Is it child abuse to teach children about hell? Richard Dawkins has often repeated this claim about Christianity. How can parents subject their children to the horror stories about hell? Isn’t this just psychological manipulation to get them to behave? Here is one quote from Dawkins on the subject:
“”It was a very unpleasant and embarrassing experience, but the mental trauma was soon exorcised by comparing notes with my contemporaries who had suffered it previously at the hands of the same master,” Dawkins writes on his official website. “Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe – in hell. But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.”
So Dawkins actually states that teaching children about hell could be worse than physical abuse. As he so often does, Dawkins misses the point entirely. He chooses to portray the Christian world view in an intentionally bad light. So where does Dawkins go wrong? Here are a few key points to keep in mind.
He Doesn’t Understand The Nature Of Hell
Dawkins quote “I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe – in hell.” Betrays his thinking on the subject. He doesn’t believe in hell. Fair enough.
But what’s in question here is whether or not hell exists. Notice he hasn’t made an argument, just an assertion. He doesn’t believe in hell. I think Mr. Dawkins would agree with me that hell doesn’t wink in and out of existence depending on one’s beliefs about the subject. Hell either exists or it doesn’t. What someone believes about it has no bearing on matter.
He Doesn’t Understand Why Parents Tell Their Children About Hell.
The reason parents tell is not to get them to behave. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. I would agree that there are Christian parents that do this however. And I profoundly disagree with the practice. Not only is this scary for children, but it’s a profound misunderstanding of the gospel. We are not saved from hell by “being a good person”. We are saved through our acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins.
Telling Children about hell needs to be age appropriate as well. We need to have age appropriate conversations about Christianity with our kids. We should be pitching concepts in a way they can understand. Natasha Crain has some excellent resources for talking to kids of all age levels about hell.
He Miss-Represents Warnings As Abusive
I wonder if Mr. Dawkins feels the same way about teaching children about jail? Jail is a scary place. I sure wouldn’t want to go there. Jail can also be a hard concept for a child to understand. But does that mean that it’s abusive to teach children about jail?
Jail, like hell, is a necessary part of society. While jails are scary places, the do a service to our society by keeping harmful people away from the law-abiding members of the society. Understanding that there are consequences for your actions is a responsible thing to teach children. Again, we want to make sure the discussions are age appropriate. But not teaching children about jail would be irresponsible.
Is It True?
What this argument really comes down to is whether or not hell exists. If it does, it is the loving thing to do to warn people of its existence. This is not child abuse. Child abuse would be to NOT warn someone of an impending danger. As the atheist magician Penn Jillette has said more than once:
“If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”
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