Do you think we should talk to children about hell?
Howard Worsley: I want to talk to children about Jesus and about his love and grace. It’s a good news story and that’s the key message. Children need to hear the gospel: that Jesus has broken the power of death and hell, that he holds the keys of life. The scriptures say: “As in Adam all have sinned so in Christ all have been made alive”. The gospel is a message of comfort, so any mention of hell as we’re talking to children would be to say that in following Jesus we can be assured that he is the total boss of all of life and all principalities and any strength and force there is, so follow him and trust him. I’m not in the least bit frightening them about hell, I’m doing the opposite. I’m doing what I feel Jesus has called us to do, which is to offer the assurance of the good shepherd to children. The whole message of scripture is for us not to be bothered and frightened about hell, because this is what Jesus came to destroy.
Melanie Lacy: If we’re teaching and reading systematically through scripture, the subject of hell will naturally arise. It is interesting that the person who speaks most about hell in scripture is Jesus. But I would want a parent to be able to discern what’s appropriate for their own child and to lead the conversation.
When a diamond is sold at the jewellers, it’s held against a black cloth to show its sheen. If we’re not being saved from something then it is a weak and pathetic gospel. Knowing that Jesus died to save me from the consequences of sin, which is hell, makes it a strong, beautiful and grace-filled gospel. I think it also shows really clearly the doctrine of a God who is just. If we don’t teach the doctrine of hell, we affect all the other doctrines. Children who have had a one-sided gospel grow up feeling grieved that there is no justice in the world. I’m concerned that we fail children if we don’t give them the full picture.
Do we need to be specific about what ‘hell’ is?
ML: We need to be very careful to steer children away from the caricature of hell we see in the media, cartoons etc. I think we can talk in terms of punishment and separation. My explanation to young children would be that people choose to live their life without reference to God, not being aware of God’s common grace, of his goodness and his provision that surrounds them, then in eternity God says: “OK, you wanted to live without me, here you go”.
Children have an amazing capacity to have a personal relationship with Jesus
HW: Children are very aware, as they grow up, of the dark things in life. They become sad when an animal dies, or when a parent or grandparent dies. Their parents experience sadness. Children need to hear that Jesus is with them as they encounter all the sadness and darkness of the world. They also need to know that Jesus is just, and that he forgives them. How Jesus is just is more than any of us can cope with. When we see the grace of Jesus as to who is let into heaven, we are all going to be gobsmacked that people who’ve done most grievous things are redeemed by the blood of the lamb.
We don’t need to be so concerned as to how the offender is punished. So many children feel insecure and they need affirming. Do we believe hell is the literal flame of eternal absence from God, or do we believe it’s something that we have created because we have not believed in Jesus - that it is the darkness of not knowing?
ML: I don’t believe that it’s something we’ve created; I believe it’s an eternal state of separation. We want to speak about hell wisely and sensitively but I would also speak about what Jesus has saved us to and that is the new creation and the beauty and joy and the eternity that lies before us.
We have children who are really struggling with insecurity, anxiety and depression and one of the reasons is because children don’t have a place in the world, they don’t have the big picture to fit into. The biblical narrative is a beautiful metanarrative, giving them that picture of where we’re coming from, why we’re here and where we’re going really helps with grounding and securing children in this really troubled and complex world.
How should we talk to children about death?
ML: I think we do this really badly in the church; we’re ham-fisted and give platitudes such as: “It’s all right. We’ve got heaven”, or: “Jesus is with you, there’s no need to be sad”. The cycle of grief is at least two years; for children’s it’s often longer. We know that bereavement will affect a child the entirety of their life. We want to walk very gently and lovingly with children.
With children who have lost a family member who perhaps they clearly know is outside of the gospel, that can be a really tricky conversation to have, because they will ask: “Where is my loved one now?” That is a really tough question for children and can really influence their interaction with the gospel in the future. If we said that a loved one, because they were outside of Christ, is now facing eternal separation, a child might actually choose not to turn to Christ because they would rather be with their loved one. So we need to be really careful about how we engage with that.
I would want to point children to God being just and fair. I think there is going to be so many people in eternity that we have never considered or thought of, and God is the God of second, third… sixth chances. We can’t say someone is in heaven or hell categorically. I am not the judge.
HW: I think categorically you can say if somebody is going to be with Jesus forever: “If anyone is in Christ, he (or she) is a new creation”. So we can give assurance that in Christ you are saved, but I agree that if a person is not a follower of Jesus, we are not to judge this. But we can have good hope that Christ’s atonement has done so much more. Romans talks about the second Adam winning back more than the first Adam lost. Paul often talks in ways that seems to suggest that many will be saved, even those we would never thought would be. So the general tenor of my conversation is hopeful and positive and comforting.
You can approach a child thinking that they are, from birth, naturally lost, original sin has got them by the ankle, or you can look at the child as being made in the image of God, in other words, originally blessed. Probably the healthiest thing is to leave it to God, that God has made them originally and although they will be damaged by sin, talk to them positively as expecting them to follow Jesus. So often children do follow Jesus, they hardly know the time when they haven’t.
ML: I think I would be slightly clearer on the fact that children are born in Adam, they are sinful, they are born in original sin. But I strongly believe that children have a very natural spiritual propensity. We see though scripture children receiving Christ, even from before birth. Lots of faith development theories say children can’t ascend to a personal faith until they’re about 11; I would really disagree. I think children from the youngest age can have a saving faith in Christ. They have an amazing capacity to have a personal relationship with Jesus. The statistics in the UK bear this out: something like 85 per cent of Christian adults became a born-again believer between the ages of 4 and 14.
How important is it for children to pray a prayer of salvation at a young age?
ML: This comes down to whether you assume your children are part of the covenant family until they opt out, or are they outside until they opt in? People often say: “I don’t have a very exciting testimony. I don’t remember when I became a Christian” and to me that is the most exciting testimony. I think naturally if we’re engaging with children, discipling them actively in the family and the Church, there should be many opportunities for a child to naturally turn to Christ. I’m not sure that the praying the prayer approach is helpful. Children lack assurance if we keep doing that, but lead them into a friendship with Christ and look for the fruit of the Spirit in their life, which will indicate whether they are alive in Christ.
Children need to hear that Jesus is with them as they encounter all the sadness and darkness of the world
HW: When I was little I prayed an ‘ask Jesus to be my friend’ prayer. It had a huge impact on me but a lot of people don’t have a moment when they do that. I often say to children: “Have you asked Jesus to be your friend?” so that children know that they are friends and followers of Jesus and that this is a really big deal. You don’t need to have this magic conversation because the truth is: “While we were still sinners Christ died for us”. It’s back to this massive work of the atonement of Jesus that’s done so much more than we could possibly believe, and let’s just make sure we’re following him.
What I wouldn’t suggest we do is have rally calls where children put their hand up to get a ticket to heaven. There was almost that sort of attitude to salvation in bygone days of rallies, and it sort of over simplifies the gospel and makes it into something rather journalistic and superficial. Following Jesus is a lifelong thing.
ML: I think sometimes it would be appropriate to lead a child in a prayer. I am involved in youth and children’s work at some of the big festivals, and will often have a chance to pray with a child, but at their initiation - so children who have been struck by the gospel, struck by their own sin, their need to repent and their need of a saviour, and it is a real privilege to lead children in that prayer.