This past summer our family went on our first major road trip, in large part to visit extended family that had never met our little girls. One of these relatives (we’ll call him “Uncle Charlie”) is not a believer and is quite rough around the edges. So in the days leading up to seeing him, we started preparing Jude, telling him that Uncle Charlie doesn’t believe in Jesus and may say things that aren’t good.
Sure enough, our sweet little guy was a little taken off guard by Uncle Charlie. Jude has only ever experienced relatives, especially elderly ones, who love Jesus, so the harsh and crude language and demeanor was hard on him (even though Uncle Charlie loves little kids and wasn’t intending to be mean). At one point during the evening, Jude ended up out on the porch close to tears and wanting to leave.
Later when we were on the road headed back to where we were staying, we brought up the situation. “Jude, Uncle Charlie doesn’t know Jesus, and that’s why he said and did things that weren’t very nice. It’s important, though, that we forgive him and pray for him to realize that Jesus is his Savior, because that’s the only way that he will change.”
Jude listened quietly and then replied, “If Uncle Charlie dies, will he go to hell?” Judah and I looked at each other and responded, “Yes, buddy. That’s why it’s so important that we pray for him to believe in Jesus.”
A couple of days later, we went back to visit, not sure how Jude would respond this time around. But he confidently marched into the house, right up to the chair where Uncle Charlie was sitting, and declared, “You are a bad man, but I forgive you. And if you don’t believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.”
Needless to say, we were all a bit mortified (and realized we needed to do a bit of instructing in how to lovingly speak truth to others)! But even now, several months later, it has clearly made an impression on his little mind, and he continues to pray for Uncle Charlie very often, sincerely asking the Lord to save him.
Talking to our children about hell is not an easy thing. We don’t want to cause unnecessary fear in their little hearts or expose them to something that is too heavy for them to wrap their minds around. But the reality is that if we are to give our children an accurate portrayal of the Gospel, it must include the eternity of pain and horror we are spared from when we believe in the gift of salvation that Jesus purchased for us.
There are fourteen uses of the word “hell” in the Bible (ESV), and all but two of those are said by Jesus. We know that Jesus never said things in a way that was wrong or inappropriately timed, and He always spoke in love. But that doesn’t mean He didn’t say things that were a bit hard to swallow. Here are a couple of examples.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18:9)
The motive of Jesus was not to scare people into salvation, but He did desire for people to realize the seriousness of their sin and the consequences of not believing in Him as their Savior. He loved those people too much not to tell them what their fate would be if they chose to reject Him.
When we are approaching this topic with our children, we need to both follow the example of Jesus and have the same motive on the matter. We don’t want to strike fear into the hearts of our children by giving them details they can’t handle. But as their little minds are beginning to comprehend what Jesus’s life, death, burial, and resurrection have to do with them today, we cannot skirt around the issue.
This takes much prayer and much wisdom, and it is vital that we seek the Lord for the correct timing for these conversations. But you can be sure that as you are being diligent to teach your children about the Lord, He will give you opportunities to rightly talk with them about hell.
The topic first came up with Jude shortly before he turned four. We were having a conversation about Jesus dying for us, and he was full of questions. I clearly remember that he asked one question that required me to include hell in a truthful answer. I wasn’t sure that I was prepared to give him an age-appropriate answer, but I knew that the Lord was working on his little mind and heart and that I needed to trust God to give me the words to speak.
As I explained, I could see his eyes getting big, and he had a number of questions afterward. But as quickly as the conversation began, it ended, and he was right back into his childhood activities. I had no idea what he had grasped or not grasped. But in the weeks that followed, the topic continued to surface regularly, and it was clear that he had comprehended a good bit of what I had been saying. He wasn’t afraid, and in fact, it seemed to make him more aware of the significance of Jesus’s death and more excited about what it meant for us.
You may have a child who does struggle with fear over the thought of hell. Or you may have a child who is having a hard time reconciling God’s love with the reality of hell. It will take specific sensitivity to the Holy Spirit in regard to what and how each child is able to grasp this subject, but the Lord will give abundant grace and wisdom as you seek Him.
Here are a few practical things to consider as you are praying and seeking the Lord for the best way to handle this with your children.
Focus on Jesus
Rather than putting the emphasis on the scariness of hell and focusing on what will happen if they don’t trust in Jesus as their Savior, focus on God’s love and mercy and kindness in being willing to sacrifice His life to save us from such a place. Remind them that we never have to fear death and hell if we trust in Him.
Keep it Simple
One thing that can help in approaching this topic with little ones is keeping your explanation simple, with few details. You could explain that hell means being separated from God forever and ever. Or tell them it’s a place of punishment. Rather than getting into the details right away, you can give them just enough for them to understand right now.
As parents, there will be times when we feel completely at a loss to broach this or any other subject with our children in a way that seems appropriate for them. But as we seek the Lord in prayer, constantly submitting ourselves to Him and seeking His guidance, He will grant it abundantly (James 1:5).
For more resources on discipling children, check out our Family Discipleship Curriculum, designed to equip parents to effectively lead their children to know Jesus and walk with Him. Learn more about the Family Discipleship Curriculum and sign up for your FREE one-week trial subscription!