A newspaper reporter recently asked me, ."Isn't it child abuse to threaten little children with going to hell when they die?" The reporter claimed one of our parents complained to him that her child woke up terrified in the night, afraid of going to hell. Every administrator of a Christian school will hear this complaint during his career.
I have never known a child to be terrified about the prospect of hell. This should not be too surprising, because every good parent knows that no normal child worries about death. Death is just too far away, and besides, in our minds death is a reality that happens only to other people, even for adults. Incidentally, we adults, like
children, play the same mental game. I still recall my mother at the age of 59 collapsing, after entering the funeral home to view my father's 65-year-old dead body. As my brother on one side and I on the other held her up, she moaned over and over again, "It wasn't a mistake; he really did die. I never thought it would happen to us." My brother and I knew exactly what she meant, because we shared her blindness.
Death is never real until it hits us personally. Until that time, we know as an abstract fact that we will die, but we don't really grasp it until it touches us personally. There seems to be a rule that the more directly we are involved with something we fear, the greater the impact upon us. My mother, for example, learned what all successful parents must. It was nearly useless for her to say, " If you don't stop that, you are going to get a spanking from your father when he gets home." That threat only caused a momentary lull in our mischievous activities, because Dad's coming home was very far away and the mischievous merriment was enticingly near at hand. Besides, Mother wasn't always consistent to follow through on the threat in any case, and there was much time for her to forget or forgive us. The danger was too distant, too easy to wish away. Mother soon learned a better way. She would pick up a piece of firewood and shout, " If you don't stop, I am going to whack you!" That worked, because she kept that promise too often to ignore. The prospect of the beating became just as imminent as the mischievous good times. In other words, if you wish to frighten a child, or most adults for that matter, both the reward and the punishment have to be immediate, and the more distant the less effective both the reward and the punishment grow.
Very small children between the ages of two and five do have nightmares, but these involve usually imaginary creatures that lurk under the bed or in the closet and threaten immediate harm. I have reared eight children, and they all went through such bogeyman deliriums. None of them ever woke up worrying about something as distant as hellfire. Death never ceases to he a distant event.
I am in my sixties now, and death and hell seem closer, at least closer than when I was age six. But I can't say it frightens people my age any more than the young. Therefore, I tell my teachers to teach about hell, but not to bother to use death and hell as threats. It is much better to threaten them with the loss of a trinket, a reward, or such trifles, because such threats are very effective, if immediate and hacked up consistently.
If you wish to be an effective Christian teacher or parent, make your threats imminent, tangible and consistent. Don't bother about distant, inconsistent threats that only add stress and frustration to your life. Incompetent teachers earn contempt and laughter, instead of respect and obedience. You must guide your flock to safety and covenant keeping. The skill of herding little sheep takes about three years to learn as an intern at one of our schools, and if you have the patience and talent to develop it, can be turned into the wealth of a millionaire. I will even pay you a salary while you are learning how to do it.
Please send $12 (postage paid) for a copy of my hook. How to Become a Millionaire in Christian Education, from Nicene Press, 4405 Outer Dr., Naples, Florida 34112.
- Ellsworth McIntyre