8 Things Kids Should Know About Hell

Hell is probably not at the top of your list of things to talk about with your kids.

On the surface, it seems to contradict all the messages about God’s love that we share with them. We worry about confusing them or having them follow Jesus out of fear. We want them to focus on the joy of Jesus and how we should live in this life. I dare say that we sometimes don’t know quite what to make of hell ourselves. Therefore, we just avoid the topic.

But it shouldn’t be ignored.

We frequently talk about the need for salvation and the fact that Jesus died so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God. But saved from what? Reconciled for what? Hell is the assumed other side of the coin that we outright avoid acknowledging much of the time.

So what should we teach our kids? “If you believe in Jesus, you go to heaven, if you don’t, you go to the big fiery pit called hell where you suffer forever. The end.” Pass the dinner rolls.

There is much more we can and should teach about hell than this simple “heaven and hell are opposites” concept! Given how many people struggle with the notion of hell as adults, it should be well worth our while to address this (admittedly difficult) topic more thoroughly.

Here is a framework of key topics to consider. This is detailed! But you won’t regret taking the time to consider these points.

I highly recommend Francis Chan’s book “Erasing Hell” as an excellent and much more complete treatment of this subject.

 

1.       The Bible speaks of hell in many places.

 

If you read your Bible regularly, you might think this one is a no-brainer. But Bible literacy is at an all-time low according to many surveys, and many Christians are not highly knowledgeable of what is and isn’t in the Bible.

With this in mind, let’s start with making sure our children know that hell is, in fact, spoken of in the Bible many times. There are 162 references to hell in the New Testament, and 70 of those references were made by Jesus himself.

The extent of hell references is actually quite an important point to understand; the notion of hell doesn’t come from a vague handful of statements. With 162 references, there is no getting around the fact that the New Testament talks extensively about hell.

 

2.       Hell is a state of punishment after final judgment (not a status in this life).

 

In an effort to soften the concept of hell, I’ve heard many well-meaning people suggest the notion that hell is separation from God on earth (“hell on earth”). This is simply unfounded. The Biblical concept of hell very specifically refers to punishment of the unrighteous after final judgment (at the end of history).  Every person will be held accountable for this life.  Those who believed in Jesus will be reconciled to God and will be with him forever; those who did not will be separated from God in hell.

Matthew 25:31-46 is the longest and most detailed account of that judgment day in the gospels. Though the word hell is not actually used here, the concept is clearly conveyed.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…then he (God) will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…then they (the unrighteous) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Paul never used the word hell in his 13 letters but described the fate of the unrighteous with words such as “perish, destroy, wrath and punish” more than 80 times.

It is clear that hell is a final punishment at the end of time for the choices made in this life, not a reference to a status in this life.

 

3.       Hell is described with imagery of fire and darkness, but those may not be literal descriptions.

 

In reading some books about hell, I have to admit I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of Christian pastors and scholars do not believe that hell is a literal fire, even though that’s what most of us traditionally associate with it. However, when you really look at the descriptions of hell, it certainly appears they are metaphorical rather than literal, physical descriptions. Take these examples:

  • Jesus refers to hell as a “fiery furnace” and “eternal fire” (Matthew 13:30-40; 49-50). The Book of Revelation also refers to the “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:10).
  • At the same time, Jesus refers to hell as “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11-12; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 25:30).

Though it’s possible to conceive that God can create a way for there to be fire AND darkness at the same time, most theologians look at these opposing descriptions as metaphorical rather than literal. Fire is often used throughout the Bible in nonliteral ways (e.g., Luke 12:49, Rev. 1:14, James 3:6, 1 Corinthians 3:15).

The bottom line is that we don’t know exactly what hell will be like. We know its purpose (see number 2), but to teach that hell is simply a big fire pit where non-believers go probably assumes more than the Bible tells us. Whatever it literally is, however, we do know that hell will be eternal separation from God.

 

4.       There may be degrees of punishment in hell.

 

This was also a new concept to me. There are three scriptural references that hint at there being degrees of punishment in hell:

  • In Matthew 11:24, Jesus said, “It will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (“you” referring to those who witnessed Jesus’ life first-hand).
  • In Luke 12, Jesus tells a parable about slaves who receive differing levels of punishment (this is thought to represent final judgment).
  • Paul suggests that unbelievers are “storing up wrath” for themselves on judgment day.

Though the Bible is far from clear on this concept, it is an interesting insight to discuss.

 

5.       Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.

 

Something else Christian Biblical scholars battle over is the duration of hell. Most of us have learned exclusively that the wicked will suffer “forever and ever” … and that may indeed be the case. But there are very valid reasons for believing that the Bible speaks alternatively of annihilation (permanent destruction rather than everlasting punishment).

In almost every passage where Jesus mentions hell, He doesn’t explicitly say that it will last forever. Most biblical references to hell fire say “eternal fire” – but does that mean the fire or the suffering is eternal?

In Mathew 10:28, Jesus says, “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Destruction has a very different connotation than eternal suffering. The language of destruction specifically is common throughout Paul’s letters as well. John 3:16 itself says that those who believe in Him “shall not perish.” Again, perishing is different than eternal suffering.

Matthew 25:45-47 are the key verses that support the notion of never-ending punishment: “…and these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.” These are the same Greek words Jesus used to describe the fire “prepared for the devil and his angels,” so Jesus is saying unbelievers share the same fate as the devil.

We don’t know for certain what the duration of suffering will be. The interpretation based on the original words continues to be the subject of extensive debate.

 

6.       No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus before the final judgment of hell.

 

While we can hope and hypothesize all day long about the possibilities of people having a second chance to turn to Jesus (and many people do), the fact remains that there is no evidence of this in the Bible.

 

7.       The existence of hell doesn’t imply Christians are in any position to determine who or who will not be going there.

 

While the Bible tells us in general why people go to hell (for not believing in Jesus), we are not in a position to judge individuals. I’ve been asked several times by non-believers if, as a Christian, I think they are going to hell. I always reply with what the Bible says about believing in Jesus for salvation, and that only God knows their heart. We need to make sure a knowledge of heaven and hell doesn’t lead to our kids becoming judgmental of individuals themselves.

 

8.       Hell is hard to understand.

 

Theoretically and theologically speaking, I understand and can “justify” to myself why a good God sends people to hell. But from a very practical perspective, does it make “sense” to me that friends or family members – people I know and love – will suffer forever and ever for not having faith?

No.

Hell is hard to understand. If for some reason hell is not hard for you to understand, please know that hell is hard for the vast majority of people to understand, probably including your kids. To not acknowledge this when talking about hell almost trivializes the matter.

I will readily tell my kids that hell IS hard to understand, but that truth is not dependent on whether or not it makes sense to our human minds. If we accept all of the “joyful” parts of Christianity that we learn from the Bible, we have to accept the existence of hell as well – even if it is a very, very difficult thing to grasp. 

18 Comments

  1. Cindi on April 25, 2012 at 9:27 AM

    This is a very difficult conversation no matter how old your children are. I can only pray for God’s guidance and the opportunity to answer childrens questions as they come. And hope when faced with which direction to go, it’s to the right. (Pun intended! LoL)



    • danetta on April 25, 2012 at 10:39 AM

      Amen Cindi…



      • Kate on May 14, 2015 at 6:22 PM

        amen



  2. danetta on April 25, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    Glory to GOD in the highest…this is amazing. I will be talking with my children today regarding the subject of HELL. Hell is real…real…real…real… and God knows I do not want my children nor me, are my enemies to GO THERE. Keeping JESUS first in every area of our life and praying that he becomes first in our children’s life is the way to GO…
    JESUS YOU ARE A WONDER…YOU ARE A WONDER…



  3. Rosann on April 25, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    Thank you for answering the tough questions in my mind regarding how to properly explain hell to my children. I’ve sort of avoided it because I didn’t want to scare them, but the subject of satan came up when reading through my daughter’s children’s bible with her, so I just sort of glazed over the whole concept of hell. This is a great resource!



  4. David Crain on April 27, 2012 at 8:45 AM

    I remember first coming face to face with the prospect of hell in my mid-teens at the hands of the priests in Catholic high school. It frankly scared the hell out of me and forced me to come to understanding of the concept of hell. Though your “Mom Thoughts” might say otherwise, I view hell as the inevitability of separation of our body from God in this life and the separation of our soul from God in the next.



  5. […] 8 Things Kids Should Know About Hell. Scriptural teachings about hell are sometimes neglected, but they shouldn’t be. Christ spoke a great deal about the reality of hell and its horrors. This article suggests eight starting points for discussions with kids (and adults) concerning hell. What are your thoughts concerning the duration of hell? Do you agree with the author that the duration of hell’s punishment is not Scripturally clear? Read the article at: http://christianmomthoughts.com//8-things-kids-should-know-about-hell/. […]



  6. Rusty on August 27, 2013 at 3:06 AM

    Doesn’t eternity seem like an awfully long time to punish someone who had trouble believing in document written by men thousands of years ago (Seriously, look up the Council of Nicaea if you don’t believe me)? When rampant disregard for the truth is the hard and fast rule, how can any of you preach from a pulpit? Why do I deserve to burn in Hell forever and ever? Seriously, I’ve never done anything that would warrant prison, much less eternal punishment. Doesn’t that make anyone uncomfortable? Don’t worry if you don’t have the “eternal wisdom” necessary to stomach punishments like this, they don’t really make sense, even with an eternity to spend contemplating them.



    • Lance on August 8, 2016 at 6:48 PM

      The Council of Nicaea was about coming to a full agreement on Jesus’s status in relationship to God and the same with the holy spirit. If your point is that people are not fully agreeable on exactly what the Bible says 100% of the time and even on the more important aspects of it then ok but the council had nothing to do with defining hell whatsoever. People will always disagree to some degree on what the exact meaning is on the scripture. But that should be less the case the more the subject is mentioned in the bible. Unlike hell, the subject of how equal Jesus is to God and how equal the holy spirit is to God is not discussed all that thoroughly. I think hell is a bit more clear at least to the point where we know we are going there if we don’t except Jesus as our Saviour and that God won’t be there and its definetely not somewhere you want to end up. There will be suffering and I personally believe its pretty clear that hell lasts forever and so does the suffering. The part that is not completely clear is if there are different levels to it. I tend to believe that might be a possibility and would certainly make more sense because if you parallel that to heaven where there are “rewards” then likewise hell must have different levels of punishment.



  7. Rusty on August 27, 2013 at 3:08 AM

    Lol, should have known my comment would be censored. Oh well. If you’re interested in discussing further, you have my email. If you even think a sinner such as myself is worthy of discussion.



    • Natasha Crain on August 27, 2013 at 9:06 AM

      Hi Rusty,

      I replied to you via email, as you suggested, but you left a fake email address so I’m replying here on the blog instead.

      The reason my blog comments are censored is that I receive several emails every day from atheists who simply want to insult me for being a Christian or fight for the sake of fighting. In one comment I received last week, the person wished a painful death upon my family because we are Christians. My blog is intended for Christian parents who want to raise their kids in a Christian home; it is not a place for fighting over the tenets of our faith. There are many other places people can engage in debate if that’s what is desired. I am a mom of three kids under 5, I am a Vice President of Marketing, and I blog weekly. I just don’t have time to engage in theological debates with people each day, particularly when they are as rude as most are when they comment.

      The reason I’m responding to you is that you actually suggested I email you. In case you have legitimate questions about Christianity (as opposed to simply fighting for the sake of fighting), I wanted to reach out and answer a few of your questions. I’m happy to talk to people who genuinely want to understand Christianity and are civil in discussion.

      First, it seems you may have run into some “nasty” Christians or for other reasons think Christians are arrogant, self-righteous people (“If you even think a sinner such as myself is worthy of discussion”). We are ALL sinners by nature and Christians are no less sinful than non-believers. If some people call themselves Christians and like to portray themselves somehow as less sinful than others, this is simply not biblical. Just because a person calls himself a carpenter doesn’t mean he knows how to use a hammer the right way; just because someone calls himself a Christian doesn’t mean he is representing the Bible (and Jesus) accurately. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God, we are all equally loved by God, and any Christian who pridefully thinks he or she is better than a non-believer is completely off base. You and I are of the exact same value to God, and are in the exact same boat of being born sinners.

      Now, you had several questions about hell. You asked, doesn’t eternal punishment make me uncomfortable? Here’s the answer: YES! Absolutely. Totally. Completely. It’s the most difficult thing as a Christian that I grapple with. I think a lot of people think Christians somehow cheerfully smile their way through a belief in hell as if it’s something we easily accept and even desire. This is just wrong. In fact, I’ve had to read several books about it to get past it as a stumbling block to the rest of my faith. If you are seriously interested in the topic of hell, and it’s a stumbling block to what you might otherwise believe about Jesus, please read this book: Erasing Hell by Francis Chan (http://www.amazon.com/Erasing-Hell-about-eternity-things/dp/0781407257/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1377617712&sr=8-1&keywords=erasing+hell). It’s beyond what I can do in an email to give justice to all your questions, but this one book would do just that.

      I would leave you with three thoughts.

      First, not every Christian believes in the common picture of flames burning forever, as Chan’s book explains. See number 5 in my post.

      Second, what you personally believe or don’t believe about the plausibility of hell has no bearing on whether or not it is true. What we think and feel is subjective and shouldn’t be used as a pointer toward what is actually true. Do you believe that the earth revolves around the sun? That wouldn’t have made “sense” to people for thousands of years, but scientific evidence finally showed it to be true. Evidence points to truth, not our feelings or determinations about what “makes sense.”

      Third, that leads to a broader question of what evidence there is for Christianity. After all, if you felt there was sufficient evidence for Christianity being true, you would have to deal with the idea of hell whether you want to or not; if you came to believe that Jesus is truly God’s son and was raised from the dead, then you see that he did warn about hell, you will see that what YOU think about hell is no longer an issue. So the real issue here is whether you believe that Jesus was God’s son and the Bible is an accurate guide to what he said and did. What evidence is there that would lead a sane adult in 2013 to believe this? A lot. The book I always recommend to people is Cold Case Christianity by J Warner Wallace – http://www.amazon.com/Cold-Case-Christianity-Homicide-Detective-Investigates/dp/1434704696/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1377618495&sr=8-1&keywords=cold+case+christianity Honestly, if you really want some answers to your (great) questions, I would start with this book. Because if you believe in nothing else about Christianity, why even bother to question hell? It’s all just a big joke. But if you see the evidence Christians point to (discussed so eloquently in this book), then hell becomes a topic to understand rather than an entire stumbling block to faith (at which point, I recommend the Chan book).

      Anyway, as you can see, I’m not interested in arguing about anything. I am, however, willing to point people to better resources than what I can provide myself in a simple email. These are great questions you have that demand answers! If Christians haven’t grappled with them, and many haven’t, I don’t think they are really thinking through their faith.



  8. Lillian Mirembe on May 29, 2014 at 4:21 AM

    Thank you very much Ms. Natasha. Oh this resource has been so useful. My son, 6 years recently asked, “Mom, who is the mother of satan? I kind of explained but may be you have a better explanation



  9. Tru on August 25, 2014 at 9:28 PM

    Hi Natasha,
    Just a quick one as a fellow believer to encourage you to talk about hell and subjects that even churches shy away from. I watched a movie: heaven is for real and my biggest shock was that even the pastor, his wife and congregation had trouble believing the little boy talk about heaven. I am not saying he went or not, though I believe him, but the ensuing arguments sent me after all sorts of seeking knowledge to understand about hell. I grew up in Africa where heaven and hell were served to you like desert, no glossovers and this was every sunday. I was never troubled by such messages coz I quite liked the fact that Jesus defeated satan and I could live free of the fear of hell. however, at the back of mind was a constant reminder that disobedience leads to separation from God and therefore the fires of hell. I have a ten year old son and I think I feel like I should make the plunge and make it black and white that God punishes sin even though He loves us so much and Jesus has paid the price so we can overcome evil. In my life as a Christian I have faced situations where the sinful path was quite logical and seemingly the only way out but having loved God as a kid (as young as any kid can hear a bible story), I am never able to find peace when disobeying God, not once. I believe the spirit of God dwells within me and orders my feet according to his word even against my feelings and convention and as long as I obey and stay and operate within the perfect will of God, I am peaceful and preserved with a real sense of security (his everlasting arms always underneath me). I strongly believe that we should not be one sided when teaching kids about God’s love because then we play into the fallacy of God’s grace being so great that we will all end up in heaven. This lays the foundation for doubt and questions like ‘if God was so good, why send people to hell for ignorance or sin’. We don’t toy around with discipline when our kids go wrong; rather we let them face consequences while assuring them of our love. Same thing, we can’t teach God’s love without introducing the concept of hell.
    While we are being all modest and nice, our kids are plagued by all sorts of evil in their environment. Kids games and movies are full of monsters and ghosts and all things of questionable holiness/intention. I don’t think hell scares kids into following God out of fear, yet I ask, what’s so wrong with following God out of fear of hell? We don’t question when people run from a lion out of fear. We don’t question when our government makes us comply with rules (even driving rules) out of fear of reprisals. we teach our kids to be wary of strangers out of fear of all things strangers. What is so wrong with kids fearing hell? Hell is scary!! I think we are scared of it and that’s why we don’t want to scare our kids.
    I suggest that it’s God’s business to deal with that fear as much as it is to communicate His grace to us. Our role as parents is to speak the truth in stages according to the kids maturity.
    To you I encourage you to keep up the good work. Stay clear of evil workers who try to attack you. Follow my pastor’s method: if you read a post and in your spirit you feel attacked or the first word sounds like it’s laced with demonic attacks, do not even read all of it. Do not be tempted to read all of it because what you read affects you.
    Keep up the good work. Christ himself will protect you and you will not be affected by all the curses hurled at you, for you are not fighting your own battle; you are fighting the battle of Christ. You are only a servant who has chosen to obey. The fact that you are being attacked means that you are interfering with the demons ion hell and their deception of humankind about the truth of hell. God bless you. No standard raised against you will prevail against the kingdom of God. God is so mighty that we don’t even have the capacity to understand. His blood cover you, his grace overpower you, his armour shield you, his promises keep you, His word renew you—AMEN.



  10. D. Barry on October 2, 2015 at 12:42 PM

    Hi,

    Thanks for the article. As a parent of 5 children – I have found that the doctrine of “Conditional immortality” really accurately portrays the fate of the lost. Yes – it is also called annihilationism, but the difference is there certainly are degrees of punishment first (in hell) before they lost are ultimately destroyed. (For example – ‘Perish’ in John 3:16 is literally ‘destroyed’ in Greek. So also Matthew 10:28 tells us of the soul being ‘destroyed’ in hell.)

    And a growing number of well-known Christian leaders, such as Dr. David R. Reagan, John R. Stott, Greg Boyd, Roger Forster (co-founder of the March for Jesus events), Philip Hughes, Michael Green, Stephen Travis, and Clark Pinnock have declared support for part, or all, of the biblical doctrine of conditional immortality. Even the British Bible translator, William Tyndale, also defended Conditional Immortality during his lifetime.

    Also, the very well respected scholar F.F. Bruce states, “Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God” so he chose to write the forward to an excellent evangelical book on this topic called, “The Fire that Consumes” by Edward Fudge.

    Anyway – there are several good evangelical websites on this. http://www.jewishnotgreek.com and http://www.rethinkinghell.com All evangelical.

    Yes – children need to know God does judge the wicked, but also that He is not cruel. For that ultimately creates atheists when they get older.

    Hope this helps!



  11. J on March 6, 2016 at 5:10 AM

    I have a question.

    If Jesus died for our sins, why does hell exist? Didn’t Jesus sacrifice himself so that we are cleansed of our wrong doings? If our wrong doings still lead to hell, them didn’t Jesus sacrifice himself for no good reason?

    Please explain this contradiction.



    • Natasha Crain on March 7, 2016 at 8:54 PM

      Hi J, That’s not a contradiction. Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s gracious gift. But in order for it to be effective for us, we must accept it. Imagine that someone buys you a gift card. That purchase has been made. However, it’s possible that the money will never be used. It’s up to the recipient to make use of the gift. In the same way, we must accept Jesus’ gift of salvation for it to apply.



  12. Carol Bartilson on January 8, 2017 at 9:10 PM

    Praising God for this blog tonight and all of the replies that followed. My husband and I recently became guardians to a 6 year old who has not had a Christian upbringing. Her fear of hell is severe and the more I tried to explain the more she only could hear was she disobeys so she’s going to hell. This blog has given me the reminders I needed and new insights into teaching children about hell.

    I am a Christ follower of 50 + years. I love Him beyond any doubt and trust His Word — without question. Please don’t misunderstand, there are many things in His Word that I do not understand. But, while raising four children in our home and many other children placed in my path, Matthew 18:3-4 was made so very clear: Then He (Christ) said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

    Children do not understand most things they are told to do. They simply do them. They trust the one who has loved and protected them and want to please them. When I learned to literally do the same thing for God all of the why’s or other details lost their relevance. It was also the turning point in my ability to hear the Holy Spirit. That aspect of Christianity cannot be explained in words. It is, in short, the best part of a growing relationship with an extremely loving Father.

    James 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

    A Redeemed Sinner,
    Me

    (Natasha, How I look forward to meeting you in heaven! Never tire in your well doing!! Know you are going to reap!! I thank you, Sister, for stepping up to His call.)



  13. Sunny on October 18, 2017 at 8:47 PM

    I am a Christian, married to an agnostic man. By all standards, he is a phenomenal husband and father and person in general. He was raised by a hypocritical catholic claiming father. His mother is a strong baptist and loves God. He has never bucked my faith and has never stood in the way of our children’s Christianity. They attended a Christian school for many years. My delima is with my 13 year old God loving and devoted daughter. She is terrified of her daddy going to hell and burning forever, not being in Heaven with us. Frankly I guess I am too, as it’s a subject I’ve tried to avoid with her and my other teenage daughter. What do I say? Please don’t bash me for marrying a non-believer. I love him dearly and think he is the best man any could be, although I would now tell anyone considering it not to do it because life is HARD when you do. What do I tell my daughters and frankly myself about him possibly not being saved and going to hell. It’s a heart wrenching.