Should We Teach the Wrath of God to Children?

magic fire

It took me almost eight months of my dissertation time to exegete and catalog all the passages referencing the wrath of God, the topic of my work. During that same time, I continued to help on the weekends with an evangelistic children’s Bible club in which I’d served for many years. One Saturday morning, about two-thirds of the way through my cataloging project, I was working in Ezekiel. I’d made it to something like line 380 in my Excel spreadsheet on divine wrath language before wrapping up my study and heading off to the Bible study club.

During song time we sang, “My Hope is in the Lord.” The song leader drew the kids’ attention to the line, “No merit of my own, His anger to suppress.” He asked the kids, “Do you think God ever gets angry?” I still remember sitting behind the kids observing in dismay their response: with an unusual level of confident participation, they all answered, “NO!” I just sat there in shock thinking, Oh yes, yes he does…

I reflect on that experience often. I want to think that perhaps the kids were equating anger with sin and therefore were trying to affirm God’s sinlessness. But still, I felt like somehow we were failing these kids we loved so much. How do you teach gospel lessons week after week and find in the end a universal denial of God’s wrath, something the Bible repeatedly reveals? Was it by our silence that they learned this a-theology? Who is this god who cannot be angered?

In God’s mercy, Scripture is filled with warnings about his wrath; it is the great problem the gospel addresses in Christ’s atonement (Romans 1:18-3:26). Maybe I’m overthinking it, but the experience truly left me reeling, wondering if we were losing the theological forest in a moralistic study of trees.

Mark Ward published a series of posts exploring the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of a teacher’s “dumbing” down Scripture when teaching people who struggle to make sense of what they are hearing. Not all statements of Scripture are age-appropriate for elementary kids (pick a few random verses in the Song of Solomon). But I’m convinced that the wrath of God is something kids must hear of—if the gospel of Jesus’ propitiation of that wrath is ever to make any sense to them (Rom 3:25).

The Bible on teaching children the fear of God

When I look at some of the great passages in Scripture that most clearly command us parents to teach our children, I’m surprised and rebuked how closely those commands are linked to fearing God—often with the context of his judgments against disobedience being very near.

Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen [the prime contextual example being God’s judgment on those who forsook Him at Baal-peor, v.3] and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’ You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom.” (Deuteronomy 4:9-11)

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged…. You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, for the LORD your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the LORD your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 6:1-2, 13-15; cf. 11:16-21)

The more I studied the fear of God for my academic work, the more I grew convinced that God wants us teaching it at every age. This, of course, necessitates making the careful distinction between the fear of God that he forbids—the craven fear of demons (Luke 8:28; Jas 2:19) and of “unprofitable servants” (Matt 25:24–25)—and the fear of him he commands, the fear of one who loves and trusts the Lord, the fear that leads to holiness (Exodus 20:20). Presently, it seems this doctrine is more often avoided than taught, at almost every age level. One author has even described the fear of God as the “forgotten doctrine” of our age. This is simply incredible given the kind of emphasis Scripture puts on it in passages like Deuteronomy 10:12

Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

We wouldn’t dream of minimizing walking in God’s ways, loving him, or serving him with all our heart and soul, but what of the command that heads the rest of them? How well do we, as adults, understand the concept (and command) of fearing God? What does it look like in our lives? And how is it truly the beginning of all knowledge and wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10)?

And I must note quickly that the “fear of the Lord” is not only an Old Testament truth, nor does it refer merely to honor or awe. Fear is fear. It’s the New Testament that says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).

The Bible requires us to give our kids this invitation:

Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. (Psalm 34:11)

Motivations to teach hard truths

There is a way to teach our children the fear of the Lord. I’m no perfect model, but I’m a parent of two young boys, and I have around a decade of experience in weekly evangelistic children’s outreach efforts. At the very least I can say I’ve faced the challenge of speaking about hard topics to young hearts. As if the biblical teaching on God’s wrath (and other hard truths) weren’t enough, I have other motivations.

First, like my father before me, God awakened me to my need for a Savior as a child through a clear and careful presentation of Scripture’s teaching about the fate of the wicked. I know it is possible to present to children a full picture of God without using scare tactics, because it happened to me. My own story motivates me to try teaching hard truths rather than kicking the can down the road—a very understandable temptation.

Second, I have found real wisdom in a line from Augustine that has come back to my mind over and over—from his great treatise on the Trinity:

When it is asked “three what?” then the great poverty from which our language suffers becomes apparent. But the formula three persons has been coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent.

We teach the hard doctrines of Scripture not to imply that we have mastered them, but because careful efforts to teach them are better than avoiding the topics altogether. Or in other words: we speak, however inadequately, so as not to remain silent. A child’s developing “theology”—his or her view of God—is going to be shaped not just by what we say but also by what we do not say, or do not think worth mentioning.

The question, then, isn’t really “What am I going to teach about these hard doctrines?” We are teaching something, even by our silence. The real question is, “How am I going to teach on these doctrines?”

Some ideas for going forward

I want to offer some initial thoughts on teaching the hard doctrines to children. I realize that probably each of these bullet points merits, at the very least, its own post, but as a starting place, if someone were to ask me for a quick list of suggestions on teaching God’s wrath to children, the following is what I would offer.

  • Show them how Romans 1-3 unfolds man’s great problem: the wrath of God (Romans 1:18ff; 2:5) on its way to presenting Jesus and his propitiatory sacrifice (3:25) as the God-provided answer to release repentant sinners from his condemning wrath.
  • Show them the glory of the gospel in light of the horror from which it saves sinners. Without understanding the badness of our condition, much of the goodness of the good news will be obscured.
  • Expound for them the jealousy (Exodus 34:14) and holiness of God (Isaiah 6:3) and show them the vital connection that exists between these perfections and God’s righteous displays of anger. But highlight as well how these divine attributes and actions work powerfully for God’s people, not just against them (compare Ezek 36:6 to Ezek 39:25).
  • Show them how the vengeance of God—God’s unwavering commitment to justice—is at the heart of all their eschatological hope.
  • Learn to be as unflinching in speaking of God’s wrath as Scripture is, because you recognize and can show that God’s wrath talk is strong evidence of his manifold mercies. The people of Nineveh recognized this even from Jonah’s grace-less preaching of God’s judgment (Jonah 3:9).
  • Believe that truth spoken in love is no hindrance to God’s Spirit for bringing men and women to fear God. Don’t make the mistake Abraham did in Genesis 20:11.
  • Distinguish for them the various expressions of the wrath of God not so much by vocabulary but by its scriptural function—there’s an infinite gulf between the wrath of condemnation (1 Thess 5:9) and the wrath of Fatherly chastening (Heb 12:5–11).
  • Explain the difference between a believer’s fixed standing before God in Christ and the day-to-day fellowship we have with God, a communion that is deeply affected by how we live before him. We can and do “grieve” God by our sin (Eph 4:30).

Conclusion

When your dissertation title includes the words, “The Wrath of God,” you get a fresh sense of the challenge of teaching hard truths every time someone innocently asks you what you’re writing on. (This even happened to me in an interview for secular employment in New York City.) I stumbled on this topic in the providence of God; my friends can testify that I am not a morose or dour person, fascinated with all things morbid. I am joyful.

But so is God (see Ps 5:11, Luke 15:10, and many other passages), and that didn’t stop him from describing and even venting his wrath in the pages of Scripture. We owe it to our children to teach them the fear of the Lord.

josh-young

Joshua Young holds a PhD in theology. He works as an IT Technician in New York City and serves at a church in New Jersey.

 

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Comments

  1. Bryant Poythress says:

    Josh, it is so important to teach what God has to say and not just teach about it – as that leads us to just make stuff up, good intentions notwithstanding. Wrestling with what god has actually said and sticking to it causes us to dig deeper into Him and not ourselves. I have never enjoyed teaching as much as when working with kids because it (should) make us simplify and clarify. What a beautiful thing!!

    Thanks for the great article and reminder and encouragement and directive etc

  2. When I read this post, I thought about the college students who could not cope with an adverse outcome from the presidential election, requiring therapy dogs and play-doh to make it through the crisis. How will they ever deal with God’s wrath when it falls on them?
    The fact is that contemporary child-rearing is structured to prevent children from any sense that anyone is angry with them. Not only do Sunday School teachers back away from mentioning God’s wrath. Moms and dads beg their children rather than tell them to behave appropriately, and the only time consequences kick in appears to be when a reward is involved. I see this behavior in church, in restaurants, in grocery stores and in many other places. My daughter is a teacher, and she deals with it every day.
    Our culture is risk averse, and the culture does not want children ever to experience fear.
    You are quite correct to want children to know that God can get angry, and they can learn a little about that by experiencing the anger of their parents now and then. Parents don’t need to invent occasions for anger. Every child behaves like a child, and the occasions simply happen. Real parents can be angry and dispense punishment without demeaning or crushing the spirit of a child, but children need to know that actions — and words — and elections — have consequences. A child who never learns to live with adversity will assuredly be a crippled adult; see the national hysteria when Donald Trump won.
    Dealing with an election that went wrong from your point of view is nothing compared to the wrath of God, but experiencing adversity now and then is actually good for children and adults alike. It helps make those words “fear God” more meaningful and real to those who hear them.