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Hell on the playground

By Michelle Richards

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Ruth Gibson, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, had her first theological confrontation at the age of five. As she tells it, her Catholic friend told her and her Jewish friend—in no uncertain terms—that they would burn in Hell, complete with vivid descriptions of what that would entail. Although her Jewish friend responded matter-of-factly, “I go to Temple and that’s every bit as good as church, my parents said so, so there,” Ruth was being raised unchurched and had no such high ground. She was then informed that her parents would also go to hell. While this incident occurred many years ago, today’s children being raised in our faith are even more likely to face such confrontations—and these days even the response “I go to church” may not be good enough because, according to the playmate or the playmates’ parents, “it’s not a REAL church.”

The dreaded question generally comes after a child has been talking to another child who attends an evangelical Christian church. Even progressive Christian or theist parents may have to deal with this question because they don’t attend the same church as the questioner’s family. The question can be very frightening for young children, who are concrete thinkers with vivid imaginations. They can easily conjure up a place of eternal torment full of fire and personal suffering.

In response, it’s tempting to encourage our children to simply state that we don’t believe in Hell. But this engagement opens up more dogma, not more dialogue. After all, many Unitarian Universalist adults have met only frustration when attempting to debate theological understandings with evangelicals. How can we expect our children (who have less experience and knowledge at their disposal) to fare better than we might? Besides, questioning the existence of hell may lead to conversation-ending comments like “The Bible says so” and “How could anyone doubt the word of God?” Unitarian Universalist youth who are religiously literate and confident in understanding how their family’s beliefs differ from that of others could possibly hold their own in such a discussion, but most younger children and teens will just come away from it fearful and upset.

Therefore, when we explain to our children that we don’t believe such a place as Hell exists, we also need to inform them why many other people do. Knowledge is power, and having a basic understanding of the stories of the Bible and the beliefs of other religions is one of the most important life skills we can offer our children. Being aware that other people believe in Hell before the subject comes up on the playground is far less fear-inspiring than learning about such a place from a friend, child, or neighbor who seems to know all about it. Parents can help their children to understand that ideas about God have evolved over time and different religions preach different ideas about God and about what happens after we die. We can also explain to them that faith is different from science, which involves provable facts and tested theories.

Unitarian Universalist children need to be assured that having different beliefs than their peers doesn’t mean they will be punished or suffer in a place of eternal torment for those beliefs. Therefore, when your child is asked if they are saved, perhaps they can simply answer “Yes,” with the understanding that we believe everyone is “saved” from the torture of Hell and without having to argue over its existence.

Has one of your children been questioned about their beliefs by friends or the parents of their friends? How did they respond? How did you respond? Please share your experiences with us.

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