‘My Friend Said If You Don’t Believe in God, You Go Into Fire’

By Wendy Thomas Russell | August 23, 2012 | 8 comments

My daughter was sitting next to me on the couch earlier this week, playing a game on the iPad, when she stopped and looked up. She’d remembered something that a friend had told her at summer school.

“She said if you don’t believe in God, you go into fire,” Maxine told me.

“She did?” I asked.”Oh. Well, she’s talking about hell. Have you heard of hell?”


“Some people believe you go there if you don’t believe in God,” I added with as much neutrality as I could muster.

“Do you believe that?” she asked.

“No. I don’t believe that, and Dad doesn’t believe that. But some people do.”

“Is it true?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t either.”

Then, back to the iPad.

This is now the second time we’ve dealt with the whole hell thing. The first was last year in kindergarten. Both involved very good friends of hers who meant her no harm — and, in both cases, Maxine did not seem too bothered. But I did think it would be a good time to revisit the list I published at that time — When Timmy Gets Told He’s Going to Hell: 8 Tips for Parents — and to ask you guys: Have you dealt with this recently? What, if anything, did you or your child do? And was ass-kicking involved? Just kidding about that last one.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

And now for the tips.

1. Don’t panic.

This is pretty much the mantra of this blog, and it’s a good one to remember here. Your kid is going to have to wade through a load of shit in elementary school, which will only prepare her for the bigger load of shit she’ll have to wade through in middle school until the shit piles so high, it spills over into your life during adolescence. Best to learn to chill out now. Bourbon helps.

2. Remember: Hell is a nasty word, but it’s  just a word.

We tend to give hell a lot more weight than it’s really worth. That’s not to say it’s okay to tell someone they’re going to hell, but let’s put it in perspective. Sally is told she’s “ugly” because she wears glasses or has freckles. Johnny is a “sissy” because he can’t throw a ball. Mary is “retarded” because she has a stutter. Timmy is going to “hell” because he doesn’t believe in God. Each insult is just as mean and hurtful as the next — and, also, just as untrue.


3. Consider the source.

Not all H-bombs are created equal. One thrown by an unassuming kindergartner is not the same as an assault by a junior minister at a relative’s church, or talk of hell by your child’s Muslim grandmother. A school incident may require no action from you (See No. 4), but if a place of worship is scaring your child, it’s probably best to find a new place of worship. And if a family member is involved, that deserves a sit-down talk.

4. Follow your kid’s lead.

While we parents love to impose our sage advice on our kids, sometimes the best thing to do is listen and encourage. When we steer our kids too much, or expend a lot of energy trying to fix their problems, we often send the message that they can’t possible fix these problems themselves. If your child dealt with the H-bomb without becoming abusive to the bomber, she deserve major kudos. Maybe she told the teacher. Maybe she defended herself. Maybe she did absolutely nothing. Whatever it was, tell her she did a bang-up job. “Good for you!” you might say. “I love how you handled that.” Or the old reliable: “I’m so proud of you.”

5. Appeal to logic.

Take your kid outside. Look up at the sky. Stomp on the ground a little. Look at some pictures of space and the Grand Canyon. Then talk about this “hell” of which people speak. If it exists, where is it? A great centerpiece to any religiously complex conversation is: “Does that make sense to you?” For example: “If someone is a nice person, and only does good things for other people, do you think that person will go to some horrible place after he or she dies? Does that make sense to you?”

6. Separate the hell-talkers from the religious masses.

A great many religious people — particularly modern, progressive types — have done away with this old-fashioned notion of hell altogether; either they believe that only truly evil people go to hell, or they’ve abandoned the notion altogether. And even among those who do believe in hell, most are not particularly worried about whether you are going there; they’re far more worried about whether they are going there. The point is, not all religious people believe your kid is going to hell; it’s important your kid knows that.

7. Use it as a learning opportunity.

Hell is a super-interesting field of study, for kids who are old enough to handle it without nightmares. And treating it as just that — a field of study — helps remove some of its power. Look up Hell on Wikipedia. Read about how each religion imagines hell, and how they differ.  You might be surprised how many religions have no concept of hell at all. Talk to your child about how hell is depicted in songsmoviesartworksliterature and video games. Also, explain that many people think of hell as a condition of one’s own mind; when you do hurtful, amoral things, you must then suffer the guilt and remorse and regret that goes with those decisions. (For many of us, that’s a fate worse than anything the devil could do.)

8. Tell someone.

I added this one at the last minute after I read a post by blogger Steph Bazzle on Parenting Beyond Belief. Her 8-year-old son came home from school after a fellow classmate told him he was headed “down there.” Bazzle ended up writing an e-mail to the principal, teacher and guidance counselor. Not a freak-out e-mail, but a heads-up e-mail. Their response? The principal called her immediately, genuinely concerned. And the school guidance counselor scheduled a tolerance course for every grade in the school. Can’t ask for better than that.


  1. K says:

    Best to be careful, I have learned with parents who tell YOU “I/we are not super religous.” Then a few play dates later you are friended on FB to find the person is as much or more so religio-so and your truly being atheist or agnostic or non believing becomes shocking to them. My child has been teased and goaded in school, having no clue what kids are doing, after a parent noticed my social updates and bothered to tell their kids!! She is 6 and was chased at lunch by 5 kids yelling why dont you believe in God?
    In another setting friends we had for some time started the “you are going to hell for not going to my church”. I knew the mom well and told her. She was “shoked

    • K says:

      …she was “shocked” supposedly. Often I wonder what even critical thinking semi religious parents KNOW about how much church school teaches and what their kids are absorbing and or misunderstanding even in more liberal religious settings.

  2. Melissa says:

    My 6.5 year old has these moments that come up now and then where he asks the heavy religious questions about God, hell, heaven, death. I want to raise him with an openness and curiousity toward all religions. But how do I do that!?

  3. Ty Hatfield says:

    Love this too! When is your book coming out??? Hurry please :)

  4. Danny Ray says:

    Don’t know myself, but do like Tom Jones relatively new version of an old classic.

  5. Alan Magree says:

    I liked your response to your daughter’s question “Is it true?” My initial response would have been “Hell no!”

    I like the Arthur Brown lyrics too.

  6. Jamie says:

    I am sorry that was said to your daughter — but you are most insightful to consider the source. Children often say cruel things and don’t realize the affect of their words. For most children can’t understand the finality of death. They just know it happens to some very old people. It is a shame that the first thing that some who believes in God thinks of is hell — rather than his love. Which is the reason as an adult I believe.

  7. Angela says:

    I overheard my 7-year-old son and his friend during a recent camping trip. My son climbed to the top of a rock and yelled, “I’m the king of the world.” His friend said, “No. The real king of the world is God.” My son said, “I don’t believe in god,” and his friend told him that he would have bad luck. My son replied that he likes science better and then they returned to playing. My son’s friend is really sweet, as are the parents, and they aren’t super-religious. We talked about it with them and they were surprised. I do worry in the conservative town we live in that my son will run into problems down the road, but for now he seems confident enough to express his views and move on. I was pretty proud of him.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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