The very short answer is “Yes”…however, I would want to add several guiding principles. Here are a few that come to mind:
- Is “hell” actually addressed in a particular text of Scripture you are reading and teaching? If It is, don’t avoid it. You are acquainting children with the God-breathed words of Scripture that are “able to make [them] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
- However, and with the above point in mind, don’t try to give overly detailed, complicated, and emotionally charged explanations. Sometimes this may mean simply reading a text and letting it stand without further comment. A definition of hell for preschoolers might be stated simply as, “Hell is a very sad and terrible place.” Additionally, it is also helpful to repeatedly contrast hell with heaven, “Heaven is the most wonderful and happy place—a place to be with Jesus forever!” If they specifically ask, “What happens when people die?” simply answer with statements of fact: “Everyone who loves and trusts Jesus will go to live happily forever in heaven. Everyone who doesn’t love and trust Jesus will go live in hell—a very sad and terrible place.” It also would be good for them to know: “Satan is very bad and wicked. He is a liar and an enemy of God. God will punish Satan in hell forever.”
Remember: Young children are like sponges, taking in information. They do not have the same emotional connotations that we associate with hell and judgment. However, they do experience punishment and pain in their lives. Mommy and Daddy make rules and give commands. They set parameters for acceptable behavior and implement certain consequences for wrong behavior.
I think the bigger issue in the preschool years is this: We should be striving to lay a solid foundation for the truth about hell. How can we do this?
Present a chronological-based overview of the whole Bible. The preschool years serve as an opportune time to acquaint children with the narratives of Scripture—Bible stories beginning in Genesis 1 onward. Very few of these stories reference “hell” directly. But beginning in
Genesis 3, we do see a pattern of man’s sin, God’s just judgment, and death. For example, God sending a worldwide flood in Genesis is evidence of the “very sad a terrible consequences when people don’t love and obey God.”
- Acquaint them with a rich view of who God is and what He is like. Even many Christian adults are confused and/or repulsed by the biblical description of hell because they have not been taught a comprehensive view of God. When His divine attributes are skewed or minimized, His judgment of sin appears excessive and unfair. That is why it is crucial in the preschool years to begin presenting a big view of God: God is perfect, God is holy, God is good, God is loving, God is in charge…etc. When children see God presented this way, it makes rebellion against Him seem all the more foolish and terrible.
- Teach them about who they are in relation to God. Children need to be given a right sense of who they are in relation to God. In other words, because of who God is and what He is like, we are to act in certain ways toward Him. Again, this gives them a context for understanding sin and why hell is a just punishment. For example,
- God is our Creator. He made us—We depend on God for everything.
- God is the boss. He is in charge—We need to treat Him more special than anyone else!
- God loves us and is good to us—We are to love Him and thank Him.
- God is perfect and holy. He knows what’s best for us—We need to obey God.
Now apply this to the fall: God created Adam and Eve and made a beautiful garden for them to live in. God is good and loving and gave them all sorts of wonderful foods to enjoy—lots and lots and lots of delicious food! But God said there was one and only one tree that they couldn’t eat the fruit from. God knows best. He gave them that command for their own good so that they would be happy. They should obey God. But do you know what Adam and Eve did?...
- Give them an understanding of their desperate need for God’s mercy and grace—they need Jesus! If we give preschoolers an overview of the Bible by presenting them with a wide array of Bible stories, a rich view of who God is and what He is like, and who we are in relation to God, it will become very evident that we are all people who desperately fail to treat God as we should. We are helpless sinners who deserve God’s punishment—death and hell.
Children can easily relate to being helpless in various situations and needing to rely on someone else. We can use this to help them understand their need to depend completely on Jesus to fix their biggest problem. Therefore, while we need to be intentional in communicating the truth about hell to them in the most serious terms, we must always earnestly and gladly point to the incredible free and priceless gift held out to them—Jesus the Savior!
You also might be interested in this short video, in which John Piper answers the question: Should first graders be taught about the wrath of God?