Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is teaching the doctrine of Hell child abuse?

You don’t have to be a parent to be ripped apart by the sound of a child crying. If there’s anything in you worth calling “human”, then the tears of a frightened, hurt or sad child are the most wrenching thing to witness; it automatically calls forth a response — to heal, to help, to comfort, to defend. And there’s not much worse than to stand by helplessly, knowing there’s nothing you can do.

Of course, sooner or later the little monsters learn this weakness of ours and try to exploit it. If you spend enough time around kids, you learn to tell the subtle differences between authentic tears and the raging screams of a brat who didn’t get his way. In these cases, the worst thing you can do is to give in, to reinforce the expectation.

There are other times, though, when the thing that must be done may — and probably will — make the child cry. For instance, when you have to tell little Johnny that his beloved Papa has gone to heaven. Or when the doctor must set the broken bone, or give little Susie a tetanus shot.

And it’s hard to predict what may frighten a child. The little boy who happily hacks up monsters with a sword while playing with his X-Box may lie awake at night because he overheard his father talking with a friend about a bugbear called “the twi-night double-header”.[*] His father spoke of it as a real thing; why shouldn’t he believe it’s a real beast?


Dylan Parry at A Reluctant Sinner writes of an Italian religious-studies teacher, Cristina Vai, who was suspended for frightening the five- and six-year-old children in her class by teaching them a little too enthusiastically about the reality of hell and the punishment of sinners. Since then, she’s received letters from both her local member of Parliament, Fabio Garagnani, and from a papal secretary on behalf of Benedict XVI, expressing their hope that she will be reinstated soon, the latter extending the Pope’s blessing on her and her students.

Near the end, Dylan writes:

Needless to say, it’s not good that a small child ended up in tears after the lesson — and will probably be used as ammunition by those who claim that Christian teaching on the consequences of sin is tantamount to “child abuse”. Having said that, though, one wonders whether or not we have been far too indulgent with our children in recent years? It really does seem that many young people in the West have the sense that they can do no wrong.

Dylan makes a good point here that I wish to dwell on for a minute. Certainly there’s a class of people who are tender-hearted to the edge of imbecility when it comes to kids. This class of well-meaning people equate tears with victimhood and thus have sworn to stop all adult activities that cause children to cry regardless of long-term consequences. If they haven’t been completely successful, they’ve at least created an atmosphere where parents must be nervous whenever their children weep in public, and cast terrified glances over their shoulders for any sign of the Child-Abuse Police’s imminent and doom-filled arrival.

Yes, it has gotten that ridiculous. There’s something insane about a society that demands we destroy unborn children for the least sign of physical imperfection yet refuses to let parents correct the least moral imperfection in those allowed to be born.

In his fantasy classic The Princess Bride, William Goldman’s narrator[†] tells us he was relieved when, as a young boy, a favorite teacher affirmed the basic unfairness of life. At some point, we all face this unpleasant fact, and how we resolve it greatly changes the trajectory of our lives. So when and how do we present this fact to our children, and how do we want them to resolve it?

First, let’s clarify what we mean: No matter how complex and rigidly-applied a system we develop, there will always be people who don’t get what they deserve. We’re not just talking the commonplace consideration that some good people suffer and some evil people prosper; in the last century alone there have been crimes for which no retributive vengeance we can exact upon the perpetrators seems sufficient atonement … their evil is literally beyond the reach of human justice to cure.

This forces a set of zero-sum questions on us: In light of this fact, do we treat others with justice? Do we try to improve the justice of our social institutions so far as we can? Finally: Do we believe that there’s a final rectification of the balance when our lives are done?

Rejection of a final punishment means we answer the last question with a “no”. This leaves us with two unsatisfactory responses: Either we believe that humans can perfect their own societies or we believe that final injustice is our lot forever. We’re caught between an unrealistic optimism unjustified by prior experience and a hopeless pessimism presenting itself as realism.[‡]

It’s easy to say, “Hell is a myth used to control victims with fear.” But it’s just as easy, and much more truthful, to say, “Hell is a reality people deny so they can victimize others without fear of eternal consequence.” Indeed, as a University of Oregon study has shown, once you’ve dismissed God’s justice — He’s either an eternally indulgent Grandfather or a superstitious bogeyman — you’re less likely to hold yourself accountable to mere human justice or “socially constructed” mores.

“Hell has social utility,” he muttered ironically.

In any event, Christians must teach their children about Hell because it comes with the package; if you deny Hell, you deny God’s justice and make His mercy meaningless. But beyond mere utilitarian concerns, God’s justice is not only something to fear but also something to hope for: those who mourn will be comforted; the meek will inherit the earth; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied (Mt 5:4-6).

No, teaching children to fear the Lord isn’t child abuse. It’s the beginning of wisdom.


[*] I read about this one almost thirty years ago, in a non-fiction book titled The House Guests, by John D. MacDonald. He also revealed that he got the title of one of his Travis McGee novels, The Green Ripper, from his own son, who had overheard talk of the Grim Reaper. MacDonald passed away in 1986, and his novels are no longer in print as far as I know … but it’s amazing how some things will stay with you.
[†] The narrator is presented as Goldman himself, but as a fictional device; while his introduction references his work on the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in reality he has two daughters by his ex-wife Ilene, who was not a psychiatrist.
[‡] Christopher Hitchens indirectly illustrated this sense of futility when he uttered the atrocious sentiment, “I wish I believed in Hell so I could hope [Bl. Teresa of Calcutta] were rotting there.” The quotation may be, and probably is, inexact. Nevertheless, Hitch caused quite some outrage when he spouted this piece of bile … for which, in fairness, he publicly apologized.