This weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at the ReTHINK Student Apologetics Conference (there are more of these conferences coming—be sure to check out the link and learn about them!). I always enjoy talking to parents after speaking and this weekend was no exception. One thing I realized this time was that at every event where I’ve spoken in the last couple of years, there have been parents who share with me afterward that their child has recently said they no longer believe in God. Sometimes the kids are very young, other times they’re well into their adult years. But the question parents bring to me is always the same: “What should I say to them?”
After having a couple of long conversations with parents about this over the weekend, I wanted to write this post for others who may be struggling with the same thing. While this is, of course, a complex topic, these are 10 of the most important things I think you can say to a child of any age when they say they don’t believe in God anymore. For what it’s worth, this isn’t some kind of theoretical exercise for me. One of my own young kids periodically struggles with this because God can’t be physically seen. We have several of these conversations regularly.
1. “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
There’s no doubt it sends panic into a Christian parent’s heart to hear the words, “I don’t believe in God anymore” or “I’m not sure if I believe in God anymore.” But how we respond to our child at a time of spiritual crisis (whether they consider it a crisis or not) is critical. If our reaction is fearful, angry, panicked or condemning, we quickly let our kids know that expressing their doubts is not OK. As parents, we need to be the safest place in our children’s lives to have conversations about God or they’ll find another place to go—likely a place where you wouldn’t want to find them.
Simply saying, “Thank you for sharing this with me” lets them know you are happy they came to you, that you want to talk with them about their feelings, and that expressing doubt in your home is welcome. To be clear, that doesn’t imply you’re happy about the doubt itself, but that you’re happy to be a safe place for these conversations.
2. “How have you come to that conclusion?”
Because we love our kids so much and want to quickly bring them back to truth, there’s a temptation to immediately start offering a response with reasons to believe in God. But imagine for a moment that you go to the doctor when you don’t feel well and the doctor starts prescribing medicine for a wide range of illnesses without first asking you questions or running tests. That, of course, would be crazy. In the same way, if we don’t know the source of our kids’ doubts and how they’ve come to their conclusions about God, we can’t have meaningful conversations to specifically address their concerns. Use this question to get the conversation going and ask as many follow up questions as needed to be confident that you truly understand what has led them to doubt God’s existence.
3. “How long have you felt this way?”
This is a helpful diagnostic question because it lets you know the depth of the doubt. In some cases, doubt comes as a knee jerk reaction to a specific event—for example, experiencing an unanswered prayer. When there is a single, proximate source of doubt, it can be easier to untangle because you can address that concern directly. However, if it turns out your child has been doubting for years and you simply didn’t know until the day he or she verbalized it, there’s much more history you’ll need to dig into.
4. “If I could give you good evidence to show that God exists, would you want to be convinced He exists?”
This is another helpful diagnostic question because it gives you a window into the heart of your child. Sometimes doubt comes from not wanting to believe—and the reasons for not wanting to believe in God can be many. If a child says they wouldn’t want God to exist, it’s likely a sign that either 1) they have a misunderstanding of who God is (and wouldn’t want that God to exist), or 2) are engaged in behaviors they know aren’t godly and would rather live according to their own will. If a child admits that they wouldn’t want God to exist, the most important conversation you can have is getting to the bottom of why that’s the case. Only then will you know where to take the discussion next.
For those who do want God to exist but are doubting, go on to the next pieces of conversation.
5. “Having doubt is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.”
One of the most difficult aspects of having doubt about our faith is feeling that we’re somehow abnormal—that if we experience doubt, we’re not a “real” Christian. But doubt is actually a normal part of faith. When we don’t have certainty about something, there is always room for doubt. For example, we can be confident that an airplane will safely deliver us to our destination, but we can’t be certain of that, so some doubt should necessarily exist. Even John the Baptist experienced doubt about Jesus being the Messiah when circumstances got tough and he was in prison (see Luke 7:18-30).
Sharing with your child that doubt is normal can put them at ease for further conversation. Rather than feeling something is wrong with them (or wrong with God!) because they’re doubting, they can feel hopeful that the doubt can be resolved.
6. “Fortunately, God hasn’t left us to just guess whether or not He’s there. He’s given us plenty of evidence.”
If you haven’t had some deeper conversations of faith with your kids, there’s a good chance they’ve never heard the idea that there could actually be evidence for His existence. In the minds of many kids (and adults), believing in God is simply a blind choice—not something that is rooted in tangible evidence. Kids have to know this is not the case. Emphasize that they may not yet know the evidence, but that it exists and you want to lead them through it. This simultaneously takes the pressure off of them to make a decision about God they may have thought was rooted only in their own feelings and sets you up to suggest the following point.
7. “Let’s study the evidence for God’s existence together.”
If you read the last point and thought, “That’s great, but I have no idea what to say…” have no fear. You don’t have to be a professional apologist (someone who knows how to make a case for and defend the truth of Christianity) to have this conversation. More than a lecture, kids need you to come alongside them.
There is an incredible new resource out this month to help you and your kids learn together. J. Warner Wallace and his wife Susie have released God’s Crime Scene for Kids, which is a book targeted at kids ages 8-12 and follows the topics of the adult book God’s Crime Scene. In the kids’ version, the Wallaces use a mystery around a box found in a grandmother’s attic to demonstrate how we can look at the evidence in the universe to draw conclusions about the existence of God. It’s engaging, clear, and unlike anything else available for this age group. There’s even a website with free videos and worksheets.
For what it’s worth, I had the opportunity to endorse it, which I enthusiastically did. Here’s what I said: “God’s Crime Scene is my go-to recommendation for anyone who wants to learn about the evidence for God’s existence. I was thrilled to hear that a kid’s version was coming out, but honestly wondered how Det. Wallace was going to translate some of the more challenging scientific and philosophical concepts into material for 8- to 12-year-olds. Now that I’ve read it, I’m blown away. This is brilliant! There’s nothing else like it, and I’ll be recommending it for years to come.”
If your kids are younger, the kids’ version would still be helpful for you to read and get ideas for how to talk about the evidence at your kids’ level. If your kids are older, they may already be ready to work through the adult version with you. If your kids are out of the house, they may not be willing to study anything together, but you can study and discuss with them as the opportunity arises.
8. “If God didn’t exist, this is what reality would look like.”
In my experience with skeptics who have come to my blog over the years, many have dumped the idea of God without considering the necessary worldview implications of a world without Him—many of which run very contrary to our most basic intuitions. This led me to devote the final six chapters in Talking with Your Kids about God to helping parents show their kids “The Difference God Makes.” For example:
- What is the meaning of life? (There is no objective meaning in a world without God.)
- Do we really have free will? (There is little reason to believe we actually have free will in a world without God.)
- What should we do with our lives? (There can be no should—no moral obligations—in a world without God.)
- What is our responsibility to other people? (There are no objective responsibilities to others in a world without God.)
- How should we make sense of evil? (There can be no objective right or wrong in a world without God—moral evil cannot exist.)
- Why does biblical hope matter? (There is no ultimate hope in a world without God.)
When we show our kids the necessary implications of an atheistic world, it can help them see how the evidence for God is the best explanation for all the evidence we have.
9. “What questions do you have about God?”
This is a question that should run alongside all the other points, and on an ongoing basis—whether your kids have doubts right now or not! The best way to avoid a spiritual crisis later is by facilitating conversations around kids’ questions regularly. For ideas on how to do incorporate an ongoing “questions night” in your family’s life, see my post How to Get Your Kids to Ask More Questions about Their Faith. As you work through the prior points with kids who are already doubting, more questions will surely arise. Make it a way of life to continually give them a forum for addressing whatever faith questions are on their mind.
10. I love you and God loves you.
Ultimately, regardless of how all the prior conversations go, kids need to know we love them and that God loves them through their questions. In reality, some kids will struggle for years. But knowing that their doubts will never separate them from our love builds a relationship that will foster these important conversations for a lifetime.