The Hard Questions
Ever been stumped by a child’s tough question? How do you even begin to explain the problem of suffering, or the doctrine of the Trinity,
to a nine year-old? Apologetics-maestro Justin Brierley gives us some pointers.
I was sitting in the vestry of my church when I received a call from a distressed church member. What could we do about her child who was insisting that he didn’t believe in God and didn’t want to come to church anymore?
This was going to be tricky. Our own children weren’t yet at the age of asking awkward questions. My wife couldn’t think of a time when she hadn’t believed. I had been through a brief patch of uncertainty during university, but had never been an atheist. And anyway, wasn’t outright scepticism a phenomenon of teenage rebellion? Children just believe... right?
So we listened to him. ‘If God’s there why doesn’t he show me? The Bible says God created the Earth in six days, but that’s not scientific is it? Why doesn’t God answer prayers?’ Good questions, worthy of an adult, just as much as nine year-old Steven. We did our best for 45 minutes and by the end he seemed to leave a little more satisfied than when he arrived. We on the other hand felt a bit deflated. There simply aren’t easy answers to these questions whatever age you are, and we felt under-prepared. So what can we do to make the case for Christianity to children asking tough questions?
My day job is presenting a radio show and podcast called Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio. Every week I’m joined by believers and non-believers to debate whether Christianity makes sense, and I love the cut and thrust of engaging with sceptics. Adult sceptics that is. I had barely considered the idea of presenting an apologetic case for Christian faith to children.
‘Apologetics’ comes from the Greek word ‘apologia’ meaning ‘to make a defense’. It’s an ancient branch of Christian theology and philosophy that goes back to the beginning of the Church. Paul was doing apologetics when he debated the Greek thinkers at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17). Peter the apostle summed it up when he wrote: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15).
Modern apologetics has a bit of an image problem; the idea that it is only for intellectuals and not for ‘ordinary’ Christians has become entrenched. This explains why ‘apologetics’ rarely, if ever, crops up in children’s ministry. But as Steven proved, children can experience doubt and come up with just as challenging questions as any adult. So we need to be ready to give an answer (as 1 Peter instructs us) - which is what apologetics is all about.
Children have questions too
The Oxford Centre For Christian Apologetics recently held a training day for young people called Reboot. Ruth Jackson of OCCA says the event grew out of a sense that, while adults were being provided for, there was no ‘meeting in the middle’ for young people who needed their questions answered.
The idea that apologetics is only for intellectuals and not ‘ordinary’ Christians is common
The London event was aimed at 12-18 year-olds, but was also attended by some children who were younger. One ten year-old travelled all the way from Devon to be there, after hearing apologist Michael Ramsden speak at a conference he had attended. Jackson says we shouldn’t underestimate the intellectual questions of many children like him. ‘He was struggling in Sunday school as he didn’t feel like he was having his questions answered. But after he heard Michael give an apologetics talk he began devouring his videos on YouTube. He then came to Reboot and had an amazing time.’
The ‘but why?’ question is a very common one among younger children. It may be annoying when asked for the 18th time, but it should be welcomed says Ruth Jackson. ‘I don’t think we ask that question enough as adults. Children are often the ones asking “but who made God?” and trying to get their head around the big questions about eternity, whereas teenagers and adults tend to focus on the nitty-gritty ethical
Chris Sinkinson teaches apologetics at Moorlands Bible College. The father of two boys, he says he is always surprised at how deeply his children think about things. ‘The questions have grown over time, from “what happened to the dinosaurs?” when it comes to creation and evolution, to “why do bad things happen?” after the death of a family relative or a pet. As our older son has grown up, the questions have become more complex, such as asking about how the Old Testament law applies today.’
Suffering and unanswered prayer are also things that children want to talk through. Michelle Tepper is an apologetics speaker, and married to an ordained minister Peter. Their four year old daughter Sophia has been asking about answers to prayer. ‘We’ve been praying for more children for a while now, and Sophia had been praying for a sibling,’ says Michelle. ‘It hasn’t happened yet so we’ve been talking through all of
the issues with her, even though she’s only just turned four. Without getting too intense, we will explain how the doctors are trying to help and that God gives them gifts. I also talk about waiting on God’s timing, and remind her of different things she had to wait for, and how she
felt when she got it. I’ll remind her that we as her parents didn’t change during that time of waiting, and nor does God. He is still good. ‘
The reality is that the internet has made it possible for even the youngest children to come into contact with a vast amount of sceptical atheism online. Helping children to engage with the issues from a younger age has become an ever more urgent task. Britain’s most well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, has famously suggested that bringing up children in the Christian faith is a form of mental abuse, as children shouldn’t be indoctrinated into one religion or another. In reality however, apologetics is not about indoctrination, but about teaching people to think for themselves.
Tom Price, an academic tutor at OCCA believes that, despite Dawkins’ words, it’s a mistake to suggest that children can grow up in a ‘faith neutral’ environment. ‘I would say that if we don’t do apologetics with children then somebody else will do apologetics for something else with them. Whether that’s the beauty industry, the fashion industry, secular world-views, or the Christian gospel, is up to each parent.’
Start them early
So what can we do to engage children with apologetics and provide answers to their questions? Here are six suggestions:
1. Don’t call it ‘apologetics ’
This one’s obvious, really. Most adults think the word ‘apologetics’ must be to do with saying sorry, and so will the average child. Avoid confusion and call it ‘making sense of faith’ (or something else) if it needs a label.
2. Engage their questions honestly
Ruth Jackson says: ‘Young children have big questions. If a five year-old is faced with his mum dying of cancer then the question of suffering is probably going to be so much bigger than anything that they tackle in Sunday school. You need to get alongside that kid and show them that in the midst of the storm God is holding them tight, and that he is sad too, and he’s crying with them.’
3. Think it through yourself
1 Peter 3:15 says ‘Always be prepared to give an answer’. This means we need to put some energy into finding answers to the questions children ask, as well as being clear about what we believe. Chris Sinkinson says: ‘If we can’t explain our faith to a child then we have to question how far we understand it ourselves.’
4. When teaching the Bible, enlighten don’t frighten
Tom Price recalls an occasion when a Sunday school teacher told the story of Abraham nearly-sacrificing-Isaac. Speaking to the children afterwards, he found they were struggling to make sense of what they’d heard. ‘They needed to know that Abraham knew that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars and that Isaac had to survive for that to happen. Talking to them helped them to soften the compartmentalisation they’d started to adopt to try to deal with it. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t teach the Bible fully, but I’m not sure that we should be teaching stories to children when they don’t have the capacity to deal with the apologetic response, in a way that makes
sense to them emotionally and morally.’
5. Engage their imagination
The seven most popular apologetics books of the 20th Century were written for children. They are The Chronicles of Narnia. CS Lewis was a
master of engaging the imagination of children by describing the Christian world-view in creative new ways. However, you don’t have to be a CS Lewis to successfully engage the imagination of children when putting across apologetic concepts. Michelle Tepper believes that church workers and parents can co-opt whatever is currently popular in children’s culture for their cause: ‘Rather than getting them to be quiet about their “distractions”, use it as a link in to bring your point in. My daughter loves the TV series Charlie and Lola. Maybe I can draw on the way that Charlie is always looking after his little sister when she’s being mischievous, to bring across a point about the way God cares for us.’
6. Your greatest apologetic is you
Ruth Jackson says that it comes down to the trust our children have in us: ‘If a dad lifts his kid in the air, it doesn’t even cross their mind that he’s not going to catch them. My parents never shoved anything down my throat - it was their example as much as what they said that made me know that Christianity was true. Our lives need to be an apologetic as well as what we say to children. Children trust us, so we need to be a living example.’
Three questions children ask (and how you might want to answer )
Who made God?
Explain that God is the one thing that didn’t need to be made - he just is and always has been - and he made everything else.
A visual illustration: Starting from the floor stack a number of objects on top of one another. Point out how each object is standing on another below it. But the ground isn’t standing on anything, everything else stands on it. God is like the ground (which is basically what theologian Paul Tillich took a whole book to say).
Was Jesus magic?
Ask them what they think magic is. Explain the difference between the illusion of stage magic, and miracles where God does something amazing in real life.
Talk it through: We know that the magic in the Harry Potter films is make believe. But the battles that Harry fights against Voldemort still tell us something true about the world we live in. There is a spiritual battle going on between good and evil.
Why don't my prayers always come true?
Explain that we can’t always see things from God’s perspective. Prayer is about learning to trust that God is in control, even when we don’t get all the things we ask for.
Next time you pray: Have a picture of hands on paper. Draw on pictures of the things that you want to put into God’s hands - however he answers, whether now or later, they are safe in his hands and care.
Apologetics resources for children :
The Chronicles of Narnia
50 years after his death, CS Lewis’ classic stories are still a wonderful way to help children grasp theological truth and see the beauty
and power of Jesus in the beloved lion, Aslan.
The Jesus Storybook Bible
An acclaimed resource by Sally Lloyd-Jones which shows how all of the Bible points towards Jesus. It doesn’t describe itself as ‘apologetics’ but speaks to many relevant issues.
What is God Like? book series
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig originally wrote these stories for his own children. Brown Bear and Red Goose explain topics like God’s self-existence and the Trinity to children. Adults will learn a lot too.
The Case for... for Kids
Lee Strobel’s best-selling books such as The Case for Christ followed his journey from atheism to faith after investigating the evidence. This series of books makes the same information accessible to children.
A day of training and equipping young people with answers on 20 September 2014. More info at rzim.eu
Premier Christian Radio’s apologetics discussion show, ‘Unbelievable?’. Find out more at www.premier.org.uk