He is not one to go to bed quickly or easily. The best way to avoid bedtime tantrums and standoffs is to lay down next to the little boy and drift off with him. Sometimes he requests I read to him as he falls asleep. This particular night I read to him from Matthew 13.
36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
I don’t really think he is paying attention and assume the vocabulary and message is above his level of understanding seeing the disciples needed an explanation. But then he asks, “Why does Jesus talk about people in the fire?”
He was listening to Jesus’ words, even more attentively than I. I quickly skim the chapter to review what Jesus was discussing. Ah yes, way to go mom! You selected a super light topic for a bedtime story. Yes, a passage on hell.
How do I answer him? How do I explain hell to my three year old?
I had to explain heaven to him recently when his great-grandmother passed away. It wasn’t so hard to do. The family shared with him how great heaven is and how Nana has a new, beautiful home that Jesus prepared for her. He was also given the book, Heaven is Real for Little Ones, which really helped him understand more about Nana’s new home and how to get to heaven. He is good with heaven.
But, hell, that’s different. It’s dark, scary, and nightmarish, if you will. It is not the image I want for my son right before he nods off to sleep.
So with God’s help, I proceed to explain to him that hell is a place where people who do not love and obey Jesus will go one day. It is a place where people will be without Jesus’ love. I leave out the parts of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and other gory details to avoid any scary dreams resulting in interrupted sleep. And it was ok to leave out those details because at the core of what makes hell so terrible is the absence of God’s love and presence.
And do you know what he says to me?
“Mama, that’s sad.”
He gets it. He isn't afraid, but sad. When I consider hell I am afraid, afraid of the punishment, the fire, the torture. I am not too sure I respond to the reality of hell with sadness. Do I realize that hell is more than the punishment because the true consequence is the separation from God’s goodness and love?
This makes me wonder if Jesus was full of fear on the cross or was it sorrow that burdened him?
Perhaps it was sorrow.
About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
These words express sadness over the separation from his father he was about to endure. Not fear of his encounter with God’s wrath. Not pain for all the beatings, scourging, and suffering on the cross. No, his cry was over the abandonment from his father. Complete separation from his father's love made him cry out in a loud voice.
May I know my heavenly father’s goodness and love so deeply and intimately that I too would cry out in sadness at the thought of spending eternity separated from him and rejoice in gratitude that I will never have to be separated from him because of Jesus' sacrifice. May I love my neighbor, who does not love and obey Jesus, enough to cry out in sadness at the thought that she may spend eternity separated from him.