Happy Tuesday everyone!
While this post is coming your way a little later in the day than usual, I’m excited to be jumping back on the bandwagon for another edition of #theologytuesday. Last week, I took a break from this series – and shared a post on tackling the hard questions kids ask.
If you haven’t read that post yet, I recommend you go do it now! It will set the stage for today’s topic of discussion as we continue to work through the Apostles’ Creed – eternity. As long as I’ve been ministering to kids, this is one topic that always makes me a little squeamish. Kids ask a lot of questions about death, what happens when we die, and the afterlife. Trying to answer in a way that is developmentally appropriate, biblically sound, and won’t have them going home exclaiming “Mom! Can you believe what Pastor Julia told me tonight!?” is a challenge.
Despite it being one of those difficult topics, it’s not one we can just steer away from. In fact, I believe it’s an important topic that we need to dive into with our kids. It sets the stage for allowing them to see this life in proper perspective, motivates them to live for Jesus & share their faith, and if explained properly, can develop a great theology of suffering, challenges & patience.
Before we dive into all of that though, I want us to go back to the Apostles’ Creed. Over the past few weeks on #theologytuesday, what the Creed has to say is shaping our discussion and the direction it goes in. After its discussion about God the Father and what Jesus did while He was on earth, the Creed dives into a few statements about heaven and eternity, in relation back to Jesus! Here’s what it has to say:
(PS. feel free to save this image & use it in your ministries or with your kids!)
Talk about a loaded theological statement! We have here Jesus ascending into heaven, His current position, and His future judgment. This isn’t the only place the Creed talks about eternity though – its very last phrase says:
“[I believe] in the resurrection of the body & life everlasting.”
This goes beyond judgment, and into what will actually happen after death – resurrection & everlasting life.
I’ll be honest – this isn’t an easy topic to tackle with adults, let alone with kids! Talking about heaven and eternal life naturally means we have to talk about death – something none of us like to talk about.
Beyond that, we have to address a very abstract concept that if we’re honest, we don’t know a whole lot about it. On the surface, this may seem like a recipe for disaster discussion.
But it doesn’t have to be.
I believe that with the right resources and approach, we can create a theology of eternity and the afterlife in our kids that is part of a vibrant and healthy faith.
So where do we begin?
The first thing that kids need to know about eternity is that much [even most] of what we believe about eternity is modelled after Jesus. We believe that Jesus being raised from the dead, and then going back to heaven with God, is the model for what will happen to those who believe in Jesus. Paul elaborates on this in his famous resurrection passage in 1 Corinthians 15. Listen to how the Message Paraphrase puts verses 20-23
But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. There is a nice symmetry in this: Death initially came by a man, and resurrection from death came by a man. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ. But we have to wait our turn: Christ is first, then those with him at his Coming, the grand consummation when, after crushing the opposition, he hands over his kingdom to God the Father. He won’t let up until the last enemy is down—and the very last enemy is death.
Jesus was the first (and so far, only) person to ever conquer death – and because of Him, we can do the same! As we trust in Jesus, we can trust that death isn’t the end for us!
That is the second important thing that kids need to know – death is not the end. While here on earth, death can seem so final and tragic – especially for children – they need to have hope that this is not the end. Yes, it’s the end of life as we know it. That is important for kids to know. The promise of eternal life and heaven won’t bring back a loved one who has died, it won’t make the hurt and sadness go away completely, and it won’t make life go back to how it was before.
What this belief does however, is allow us to have hope that this life isn’t all there is! When lives are cut short, believing in eternal life (read – FOREVER life) gives us a sense of hope even in great suffering.
There are lots of Bible passages you can dive into with your kids to elaborate on this. Here are just a few of my favourites:
- John 11:25 (Jesus’ exclamation about being the Resurrection & the Life)
- Philippians 3:20-21 (Our citizenship is in heaven!)
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (Paul’s explanation of what will happen to those who’ve died)
- Revelation 14:13 (A promise for those who die that trust Jesus)
A quick search of your Bible app or a concordance like this one will help you find lots of other verses about life after death.
Once you’ve established these two facts, you can dive into the real meat of this conversation with your kids – so what does that life after death look like? This is the part of the conversation your kids will really be interested in, but it’s not the most important part. What we’ve already outlined here – that Jesus is the example, and that death is not the end – is what will truly give your kids hope and a healthy perspective on this life in light of eternity. Understanding what life after death looks like is important, but it must be built on a strong foundation.
The Apostles’ Creed gives us a few hints – it talks about resurrection of the dead and life everlasting, but it also takes about Jesus returning for judgment! How do the two mix?
As Christians, the historical and orthodox (accepted as true) belief is that after death, each of us will end up in one of two destinations – heaven or hell. Jesus will be the judge of who ends up where – and our lives in that destination will last forever. If you’re like me, at this point in the discussion I start to cringe. Do we really have to talk about this with our kids? Is it of any benefit?
My answer is yes. Here’s why:
- Understanding that we all don’t automatically go to heaven gives kids a greater understanding of what Jesus has done for us through his life, death and resurrection, and places a higher value on their relationship with Him. It’s not just a bonus or an addition to their lives – it is literally their salvation.
- Our world – secular and Christian – has somewhat of an obsession with the afterlife and supernatural. Movies like “Heaven is For Real” have been box-office hits, even amongst those who don’t claim to have faith in God. I believe this is because the Bible says “God has set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Whether you’re talking about it or not, your kid is going to hear someone’s beliefs somewhere about eternity – you want to ensure what they’re hearing is biblically accurate.
- While eternity – particularly judgement and hell – aren’t topics we like to talk about, they are clearly laid out in the Bible. While it’s important not to use them as scare tactics or threats, it’s also important to discuss them in order to paint an accurate picture of what the whole Bible teaches.
So how do we talk about this? What should we say? I think it’s important as with any conversation in theology, to start and end with Jesus. NEVER tell your kids that “good people go to heaven” & “bad people go to hell.” This is such a distortion of what the Bible teaches to be true about judgment and eternity.
What is true is that those who accept Jesus spend eternity in heaven with Him, and those who reject Him spend eternity away from Him in hell.
What is true is that God “is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9). He “wants everyone to be saved & to understand the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). He is not, as some have painted Him, sitting in the sky, eagerly awaiting judgment day. In fact, Scripture points an opposite picture – He is being patient, allowing time for as many as possible to come to accept the saving grace of Jesus.
What is also true is this all-loving God desires obedience and holiness – which we could never perfectly live out. Because of Jesus, a way has been made to be in right standing with Him. Choosing not to accept Jesus means we refuse this status, we refuse this relationship – and we reap the consequences for eternity.
These are the basics of what your kids should know about eternity. The questions they ask about “What is heaven like?” or “What is hell like?” are, like so many things, mysteries. The reality is (despite the claims of some popular authors) no one has ever been to heaven or hell and returned. All we know about it is what we’re told in the Bible. We are given some basics – hell is a place of separation from God and punishment, and heaven is a beautiful place with no suffering or pain, where we are in God’s presence forever. Many of the other questions kids may ask – “are there pets in heaven?”, “what will we do there?”, “what does hell feel like?” or “what does it look like?” – aren’t clearly answered. The best we can do is make an educated guess.
In summary, as you approach this topic with your kids:
- Be sure never to use eternity or God’s judgment as a scare tactic. It is a part of the greater narrative of God’s story – and ultimately, it’s the final picture of God’s justice & love. Make sure you paint that picture for your kids.
- Always talk about heaven & hell in a developmentally appropriate way. Your toddlers probably need to know very little – just that heaven is a place where God is, while your tweens will have a lot more questions & be able to have deeper discussions.
- Make space for your kids to ask questions & find answers in the Bible. Where there are no answers, don’t make them up! Allow them to explore, think & ask the questions – but let them sit with the ones without clear answers.
- Use the doctrine of eternity to motivate your kids to a more vibrant relationship with Jesus! What an awesome reward awaits us! What a great gift of salvation we can be given! What a responsibility to share this good news with others.
- When you’re faced with death in your child’s circle of family and friends, navigate these topics in a sensitive way. Answer questions, talk about the hope the Bible provides – but also allow space for genuine grief and turmoil. These emotions are normal.
I know this has been a lengthy post (pushing 2000 words… eek!), but it’s hard to sum up such a weighty topic in a few short words. If you’re looking for further info on this topic, I’d love to chat with you! Shoot me an email or message at my Facebook page. To finish things up, here are some more great resources on the topic:
- God Gave Us Heaven by Lisa Tawn Bergren
- What About Heaven? By Kathleen Berstrom (Great for toddlers & preschoolers!)
- Heaven: God’s Promise for Me by Anne Graham Lotz
- “What should I Tell My Kids about Hell?” (Fabulous article!)
- “Talking to Your Kids about Hell”
- Superbook’s Q & A page for kids PS. I’m looking to expand my list of resources for this topic! If you have something you love, send it my way!