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Death and heaven

What do you say to your kids about non-Christians who have died?

Death is hard. Incredibly hard.

I’m more frequently confronted with this reality the older I get. Our family is currently grieving for a family member who died a couple of months ago. Amidst our own shock and grief, we had to be mindful of our kids’ response as well. What were we going to tell our children?

When a Christian dies there is sadness and grief, but also rejoicing. We can reassure our children that the person who has died is living with Jesus forever.

But what about people who have died and aren’t Christian? How can we talk to our children about the stark eternal reality for those who don’t follow Jesus?

Talk with your kids

Don’t avoid it. We live in a culture that focuses on the here and now, and pushes talk of death to the periphery. But as Christians we know that death is a reality – it’s a central part of the gospel. Our kids need to be prepared for life in the world, and they need to know why the gospel is such good news.

If you are dealing with the death of a family member or friend, make time to talk with your kids about what has happened. Listen to their questions, and be prepared that further questions may come further down the track at seemingly random times.

But don’t wait for the death of a loved one to talk to your kids about death and eternity. Talking more generally about death with kids is a good foundation for times when you need to talk more specifically about a loved one who has died. If we immerse our kids in a big picture of the Bible (biblical theology), an understanding of death and eternity will naturally form part of their thinking.

Be honest about what we do know

Here are 5 biblical realities that are helpful to keep in mind when talking to kids about death and eternity.

1. Death is not the way it’s supposed to be

Death is an intruder in God’s good creation. The curse of death entered the world because of sin (Gen 3). This can help kids to understand why we are sad and grieve when someone dies. We can also explain that death saddens God too (John 11:35).

2. We will all face death and judgment

The Bible is clear that death and judgment await each one of us (Heb 9:27). We have all sinned, and death is a reality of our fallen world as a result (Ps 14:1-3, Rom 3:10-18). We will each give an account for how we have lived our life (2 Cor 5:10).

3. For Christians, death means we will be with Jesus

Death is not an end to our existence - life follows physical death. Jesus is the ‘resurrection and the life’ (Jn 11). Those who follow Jesus go home to be with him forever (1 Thess 4:13-18, 2 Cor 5:6-9). Paul’s statement, ‘to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Phil 1:21), highlights the absolute joy of being with Christ after death.

4. Hell is not popular, but it’s real

The Bible makes it clear that the experience of the believer and the unbeliever at death are very different and permanent (Luke 16:19-31). While the Bible does not talk in great detail about hell, Jesus’ teaching about the misery and terror of hell warns us to avoid it at all costs (Matt 5:29-30, 18:9, Mark 9:43-48). I don’t think we need to terrorise our children with graphic images of hell, but we cannot avoid talking about it if we want our kids to understand God’s justice and his amazing compassion in Jesus.

5. Death will one day be destroyed

When Jesus returns ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor 15:26). We can give our children the incredible good news that there will be no death or crying or pain in the new creation (Rev 21:4).

Be honest about what we don’t know

While we want to make it clear that trust in Jesus is the way to spend eternity with him, we don’t always know the true state of someone’s heart. Jesus’ stark words about hypocrites (Matt 7) and the last minute salvation of the criminal on the cross (Luke 23), reminds me that I am not the best judge of someone’s heart.

When dealing with the loss of a loved one who didn’t seem to follow Jesus, it can be best to avoid passing judgement on their eternal destiny. We can reassure our kids that the person who has passed away is in God’s hands. God is a good, just and merciful judge who always does the right thing (Gen 18:25).

Point them to Jesus

Above all else, we want our kids to know and love Jesus. We want them to come to a point of asking, do I trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord? Jesus is bigger and stronger than anything else, even death. He has conquered death! We can trust him and be confident in him.

We also need to take heed of Jesus’ warnings to avoid an eternity in hell. In his great mercy, God has given us a way to live forever with him through the death and resurrection of his son.

Talking with kids about death or dealing with grief can also provide an opportunity to emphasise how important it is to tell people about Jesus. We want people to be part of God’s family and live forever with Him. This means we need to tell others about him.

Seek extra help if you need it

Enlist the support of your minister, youth leaders, a counselor or other trusted adults if your child is struggling with grief or worrying about death and eternity.

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