Religion, Values

Is Teaching Kids About Hell Child Abuse?

Do you think it’s a form of child abuse to terrify kids with teachings of hell and damnation?

49 thoughts on “Is Teaching Kids About Hell Child Abuse?”

  1. Depends on how and when you will teach it.

    I was in Early Childhood Education and Christian Education for a long time (my wife still is). What we don’t often realize is that just as their are developmentally appropriate ways and stages for teaching various skills, so their are developmentally appropriate ways and stages for teaching spiritual truths.

    I have a 4 year old boy; going on 5. And a daughter who is just a few months into 6. We haven’t even discussed Hell and there is no reason to discuss it right now. We have only recently begun talking about Jesus’ death because it was no appropriate at an earlier stage. It was important for them to learn first of Jesus’ miracles and his love for people so that they can have an appropriate context for understanding the cross.

    When we do broach the topic of Hell (which I do believe in), I will have to live by one guiding principle: Hell is a reality, but Christianity is not about being afraid of Hell. Following Jesus is about living a life of forgiveness, reconciliation, service, worship and holiness. Hell is a choice that we make. But that conversation is still many years away.

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  2. I teach my son about the only hell that I believe in – here on this planet, a little bit at a time; prompted by his curiosities and questions…I do not teach him about a forever hell cuz that would be preposterous…and abusive.

    Thank you Paul…this is a great question…

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  3. It is abuse. Though I am sure that the teachings are meant to move you toward the heavenly prophylactic, in my case it was the single greatest cause for my utter rejection of Christianity. How could I accept such a cruel vision of reality? In kind of a reverse Pascal’s wager: I realized even if it were true, my life would only be worthwhile if I rejected the system that rejected life.

    I recommend the sermon in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy as the ultimate hellfire sermon.

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  4. What an interesting question.

    I think it depends on the child, and also on when, how, and why the information is imparted.

    As a small child, I was taught about Heaven and Hell in a fundamentalist Christian manner, and it made no negative impression upon me whatsoever; I thought (and still think) that it was a load of crap, because it is completely unprovable and speculative. Granted, I was an unusual child.

    Do people teach children about Hell in order to instill a sense of ethical responsibility that the child’s brain has not yet developed? I guess I agree with Jacob, that it’s OK as long as the child has a mind of its own as well, or knows some basics of discerning thought. And children are vastly different/individual in that regard.

    It’s quite different, IMO, to teach a Jewish child about the Holocaust — that really happened, and the reality of it is what makes it so inescapable and potentially damaging.

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  5. I’m going to go with it depends too.

    I’m not sure I’d characterize it as abuse, but I believe it’s wrong to tell children that people that don’t agree with their beliefs are going to be tormented for all of time after they die. This gives the child the idea that it’s OK to punish people for believing differently.

    But then I don’t believe hell is real, so I think it’s needless to make children believe in it.

    Teaching children about hell as a concept in comparative religion and giving the child the chance to make up their own minds about it (but encourage them to keep an open mind like your mother did) I have no problem with.

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  6. BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum. Interesting post… you asked,

    “Do you think it’s a form of child abuse to terrify kids with teachings of hell and damnation?”

    Well that all depends on a few things. First the age of the child and secondly, the tradition from which you come. Islam has a different approach to the Paradise and the Punishment than I find in Christianity. In addition we have recommended teachings based on the child’s development usually relative to puberty. So although it may sound cliche, really, “it just depends”.

    -Saifuddin

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  7. Well, I think at an early age it is bad..

    But we should not be telling them real bad things, may be something as bad as getting hurt- hell and something as sweet as chocolates- heaves..

    But eventually they will find out for themselves as we found out!

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  8. It should be taught in a matter that doesn’t distort or confuse the child. A factor would be the ability to teach and emphasize the certain ideas.

    At an age when a child can understand the concept of Hell, I don’t see how it’s abusive, when taught correctly.

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  9. If your intent in teaching your kids about hell and damnation is to terrify them then ‘yes’, obviously that’s child abuse. If you teach faith in Christ, repentance, and baptism as the way to eternal life (and thus the way to avoid hell) then that’s being a responsible parent.

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  10. I don’t think you can teach your faith to your children without teaching both sides. For Christians, that means teaching Heaven and Hell. It is not child abuse. It is a parents job to educate their children in the things they need to know…this is just one of them. I posted a similar question on my blog. I asked if it was child abuse to teach your faith to your children. You can read it here: http://sanctification.wordpress.com/2008/01/30/is-it-child-abuse-for-parents-to-teach-their-faith-to-their-children/

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  11. One day my son came home in tears from visitation with my ex-husband. His father had told him that I was going to burn in hell. That is child abuse in its purest form.

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  12. Makita,

    I am sorry that you and your son had to go through that. People should not use children as pawns to get at one another…..that is sick.

    The problem with your situation though is that it is not relevant to the question. Your ex-husband was not teaching your son about Hell, it sounds like he was just being mean.

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  13. Yea, it is child abuse. At 5 or 6, my idea is that it is more important to teach them about the life and teachings of Jesus, as how to live a moral life, worship God with your all, and to love your neighbor.

    I think there may be an exception. If someone the kid knew well was abusive or just really amoral in some form were to die, then you should tell them in a way that won’t scare them about hell, like, “While Christians do go to heaven, [so-and-so] is going to this place called hell for being such an evil, amoral person.”

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  14. It’s a little like a pastor telling his parishoners to go see Passion Of The Christ, a Christian splatter flick. For every individual who is inspired by it, there’s probably one who afterward wrestles with depression or other psychological problems.

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  15. Hi, Paul. My answer is yes, though I do not believe in heaven or hell. I think there are pockets of hell(violence etc.) dotted all over earth already and I make sure that my kids do not see or hear this through media. Why burden kids with information they are soon going to learn about anyway?

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  16. Paul:

    Why does one want to terrify a child? What sort of aim is that anyway? Why must adults always stake their power in such ridiculous ways? Fear never made anyone love anybody.

    I think the important thing to inculcate in a child is the twin concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘consequence’. Although we see plenty of adults to whom the twin-concept means nothing…

    Using unreal illustrations, such as hell and heaven, is meaningless in such an environment. Using ‘earthly’ examples to illustrate the concepts of choices and their consequences is likely to be more effective because reinforcement will come thick and fast in the quotidian life.

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  17. Ido not believe this to be a form of abuse…I do however think there is a better way to instill morals and knowledge with out inflicting fear…Interesting discussion

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  18. I think it depends on a number of factors: who’s doing the teaching, how they’re teaching, why they’re teaching, the maturity of the child involved, etc.

    In some cases, it’s definitely a form of child abuse; in others, definitely not. Like so many ethical situations, it’s difficult if not impossible to arrive at a universal, across the board decision.

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  19. As long as you teach children hell is a place/situation that people CHOOSE to be in, willingly that is, there’s nothing wrong with it.
    If you use the idea to instill some semblance of morality in them, it’s not abuse, but you’re teaching them the wrong kind of morality.
    If you use it to instill fear in them (of any kind), it’s abuse all right.
    If you use it to tell them their mother’s going there, it’s not just abuse, it’s blasphemy.

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  20. You’re asking two questions here. One is about teaching kids about Hell, and the other is about deliberately terrifying them in the name of education.

    I can’t think of any way it is ever justified to terrify kids on purpose “for their own good”. But I’ve known lots of kids who were taught ideas about Hell and didn’t find it terrifying, because they were also taught how to avoid it and go to Heaven instead, and felt perfectly confident about doing that.

    I don’t personally believe in either concept. I do believe that religious tolerance is important, and applies to atheists as well as different religions. I also object to the way the term “child abuse” is slung around to describe every perceived failing in other people’s parenting. It’s a very destructive modern trend that devalues people who have genuinely suffered, as well as justifying bigotry against people who are often doing a very difficult job that benefits society overall (parenting).

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  21. I’d like to thank everyone for a very interesting discussion of this issue — and especially thank those of you who have not before this commented on my blog. It’s much appreciated.

    I’ve been given a lot to think about here, but I can say at this point that I think your comments have changed my thinking about this issue a bit. I’m grateful to you for that!

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  22. Yes absolutely. I beleive I`m testiment to it. It has dawned on me in recent years that part of the reason why my life is often dictated by fear and guilt is largely because of the of the belief in hell which was installed in me from a young age.

    I was brought up in a pentocostal family and regularly attended church and Sundayschool. These places are institutions of guilt, fear and, sometimes, terror. An obsession with all things devil, demons and hell was everpresent; all the while brainwashing us inocent kids to believe the worst lie anybody could believe: the existence of eternal pain and fear.

    I belive that this sets a benchmark for a culture of morbid fear in ones life, still present well into adulthood.

    Propergaters of such misinformation should be shown the damage the are doing to inocent people. Unfortunately though, the fact that they also believe the lie will prevent them from changing their ways.

    Let your children be children and free to believe that they can be free from fear.

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  23. Why tell children about hell, except as a means to control them? It’s preposterous, insane, and brainwashing at its lowest. Hell is as measurable as ID.

    Hell is a Catholic youth with memories of repeated assaults from a trusted priest. Hell is an unjust war foisted upon a nation by corrupt officials.

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  24. @ Tim: Welcome to the blog! 🙂 Thank you for a very eloquent post!

    Most of the time these days, I think it would be better for everyone if we did not teach religion to kids until they reached the age of 18 or so. And then we should teach them a bit about all the world’s major religions — not just one or two. Does that make any sense?

    @ Stevo: Of course you’re right. The notion there’s a hell is just as wildly speculative as the notion there’s an Intelligent Designer. Good post!

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  25. If I told my kids that I have a special machine that can see their very thoughts and if they think the wrong thing, I’ll pour petrol on them and burn them to death, I would be committed and my children quite rightly taken into care.

    If I told them that an invisible being in the sky can see into their heads and if they have a bad thought they will be burned for all eternity in agony, then my government would give me a tax break.

    Can’t quite get my head around that one.

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  26. I think “child abuse” doesn’t dovetail very well with teaching religion to children. Dawkins uses it all the time – it annoys me because it’s a propaganda tactic: using weighted language instead of facts to get a point across.

    I would reserve “child abuse” for, well, child abuse. Incest, beatings, malicious psychological torture, neglect, etc.

    Teaching kids about hell is just “bad parenting”. If done with love and tenderness instead of belts and hot irons the worst that can happen is a few nightmares and some confusion and anxiety, most of which will wear off by adulthood – although the belief in hell might not. From my experience, though, adults from loving families who believe in hell don’t discuss it – they believe in hell but it seems like there’s nobody in there but Hitler and Pol Pot – everybody else is with God.

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  27. Hi Sasha! Welcome to the blog!

    I’m curious. Are you suggesting that kids would not behave unless threatened with hell or promised heaven? Have I understood you?

    Hi Alceste! Excellent points! Although, I wonder if Dawkins sees something we don’t?

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  28. hi everyone,
    I stumbled across your blog in researching a blook I’m writing about the questions that kids ask their parents. One question is “Is there really a hell?” I’ve read all your entries and they’ve been very useful to me, but I have a question or two that I’d love to ask: are any of you parents and if you are, what ages are your kids, and last, if a child asked you this question directly (rather than you choosing to teach the topic unsolicitied) how would you respond? Thanks!!

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  29. Hi Paul,
    that’d be great! Thanks. I’m on a hugely tight deadline though so if anyone as thoughts I’ve be very appreciative, they may even get quoted in my book b/c this book is full of parent quotes.

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  30. This is unbelievable. Do you REALLY have to ask weather causing psychological suffering to a child is morally wrong?

    Wow.

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  31. Its called freedom of religion and in this country its a real thing and should not be taken lightly. Whatever people want to tell there children is acceptible at least by the laws of our country. Abuse is physical or emotional torture. Teaching your child something you beleve to be detrimental to there lives and overall survival is not abuse. If you honestly beleve an earthquake is coming and you don’t tell someone you love to prepare for that rumble, then that would be the abuse.. I was spanked and it made me learn, no one ever beat me or abused me, but today everyone is soooo embeded in everyone elses business my parents who I credit with all my success would have been jailed for swatting me butt and accused of mental anguish for taking me to Sunday school. This is a hopeless and sad thread about mostly people who have no tollerence for views that differ from their own. You kno muslims teach 10 year olds that suicide is a way to heaven, catholics beleve the devil can litteraly be beat out of people, orthodox jews think its ok to hit there daughters 18 times for looking at a boy and some have sex with masks on, so do muslims… there’s a lot more crazy stuff out there than telling a 6 year old that when liars, thieves and killers die they go in fire and not to heaven… the moral message is its bad to be bad and its good to be good. And if no one sees the good or bad it stil happens and god sees… that’s a fine message to help young children learn right from wrong… harles

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  32. Hell is child abuse, pure and simple.

    Christian parents who believe in hell and plan to teach it to their children are child abusers. If they believe in hell, they should NEVER have children. Who gives them the right to play eternal roulette with their children’s souls?

    But the Bible itself does not teach anything about a place called “hell” or suffering after death, until a few inexplicable verses appeared in the last books of the Bible. A place called “hell” or any possibility of suffering after death was never mentioned to Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, or a long line of Hebrew prophets. How can there be a hell, if the Bible is the word of God, and yet God and his prophets never said a single word about “hell” for thousands of years.

    Anyone who has actually READ the Bible and thought about it, has to know that “hell” went completely unmentioned by most of the writers of the Bible. Here is a simple, logical proof that there never was a “hell” according to the Bible itself:

    http://www.thehypertexts.com/no%20hell%20in%20the%20bible.htm

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  33. Assume that all the 6 million Jews killed by Hitler had a rough time during the entire Nazi regime, 1933-45. So that would put der Fuhrer in Hell for 72 million years. One day over that makes God unjust. As a criminal defense lawyer I have seen people convicted of crimes for which the Catholic church would put them hell, given a suspended sentence or a fine or 30 days. That is nothing in the eternal scheme of things. No, thank you, Pope Ratzo.

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  34. It is most definitely child abuse. There are certainly different effects with different children, but one cannot predict how a child will react to having them imagine this. And if the idea of being saved from this is presented as hard and confusing you will create a constant state of fear in a child. This will create mental disease over a period of time because humans don’t do well in constant states of fear. And children tend to take what is told them literally. Most children don’t have the skills of mind that can compare experiences that would allow them to reject this idea.

    There is evidence from testing that this type of religious fear can create the same effects as early molestation in some children. And a child never recovers from these types of early conditioning. They can learn to function, but there will always be a part of them that has this ingrained.

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  35. I just had my 5 year old daughter come to me and tell me her grandmother told her that if someone doesn’t have the love of jesus in their heart then they will burn in a fire in hell. She then went on to tell me her grandmother spun a lovely tale about someone she knew that was a bad person so he burned in a fire in hell.

    I think this is sick and wrong and I definitely see it as a form of child abuse. I now have to explain to my very young child things that I myself have never been able to wrap my mind around. The only thing I could say to her was that no matter what anyone says, you always have a choice and you can always be forgiven. Fear of damnation is not what I directing the development of my child.

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  36. I think that Makita’s point is very relevant to the question because it shows the terrifying impact the doctrine can have on a child. There is no nice, kind way to explain hell as eternal torment to a child. No matter what context you put it in, it can be shattering. Lots of mature adults have a hard time coping with the doctrine, how are kids supposed to deal with it? Because of the internet, lots of friendly and not so friendly discussions are taking place regarding this difficult subject. More and more people are “Rethinking Hell”. There are now lots of web sites dedicated to exploring the issue.

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