Hell and Cognitive Development

I was recently directed to a post by Keith DeRose, Yale professor, regarding the psychological impact of believing in hell, particularly upon children. The part of Keith's post that grabbed my attention was his psychological theory as to why hell so terrorizes children under the age of 12:

By 12, I wasn't any longer really terrorized by hell, though I still accepted a very nasty, traditional doctrine of hell - as I did all the way into my early 20s. (When I accepted the doctrine but was no longer terrorized by it, I did find it curious that I wasn't so terrorized.) Why do some people who accept a traditional doctrine of hell experience debilitating terror of it, while others don't? Why was I terrorized at 7, but not at 12? Why does debilitating terror tend to occur among children (though some adults also suffer from it)? These are questions that I hope receive some serious investigation. (And, again, if anyone knows of any studies of this, please let me know.) All I can do is provide my own (non-expert) guess, which is based just on my own case and that of several other people I've talked to.

My guess is that debilitating terror of hell is (at least often) explained by the subject getting or having one cognitive ability before or without having another (or having one of them to a much greater extent before or without having the other to a significant enough extent): Having the ability to understand and appreciate the doctrine without (yet) having developed the ability to "quarantine" threatening "beliefs" from having the effects beliefs of that content in some sense should have. (Since this - and especially my use of "quarantine" - is all very vague, perhaps this shouldn't even be thought of an explanation so much as my guess as to the form that the right explanation will take.)

I think Keith is correct in his theory. Although I know of no formal empirical tests of his hypothesis, his argument does fit with what we know concerning childhood cognitive development.

What I think is happening is this. According to Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development, children around the ages of 7 to 11 are in the Concrete Operations phase of cognitive development. In this phase of development children begin to develop logical abilities but without the ability for abstraction. To understand the difference view the following YouTube clip:

Note the answers the children give when in the Concrete Operations stage:

Q: What would life be like if you had no thumbs?
A: You would only have four fingers.
A: You couldn't give someone a thumbs up.
A: You couldn't thumb wrestle.

Those answers are fine, but very concrete. Very tied to physical particulars. By contrast, the adolescent at the end of the clip is in the Formal Operations stage where abstract reasoning comes into its own. Thus, we see the Formal Operations child give a very abstract answer, an analogy between being without thumbs and living life as a left-handed person.

Going back to Keith's post, my hunch is that hell is most terrifying for children in the Concrete Operations stage. In this stage children have the concrete, logical ability to work out the calculus of salvation and damnation. Abstractions such as grace are beyond them, cognitively speaking. A concrete punishment/reward calculus better suits the cognitive stage they are in. And by doing the theological math unattenuated by abstractions such as grace most Concrete Operational children conclude they are doomed to hell.

Worse, they don't think of hell in abstract terms (e.g., "separation from God"). They think of hell in concrete, brutally physical images. Think back to the YouTube clip. What would life be like if you had no thumbs? You'd only have four fingers. You can see how that reasoning would play out concerning hell. What is hell like? It's a place of burning fire. In short, Concrete Operational children are not thinking of hellfire metaphorically or as an abstraction. They are thinking of the fire concretely, as fire. Literally. I doubt, once into the Formal Operations stage, many people see hell as being literally a place of fire. True, they don't imagine it as a day at the beach, but they don't concretely imagine that they will be able to smell their own flesh burning. They know hell will be bad, but they understand hellfire to be an abstraction and that understanding grants a bit of emotional distance. I think it is this distance that is the mechanism behind Keith's postulate of a quarantining ability.

All this is a guess of mine, an application of Piaget's stages to Keith's observations. Empirical laboratory work would be needed to really nail this down.

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7 thoughts on “Hell and Cognitive Development”

  1. Nail it down? Now there's concrete thinking. Seriously, I think children understand shame better than adults and in my childhood, 'shame on you' was a common phrase amongst the adults for child-control. Nothing is more hell-like than shame. The sensitive child gets it emotionally and knows the fire directly.

  2. For a long time, my hunch has been that most Christians these days don't really believe in hell. They may have an understanding of the doctrine on a broad level, and they may even "accept" it in the abstract as an orthodox teaching. However, they neither act like it, nor talk about it sufficiently, given its rather grave, even alarming nature.

    One of my great frustrations is in a seeming collective unwillingness of progressive evangelicals and mainliners to even talk about it.

  3. Thanks for taking this up, Richard. It would be great if good empirical studies were done of this.

    While a movement toward more abstract thought might explain some of the reduction in hell-terror as children get older, I suspect that there will be need for more than that explanation. Some are very explicitly taught that the fire is indeed literal, and so, though they may have the ability to think of it in a more symbolic way, explicitly accept it as literal. And others (and this would include me at 12), while they may not be thinking in terms of literal fire, are taught that hell involves intense physical suffering. One formula: "Think of the worst physical suffering you can imagine. It's much worse than that. And it lasts forever."

    I think I had a scarier view of hell at 12 than I did at 7. At 7, I didn't have as much appreciation for just how bad physical suffering can get. By 12, I had heard of some of the horrific tortures humans have come up with to induce suffering in one another, and, because of that, and also just due to better powers of imagination, I think I had a much better appreciation for just how bad things could get. But, strangely, though my picture of hell was scarier at 12, I was far less scared by by it.

  4. This is more a question for Keith than a comment, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts, Richard...

    Maybe the lesser fear at age 12 could be connected to the suppression of any doubt, i.e., by age 12, you had been sufficiently convinced (whether psychologically or otherwise) that you weren't going to hell, only other people were going there (people who hadn't "accepted Christ as their savior"), so it became less of a fear for you? Even if you really believe in hell, if the threat only applies to other people, you don't worry about it...

    Could a similar image be the way many Christians, because they have kept themselves sexually "pure," have no fear of AIDS - which makes it easier for them to pass judgement on those who do have the disease?

    Of course, if the metaphor holds, this might mean that people who have no fear of hell are ignorant of what hell really is...

    I dunno, just wondering out loud... er... online.

  5. No, I think I was more in doubt of my own salvation at 12 than at 7.

    It's strange, but it's being a more horrible possibility in my mind, and one that was more likely to befall me personally, made me worry about it less: Perhaps at a certain point it just becomes too much & you shut it out in various ways.

  6. Right in the middle of the Concrete Operational stage I got thoroughly scared into salvation by the doctrine of a literal Hell.

    The above-mentioned reticence of the church to continue scaring the Hell out of people is no doubt attributable to the difficulty of reconciling a loving deity with the traditional view that God will fry the bulk of humanity.

  7. My initial reaction to this memory of the use of fear as a motivator for salvation is that such is not commensurate with the goodness of God noted from the beginning (Gen 1:4, etc). Maybe this state of 'saved' among so many is really a state of delusion. How does one 'know' one is saved, when one doesn't know anything about Hell as if what is traditionally preached is the truth - or even measurable against the canon of Scripture.

    I think the whole of post-Christendom needs a lesson on what is known about Hell. The Psalms are a better place to begin (e.g. 7) than the Gospels. God knows the distortion of power and convenience that moves us poor souls. The Good News of Christ is better than fear as much as deliverance is better than delusion.

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