For a moment, I want to pretend that (some) Christianity is true, one that goes the whole cloth and asserts in eternal paradise in Heaven for the saved and eternal torture in Hell for the lost.
The reason I want to entertain this nonsense is because I think if (some) Christianity were true, we would see a very different treatment of Hell in how it gets discussed than we do now. Indeed, that Christians are ready and eager to teach their children about Hell, other than as an abysmally poor and desperate attempt to control their behavior, seems to be an indication that Christianity is not true and that Hell is not real.
If (some) Christianity and Hell were true, to the degree that Christians were responsible stewards of that truth, I expect that we would see a concerted cultural effort toward
keeping Hell quiet and not a part of childhood, breaking the bad news
first to teenagers at the earliest. I also expect that among those Christians who would seek to be ethically responsible, we would hear calls of agreement with Richard Dawkins's assessment that teaching children about Hell, and thus terrifying them with it, is a form of child abuse.
I can even imagine parents talking about the matter, perhaps after a tense Sunday morning in which a rebellious child acted out in church or created the usual pre-church fuss to an unusual degree.
"Let kids be kids," an exasperated mother might say.
"They can learn the hard truth when they get old enough to understand it, when it won't terrify them," a resigned father might concur.
In this situation, because the unnecessary terror of a child is very difficult to justify--and because I am assuming that the God of any true Christianity is not so tyrannically sadistic as to eternally torment a child for being on the wrong side of what he could not yet understand--there would be a strong ethical imperative to wait until some sort of coming of age of to mention Hell for the first time.
Psychologists would offer sound research about which ages, in which situations, seem best. Some parents would dread the moment and seek to delay it. Others would celebrate it as an opportunity to glorify salvation. Only the most desperate, or the cruel, would subject a child to such an idea, though, before an age at which it could be handled relatively soberly and maturely. And those would be rightly noted as being on the wrong side of parental responsibility and the ethics of raising a child.
Note that this isn't so much of a stretch of the imagination. Though it is hardly formalized, and though it is a mistake routinely made, we generally have a sense that properly scary horror movies are not appropriate for very young audiences. This isn't just an arbitrary moralizing judgment either. Too many, maybe almost all, parents have suffered the agonizing pain of the nighttime terror of a child who, a year or two too early, watched a properly horrifying film. In fact, as with eventually comes up in some cases over Hell, many have also suffered the unnecessary expense, stress, and unfortunate stigma associated with requiring mental health interventions as a result. (I'm forced to recall a particularly awful month at a friend's home during which her seven-year-old daughter screamed in tormented terror beyond consolation throughout the night--with psychologist's orders to let her scream it out--merely for having watched the 1980s movie E.T., hardly a horror film.)
If (some) Christianity were true, and if we could count on Christians to be responsible stewards of the truth, then I conclude that Hell would be a topic for discussion on the adult side of some age of reason, and that these truth-bearing Christians would agree with Richard Dawkins's assessment that to do otherwise constitutes a form of child abuse.
And note that this isn't
typically what we see. Among those Christians who believe that Hell is a
reality, there is a perceived ethical imperative in the other direction--to teach children about Hell before they can handle the idea. That suggests that the Christian ethic places a higher value on securing the belief than on the mental well-being of the child--something that would be unlikely to be the case if Christianity were true. This suggests something sinister and abusive about the practice of teaching Hell to children, even if abuse is not the intended effect of the ones doing the teaching.
Nota bene: The comments below are a trainwreck. Readers are invited to read them, of course, and in the interest of honesty and transparency--which I value--I have chosen not to delete them. I misunderstood what commenter Tom Gilson was asking of me and made the mistake of failing to ask him for clarification. This led to me getting very annoyed with what I took to be him attempting to troll me. It's not exactly pretty.
At any rate, I do not think his objection substantially impacts what I am getting at with this essay: a note that if Christians are to be ethical stewards of what they consider to be the truth, they should not be teaching children about hell before the age of accountability/reason. Indeed, on this point, Gilson agrees with me, though I don't think he agrees with (a) what is likely to be the valid age in this regard and (b) that it will be shown to constitute child abuse to scare children with Hell at a young age.
Nor do I think his objections impact in any serious way the gravity of this issue or the call for research that directly addresses this question. Indeed, this research is sorely needed, at least to offer dignity to those who claim to have been psychologically harmed by being raised religiously, especially in a tradition that teaches about Hell and teaches it early.
Congratulations, Tom Gilson. You have successfully trolled me, whether you originally intended to or not. Take a bow.