My youngest recently asked me if he is going to hell, he says, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to hell because I don’t really believe in God anymore.” My heart just broke. I tried to listen, wanting to reassure… I explained that God is love, period, He does not send people to hell. My very perceptive 11 year old responds, “But all those religious people certainly make it sound like that.” I tried talking about how hell really is a made up concept, not even really in the Bible. He truly is terrified he is going to hell and I feel unable to comfort him.
You reacted to your son exactly as I would. When we see our children in distress, our first instinct is to attack, with a mama-bear ferocity, whatever monster is scaring our children. “Hell doesn’t exist!” “God doesn’t send kids to hell!” “The religious people are wrong!” We are desperate, to chase away what is hurting our children. We want fast fixes for our children’s pain so that our own hearts would stop bleeding.
But before we jump to those conclusions that we may believe to be true, it’s important to remember a few things.
First, your child’s fears are very real, even if you believe the source of his fears are not. If we simply shut down those fears by saying hell isn’t real, it may cause him to think it is not okay to express his fears because you won’t believe him. We want our children to maintain open communication channels, and to always feel free to express their fears and doubts, even if those honest feelings cause us alarm. Take a deep breath, and remember to believe, validate, and enter into empathy for his feelings. This is where I would begin the conversation, “I can imagine why you’d be afraid. I am sometimes afraid myself.”
Second, even if you successfully convince your child you do not believe in hell, he is correct to say this: “But all those religious people certainly make it sound like that.” He is right, and as much as we teach our children a certain set of values, we must remember that he is learning from multiple spheres of influences. Allaying his fears at home does not mean he won’t confront them in hellfire-and-brimstone teachings from the Southern Baptist boy next door. Therefore, it is important to not just impose theological propositions by demanding he believes what you believe, but to give him tools to to cultivate healthy spirituality and guard against toxic religiosity.
You are on the right track when you told him simply, “God is love.” Appeal to his own intuition and sensibility and ask, “would God, if God is love, punish, hurt, and condemn people to eternal torture?” Would a scary God be Someone worth believing in or following? Equip him and help him stay strong in those intuitive sense of goodness so that he can have some tools to combat abusive teachings should he encounter it outside the home.
Lastly, even though I am strong in my convictions that there is no hell (at least the commonly-viewed doctrines of hell in fundamentalist teachings), I don’t know for sure what the after life (if there is one) looks like. And to tell our children with 100% certainty there is no hell, is disingenuous because we cannot be sure. I believe in being as honest and authentic as possible with our children in matters of faith. Tell him what is true, “I don’t believe there is a hell but I cannot be sure.” Sometimes we falsely assume certainty is comforting to children. I like to think children can actually handle a great deal of uncertainty because again, it validates and reflects their humanity. If they have doubts, sometimes it helps to know their parents also have doubts.
It sounds like this is exactly what your son is going through. He is doubting the existence of God and yet somehow still afraid of going to hell. He is trying to sort out his faith: who he is, where he’s going, and what to believe.
And the best part is, he’s talking to you about it!
This the most beautiful piece of this story. He feels safe enough to come to you and share his doubts, fears, and struggles about his faith journey. This shows me what a loving presence you have been to him.
Sometimes when kids are afraid, they look to their parents to see if they are also afraid to determine whether they need to be. Sherry, from your initial response, you have already done the work of discarding toxic views of a vengeful God, and uprooted your own fears of hell. You have decided that God is Love and I completely agree. Now, be resolute in that love. Be determined to show your son, in both word and actions, that you believe in Love over Fear. And his fears may continue for a while, or it may dissipate only to resurface again. But I know it will not ultimately win the fight against the love you consistently provide him.
Your son is in good hands. May love conquer fear, today and everyday.
Cindy for Unfundamentalist Parenting
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*This is part of Ask Unfundamentalist Parenting series where I answer real life parenting dilemmas. You can submit questions to email@example.com*