Ep. 125 || How Do We Talk About Death with Our Kids?: An Interview with Tim Challies Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Emily: Hey guys, Emily here. On today’s episode of Risen Motherhood, we’ll be talking to Tim Challies about the topic of death. This is a really weighty topic, but it’s one we want to be able to address in a biblical way. In this show, Tim gives a theology of death. He provides tips and talking points for talking about death with our children. He even walks us through how to address the death of pets with young kids. As a Christian, husband, and father of three teenage children, Tim has some really rich and simple wisdom for parents. Laura and I were really encouraged, and we know you will be too. Tim Challies worships and serves as pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, where he primarily gives attention to mentoring and discipleship. He’s a book reviewer for World Magazine, the co-founder of Cruciform Press, and he’s written several books including one we think will be of particular interest to our listeners: Devoted: Great Men and Their Godly Moms. He has a podcast called The Art of Godliness, and he writes daily at Challies.com. Now let’s get to the interview with myself, Laura, and Tim.

Laura: Hi, Tim! Thanks for being on Risen Motherhood today!

Tim: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me!

Laura: Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself? We’ve talked about you in the intro, including your main sites and a great book you have, but we want to hear you talk about those things for yourself. So let us know about your family and what you’re up to during a normal day.

Tim: Sure, you just want me to talk about myself, eh? [Laughter] I’m a writer who lives right outside of Toronto, Canada. I’ve been writing for 16-17 years as a part-time and then a full-time gig. I’m married to Aileen, and we’ve been married for almost 21 years. We have three kids; one who’s 19, one who’s 16, and one who’s just about 13.

Emily: Awesome. I think you’re a little bit further ahead than we are.

Laura: That’s good. That’s why we want you on the show. [Laughter]

Tim: It goes by really quick. [Laughter]

Emily: One thing we do at Risen Motherhood is try to go through frequently asked questions we get, especially where we see there’s a gap in gospel-centered resources available. One of those questions and topics we’ve been asked about is the concept of death. Death is something that happens to all of us, but it can still feel like this difficult concept to grasp. Would you start us off with a basic theology of death? What is it really? Why do we need to know about it?

Tim: As you said, it’s an universal experience. None of us are going to cheat it, and all of us will encounter it at some point in our lives, so it’s wise we think about it. And as parents, it’s wise we prepare ourselves so we have some answers for our kids when they inevitably encounter it. To understand death, we first need to understand creation: knowing God created us in his image, and he created us in his image spiritually. He gave us a soul. God created us from nothing, giving us life that was physical and spiritual. This kind of life was meant to last forever. Unfortunately, humanity sinned, and the consequences of sin would be that death would now enter the world. Instead of life everlasting, life would be fragile and temporary. What we see is death is really a reversal of creation. God, in creation, gathered man from the dust and breathed life into him. Now in death, we return to the dust. But our souls, of course, live on and will one day be judged on the basis of if we’re in Christ or out of Christ. That’s a lot, but really death is the separating of our physical form from our spiritual form, if only temporary.

Emily: That’s good and really helpful. I like that you brought in the concept of the soul and the physical reality. I think that’s something we don’t usually talk about immediately when we consider the concept of death. So thanks for breaking that down.

Laura: So Tim, you know most of our listeners have children under the age of eight. We’re getting a lot of questions from kiddos about death when they experience it or hear about it, but they can’t fully understand what you just shared with us. Can you help us understand how we might go about explaining the concept of death to young children? How does it change from what you just shared, and what can we expect in that conversation?

Tim: Sure. The first thing is when we do podcasts or write books, we like to ask questions in neat little categories. We can sort of put boundaries on it and make it an abstract thing. In reality, when the question of death comes up with your kids, there’s probably going to be context to it. Maybe there’s been an Easter service and they’ve heard about Jesus dying. Maybe somebody they love has died or a pseudo-stranger at church has died. Maybe they’ve seen the news or a headline. Usually there’s some context, so that’s going to change things; you’re going to speak out of that context to your kids. I think it’s important to establish that death is different for Christians and non-Christians. As we explain death to our kids, we want them to know it’s a different reality for believers. We want to explain the basics. The Bible compares it to sleep for Christians. We can tell our kids the person went to be with Jesus or something like that. But I think it’s important to always—at some point—to turn it back to our kids: are you ready? You don’t want to scare them or terrify them beyond their age, but the important part of death for our children is to consider their own mortality, in an age-appropriate way. Are they trusting Christ? We want to somehow advance the conversation to that point. It’s not death in the abstract; death is a human reality that is much more joyful for the believer than the unbeliever.

Emily: Very helpful reminder to tie it to the real context. That is so true that these conversations are happening as a reaction to something that’s happened in family life or at church. Turning it back on them and asking those hard questions is really good.

Tim: It’s the same as most of our conversations in parenting. I’ve found it to be true in other things, like the birds and the bees conversation. Rarely is that going to happen in this purely abstract, neat, and tidy thing. You’re going to have some awkward context or something is going to come up, and now you have to talk about it. It seems to me, from most of these difficult conversations, it comes up before you think your kids are ready for them. Normally just by asking the question, they’re proving they’re more ready than you thought they were. That death question can come up a lot earlier than you think is appropriate or when you’re ready to talk about it. A bunch of parenting is figuring out what’s appropriate for our kids at a certain age or what they can handle. You have to be very, very truthful with them in a way that hopefully serves them at their age.

Laura: I appreciated that you mentioned it might be a little awkward. I think that’s something I have to get more comfortable with when I’m talking to my children about this. I also like what you said about being truthful by telling them what you know and what the BIble says. It won’t be wrong if you’re telling them what the BIble says. I think, as a mom of young children, I’m still getting my feet under me for explaining these more difficult theological topics. It’s a good reminder for me that if I stay with truth and with God’s word, I’m not going to lead them astray. I think that’s what we’re all kind of fearing deep down: giving them bad advice or offering untruthful encouragement.

Tim: Ultimately, as Christian, all we have is the Bible to explain life, and death, and the hereafter. So, we don’t have any authority outside of that. It’s always turning to the authority of scripture and rooting our kids in that. All these conversations are an opportunity to point our kids to the ultimate truth and ultimate source of answers. If we’re missing the Bible or missing the opportunity to point them to scripture, to open it with them, or to explain thing biblically, I think we’re missing the best opportunity of all.

Emily: Speaking of giving our children the truth even when it’s particularly hard, one challenge we’ve experienced in talking to our children about death is talking about those who aren’t believers and what happens to someone who doesn’t trust in Christ. Do you have any suggestions or verbiage for navigating these conversations with young children? Especially if the answer is not hopeful, or is sad and discouraging?

Tim: The Bible deals pretty frankly with those who don’t know Christ, so we have a lot of information to go on. I don’t think we need to pretend the experience for unbelievers is the same for believers. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s appropriate with very young children to necessarily explain the full reality of eternal conscious torment. Again, I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to address them. The ultimate answer is we don’t know if somebody makes a deathbed conversion or turn to Christ in that last moment. I think we’ll be surprised at the end by those who are in heaven and those who aren’t. I think we can turn to that big question: are you trusting Christ? If that person trusted Christ, then he’s with Jesus. I don’t think that’s evading the question—it might seem that way—but we turn to truth and challenge our kids to address the state of their own souls and hope.

Laura: That’s a great point. With offering the gospel hope, how can we encourage our children when they do experience death for the first time? A lot of times, it can feel pretty devastating for a child. They’re not able to process it and understand it the same way. How can we support them? Not just the one conversation but as they process their grief?

Tim: I think we’re always pointing them beyond themselves. Our kids are not self-sufficient; they don’t have the knowledge, wisdom, or understanding they need. We’re always pointing them to Christ. If they do have hope, it’s not hope in themselves or hope in their faith; it’s hope in Jesus Christ. As we look at somebody who’s died, whether that person is a believer or not, our ultimate hope is not in that person or what they professed. Our ultimate hope is in the goodness, kindness, and mercy of God, of Christ. I think, again, push them towards that. Don’t take comfort in a profession of faith or in that other person’s profession of faith. Take comfort in the goodness of our God. Point them to Jesus Christ, not the person that died.

Emily: How comforting it is for us to know he experienced grief and understands our humanness in that way. I like that they can see a friend in Jesus, someone who understands what they’re experiencing.

Laura: Okay, so this is kind of a hotly debated topic, but we want you to answer it. [Laughter] It’s one of those things people have a lot of opinions on. We want to talk about pets. For many children, sometimes their very first experience with a more sorrowful death is with their pet. We’re curious if you’re willing to share your stance, and will you offer advice on how we can help our children process through this type of loss?

Tim: I think you’re right. It’s a very serious question for children. It can be a little bit flippant or silly for us to think about it, but for kids, it’s very present and pressing. So, it’s worth talking about. For all that, generally, where the Bible is silent, I’m not sure there’s a lot of value in speculating. You can’t go to the BIble and say for sure whether or not pets will be in heaven. What we’re pointing to is what the Bible makes clear, which is human beings have souls. And it’s because human beings have souls that they themselves have to be concerned about heaven or hell. We believe pets don’t have souls, at least no in the same way human beings do. Whether that means they go to heaven or not—I’m not sure anyone advocated they go to hell either. If you really believe animals can go to heaven, surely you have to believe evil animals go to hell—I don’t know. I think one of the reasons kids want to think about that is they want to be assured heaven will be a happy place for them. They can’t imagine being happy in eternity without their pet. Perhaps address that—heaven will be a place of no sorrows with no lack—by pointing to the goodness and mercy of God. My view is, honestly, I don’t know. I’m not willing to take a stance on whether pets are there or not. I suspect probably not if I had to lean one way. Animals will be there, but I don’t know if specific animals will be. Either way, I don’t know if it’s that pressing of an issue, because we will be lacking nothing and fully content. We won’t look back with regret that that pet isn’t there. Another thing to point out is this is a 21st century, Western question. As you travel around the world or through history, you’ll find people had very different relationships with animals on the whole. So we concern ourselves with things that probably aren’t relevant or that pressing over the course of church history and around the expanse of the world.

Laura: That’s a great point.

Emily: What you mentioned is transitioning to that deeper question for kids: they want to be assured it’s going to be happy in heaven and the things they love and tangibly enjoy will be there with Jesus forever. In the tiny bit we’ve dabbled in this, I think helping our children see Mommy and Daddy will be there, and different people we know in our lives will be there, helps them make a connection they understand. And it helps them to learn the most important person who will be there is Jesus. The fact that he’ll be there is enough, and the fact he says all the tears will be gone and the sorrow will be made right is enough. I think that’s helped give our kids a relationship they know and love very well—that Mommy will be there with Jesus and she hopes you will be too. That’s a great way to transition that conversation; thanks for sharing.

Tim: A couple of other things come to mind. One is I think with our kids, we don’t want them to become Bible speculators instead of standing on what it says. We have to allow that we don’t know certain things. Where the BIble is silent and doesn’t give us firm answers, it’s probably best for us not to give firm answers. As we refuse to take a firm stance, hopefully we’re helping our kids live in that appropriate tension; the Bible doesn’t address absolutely everything, even those things that are important to us. I think it’s okay to leave that tension there. The other thing is I want to be careful not to narrow the distance between human beings and animals, which is happening in our culture. When you live an evolutionary mindest, we’re all the same species in a sense; we’re all the same origin. The Bible says humanity is very, very different than from animals or any other form of life—even angelic beings, for whom there isn’t salvation in the way it’s available to us. I want to be careful that we’re not saying animals are a lot like us; they’re very, very different from us. That doesn’t mean they can’t be in heaven, because the Bible doesn’t leave that out. But I want our kids to understand animals are not people or almost-people. They’re entirely different from people.

Laura: That’s good. So we touched on this a little bit, but one big piece is a child wants to know God is still good when they’re going through something hard or dealing with loss. How can we support our child that God is still worthy of our trust even in the midst of hard things?

Tim: I guess the answer for kids is basically the same answer for adults: point them to the cross where we see the most evil thing humanity has ever been able to do or experience brought the greatest good that humanity has ever experienced. If the cross can be deemed something good—and it is something good for us as the path for redemption—then God can make good of anything that happens in this world. We see the goodness of God displayed even through grief, pain, wrath on the cross. Therefore, we can say anything that happens in this life can bring good to us and can display the goodness of God. We’re trying to point back to the character of God. And we can also point out that death is our fault, not God’s. We die, because we’re the ones who sinned, but we can live again in eternal life if we trust in Jesus Christ. I think these little conversations we have with little children bear long-term fruit. It’s unlikely you’ll sit down with your child and have a long conversation on a theology of death. Most of the time, you’ll be offering statements here and there as you encounter situations in life. We trust we’re going to have the opportunity over many years to address this, not just one time that requires you laying out a complete systematic theology of life and death.

Emily: I think that’s good comfort to any mom who’s listening. Sometimes, we can feel like if our child asks that question, we need to be ready and armed with the truth for a short sermon of all the things we’ve stored up to tell them. It feels like everything hangs on that one moment. But parenting is a long-game, and there are many conversations. That’s good encouragement that we trust the Lord in being able to deliver information a little bit at a time, and that he’ll use that in their hearts to shape them to know him and to know truth over the course of their lives.

Tim: Absolutely. We have a long time with our kids; I know it seems really short, but so often, it’s just building little things over time—here and there—until it all adds up to something. One other thing that strikes me is—assuming someone listening is in a similar culture or background—we don’t experience death the way people used to. When infant mortality was 50%, as was the case in many places for many times, people had to deal with this, and kids became more accustomed to death. It’s because of our medical care and low infant mortality—all these great blessings we enjoy—that this conversation seems so abstract. For so many of our brothers and sisters who’ve gone on before, this was just a conversation all the time as little brothers and sisters died in infancy. It’s an almost luxury we have because of the amazing world we live in right now.

Laura: As we wrap up here, we typically like to end by seeing if our guests have anything they want to share with an audience of moms with young children. We’d love to open the floor to you for any encouragements, exhortations, or anything you’d like to tell a bunch of moms.

Tim: Maybe just this: parenting isn’t as hard as we make it out to be sometimes. I think God really equips up to do well with it. If we’re in God’s word and doing the basics of the Christian life—being in the word, praying, fellowshipping—I think we have most of what we need to do really, really well in life and parenting. We’re in what I’d say is the era of the expert, where we believe we need an expert for everything or a book about gospel-centered everything. We’ve sort of lost confidence that we can do all right in life by living a simple life close to the Lord. I want to encourage you that you don’t need an expert for every area of life—just be prayerful and thoughtful. Tell your kids you don’t know but you’re going to think about it and get back to them. Be willing to have a long period with your kids where you’re teaching them and sharing with them. The Lord’s going to work through you. So avoid that thought that you need to read three or four books before you can speak to your kids about death or that sort of thing. Just be a parent to them; the Lord’s giving you what you need. You can be an effective mom, and the Lord will bless that.

Emily: Thank you so much for ending us on that word! I think in our generation, there are so many resources available—many of which are good and helpful. But we all need that reminder God has given us his word to equip us for good work, and godliness, and for living a life as a disciple of Christ who disciples children. Thank you for that reminder of the importance of those disciplines God gave us. Thanks also for being on our show!

Tim: I know you’re trying to wrap up here, but I want to throw out one more thing. I want to append something to what I just said: when you do have a question, instead of going on Google, how about asking one of the ladies in your church, especially one of the older ladies? That’s a practice that was once so important, especially in smaller communities in an era before social media or Google. There were natural opportunities for older and younger women to interact, and that’s where you’d have these conversations and learn from people. I think there are a lot of older women who are dying to be asked those questions and have really good things to say, but they’re just not being asked because we go on websites. God has given you the local church as an incredible resource to work these things out. Aileen and I have found a lot of value in couples who are raising kids in a way we think, “We want our kids to be like that.” I’ll go up to them and say, “I want my kids to be like your kids. What can I do?” I think that’s a perfectly legitimate question, and you’ll learn a lot from them that you may not learn from the websites and experts. Take advantage of what God’s given you in your church.

Laura: That’s a great word and something we really encourage here at Risen Motherhood. I hope any listener of our show has heard that one million times. [Laughter] I’m glad you reinforced it. We appreciate you coming on our show, Tim. This has been a joy to interview you and have you speak to our women. We want to point everyone to a lot of your resources, so everyone, please head to risenmotherhood.com for our show notes. There you’re going to find more information on this topic and Tim. Of course, @risenmotherhood on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can follow us there this week for more info too! Thanks again, Tim! We really appreciate it.

Tim: My pleasure.