Christians tend to agree that “Jesus saves”, but there is a bit of disagreement over what exactly we are saved from. Eternal conscious torment? Annihilation? Or are we all to be saved? Before we figure out how exactly to talk to children about all of this, we should have a look into what the Bible actually says…
HELL IN THE BIBLE
Given the place that hell has in popular imagination and in Christian thinking it’s perhaps surprising that the word occurs only 13 times in the NIV translation. That isn’t the whole story, of course, understanding what the Bible says requires a bit more digging.
The Old Testament says little about the afterlife. The dead inhabit a shadowy world in which they barely exist (in Hebrew ‘sheol’). The wicked are sometimes described as destined for destruction (eg Psalm 37:38) and there are occasional shafts of light suggesting that for the godly there may be a better future (eg Psalm 16:10-11, Job 19:25 and Daniel 12:2-3). But that’s about it.
In the New Testament, it’s Jesus who has the most to say about hell, using two different words. The first is ‘Gehenna’, originally a Hebrew word referring to the valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem and notorious for idol worship and child sacrifice (Jeremiah 32:35). It used to be thought that it was the communal rubbish dump but since all the evidence is from much later that’s now doubted. What’s clear is that in New Testament times it’s seen as a place of death, pain and punishment. We also see what can lead to such a place. Calling others fools opens the door to hell (Matthew 5:22). It’s better to take drastic measures to deal with sin now than end up in hell (Matthew 5:29-30; 18:9; Mark 9:43-47) where, according to Mark 9:43, the fire never goes out. Incidentally, it seems worth questioning why some of us are happy to see cutting off a hand as a metaphor but insist on literal fire. The Jewish authorities lead others to hell (Matthew 23:15) and it is their likely destination (Matthew 23:33). The one to fear is the one who can destroy body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:5).
The essence of hell is not a matter of demons and pitchforks, but separation from God
The second word used is ‘hades’, a general Greek word for the realm of the dead. The gates of hades will not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18). The rich man in the parable is in hades (Luke 16:23). Capernaum’s lack of faith leads to hades (Matthew 11:23). Elsewhere, Jesus describes the destiny of the wicked as darkness (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) or a furnace (Matthew 13:42,50) where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In John’s Gospel, there’s no mention of hell; those who believe in Jesus are given eternal life; those who don’t perish (John 3:16; 10:28). Paul doesn’t use the term either. All will be judged (2 Corinthians 5:10) with the outcome for the wicked death, destruction or perishing (eg Romans 6:23; 2:12; 1 Corinthians 1:18; Philippians 1:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:3), or in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 eternal destruction. Whether these terms are figurative or literal is, like so many aspects of the topic, debated. Jude refers to punishment by eternal fire (v7) and those who will experience black darkness for ever (v13). In Hebrews 10:27 the fate of the wicked is a fire that consumes.
Revelation outlines God’s overall purpose for creation and the destiny of humanity. So far, so good, but there are different takes on exactly how that works in practice. God wins out over all evil represented by the devil, the beast and the false prophet who, along with death and hades, are tossed into a lake of burning sulphur described as the second death where they are tormented for ever (Revelation 20:10, 14) - welcome to the world of mixed metaphors. Here they are joined by those whose names are not in the lamb’s book of life (Revelation 20:15). Meanwhile, those who worship the beast have also ended up in the lake from whence the smoke of their torment rises for ever (Revelation 14:9-11). Some take all this literally; for others it is the imaginative language of poetry, vision and apocalyptic literature.
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
The traditional interpretation is that those who do not receive forgiveness through Christ will be punished for ever, suffering in the fire that never goes out and eaten by worms that never die. The goats in Matthew 25 suffer eternal punishment, as opposed to the sheep who gain eternal life, while the verses in Jude, the everlasting destruction of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 point in the same direction.
There has long been a minority who have questioned this understanding of the New Testament. John Stott’s comments in Essentials concerned many but gave the debate fresh legs. How are we to understand terms like destruction, death and perishing? They hardly, the argument goes, suggest eternal conscious punishment. It seems, rather, that the dead will rise, be judged and either received into the eternal presence of God or undergo some punishment and then cease to exist. People thrown into fires or eaten by worms don’t survive for long; it is the fire and worms that exist for ever. In Hebrews 10:27, the fire consumes. Immortal life, on this understanding, is not an essential part of human nature (and owes more to Greek philosophy than the Bible) but something God gives to those who follow Jesus. (Hence this view is known as conditional immortality, sometimes abbreviated to conditionalism, or annihilationism). The Greek word translated ‘eternal’ is really about the life of the age to come and is about the quality as much as duration. Phrases like eternal punishment and eternal destruction describe eternal results rather than eternal activity. Eternal punishment does not sit happily with God’s love and doesn’t fully tie in with God’s total triumph over evil. The traditionalist response is that God is free to do as his justice demands, that sin, being an offence against an infinite being, requires an infinite punishment and that eternal punishment demonstrates God’s victory and sovereignty.
Children and young people may find the idea of hell disturbing - so do most adults!
An Evangelical Alliance working group concluded that both conditional immortality and eternal punishment were acceptable ways of reading the New Testament. They did not engage with a third position which has a long, albeit chequered, history but which evangelicals normally wouldn’t give a second thought: the view that all will ultimately be saved, being given an opportunity to repent in hell. This is based on verses like Romans 5:18, 2 Corinthians 5:14 and 1 John 2:2, which seem to have a universal scope, although traditionalists argue that given the other texts, the ‘all’ cannot mean every individual. Rob Bell’s Love wins created a minor theological tsunami, although, given Rob’s enigmatic style, it was not entirely clear whether he was really arguing for universal salvation. When Zondervan published the second edition of Four views of hell in 2016, universalism, which had been absent from the 1996 version, was included. Does this view do justice to the large number of verses that speak of judgment, punishment and eternal separation from God? The discussion continues and readers will draw their own conclusions.
Purgatory, which features strongly in Catholic teaching about the afterlife, does not concern the ultimate destiny of those outside Christ but is part of the ongoing preparation for eternal life with God.
Exactly what hell is like then, we can’t say. The Bible gives us metaphors and images. Blackness and fire? Perhaps we shouldn’t take the images too literally. Popular thinking has been influenced more by the weird imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch and the comedic meanderings of Andy Hamilton than biblical teaching. The essence of hell, on any understanding, is not a matter of demons and pitchforks but separation from God (Revelation 21:25-26).
Hell is not an attractive idea so we tend to ignore it - when did you last hear a sermon on hell? But this risks not presenting the whole truth. How and when we do this is another matter. The intellectual, spiritual and emotional development of children and young people means that there is probably a right time to tackle the issue - and a wrong one. It’s may not be a discussion to initiate with young children and it is unlikely that they will have questions about it. If they do raise it or if it comes up in Bible passages, remind them that God loves us and wants that best for us and for his world; it may (or may not) be appropriate to point out that this means dealing with the bad things in the world.
Children have a right to be told the truth; we should never tell children something they would have to ‘unlearn’ later - but they don’t need every last detail. Make sure you are answering the question they are asking and not the one you think they are asking.
Young people need to see the whole teaching of scripture; judgment and the ultimate destiny of human beings is part of this. Lose it and we lose God’s great plan for the world, culminating in the return of Jesus and the establishment of the new heaven and the new Earth. Being largely focused on the present, they may not be unduly concerned about the afterlife - it’s too far away. But they have a right to know that there are consequences to the decisions they make and the way they live today, although we don’t want to use the threat of hell as a stick to ensure compliant behaviour.
Many children have a strong sense of justice; hell, however we envisage it, is about God establishing justice and this may help them develop a more healthy perspective, which will include recognising that the reality of hell, whatever it turns out to be, can only be a source of sadness and pain. Hell as a casual expletive or minor curse - “Go to hell!” - can trivialise a serious topic.
Encourage young people to explore the relevant Bible passages and draw their own conclusions. Be aware, however, of the teaching of your church. Some groups have eternal punishment written into their statements of faith.
Some children and young people may find the idea disturbing (and so do most adults!). They may worry about relatives who have died or things they have heard adults say. There are no easy answers here, but we can be sure of God’s love and mercy; we do not want to offer false hope but we can safely leave things in God’s hands.
Above all, let’s concentrate on God’s desire for a relationship with all, and his offer of life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is good news to be shared and the fact that some may be separated from God (even if only for a period) should be a spur to share it.