Guidelines and Rules for Teaching Hell
Let’s be honest, Sunday School teachers and small group leaders. It’s terribly uncomfortable to talk about Hell. Here are some age-appropriate guidelines and rules to help you as you help us preserve this essential doctrine.
We don’t really want to teach young children about Hell. But since our doctrine of the Age of Accountability has little or no Scriptural support, it’s probably a good idea to at least introduce the concept. Since younger children do not yet have the ability to think logically, they will generally accept whatever you tell them, as long as you keep it simple. You can read them Hell proof texts, but they probably won’t understand. Here’s an article that might help. Divert all questions to parents, as younger children could become traumatized if you attempt to answer their questions in any detail. They might pose profoundly difficult-to-answer questions, anyhow, so it’s best to just let their parents sort it out for them.
Teaching older children about hell may a bit more challenging, because by ages 9-12, children are developing logical and rational thought. And not only this, but they are much better at seeing things through another person’s point or view. This may cause some problems with teaching Hell, but fortunately, they still rely on what they can see and touch to learn. They will probably ask a lot of questions. We will provide cheerful, colorful illustrations, activity materials, and media so that you can redirect their attention to more positive things like salvation, God’s love, and being kind to one another.
It will be challenging to teach teens about Hell, because they can recognize how their own thought processes work and may refuse to have their attention redirected. In addition, they are more bold with grown-ups than ever before, and they can speculate about alternative explanations to orthodoxy. Familiarize yourself with all the Hell proof texts and be prepared to engage in some discussion. The key here is to exclusively use the infallible, complete, authoritative, sufficient, Holy Bible, along with your authority to correctly interpret it, to make your case, and not allow their common sense or logic (2 Timothy 3:7) to interfere with God’s Word. If you can point to a page, and words like eternal, Hell, torment, Lake of Fire, destruction, judgment, etc. are clearly there in plain English, teens will likely back off for fear of looking stupid in front of their church friends. If necessary, acknowledge that there are a few (emphasize few) Christians who believe in annihilation. This will not only give an opportunity for the teen to save face by “winning” the argument, but it will help prevent the discussion from progressing to universalism, the most dangerous heresy of them all.
Teaching adults about hell isn’t too difficult, because teens who oppose the doctrine tend to avoid church as adults. Adults who become church members generally understand that the church has its orthodox doctrines, and that challenging them is pointless. If they disagree, they usually keep it to themselves and have little or no impact on the normal role and function of our traditional beliefs regarding eternal torment. There are exceptions, however, and for these exceptions, we have created a convenient list of rules to follow in order to maintain the perfect, loving unity of the church.
- Focus on God’s love. Spend the majority of your lesson on God’s love, salvation through Jesus Christ, loving others, and growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, mentioning Hell only in passing when it seems appropriate.
- You can read Hell proof texts, but when you are expounding on them, avoid using words like conscious torment, burning that is not quenched, crying, etc., because people might become skeptical about the doctrine of eternal torment. Instead, use words like final judgment, condemnation, outer darkness, or eternal separation from God. These words are more abstract, and consequently, have less emotional and intellectual impact and are less likely to draw unwanted scrutiny to the doctrine of eternal torment.
- Avoid specific questions about Hell, if at all possible.
- If questions are unavoidable, try to keep your explanations very general. For example, you could say, “Hell is the opposite of Heaven” or “His ways are higher than our ways” or “People choose to go to Hell.” Speak in a matter-of-fact tone and appeal to your position of authority in the church. If you are unable to end the conversation, then spend about 10-20 minutes or so having some surface-level discussion, so no one can say that orthodox doctrines can’t be challenged. Don’t let the conversation get out of control, though. If at any point the question-askers seem to be about to cross the line from curiosity about the doctrine to taking a firm stand against the doctrine, the discussion should be redirected right away. Always having church-approved study materials really helps in a situation like this, because you can remind everyone, “We’ll never get through this lesson if we keep getting sidetracked.” More than likely everyone will laugh and the whole thing will be forgotten. Another suggestion is to identify the one who is most interested in keeping the conversation going and tell him/her that after the class ends, you’ll stay behind to talk. After class, just repeat the steps in rule 4, and then politely dismiss yourself from the conversation after about 5-10 minutes, saying, “Let’s just agree to disagree.” (You may need to move on to rule 5.)
- Regarding adults with too many questions or belief-opposing ideas, ask an elder or pastor to talk to them, according to Matthew 18:15. Pastors/elders, make sure you meet privately, to maintain the public perception of your authority to interpret scripture more accurately than them. Direct them to that portion of the Statement of Faith dealing with eternal torment in Hell. For example, “We believe… the unbeliever, upon physical death, enters immediately into eternal, conscious separation from the Lord and awaits the resurrection of his body to everlasting judgment and condemnation.” Point out that it says, “We believe…” The unspoken implication here is that if they do NOT believe, then they aren’t really included in the “We.” This will lovingly plant the idea in their minds that they could feel some unexpected pressure from their peers should they continue listening to Satan’s lies. WARNING: During this meeting it is extremely important that the topic of discussion is only a cursory overview of the doctrine itself. Control the conversation, redirecting the listener to the authority of the Bible (church-approved translation and interpretation) and the authority of pastors and elders in the church. Do not engage in any significant opposition and rebuttal about the doctrine of eternal torment.
- If a member has already met privately with a pastor, yet openly challenges the doctrine by having in-depth conversations with other members, holding unapproved Bible study meetings with other members, posting belief-opposing materials on social media and/or blogs, using literal Bible translations, concordances, or reading/recommending belief-opposing materials (books, websites, etc), it’s definitely time to call an official a meeting with the pastor and elders, according to Matthew 18:16. Don’t waste any time putting out this fire, because it could spread if it is overlooked for too long. If a member is trapped in the sin of heresy, God commands us to confront, counsel, and encourage him/her toward repentance. A meeting with the pastor and elders may produce the desired result, or else the member may be intimidated into silence or leave the church. Regardless, the problem is then resolved. WARNING: During this meeting it is extremely important that the topic of discussion is not a debate about the doctrine itself, but instead, it is about the authority of the Bible (church-approved translation and interpretation) and of the authority of pastors and elders in the church. Do not engage in any meaningful discussion about the doctrine of eternal torment.
- If your effort to correct this offense does not produce the desired result and the member continues causing division, God commands the church leaders to intervene and exercise their authority to protect the church. The offender may attempt to use Matthew 18:17, “…tell it to the church” as a defense. WARNING: Do not bring the matter before the congregation, as this would give the offender an opportunity to spread heresy. There are probably other members who hold the same doubts about eternal torment who could be convinced of this dangerous, unholy heresy. Giving the heretic a platform will only cause further damage to the unity of the church. Instead, refer to our Shunning Rules on how to proceed. Although Jesus regularly engaged in open discussion, challenging orthodox doctrine, that was then and this is now. Orthodox doctrine is no longer publicly disputable.
- Christians who are really, truly convinced of the truth of eternal torment in Hell may suggest to your class that everyone there should get together and do something to warn people. Although this is admirable, and we really can’t find fault with them for feeling that way, this kind of thing can easily get out of hand. Make some positive suggestions, for example, praying together for lost loved ones.
- If your class is persistent about wanting to warn people about Hell, teach them the Romans Road, how to share their testimony of when they got saved, or conversation starting questions for evangelism. The goal here is to keep conversations light, non-threatening, and positive, focusing on the love of God and salvation from sin, death, and separation from God (of course, this includes eternal death in Hell and all that goes with it, like weeping and gnashing of teeth, but we shouldn’t focus on that too much).
- Discourage church members from doing anything drastic, like standing on street corners holding Hell signs and warning passersby of eternal torment. This is the wrong way to go about sharing the Good News, and quite frankly, it makes the rest of us Christians look bad. Although it makes sense to do so, given the nature of endless torment with no hope of ever escaping Hell and the thought there are real human beings with very little time to make their decision to get saved, we don’t want people to think we are full of hate like members of Westboro Baptist Church. If church members decide to do this type of in-your-face evangelism on their own, you should strongly suggest that they don’t associate themselves with our church, for example, putting little yard signs with our logo in the grass, wearing our church T-shirt, or telling people they are members of this church. Our promotional materials should be used for pumpkin patches, chili cook-offs, and other congenial community events.