Jesus, Hell and the Primary School

15/02/09 | Posted by MattPage

Do you go to Hell if you don’t believe in Jesus? That was what one five year old told her classmate recently. When her friend burst into tears, their teacher stepped in and told the girl, Jasmine Cain, that such behaviour was unacceptable. Later that afternoon Jasmine’s mother picked up her from school only for Jasmine to burst into tears as she explained what had happened.

The other girl’s mother complained to the school, so the next day Mrs Cain, a receptionist at the school, found herself in the headmaster’s office. Concerned by her daughter’s claim to have been told she “couldn’t talk about Jesus”, not to mention her own treatment, Mrs Cain, decided to email ten of her friends asking for prayer. But, somehow it got forwarded onto the head, Gary Read, who was somewhat put out by what he considered “unfair allegations”. He called her into his office and confronted her with the email, and has launched an investigation into the perceived as misconduct.

The story has been picked up by a number of the papers, including The Telegraph, The Times and the, permanently outraged, Daily Mail. It was also covered on the BBC’s website. The accounts given by the school and Mrs Cain vary somewhat. Mrs Cain claims Jasmine was told she couldn’t talk about Jesus, but Mr Read insists she was told it is “OK to discuss what you believe with others.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with this with one. According to the gospels, Jesus used the word Gehenna (whose traditional translation as “Hell” is challenged by many today) far more than his early followers did in their writings. But there’s considerable debate as to whether he envisaged a literal place of torment, or whether he was just using a dramatic metaphor to describe the significance of ignoring God. 

As for this particular case, it appears that there are really two separate issues here: how should a school handle a child scaring others with their religious beliefs, and, should a school be concerned by a member of staff discrediting them in emails to their own friends.

In terms of the first question, the school has been at pains to clarify that religious discussion is welcome, but not to the extent that it frightens the other children. It seems to me that the teacher was right to stop one child making another cry by telling her she was going to Hell, but wrong to reprimand the girl in such a way that she also burst into tears. The teacher should have talked to Jasmine about how and why her words had so upset her friend without upsetting Jasmine as well. After all, it seems unlikely that Jasmine was seeking to cause offence; she was just passing on what she herself had been told. And this, in turn, raises the question of whether it’s even appropriate for a five year old to have been told all about Hell in the first place.

Secondly, whilst you can see why the headmaster wants to prevent his school’s good name being tarnished in the eyes of other, like-minded, parents, it’s something of an overreaction to subject a member of his staff to an investigation simply because of a personal email sent to a select group of friends. In any case, such an action will only damage the school’s reputation even more amongst those on Mrs. Cain’s mailing list.

Jesus may have encouraged the little children to come to him, and he may have talked a fair bit about Gehenna, but there’s little in the gospels to suggest he did both at the same time. And the fact that those who first sought to tell others about him generally avoided discussion about Hell perhaps indicates that this is part of Jesus’ teaching which, no matter how it is interpreted, should definitely not be taught to young children.

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>“And this, in turn, raises the question of whether it’s even appropriate for a five year old to have been told all about Hell in the first place.”

Come on, Christians have been telling children this for many centuries.

#1. By Tony B on February 17, 2009

What do we mean when we talk about hell?

I can remember reading an interesting article, I think by Frederica Mathewes-Green. She wrote that hell and heaven could easily be the same place: for somebody who has learnt to love, being in the presence of Love is sheer delight. For somebody who has not learnt to love, and has spent their lives consistently choosing the exact opposite, to be in God’s presence would be unbearable pain.

She wasn’t presenting this as a factual description of heaven and hell. She was just exploring an idea. I don’t think that there is any way of knowing for sure what hell and heaven are like, but this could be a useful way of looking at it.

I also think it’s important to remember that the reward/punishment mentality has no place in Christianity. Faith should not be about where you go when you die. It’s about who you are now. More importantly, it is about who God is.

#2. By Vicky on February 17, 2009

i have a little issue with the idea that Jesus was merely referring to hell as the significance of ignoring God.the deconstructing of the scriptures is a great theological problem and a common habit today. no subject is under more assault than that of blood atonement and the deliverance from hell, or the idea that there actually is a hell. children have the capacity to understand the concept of hell and eternity. jewish children from early ages were taught about damnation and salvation.we do a great injustice to to the gospel.Jesus was brutally murdered and raised all to deliver us from the significance of “ignoring God”. come on don’t be ashamed of the power of salvation, and the eternal damnation as a result of ignoring it, and the consequences of dieing in your sin.

#3. By kevin on February 18, 2009

Good thinking Matt,I am a committed Christian,I believe in a future heaven and Hell.
However we taste a little of them here, as the people involved are surely doing.

#4. By Terry Voaden on February 20, 2009

the shame is not in salvation: it’s in terrorising children.

#5. By Tony B on February 20, 2009

Kevin, I’m not ashamed of salvation’s power. I also don’t see ignoring God as a minor thing. Jesus describes himself as ‘the way, the truth, and the life’. To abandon the way and to turn away from truth is to cut ourselves off from the life. We can only have life if we know God and freely choose to come to him through the cross.

There are several ways of ignoring God. One of them is focusing more on our sin than on His mercy. We shouldn’t come to Christ because we’re afraid of hell. We should come to Christ simply because of who he is. And if you’re able to recognise Jesus for who he is - as a baby in Bethlehem, a preacher in Galilee, a hero entering Jerusalem, and a broken and dying man on a cross - it’s hard not to feel sorrow for your sins, and gratitude for the One who takes them away.

#6. By Vicky on February 20, 2009

Only then the sorrow is grounded in love of God, not in fear of hell. In saying what she said to her friend, this little girl has made it sound as though avoidance of hell is the principal reason for Christianity - if not the only reason. That’s a terrible debasement of our religion. My faith is because of Christ, not because of hell. When has he ever needed to frighten anyone into believing?

#7. By Vicky on February 20, 2009

I have similar concerns on what is actually being said to Jasmin herself. Who has told Jasmin that if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ you will go to hell. 
The teacher initially did the right thing within the classroom. Remember Jasmin saved her tears for her mum.  So the teacher hadn’t told Jasmin off where she’d cry there and then.
But the media are not reliable at printing the facts at all.  The headmaster also did the right thing from the point of view of atypical discipline procedure.
Teacher could ask for prayers from friends but could have stuck to facts. 
Whatever, it goes to show just how complex a situation can turn to and it isn’t always easy to determine right and wrong.
The mother was probably in the most wrong really if anyone was wrong. It was a chance to help her child grow and she missed it this time.
In God we put our trust.

#8. By ann on February 20, 2009

This is undoubtedly a sensitive issue and is also very complex. It is unrealistic to say that we should not talk to young children about hell. Young children go to church and hear things, they overhear adults talking. How can we insulate them from concepts we consider to be unpleasant. Frankly the concept of hell and the possibilty of anyone suffering it should reduce us to tears. Obviously the friend who cried had some concept that hell is a dreadful thing, where did she get that from? Did Jasmine give her the horrific details, or did she already have a picture gleaned from elsewhere? The right response to this situation is not to apportion blame or gag Christian children, but to explore openly the issue itself with the children involved. In a non Christian environment this is very difficult because there is no faith framework in which to do this. In a faith environment Jasmine’s friend would be calmed and encouraged by pointing to Jesus who gives us eternal life in heaven.

#9. By Martin on February 21, 2009

“In a faith environment Jasmine’s friend would be calmed and encouraged by pointing to Jesus who gives us eternal life in heaven.”

So what you appear to be saying is that it’s appropriate to teach children that hell is a horrible place, then “calm them” by pointing to Jesus.

The word obnoxious springs to mind.

#10. By Tony B on February 22, 2009

I did not say that it is appropriate to teach children that hell is a horrible place. I did raise the question as to where Jasmine’s friend might have got the idea from. What I did say is that once a child has this idea it might be an appropriate response in a faith environment to calm such fears through faith in Jesus who gives us eternal life in heaven. I might point out that the horrible ideas of hell are much more likely to come through secular media than the church. Contemporary programmes such as “Demons” are shown at times when young children might still be up to watch them. I have not heard a sermon in church for over thirty years that dwelt on what hell might be like, and even modern evangelicalism is more likely to use very moderate language when touching on such matters.

#11. By Martin on February 22, 2009

As a qualifier to the above, I did also say that it is important to explore such issues with children. This is not an exercise in horrific cruelty, but a careful correction of false ideas. This is necessary because children cannot be fully insulated from such things. It is for the same kind of reason that there is the current urge to give to young children appropriate sex education. In the absence of the appropriate impartation of truth false ideas abound. What a lot of people think of when the word “hell” is used is little to do with an accurate teaching and application of Scripture.

#12. By Martin on February 22, 2009

I think you’d have to admit that hell is not a secular idea, but a religious one. As a child as recently as the 1970’s I was being taught a lot of pretty unpleasant stuff about hell, in a religious setting. If these ideas are now regarded as false within Christianity, perhaps the secular world can be forgiven for being slow on the uptake; although I have to say that when dealt with in the secular world it is usually presented as a fantasy.

#13. By Tony B on February 25, 2009

Tony, I do indeed admit that hell is a religious idea. However the secular world likes to sensationalise such ideas and to interpret symbolism literally. I agree also that hell is presented by the secular world as fantasy. The difficulty comes when people have seen the fantasy and then come across the religious idea that hell is actually real. What happens then is that the person confuses the fantasy with reality. I am sorry that you were subject to unpleasant stuff about hell in a religious setting. Religious zeal without good knowledge is harmful. Orthodox Christianity would not want to dispense with the idea of hell as a reality, but would interpret the biblical symbols and metaphors carefully. A good book on the subject is C.S. Lewis’ “Great Divorce”. Here Lewis, in the form of a literary fantasy, gives his own take on hell and its relationship to heaven. Yours respectfully,

#14. By Martin on February 25, 2009

Martin, I cannot but agree, although I feel that Christianity has done its fair share of spreading fantasies about hell. I’ll try the Lewis book, thanks. I enjoy his writing.

#15. By Tony B on February 26, 2009

Firstly, it’s nice to see some respectful internet postings on a topic as emotive as hell and the primary school environment!

I have never felt comfortable with the idea of hell, whether it is a place or state of torment or the inability to experience the love of God in his presence, and recently I have been looking for an understanding I can relate to for hell’s existence.

Why does God allow us to send ourselves to hell by our own actions? I cannot help but see a contradiction in allowing people to make their own mistakes, even tend towards sin, and have an eternal punishment waiting for us at Judgement. It seems against the ideas of forgiveness, compassion and love, which we try to appreciate and to extend to those who ‘trespass against us’.

...

#16. By James W on March 03, 2009

(2 of 3)

Where does hell fit into the Holy Trinity?

Jesus as I understand, as the Son of God, was both man and God, which is perhaps why he forgave even those who came to kill him, whereas God allows or sends people to hell who so much as ignore him. Why should Jesus be so different from God? Is it simply that he is different because he is the SON of God? (Why would this matter anyway?) Who is more morally right then - God or Jesus?

An impossible and ridiculous question. Instead, is Jesus our guidance for life on earth, but not a guide for any kind of true morality that we can expect to be dealt by, no matter where we are?

...

#17. By James W on March 03, 2009

(3 of 3)

So do we get a chance in life to act in a certain way (according to Jesus’ rules), and if we succeed, all is well. If we fail, for whatever reasons, different rules apply after death (God’s rules)?

I don’t even know how to see the time before Jesus! What would a world without his elaboration of God’s word be like? What made Jesus’ descent to earth necessary? I realise I should look to the Old Testament for this.

Would anyone be able to help me out and share their personal thoughts or to recommend a possible source of information?

Thank you.

#18. By James W on March 03, 2009

I’m aged 52 but I find hell in whatever form it is described sickening and horrible and not compatible with a God of love. I think people shouldn’t talk about hell in the presence of children. One little girl heard about hell from church/someone and told the other little girl. Both little girls then need help to calm their fears about life after death.

#19. By Jane on May 22, 2015

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