Telling Kids About Hell Is F*cked Up

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy and H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock /CSA Images/Getty

We sat, rapt, as our teacher told us about the Virgin Mary’s supposed current appearances in the former Yugoslavia. Mary told us the end of the world was coming, and we would all be judged. If we wanted to be saved, we would have to say a lot of Rosaries. Like, a lot. Every day. This wasn’t your average Baptist “sooner or later God’ll cut you down” speech. This was a full on fire-and-brimstone “Jesus is coming, maybe tomorrow, and it’ll be terrifying.” There were stories of three days of darkness. You’d have to lock yourself in your house, and if you saw what was happening outside, you’d die of fright. Like, immediately. The only light would come from holy candles. Hell would be loosed.

This is different, of course, than when we were told by our Catholic school teachers, as middle school students, that “The Exorcist” really happened; that oh yes, demons really did possess people; that each diocese had an exorcist; that once, they’d gone to dinner with the former diocese exorcist? He wasn’t allowed to tell them specifics but wow you had better believe in this stuff.

Let’s break this down.

On one hand, Jesus loves you more than you can possibly conceive of. He loves you so much. You are His precious child. He will also dump you into a fiery pit at any moment if He so chooses. But remember! “You choose hell,” our teachers would tell us. “Hell is eternal separation from God and when you choose to sin, because you have free will, you choose to separate yourself from Him.” So at age twelve, when I was just figuring out all that maybe I like guys stuff? God was going to dump me into a lake of flames.

Did I mention my severe anxiety disorder?

Hell Had A Serious Effect On Me Then

I spent long, long nights awake in terror. Did we have enough holy candles? No 12-year-old should lie awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering if they own enough holy candles. There have been cross-sectional studies done showing that religious/spiritual affiliation can produce guilt and anxiety, though it can help in many situations. Researchers expect the guilt and anxiety comes when people can’t live up to high standards their community sets for them. And what middle schooler can live up to the Catholic Church’s sexual dogma? I’m not saying the Church’s teachings about hell caused my anxiety disorder. But they sure helped it along.

Telling little children about hell only shows them that love comes with conditions. The Supreme Being that created them and loves them the most will also destroy them if they don’t live up to Their Divine Will. That’s a serious mindfuck for a little kid if you stop to think about it. What are you really saying? You’re only loved as long as you do what I tell you.

If you fail to do what you’re told, love is withdrawn and we’re back to that hell, Gehenna, lake of fire stuff. And as above, so below. If this happens on a cosmic scale, how can we expect a child to believe it would play out any differently on an interpersonal level? My parents displayed this same Catholic guilt pattern: love withdrawn when I failed to meet their expectations.

I grew up believing that if I didn’t meet someone’s expectations, I did not deserve their love. Most of it came from my parents. But a lot of it came from my Church’s conception of hell.

These Issues With Hell Persisted Into Adulthood

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I was so scared of hell that I fell into a common Catholic teen behavior trap in college: Have sex. Freak out. Assume divine retribution every single time. In my case, since I’d mostly stopped going to church, that fear of divine retribution came in the form of pregnancy. Of course we’d practiced safe sex. Didn’t matter. I was convinced, every time, that I was knocked up, because I had to be punished for my sins.

Then if I were pregnant, I’d have to have an abortion, which would mean killing a baby (I needed years of deprogramming after my time in Catholic school). That would send me to hell for real. God might not be as involved in daily life as I’d thought before, I’d reasoned (consciously, but not subconsciously). Baby-killing? He’d sit up and take notice of baby-killing. And I didn’t have any choice but an abortion, because my Catholic relatives would kill me with their bare hands if I was knocked up.

And I’ll finally admit it. My husband and I got married in the Catholic Church partly because my elderly grandfather would have freaked out. But I also agreed to it partly because I was scared of going to hell. A marriage outside of the Church would have been that final step, that final no, and I couldn’t do it. I was too frightened. I might not have gone to church on Sunday, I might not have gone to Confession, but I couldn’t take that last stride into hellbound disbelief.

He became Catholic. We became very Catholic. And we stayed that way. I never felt any real joy in it, only a hamster-on-a-wheel sense of running faster and faster, trying to keep up, trying to be good, as good as I possibly could be. Otherwise, I’d be dropped into hell. If I could make God and the people in Church happy, I insulated myself from that hell.

No, I Don’t Hate Christianity

Jesus always seemed like a good idea. Telling little children that they’ll go to hell does not, for all the reasons I just went through. Yes, I had some preexisting anxiety. However, it’s contrary to every form of gentle parenting to tell kids that hell awaits them if they don’t behave. You can’t practice attachment parenting, then turn around and scare your kid with demons when they turn five. That pattern doesn’t fit.

If we want our kids to believe that not only do they deserve love no matter what, but they should love others no matter what, we can’t teach them that hell waits for them, a gaping maw ready to swallow the unjust. Otherwise, where do we draw a line? Poor people become poor because they made bad choices, so they aren’t our responsibility. Drug addicts made a choice to start drugs, so we should treat them like criminals. They learn people deserve justice, not mercy. Fry ’em and let God sort ’em out.

That’s not the kind of kid I want to raise.

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