Father John Furniss, a nineteenth-century Catholic evangelist, became renowned as the “Apostle to the Children.” Father Furniss (and yes, that was his real name) was infamous for his lurid descriptions of children in hell. Consider this excerpt from his 1861 bestselling collection of nightmarish bedtime reading, The Sight of Hell:
“See on the middle of that red-hot floor stands a girl : she looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare. Listen ; she speaks. ‘I have been standing on this red hot floor for years! Look at my burnt and bleeding feet! Let me go off this burning floor for one moment!’ The fifth dungeon is the red-hot oven. The little child is in the red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out ; see how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor.” (Cited in Edward White, Life in Christ: A Study of the scripture doctrine, 3rd ed. (London: Elliot Stock, 1878), 60.)
And you thought Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was a wee bit intense for the kiddies! Yet, as horrible as this is, these images of children writhing for eternity in flames and being baked in an oven are just the beginning. On page after gory, blood-spattered, smoking page, Furniss continues the assault on the senses, presumably driven (so one must charitably assume) by the evangelistic intention of scaring the hell out of as many precocious little pipsqueaks as possible.
Many Christians today will look back with utter dismay, if not disgust, at the so-called “ministry” of Father Furniss, believing that he accomplished little more than traumatizing a generation. That’s a pretty harsh charge. But the evidence surely warrants it, no?
So let’s consider for a moment: if Father Furniss were around today, how do you suppose he might reply to the charge? I bet he would say something like this:
“Emotional abuse? You accuse me of emotional abuse? Oh dear me, how dare I have the temerity to preach the whole counsel of God! Excuse me, benighted and softhearted denizen of the 21st century, but ‘Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’ Perhaps you missed that bit of scripture? Do you milquetoasts bother to read the Bible at all?
“How cavalier you people are with your child’s eternity. And how hypocritical! If a child is in danger of playing near a scorpion’s den, you can jolly well bet that a loving parent will put the fear of scorpions into that child to ensure that she stays away. Well let me tell you, your children play every day on the yawning edge of the smoking pit of eternal damnation, and you say nothing. And you reprimand me for warning your very children of the scorpions at their ankles?
“Rather than wag your finger at me you should be warning those future burning coals that the devils are waiting to drag them into the furnace! ‘Flee hell child! Run to Jesus!’ Instead, you prefer a conspiracy of silence as you teach your children about ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild.’ But make no mistake: that same Jesus that you fancy a Father Christmas will soon judge the universe. You residents of the twenty-first century pride yourselves on being so enlightened and humane. How ironic that is, for your ‘humane’ silence is the cruelest lie of all.”
Whew! Father Furniss, why don’t you tell us what you really think!
The truth is that whatever you think of Furniss’ preaching, there is an undeniable logic to it. If a fate as horrible as hell potentially awaits every human being, then why are we Christians not more diligent about warning our children of the danger? During the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 my wife and I were desperate to drill the most rigorous hygienic procedures into our daughter (WASH your hands! USE sanitizer! DON’T LICK any doorknobs!), and all because we wanted to spare her a bad case of the flu. How much more vigilant should people be in ensuring that young children avoid eternal damnation? Needless to say, if the Christian doctrine of hell is correct then hell is infinitely worse than any case of the flu. So why does our discipleship of our children not reflect that conviction more clearly? Set against the prospect of children being damned forever, Father Furniss’s revivalist preaching may not be that shocking after all.