I have four children, and they've all so far processed the Christian story in remarkably different ways. For reasons of which I'm still not entirely sure, one of them has found the story quite difficult and upsetting. As much as his experience of church, children's Bibles and fun Sunday morning kids' groups have focused on the positives of the faith, he's zeroed in on its agonising centrepiece: the death of Jesus on the cross.
From the first moment that he heard that Jesus was crucified, he's been upset and even frightened by the idea at its every mention. Where the other three have taken this story in their stride, he has viscerally identified with the pain of his 'friend' Jesus being beaten and nailed to a cross. He's six years old.
So when American pastor and conservative hero John Piper suggested recently that we should encourage the fear of hell in our six-year-olds, you can imagine that I had something of a vested interest. Piper responded on his 'Ask Pastor John' podcast segment to the question 'How can I talk to my six-year-old son about hell?', posed by a listener named Michael. The questioner acknowledged that since his child has 'extreme anxiety about death', he was afraid that talking about hell might make him even more anxious. Explaining that his son also gets upset when he makes mistakes, he added: "I do not want him to worry that if he disobeys, that he will be sent to hell.'
Michael's son sounds a bit like mine. These precious children are still just getting started in life, just beginning to form their understanding of this world – let alone the spiritual world beyond it. They find the idea of death frightening, and they're soft-hearted boys, empathetic and predisposed to try to do good. They need to be treated with care, kindness and great love, and they both need reassurance that light triumphs over darkness; that ultimately we're on a trajectory where fear will be extinguished.
So what is Pastor John's advice to Michael as he seeks to address the topic of hell (not because the child has asked, but because he feels he can't lie about the eternal destination of their deceased non-Christian friends)? Does he perhaps suggest that this isn't an issue that needs to be addressed until the child himself raises it? That might seem like a simple solution. Or does he tell the man to focus on building up his son's emotional resilience, and on the wonderful positives of the Good News of Jesus?
No. John Piper suggests that talking with an anxious six year-old about hell is a 'golden opportunity'. A wonderful chance to reach into those fears and anxieties to point to the great darkness behind them, and then to illustrate the contrast with God's offer of eternal life with him. And he really does think it's golden. He uses that word a remarkable 12 times in the space of a relatively brief answer, as if he's got some sort of sponsorship deal with Fort Knox. Talking about hell with a six-year-old is apparently a 'golden moment'.
I presume – or rather I hope – that as a man in his seventies, John Piper hasn't counselled a lot of small boys about this issue in recent years. Because I find his approach absolutely horrifying.
First, Piper says that far from wanting to protect our children from anxieties and fears, we should embrace them because they help a child to know that they are in world where all is not well. This might seem like a smart statement, but the problem is that children don't yet possess the faculties to understand that the darkness in the world can be overcome. They look to their parents as a source of protection and light, and trust in us to reassure them.
When my nine-year-old daughter cried at the breakfast table because the media coverage around Donald Trump's election had told her this was bad news for her entire sex, I didn't tell her that this was why she had to get involved in politics. I hugged and reassured her. Piper says that hell is as true for a six-year-old as for a 60-year-old, but the truth is that the emotional and rational capacities of those two types of brains are markedly different.
Over the next few minutes, Piper explains that the doctrine of hell is useful in clarifying a series of 'great realities' about life and God. I don't want to argue with any of these -– I agree whole-heartedly with his points that God is great, that sin is serious, that the Bible talks about a final judgment, that the Cross is God's great rescue plan, and that the Christian life ultimately offers a route to overcoming fear. This is all good and orthodox theology, even if we might disagree a bit on its application. The problem is where and how he's pitching it – at a frightened six-year-old, who gets anxious when he takes an extra cookie from the jar. Piper is hitting a matchstick with a sledgehammer.
Piper's answer lacks any emotional nuance, or any real ability to engage with the individual. Perhaps as a mass-scale minister, that's not all that surprising.
But what concerns me is how excited he seems to get about preaching hell, even to a scared little boy. The idea that we might take an already-anxious child, and fill his head with news of a fiery pit of torment to which his 'unsaved' friends and beloved family members are heading isn't just problematic, it's theological child abuse. It's like forcing a child to touch a boiling hot stove without warning so that they'll learn how dangerous it is by virtue of being burned.
As parents we are given an awesome responsibility for our children's development, and piling on eternity-shaped anxiety to an already worried little boy is a dereliction of that duty.
I'm certainly no universalist, but I do sometimes wonder if my brothers and sisters at the more conservative end of the theological spectrum have grown to love the idea of hell a bit too much. Perhaps it's the only way they can reconcile their frustration at the hedonistic pleasure that others around them derive from life, or at how much Rob Bell is earning these days. I understand the anxiety – partly initiated by Bell's book Love Wins – around losing touch with the doctrine of hell. Francis Chan's excellent follow-up book Erasing Hell made a strong and important counter-case. As a Christian, I'm perfectly comfortable with – if devastated by – the idea that hell is a real place.
But whatever you think that means, or whoever you think gets sent there, hell is not the starting point of the Christian story. The message of God's love for the world, expressed through Jesus' life, teaching, death and resurrection, is infinitely more compelling than the message of a fear to run from. As parent's we have a golden opportunity to tell our children and young people that story, one which rightly will help them to sleep better at night.
John Piper's gospel of fear and escaping the flames is entirely the wrong way around. A child who forms a Christianity based on these things will grow up prioritising rule-keeping over grace and relationship. And isn't moving past that kind of faith exactly why Jesus came to die on the cross?