A famous, As-Seen-On-TV atheist once said that teaching children that there is a hell is child abuse. Naturally this means that every Christian parent, pastor, or Sunday school teacher is an evil criminal who needs to be rounded up into concentration camps.
But not Muslims. They’re a protected class right now.
Let’s consider the logic of his position. It makes a fair amount of sense that if you tell a child they will burn forever in the literal tormenting fires of hell, that they will not accept it as comforting news. They may (and I say this as a lay person who is not a child psychologist) dislike the idea rather strongly. In fact, it may frighten them almost as much as the seven foot tall Easter Bunny costume stuffed full of half baked community college liberal arts student which their parents force them to sit on to get their picture taken at the mall every spring.
But the famous, As-Seen-On-TV atheist has forgotten a few vital parts of this discussion.
1. Children tend to not have an imagination capable of creating a vivid image of hell until they see it for themselves in bad action movies where in the villain or anti-hero literally comes from or goes into Hell. These were fairly popular in the 1990s and can still be found on cable or VHS.
But for most children, until they have seen those R rated movies and wasted two hours of their lives which they will never get back, they probably picture hell as a long Monday in school where the air conditioning has quit and mosquitoes have found their way in to swarm all during geometry. And while the imagery of Hell given in the Bible is somewhat up to interpretation, this may actually be quite close to the truth.
2. Christian parents tend to teach their OWN children about heaven and hell. You don’t tend to see them roaming about playgrounds, chasing down other people’s kids and saying. “Hey there kiddo! Let me tell you about the eternal fiery torment which awaits you when you die! DIE DIE DIE!!!”
So naturally, these Christian parents, pastors, and Sunday school teachers are probably going to mention not only heaven, but the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ which insures our eternal home in heaven. As a kid who was raised in church, we generally thought of Hell like most kids think about prison. You think, “I don’t want to go there, and I hope none of my friends go there either.” We didn’t live in the constant fear that Angels wearing badges were going to kick down our doors and drag us into the pits of hell because of some overlooked misdemeanor. We tended to sing songs about how glad we were to be forgiven for our sins and saved from Hell by Jesus. Check out the lyrics to Amazing Grace if you need an example.
But the major error this famous, As-Seen-On-TV atheist made was in forgetting that he was talking about himself. Some adult atheists will even be bold enough to say they find it offensive or frightening to be told that there is a hell for those who don’t believe. They act like you are insulting them personally by mentioning the fact. They would demand that we abandon the teaching for any number of reasons.
But they are not upset because they dislike the idea. Everyone dislikes the idea. No Christian author or teacher has ever said, “I Love the doctrine of hell. I find it comforting.” The atheist hates the doctrine of hell for the same reason the glutton hates the doctrine of heart disease, or the alcoholic hates the doctrine of liver failure, or the drug addict hates the doctrine of overdosing.
The atheist hates the doctrine of hell because they ALREADY BELIEVE IT. They already know that if they die tonight they wake up in hell tomorrow. This is why they fear death.
An Atheist doesn’t need a Christian teaching on Hell to make them fear death. Hell is constantly a heartbeat away. Every time they go to bed there is a part of their mind which remembers they close their eyes with a soul stained by their own evil. This is why they fight so irrationally against the ideas of moral absolutes, or sin, or the judgement of God. They want desperately to convince themselves that they can go on sinning and there will be no day of reckoning. But they know this is not true. They know their sins will be paid for.
This is why they fear death. This is why they hate the doctrine of hell.
This is why they need to be reminded that Jesus loves them, and he paid for their sins, and that while the wages of their sin is death, the free gift of God is grace- salvation through Jesus Christ.
Because we all believe in hell, but none of of has to go there if we choose not to.
Amazing Grace- How sweet the sound!- can save a wretch like you.