Ask Richard: Christian Ex-Wife Tells Young Daughter Daddy is Going to Hell May 21, 2012

Ask Richard: Christian Ex-Wife Tells Young Daughter Daddy is Going to Hell

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard

I’m an atheist living in Oklahoma, and I’ve always tried to be open with my children, yet responsible in how we discuss religion, etc. Their mother (we are divorced) is a Christian and told my 10 year old daughter that I was going to “go to hell”, because I didn’t believe in God. My daughter came to me in tears a few days later terrified that this was true. I was very upset about the matter and stumbled in my words. I think I did convince her that I wasn’t going to any such place, and that she ended up feeling better.

But I feel I didn’t respond very well to her fear. Could you give me some advice on how to handle such situations in the future?


Dear Wyatt,

This is revolting, outrageous, and harmful. It has to stop.

Divorced parents sometimes fall into a pattern that family therapists call “triangulation.” This is where one parent will use a child to communicate something indirectly to the other parent because he or she doesn’t want to communicate directly.

Sometimes what they communicate is their hatred.

She’s warning your daughter to not be like you, but to be like her, and she’s using fear to enforce that. The implication is just under the surface that if the girl thinks like you, then she will join you in hell. If your daughter hasn’t realized that implied threat yet, she will soon. Your ex-wife is putting your daughter into a bind, where her natural love and loyalty for you must conflict with her natural love and loyalty for her mother. This will pull the girl in two directions, and can cause serious emotional harm.

Your ex-wife is also telling you that she disapproves of your atheism, but she’s using your daughter to deliver the message. The girl’s terror from the prospect of her daddy being tormented in hell assures that the message comes wrapped up in a big black ribbon of loathing. She’s using your daughter as a weapon against you, and she seems to be either unaware of the damage she is doing to her child, or she doesn’t care. I hope it’s the former.

You should do two things; communicate directly with your ex-wife to put a stop to this, and begin to build a rational dialogue with your 10-year-old daughter.

Set up a meeting with your ex-wife that will be free of interruptions or distractions, and will not be overheard by any children. You must remain calm and collected, regardless of the feelings that come up for either of you. You can describe your feelings, but you must remain in control of them. You will discredit yourself if you lose your temper. Describe to her what your daughter was going through when she came to you in tears. Tell her that this is destructive and unacceptable. She should not teach a little girl things that terrify her about the people she loves the most, her parents. If your ex-wife has thoughts or feelings about you, she should express them clearly and directly to you, and not use your daughter as a messenger. If she refuses to reconsider, then tell her that if she persists with this emotional abuse, it is grounds for a re-evaluation of the custody arrangements.

If you don’t think you can get all that communicated without either of you shouting or ending it prematurely, then write it all down in a calm, cool letter and deliver it to your ex-wife. Assume that she will keep it and perhaps show it to others, so make certain it is rational, factual, and civil.

During this whole process, document everything. Dates, times, places, and what your daughter, your ex-wife, and you have said and done. Hopefully you won’t need it, but documentation is important to have just in case this has to go before a judge. I realize that in Oklahoma, depending on the judge, an atheist father can face an uphill battle against a Christian mother, but if she continues to do such dreadful things, it’s a battle that you owe your daughter. Behave as if you’re always on camera. Your conduct must be that of an excellent parent, and a fair and reasonable ex-husband.

When you and your daughter are talking about your ex wife, take the high road. Don’t do any triangulating in return. That would only tear her in half all the more. Tell her that you know she loves her mommy and you know she loves you, and that is all okay. You will never try to make her choose between who she must love. You’re glad that she’s such a loving, caring child.

Tell her that her mother and other people believe those things about God, but you and other people don’t, and she can make up her own mind about it. She can think one way for a while, and change her mind if she wishes, and think about it some more over a long time. Whenever she has questions, she can ask you and you’ll always be honest with her. Tell her that the most important thing to remember is that you will always love her and care for her no matter what she decides.

You must live up to that. A love that is without condition is far more attractive and far more nurturing than a love that requires adherence to a set of beliefs.

Ten years old is about the age when simple rational thought processes can take a stronger hold. You can begin a rational dialogue with her. If she is still worried about you going to hell, ask her things like these, perhaps just two questions at a time: “Do you think I’m a good person? Does it make sense to terribly punish a good person? Would you punish a good person? Does it make sense that a god who’s supposed to be loving would punish a good person?” Keep these brief, and let her answers be whatever they are.

In this way, you’re introducing the idea of comparing the beliefs she has been taught to what “makes sense.” You’re giving her permission to examine beliefs in the light of sensibleness. That permission is the beginning of rational thinking.

Ten years old is also about the age when children can understand adults’ emotions when they’re shared honestly but in a gentle manner. For instance, if she tells you something that floors you as much as when she came to you in anguish about hell, you don’t have to keep up a perfectly composed façade. You can gently say that wow, you’re knocked over by it, and you’ll have to stumble around for a moment to respond to her. That honesty, that willingness to candidly share your vulnerability will tell her that “Daddy is honest with me about feelings, not just about facts. He’s real with me. I don’t need him to be perfect. I need him to be real.” I think she will increasingly turn to you to learn what’s real both in the world around us, and in the world within.

When one parent pushes a version of religion that is so ugly, so full of extortion and fear, while the other parent teaches rationality by example and gives permission to decide for herself, then the rational path will become the far more attractive of the two.

Hopefully without a legal fight your ex-wife will stop this very negative and harmful approach to teaching her religion, and she will be more direct in her communications with you. I wish more peace and harmony for all three of you.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • And I thought MY Christian ex-wife was a bitch…

  • Eric Greenwood

    I would personally have two mediators with you, friends just to make sure what is said is really said.. when it comes down to he said/she said.. The thing i have learned in this world is Cover Your Back at all times.

  • Wonderful advice. Right on.

  • I_Claudia

    I don’t know that I can agree with anything but a full throttle denial of the existence of Hell. I see where Richard is coming from in this; the father shouldn’t put the daughter in the position where she feels a decision on such beliefs in a proxy for deciding on which parents side she’s on. If this where the resurrection of Jesus, or the existence of Heaven, or some other theological detail, I could see the greater weight of prudence in these circumstance. However we are not talking about such things but about Hell, the most disgusting, unjust, horrific and abusive ideas ever to spew from religion. Making a child fear Hell as a real place where real people you love (or you) will go to suffer forever is emotional abuse, and nothing less than a firm objection and repudiation of it will do.

    So IMO, Wyatt shouldn’t say “Well some people believe that but I don’t believe that and you can believe whatever you want” but rather something more along the lines of “Don’t worry about me sweetie. Hell is just make-believe, like a haunted forest in a fairytale. Some people, including your mother, believe it’s real, but it’s not. Now, if you want to believe in this make-believe place, that’s up to you. I’ll love you the same no matter what you believe, even if you believe in purple polka-dotted dragons in pink tutus!”

    The trinity, you can go half-hearted on. The virgin birth, you can wave your hands. Even creationism, absurd as it is, can be less than absolutely refuted for the sake of peace, but no deals should ever be made when a child is being taught to fear Hell.

  • I have two things to ask.

    First: Wyatt, please follow up with Richard about what you do and the consequences.

    Second: Richard, please keep us updated about what happens with Wyatt. I truly believe there is so much that many of us who follow this blog can learn by following this process through that will help us in situations we may find ourselves in.

  • Wesley Holland

    I agree with everything Richard said.

    Another question you might ask your daughter to help inspire rational thought on the matter is: “Heaven is supposed to be the happiest place, right? How could you be happy there if you know I’m being punished in Hell?” This will help ease her mind and point out the logical inconsistency of Hell.

  • “Tell her that her mother and other people believe those things about God, but you and other people don’t, and she can make up her own mind about it.”

    Some people believe in homeopathy, some people believe in Big Foot and many well intentioned people believe in God. I tell my kids that those things either don’t work (the first case) or aren’t real (the second and third cases).

  • If Wyatt (or any of the 200+ published letter writers) gives me updates on how things go, what helps, what doesn’t, with his permission I will definitely pass it on. From the feedback I can learn to give better advice, we can all learn how to better respond in such situations, and then maybe the suffering isn’t entirely in vain. The stories are certainly not over at the end of my response, and it would be very beneficial to be able to follow their steps and stages, their setbacks and victories as they span weeks, months, and years.

    I’ve been mulling over the idea of taking the initiative of emailing some of the letter writers several months later to ask them how things are going, but I hesitate, not wanting to intrude on their privacy, or disturb whatever peace or serenity they’ve been able to establish after the awful situations and the daunting dilemmas they have described. 

    Do any of you have opinions on this idea?

  • Hang a sign. If you feel asking directly is too intrusive you can use a post every 2 weeks or month to ask for feedback publicly. 

  • Ian Reide

    umm, as regards the wife. If she is half-rationale, which to be fair some xians are, then the calm and measured approach may work, however, I have come across a sizeable number of xians who are neither calm nor measured. In which case, harsh language and a ‘laying down of the law’ is the only approach that will work. 

  • Parse

    I’ve never written, but I assume that, in addition to the public posting, you also send an email in response.  Perhaps, at the end of your private email, you could ask if it’d be okay to follow up in a month or two, to see how things are going.  Just make clear that the follow-up would only be public if they allowed it.  
    Like Matt E, I like seeing follow-ups to painful situations, especially if they’re resolved well.  I also know, though, that sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

  • This is the sort of thing that haunts my nightmares.

  • My advise is that you should tell your daughter that hell and christianity is just a bunch of BS and that her mother is full of it, then next time you see your ex kick her in the crotch for saying that kind of things to your daughter.

  • ttch

    I hope “Wyatt” has a good attorney if he intends to flat-out deny the
    existence of hell. In many states that could be considered “interfering
    with the child’s religious education” with a judge (especially a
    Red-state judge) likely to rule that the Christian parent’s position is
    in the best interest of the child. Wyatt could be forbidden from
    contesting his wife’s propaganda or he could lose custody/visitation

    I am not a lawyer.

  • I_Claudia

    I certainly would like to hear from some of the letter writers, especially the vulnerable teens that have written in sometimes very difficult situations. I remember one Muslim girl in particular, whose situation was downright dangerous, who I would dearly love to hear from, to make sure she’s OK.

    There is a risk however, especially in the case of the closeted teen. You can never be absolutely sure that their email hasn’t been compromised and isn’t being read. If you are to ask after the welfare of the closeted, I’d keep the language vague enough to prevent utter disaster in case of discovery.

    Still, I think Parse has the best idea; include a request for their permission to follow-up. I’m sure the vast majority of writers would actually be thrilled to hear from you.

  • Chupper

     She told her daughter that the daughter’s father is going to hell.  I think we assume this woman doesn’t fall into the subset of rational christians.


    “…then next time you see your ex kick her in the crotch for saying that kind of things to your daughter.”

    Yes, I’m sure the kid will feel much better when Daddy gets hauled away by police officers for felonious assault.

  • After working for a divorce attorney, I can attest that many people who are usually rational become totally irrational when involved in a divorce.  Some people simply become a big ball of vindictiveness in that situation, and do things that harm themselves and others they love, just to “get” their ex.   I don’t know if this is a syndrome, or if there is a name for it, but there ought to be.  Post-marital psychosis? 

  • This, right here, is why Christians shouldn’t get primary custody. They twist and poison the child’s mind.

  •  I’m just thankful my Christian ex-Wife and I ended our marriage before kids entered into the picture.  Bipolar and batshit insane and emotionally abusive.  My very Christian ex-mother-in-law remarked to me charitably in a moment of pure candor that she was surprised I lasted as long as I did in my marriage to her daughter. 

    When we met she (my Ex) was having a crisis of faith, and I gambled she was on the verge of ditching her religion owing to her high intelligence.  I lost that gamble pretty badly, though it could’ve been worse.  Fun while it lasted but that wasn’t long.  Glad to be out of that relationship for good.

  • I don’t think a ten-year-old is going to get a different understanding of hell from either of those.  She knows Dad doesn’t believe in hell.  Great.  But one of those options trusts her to make that decision.  If she’s inclined to believe mom, then dad’s just wrong and trying to take her to hell too.  If she’s skeptical, she’ll still know dad’s position, but she’ll know he’s not trying to tell her what to think.

    Having been at the center of a custody dispute, I would very strongly recommend giving the kid the benefit of the doubt.

  • Annie

    No, no, no.  I think this is too complex of a thought for most 10 year olds.  This would continue to cause the child to choose between mom and dad, and cause even more worry for the child.  It would be like giving a toddler a tavern puzzle and expecting them to solve it.

  • Wait, you mean there can be a “Christian ex-wife”? I thought Jesus Christ forbade divorce?

  • Good and Godless

    One does not have to be an Atheist to get the “daddy is going to hell” treatment from an ex-wife, christ-stain or not. Just part and parcel of the tear down of a family unit. 

  • SDaltro_Brazil

    Dear Richard,

    First of all I’d like to tell you that you have helped me a lot, from reading your replies to others and for that I could never thank you enough. I have great admiration for your work that is my favorite in all blogs I follow.

    My opinion on the matter is that you should not seek the people and ask for updates.


    I think that that person seeking you is very anxious facing a very delicate and stressful situation. You help. Then is up to the person to do whatever she finds best with your advice (great advice). I think that if you write implying how things are going it would add more stress and anxiety to the delicate situation, specially if the matters hasn’t been settled and if the person whishes to give you a positive response after all your effort.

    And more. How would you know when to contact them? These family problems might take long months, sometimes years to be definetely settled.

    I find you help perfect, anonymous and freeing specially because it doens’t burden the person receiving to give anything back, and she is free to decide what to do from now on.

    Rest assured, all the people you helped know where you are. Whenever they feel the urge to thank you, they most definetely will.

    As I have done just now.

    Thank you, Richard.
    Thank you, Richard.
    Thank you, Richard!

  • Thank you for your very thoughtful feedback. You make some very good  points, and I will think carefully on them. Thank you also for the encouragement. 

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