place called hell really exists—and that it does. That children need to be terrified of hell, so that they’ll avoid going there.
Fine. But such a God is neither good or just.
I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!