3 Things to Teach Children about the Cross

3 Things to Teach Children about the Cross October 18, 2016

What is God like? 

Jesus showed us!

In every Gospel story,

Jesus showed us what God is like,

Because Jesus is “God with us.”

What did Jesus show us about God?

That God is perfect love! That God loves us!

This is the intro to our new children’s book, Jesus Showed UsThe book is a series of sixteen gospel pictures (inspired by the child-friendly Coptic iconography of the persecuted church in Egypt). In each case, the artwork portrays Christ demonstrating the truth that God is love.

We created this book for children because so many children grow up afraid of God and alienated from God, some because of abuse, others because of the brand of gospel well-meaning Christian parents and teachers shared with them. Otherwise healthy and well-loved children often suffer spiritual and emotional damage due to the distorted images of God presented in their early religious education.

This is especially true in what we tell children about the meaning of the Cross.

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GOSPEL MISSTEPS

Two frequent missteps come to mind:

“Jesus died for you” or “Jesus died for your sins.”

Without a doubt, the Bible does teach this (e.g. Rom. 5:8, 2 Cor. 5:15, 1 Pet. 3:18). Indeed, God loved the world the nth degree and showed it when God-in-Christ laid down his life for all humankind, bearing away sin and overcoming sin’s fatal consequences. Understanding what this means and how it works involves a great mystery. Sharing it requires sensitivity and subtlety, lest Jesus be confused as a third party whipping boy for the wrath of an angry god. And the child hears, “Jesus died because of you!” 

What is a four or five-year-old to infer? “Jesus died for you?” Because of me?! The more thoughtless evangelist jumps on this and says, “YES! Your sins did that to him. When you are a bad boy or bad girl, your disobedience makes Jesus suffer! YOU did that to him!”

This is not straw-manning—I have heard these words. But they don’t need to be spoken, because children infer them. All the time! Imagine what this does to the sensitive psyche of a child who puts two and two together and arrives at personal responsibility for the gruesome torture of someone they love. It makes for good behavior modification; and generates adult atheists on the installment plan.

“God was punishing Jesus” [for your sins]

So claims the crassest (and dominant western) version of atonement preaching. While even the wisest of the penal theorists have learned to nuance their theology, the popular revivalist pulpits and podcasts continue to push God’s need for wrath-appeasement. Some divine necessity for retribution is invoked and God not only “turns his back” on the Son, but is left swinging the ringing hammer, thrusting the dripping spear and holding the smoking gun.

Never mind the inherent heresy (speaking technically, not pejoratively) involved in rending the Trinity, subordinating the Son or casting God as the perpetrator of filicide … issues supposedly settled in the fourth century. They ought to be non sequiturs for Christian adults. Apparently these errors were too useful to abandon altogether.

But again, what does a child hear? It’s not hard to imagine the harm this gospel does to the hearts of children who are told God loves them and God did that to Jesus for them and because of them! Meditate on that. I did. As a six-year-old. During communion. Worse: I was not horrified. I accepted what I was told with gratitude, because that’s what a good boy does. A boy who must accept violent God or burn in hell forever.

How did I not become psychotic? How was it that I could even love this God?

THE CROSS FOR CHILDREN

How then should we talk about the meaning of the Cross and Jesus’ death with children?

The New Testament testimony is consistent: on the Cross, Jesus Showed Us the infinite love of God for all people (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; 1 John 3:16; 4:9-10).

What is God like?

Jesus showed us!

Jesus showed us what God is like in many ways, didn’t he?

Jesus showed us God’s love most of all on the Cross.

Where is God and what was God doing on Good Friday?

God was in Jesus on the Cross, showing us God’s love.

Where was God in this picture? Turning away from Christ? (NO. Psalm 22:22-24). Yahweh says through the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 12:10), “They will look at ME, the One they have pierced.” The apostle Paul insists, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

Where was God when the skies became dark and the earth tremored in grief? There. On the Cross.

WHAT THE CROSS SAYS ABOUT GOD’S LOVE

I summarize three key revelations of cruciform love. The Cross shows us that God is self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love (see A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel for the adult version).

1. God is self-giving love

Jesus showed us!

On the Cross, God gave the very best gift to the whole world!

What gift did God give us?

Yes, God gave us Jesus—God’s firstborn Son.

Jesus was God’s great love-gift for all of us!

What was God doing on the Cross? Giving God’s best to the world. Giving God’s Son to the world. Giving Godself to the world. As NT Wright points out, take note of the verbs in John 3:16. It does not say, “God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” The words are, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” as a love-gift to everyone.

2. God is radically forgiving love

On the Cross, Jesus forgave everyone in the whole world.

God even forgave the people who killed Jesus!

Jesus shows us that God can forgive anybody and anything!

Note how we’re careful to avoid accusing the children of Jesus’ murder while including them as beneficiaries of his forgiveness. The gospel narrative as preached in Acts does exactly this. On the one hand, in texts like Acts 2:23; 5:30; 7:52, we read that “wicked men”… “betrayed and murdered” Jesus Christ, not the little children who love Jesus but sometimes disobey mommy and daddy.

On the other hand, through Jesus’s intercession, God forgave the evil acts of the conspirators. On the Cross, he forgives the Temple leaders, the Roman soldiers, both thieves and even Judas! If God forgave them, he can forgive anyone. And here they can infer that they too are washed in God’s infinite spring of forgiveness.

3. God is co-suffering love

On the Cross, Jesus suffered with everyone who suffers.

God became a human so that God could feel what we feel.

On the Cross, Jesus shows us God understands.

Co-suffering is a literal rendering of “compassion” that emphasizes empathy through shared experience. This is the class claim of Heb. 2:14-18 and 4:15. God-in-Christ came to know suffering and sorrow, just as we do. Children need to know that God understands and that God cares.

To summarize, the text ends with the truth that God’s love “never fails,” that “God’s mercy endures forever,” and that “God’s lovingkindness is everlasting.”

Jesus showed us God’s love, even when he was dying.

Jesus never stopped loving.

Jesus showed us!

WHY DID JESUS NEED TO DIE?

Children get this. On the Cross, Jesus showed them God is love. Self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love. But adults—so attuned to retribution—continually ask, “Then why did Jesus need to die?”

Because the Cross gave Christ access to death. God-in-Christ entered and overcame the grave (cf. the Apostle’s Creed), to “break the power of him who holds the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).

We’ll give one three-year-old reader who saw this the last word.

He exclaimed with joy, “Jesus is the winner!”

Truly!


Bradley Jersak (PhD Theology) teaches New Testament and Patristics at Westminster Theological Centre (UK) and serves as editor in chief of CWR magazine (where Cindy is a regular columnist). He is the author of two children’s books, Children, Can You Hear Me? and Jesus Showed Us!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This is wonderful! I’ve just ordered a copy thanks to this introduction. Keep up the great work!

  • jekylldoc

    Okay, this is too tempting to pass up. The idea would be to tell a surface version, in which kids can find meaning, but which will hold up on further, closer inspection. I am sort of okay with the three points given here, as a version that will work:
    1) God is self-giving love. The point being that God puts us ahead of “feeling good,” so is willing to do what is called for to bring new life to us.
    2) God is radically forgiving.
    3) God suffers when we suffer.
    The problem for me came with the path back to a rich, fully developed atonement theology. “To overcome fear of death” is the suggested answer to “why did Jesus have to die?”. That works, but it does not say in what sense that is true – suicide would do the same.

    I think there is no substitute for pointing out that 1) there was a contest for power between Empire and ordinary people (Jews in particular), which put the fear of death in its real context; and 2) the old idea of the military Messiah neglected to “redeem” (e.g. ransom) people on the inside. At some age (Confirmation class works for me) children need to hear that Jesus was redefining Messiah – was a new kind of king who would rule in our hearts, not over our compliance. And that is also who God is.

    My other comment would be that we have decoupled crucifixion from Resurrection by telling a story of penal substitution as atonement. The triumph of God is in our hearts. Resurrection is the outward manifestation of that triumph. But Resurrection is a manifestation of triumph because of the crucifixion.

    Humanity had done its worst. God’s response is Resurrection (not necessarily in a supernatural sense) as much as it is forgiveness. Both are integral parts of our redemption. All pretty heavy for six-year-olds, but a coherent version of the whole story must be present when we try to make our way back from simple points, like God showing love, to how it all works when you can see the moving parts.

  • Don Lowery

    Even in my 50’s…I am sick and tired of hearing about how Jesus was killed because of what I’ve been doing all my life because the message I get from EVERYONE is I have never worthy of anyone loving me and everyone I loved has turned their back on and left me. If my logical mind can accept that Jesus died for me…but those I see who are supposed to love me show the exact opposite all my life…what are we doing to the children in wanting to show them that God is Love?