Teaching Children To Fear Hell Is Psychological Abuse
Updated: Feb 1
I was raised in a small, Southern Baptist church that was a proud proponent of the "fire and brimstone" style of preaching. They didn't believe in being "nice" about the gospel. They didn't care if they offended you or hurt your feelings with their teachings, and they would make sure you knew it every Sunday at the pulpit. They were fundamentalists, and believed that every word of the Bible holds infallible truth. This especially included verses that warn of fiery, eternal torment for nonbelievers and unrepentant sinners.
Though I believe that most of those in the church are simply misguided with well intentions, they were never taught that fear is an abusive control tactic. So they utilize it because it works. The leaders of my church would integrate hell into every service and lesson. They would warn me about the dangers of stepping foot into the secular world, because evil would be lurking around every corner. If I wasn't careful, Satan would pull me into his trap and trick me into living a life of sin. While I was taught that once I prayed the sinner's prayer I could never lose my salvation, (This belief is widely debated between Christian denominations and biblical scholars) I was also warned that those who claimed to be saved yet were still "living in sin" might have never been genuinely saved in the first place. This teaching has led to many Christians I know who have felt the need to "recommit" themselves several times throughout their lives as a type of security blanket. Many, like myself, spend years wondering if they are "truly saved" every time they commit a sin. This can lead to anxiety, depression and a lingering sense of shame. We spend our time wondering if we prayed the right way to get into god's good graces. And when we do something god would disapprove of, we worry that our salvation was never truly secured in the first place. All of this fear bubbling up in our minds before we can even get through grade school. They tell us that with god there is no fear, but that couldn't have been further from the truth for me.
I remember one specific incident in my youth where I experienced reoccurring nightmares about Satan creeping into my room to steal me away. The dreams were so vivid that even twenty something years later, I still remember the way he looked. He wore a long, dark trench coat and a black hat. He would be hidden in the shadows at the edge of my bed. He would stand there, glaring at me from his peripheral, like a hungry wolf waiting to devour his helpless prey. I woke each night terrified that Satan was coming to take my soul and make me suffer eternal torment in hell. I told my family about the dreams in earnest desperation. I prayed for god to protect me. I remember rummaging through my play jewelry, and my mother's real jewelry too, collecting every crucifix necklace I could find. I spent two or three days wearing an excess of religious garb in an attempt to ward off the evil entity, like flashing a string of garlic to a vampire. I don't think that I was even ten years old, spending days soaked in fear and anxiety, wondering why god wasn't protecting me from the predator in my sleep. Although I don't remember the events surrounding those dreams, I do remember the overwhelming feeling that I was alone in my anxiety. That nobody would take my plight seriously. That my impending sense of doom could be shrugged off as nothing more than a child's wild imagination. I remember feeling like my crisis was really just a burden to those around me. Even though they were the ones who planted the seed in the first place.
A few years later, in a local after school program, I got into trouble for telling my friends that there were demons on the playground. I recall having this feeling that evil spirits were surrounding us every time we played, and at times I thought I could actually see them. I would climb to the top of a play set and look out onto the property, scanning for any hint of ghost-like imagery. I was spreading the word to my friends, telling them to be on the look out so we could fight the evil spirits together. It didn't take long for this bizarre notion of mine to reach the supervisors, who were quick to pull me aside and let me know how inappropriate my stories were. I was no longer allowed to discuss them with the other kids. I was being scolded for relaying the same message that was drilled in to me at church every week. I was confused, because I didn't understand why there wasn't anyone willing to take my fears seriously. The preacher sounded concerned when he squawked about the demons among us from the pulpit every Sunday, and I watched as my family would nod an "amen" after hearing a fiery warning against the dangers of the outside world. For some reason, they only seemed to take it seriously when we were sitting in the pews.
There, in those creaky pews, is where we would listen carefully as our preacher would speak warnings about invisible "spiritual warfare" happening all around us. I was taught to "suit up with the armor of god" so that I wouldn't be affected. Is it any wonder I spent my days searching for the signs of said warfare? They fed me horror stories and scripture about the torment sinners would endure in hell. They tarnished my mind with books and movies and plays showcasing what happens to heathens that refuse to accept god into their lives. I recall one particular book; a children's Bible with stories that were illustrated by other kids around the world. I used to marvel at the Crayola work adorning each page, slightly envying the kids whose pictures were chosen to publish. There were amateur illustrations of men being eaten by whales, people drowning in mass floods, Jesus bloodied and suffering on a cross, and even depictions of Satan in his eternal resting place. They injected my mind with a constant supply of fear mongering to keep me as submissive, malleable and obedient as possible. My greatest fear was being carefully crafted and cultivated by the church, yet they expected my adolescent mind to somehow dismiss and replace it with conjured hope in a god who never actually bothered to show up in my dreams at all. To me, Satan was a much greater reality than god. At least Satan showed himself.
Children need to know they are safe. They require the reassurance of a secure environment. No child (or adult) should walk through life ever questioning if they are good enough to avoid eternal punishment in the afterlife. No child should live in fear of evil spirits. When children are raised in fundamentalist churches, they learn from a very early age to harbor fear. Fear is a driving force in many churches, which unfortunately leads to anxiety and depression later in life for those who are taught to shelter it. Gone undiagnosed, it could destroy a person's mental health, relationships, jobs, and anything else mental illness can get it's grip on. A developing brain needs nourishment and comfort and the promise of safety. We have to stop feeding our children this idea that they have a hell to fear. That in order to avoid said hell, they have to pray, live, act and believe a certain way. You don't produce happy, healthy adults when you inject them with fear as soon as they can read. I don't believe that any person should ever live in fear that a supposed loving and caring god would banish them to eternal torment, but to feed such bleak, existential assertions to an undeveloped mind borders on heartless. It is cruel. And yes, I believe it is abusive.
Abuse can be unintentional. I think abuse can even be somewhat well-intentioned. Cycles of abuse are diverse and complicated, and they range vastly on a case-by-case basis. Churches, especially those that adhere to fundamentalism, are perpetuating a cycle of abuse within their congregation, masking it with plastic love and the promise of a cure that they claim only they can provide. They shame and guilt their members with warnings about how even thought crimes, such as lust and envy, can poison innocuous hearts. They threaten them with imagery of bodies melting in burning lakes of fire. They pressure them to die to themselves so they can be molded to look more like the cookie cutter congregation that reeled them in with promises of hope and salvation after infecting their minds with an existential fear that keeps some people living in a state of anxiety for years (if not all) of their lives.
Please do not allow your church, or anyone else, to infect your children's minds with the fear of hell. Don't even give your children the opportunity to question whether they are good enough to get into heaven, or bad enough to deserve hell. Don't teach them be frightened of unseen battles fought by invisible monsters. Teach them to walk in boldness. When they are older, they can decide what they want to believe. For now, Let them be kids. Let them grow free from the fear of things they cannot control. Free from nightmares and playground spirits and worry and shame. Let their little minds develop in peace. They deserve to feel safe every day, And so do you.
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