When I was first confronted by a man who expressed his distaste for Christianity by calling it “child abuse”, I was completely dumb founded. I couldn't possibly see how Christianity could be seen this way. However, after watching Richard Dawkins' TV program “Root of all Evil”, in which he interviews a woman by the name of Jill Mytton, I can certainly understand how this allegation arises. Jill was raised in a “strict Christian sect”. She describes the “abuse” she felt in terms of an emotional abuse because of the fear of eternal damnation. When Dawkins asked Ms. Mytton what hell was like, she choked up for a moment; and then, overcoming the emotion of it, said “after all this time, it still has the power to affect me...” Since the doctrine of hell is, in fact, an all important teaching of Christianity, is it child abuse to teach our children about it?
I really do feel for this poor woman, Jill Mytton. To be emotionally manipulated by fear is a terrible thing that nobody should be subjected to. Of course, many people think that's what the doctrine of hell is all about... “Be good or you'll go to hell!” Many have said to me that the Bible, or the whole of the Christian religion, was invented by men as a way of controlling people through fear. But to say “Be good or you'll go to hell” is to only tell part of the story. If this is all we say to people, or to our children, we're not actually teaching them the gospel or what Christianity is about at all. To only hear this part of the story is a horrible and frightening thing! To say “Be good or you'll go to hell” as a way of frightening people into being good is actually a very anti-Christian thing to do and teach. How good do I have to be? What if I can't be good enough? If this were the only message we heard, we might become exceedingly distressed as we realize that we are not and cannot be good enough! But the Christian message is that because you can't be good enough to escape hell, Christ, who is perfectly holy and righteous, has died in your place. When we acknowledge this, we find salvation from sin and hell in Christ. What Jill Mytton needs to know is that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus!
In the Bible, Jesus tells this story...
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)
This is the Christian message that we ought to teach our children; that the only escape from sin and hell is not to be more righteous, but to acknowledge our sin and put our faith in God's mercy and forgiveness. Now, counter-intuitively to some, this will actually lead to righteousness. How? Surely if you take away the threat of hell you give license to sin? But when you understand who Christ is and what He did on the cross for you, this will naturally lead to love for Christ. Love for Christ will naturally lead to a genuine desire to please Christ. And we know what pleases Christ...
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
If we teach only about hell, we inevitably fail to teach that salvation is only through Christ. Yet we cannot fail to teach about hell because how will anyone understand salvation unless they are taught what it is that they're saved from? It is possible for parents to teach, (or even torment) their children with Biblical themes and not be teaching Christianity at all. And this can indeed be detrimental to a child. But that doesn't mean that the “real thing” is anything like child abuse. In the preface to “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins responds to the allegation that he's only focusing on the worst of religion and ignoring the good. His response is essentially this; that the “quantity” of good is insignificant compared to the damage that religion causes. But to look at the evil of false religions (since there is one true God and one true religion), or to look at the evil corruption of Christianity (since wicked men can claim that their deeds are in the name of Christ when they are not) doesn't mean that there is not a genuinely true and good body of believers who do live righteously and teach righteousness and love. One isn’t justified to stamp out the whole thing, but rather to nourish that minority in the hopes that it might become the majority. Such true teaching and values ought to be passed down to our children. Christianity “taught right” is a positively good thing.
Jill Mytton's parents possibly didn't teach her the truth of the gospel and true Christianity, (though we can't know that for certain.) But how does a parent teach their children true Christianity? If we teach them all that the Bible says but don't, ourselves, do what the Bible says, then we are not teaching them Christianity at all! True Christianity is doing what God desires of us. It is living by faith. This is the central message of every sermon preached in a truly Christian church. If we teach our children every doctrine of the Bible but do not demonstrate the reality of God in our own lives, then we actually are not teaching them what it means to be a Christian. Hypocrisy will destroy the Christian message to whoever we teach it to. We must be genuine ourselves. This will mean that our children will learn from us love and compassion for others. They will learn humility and honesty. And they will learn to put away selfishness and envy. Even Dawkins', based on his own preface, agrees that this would be a wonderful thing. And I agree also.
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)