My son, Anders, is 7.
When he was 5 we were reading a Bible story book, the kind with mostly pictures and Old Testament stories. One particular story near the end of the book ended with a picture of Jesus and words to this effect: if we believe in Jesus, He will take us to live with Him when we die. I read that last line and Anders immediately said, “I believe in Jesus.”
There is the faith of a 5-year old. If faith in Jesus is necessary for eternal life, Anders expressed it. No “asking Jesus into his heart” is needed; no walking the aisle at church is required. Anders put his faith in Jesus as best as he knows how and it is enough.
His motivation, however, is the same mixture of faith and fear I experienced as an 8-year old. As much as we have tried to tell Anders about God’s love, and demonstrate love to him besides, Anders knows that bad guys “go to the devil,” a phrase he picked up in the discussion of kindergarteners at church on Sunday morning. So to him the line in the Bible story book suggests that if he doesn’t believe in Jesus, he might be one of the bad guys. His faith is motivated by fear of hell and the devil.
We all agree this is not what Jesus meant when He said, “Let the little children come to me.” We don’t think Jesus wants kids scared into salvation, or wants kids worried they will burn forever in a lake of fire. Instead, we talk to kids about Jesus being their “forever friend.” We emphasis the positive aspects of a relationship with Jesus; we talk about the joy and peace we will have when we know Him. This is what Jesus offers the little children. However, while emphasizing the positive is all well and good, I can’t recall Anders ever coming home from church talking about the joy and peace of Jesus, but more than once he came home from church scared about not going to heaven, and to me this is troubling.
Even more troubling, though, is most people seemed unconcerned. Although I shared the story with a few people, not one person expressed sympathy with my concern about Anders’ fear. Not that I pushed them to be concerned but I would think at least someone would have acknowledged that something isn’t right if our kids are scared. But this is just our system of belief. We’ve lived with it so long; it has been so engrained in us not to question it that we just let our kids be afraid. We let everyone be afraid.
It seems to me that perhaps we’re looking at this whole thing in the wrong way. Maybe we’re starting with the wrong premise and ending up at the wrong conclusion. I’m not necessarily saying we’ve been messing it up all these years, but I think we should at least consider the possibility that this aspect of our doctrine ought to be reconsidered. Do our kids, does everyone need to be afraid of being tormented forever in the lake of fire? Should that be our motivation to believe in Jesus? Is that what the Bible teaches? Does that make sense?
At the very least I think those questions deserve more discussion.
Whatever the case, I am not going to teach Anders to be afraid. I am not going to live in fear.
And I don’t think you should either.
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