Whenever I read news articles about someone who abused a child, I see commenters cite Mark 9:42 (ESV): “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
As much as I think anyone who abuses a child deserves to pay as high a price as any other heinous crime—including murder—I also think this verse isn’t the most appropriate one to use.
The more I study scripture, the more I learn the importance of not reading something into a passage that isn’t there, or take something away to alter it’s meaning. In this case, I keep focusing on “who believe in me…” In short, Jesus is making a specific charge against a specific action. The verse is not about physical or psychological child abuse per se but about misleading children away from him—causing them to sin.
Why such a harsh punishment for those who do?
All one has to do is listen to many people who’ve left the church and have become downright hostile toward both religion and God himself. They give example after example of how, as children, they were physically or psychologically abused—and all in the name of God (see entry “The Advantage of Growing Up Godless”).
When we claim to be Christians, followers of Jesus, we have a deadly (literally) serious responsibility to present him as he is and not poison anyone against him. Children especially, because they are so impressionable. Any damage we might do can last a lifetime. The friend I talked about in the linked entry above still struggles to this day, and she’s well in her 30s.
Those who turned her against God may be judged far more harshly than one who physically abused a child outside a religious context.
God’s ultimate interest is in our eternity, the strength and health of our soul over our body and mind (I don’t suggest our body and mind aren’t important, only that the soul is at the top of the list). When we cause a child to sin, we force their own journey toward him far more difficult and treacherous than it ever needed to be.
We cause a spiritual wound that can take a lifetime to heal. If ever.
So yeah, anyone who causes potential eternal damage to a young, trusting, and impressionable soul may prefer a millstone to be wrapped around his/her neck and thrown into the sea over facing the unquenchable fire of hell.