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?”
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.
“The reason hell is so terrible is because God is so great that despising him deserves this terrible punishment.”
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. Five great truths. God does not intend for his children to experience hell as an end, but to experience the warning of hell as a means of clarifying and establishing these five great realities. This is true for a 6-year-old and it’s true for a 60-year-old. 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.
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.
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.
“Paint the achievements of the cross in such lavish colors that they outshine fears of hell.”
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.
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. 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.
4. This is the key. This is the absolute key to everything. The fear of hell is a golden opportunity to magnify the cross of Christ and the greatness of Christ and his sacrifice and the greatness of his love and the greatness of his mercy and the greatness of his patience and the greatness of his compassion and the greatness of his nearness and his friendship and the greatness of his tenderness towards children and the greatness of his power and authority over death and hell. What a golden moment for children to meet and know the living Christ and the glories of what he achieved on the cross. The remedy of our children’s fear is not to hide hell, but to reveal Christ and the cross. We should be prepared to paint the achievements of the cross in such lavish colors that they outshine the fears of hell.
“The fear of hell is a golden opportunity for treating God as big and glorious and utterly real.”
One of the great purposes of the warnings of hell among God’s people is to help us see the greatness of the achievement of the death of Christ to deliver us from the fear of hell. Every night — I’ve done this — every night, when you walk into your child’s room because of a nightmare about death or hell or judgment, the remedy is not to say that hell is unreal or to in any way minimize the terrors of it. The remedy is to sing to them about the triumphs of Jesus over this great enemy. They’re going to hear Daddy’s confidence. They’re going to hear it as Daddy sings about the triumph of the cross over hell. And then you rub their back, and hum the song to them as they fall asleep in gospel peace. That’s the goal.
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.
The fear of hell is a golden opportunity for grasping the greatness of the work of Christ, who died for us so that we might not endure wrath. Tell the children 1 Thessalonians 5:9. Just look them right in the eye and say, “God has not destined us for wrath” — or hell — “but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”
5. The fear of hell is a golden opportunity to bring your child into the experience of a fearless life of faith. If you can teach your child fearlessness in the face of hell, on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, you will have given him the ground of total fearlessness in life. Make him a warrior, or make her a warrior, because there isn’t anything greater that they could ever face. Nothing will threaten them more than sin and death and hell.
“The remedy of our children’s fear is not to hide hell, but to reveal Christ and the cross.”
If they know how to conquer sin and death and hell through Christ, then they can face anything. They’ll be fearless in life, and what good will they do then? What great achievements will they accomplish when they face down every enemy with fearlessness because they’ve learned from you when they were six that nothing can throw them into hell, even though hell is a horrific enemy?
Don’t run away from this opportunity. Don’t miss this golden moment of using the fear of hell as a means of clarifying and establishing the truth of 1) a great and glorious God, 2) a horrible nature of sin, 3) the reality and justice of future judgment, 4) the greatness of the cross and Christ’s rescue from hell, and 5) the glory of a fearless life of faith.