This is in the front of my mind for three reasons: firstly, I read an article Martin Saunders (formerly of this parish) wrote expressing concern about an American pastor’s response to a question about children and hell. The pastor basically said that it’s good for children to hear about it and be scared about it and Martin described this attitude as a kind of spiritual abuse. This was a pretty hard line but one I had some sympathy with.

Secondly, I was speaking to a children’s worker who had been sent on a course that was so clear on the sinful nature of a child that it included advice on how to comfort the parents of a child who had died without repenting of their sin and so was now in hell. Instinctively I was cross and wanted to find the people leading the course and stop them.

Finally, my daughter was reading a Christian book out loud to me one evening which said: “There are only two places you can go when you die: Christians go to heaven and everyone else goes to hell.” That’s a tough statement to drop into a kid’s book and hearing a child read it out made me stop short and want to get rid of the book.

We need to be really careful about the way our teaching influences children’s image of God. As they grow up, their faith will be shaped by it and once this image of God is established in the core of a child’s faith, it seldom changes. Majoring on ‘personal morality’ can lead to children growing up with a legalistic faith, never quite feeling accepted by God but, instead feeling the need to please him and earn his love. This can often come out under pressure when we make deals with God (conversations like: “If you help me now I’ll be a bit more ‘good’ in return”) while utterly forgetting that we have no need to make such deals with a father who loves us! Scaring children with the threat of hell is an extreme example of this and will only produce children who are legalistic and motivated by fear. Wanting to please God as a response to his love is very different to fearing his wrath.

We also underestimate the role teaching like this plays in young people giving up on church. Such is your authority as an adult that children will accept what you say as true and then, as they grow, their brain will develop and critical thinking will begin. Children will start to critique what they have grown up accepting as fact. For example, it’s easy to say: “God always answers prayer,” to a child, but when they get older they will see that prayers are not always answered in tangible ways. For some, this will lead to them concluding that God is best left in childhood with the tooth fairy and Father Christmas because their prayers don’t feel like they’ve been answered.

The glib explanation from the children’s book that there are only two places you can go when you die, leaves you with a logical conclusion that almost everyone who has ever lived is in hell, which includes people children know who have died. Whether you believe that this is the case or not, you would have to agree that a child is going to need some help processing this new discovery around hell, but if they’ve never been given space to explore doubts at church before, they probably won’t think to take them to church now.

We need to be really careful about the way our teaching influences children’s image of God

My final issue with this line of teaching is that is often lacks theological depth and nuance. We are presenting as simple truth things that are not that clear at all. There is so much uncertainty here that we need to be really cautious about. For example, some of the material I read still assumes that children are born sinful and that therefore even dead babies could go to hell. This is a doctrine called ‘original sin’ but numerous theologians have picked this doctrine apart, with people such as Karl Barth arguing that children are fundamentally graced.

Even the idea of Christians ‘going to heaven’ is not straight forward. Theologian N T Wright is clear that the Bible teaches the resurrection of the dead with real physical bodies here on Earth, not spiritual beings in a spiritual heaven ‘up there’.

These issues are very complicated and, as you might imagine, there’s not much agreement on them (nor is one column enough to unpack them). It’s OK to tell children that we don’t really know the answers to some of this. So, while I’m not saying we should never mention hell, judgement or the fact that God cares about how we live, we must proceed with caution, avoid ideas that make God scary or threatening and make space for doubt and nuance.

Remember that what you teach them in the Sunday school room will be processed in their bedroom as they are waiting to fall asleep and the concepts you talked about will be applied to themselves and their friends and family. The most important theological concept anyone will ever learn is that they are unconditionally loved by God.