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But why?: How to talk about Jesus’ death and resurrection with children and young people
Some people think the Easter story isn’t appropriate for children. They ask whether a child should be confronted with a good man dying when he wasn’t to blame. Can children comprehend why Jesus’ friends would leave him when he most needed their love? How can a child understand the tragedy of a broken world that killed without remorse? How can they believe that the story of Good Friday is actually good?
However, children are often quickest to grasp the essence of the Easter story. Many are mesmerised by the idea that the little Christmas child met his death on a remote, faraway hillside. They are enthralled by the mystery that, because Jesus was actually God, he couldn’t stay in the place of the dead. They rejoice that he was to rise within three days and greet all his friends; even those who had abandoned him as he died. Children very often ‘get’ the deeper meaning of a story that defies logic; that carries a magical dimension of truth. Perhaps this is because children are vulnerable to forces beyond their comprehension and quick to accept that tragedy happens, yet hardwired to seize hope.
When I first heard the word ‘atonement’ as a child I thought it was to do with sacrificing an animal to appease an angry God. Then I heard a preacher say that it meant ‘at-one-ment’: being one with God. As I grew older, I realised that both meanings were partly right. Atonement is the Christian doctrine that describes how fallen humans are reconciled to God. To some extent the ‘how’ of atonement is a mystery, but the Bible is clear that it is achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
When the Easter message is told to children tenderly and imaginatively, yet with integrity to its core meaning, they will respond to it naturally and intuitively. Maybe one of the greatest at sharing this story with children was CS Lewis.
Aslan’s deeper magic
The Narnia tales are stories of magic that transport preadolescent children into a parallel universe in which time passes more quickly. This new realm is a battleground between the forces of a cruel White Witch and a majestic lion, Aslan.
The task of salvation for Aslan is twofold. On the one hand, he must assert his authority over the unjust and temporary rule of the White Witch and lead his faithful followers to victory. On the other, he must redeem them from the claim of the witch.
It appears that Aslan has been outmaneuvered by his enemy, who claims on the authority of deep magic that: “…for every treachery I have a right to a kill...His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.” Aslan accepts her logic, but becomes quieter and sadder. In order to satisfy justice, he must offer a sacrifice. It becomes painfully apparent to the reader that Aslan will offer himself.
As the plot slows down and the sacrificial killing of the magnificent lion is described in gory detail, there is a sense of real tragedy until an even deeper magic is revealed and Aslan returns to life. This notion of deeper magic attracts children to continue into the story and unearth the meaning. They listen carefully as Aslan explains: “If she [the witch] could have looked a little further back…she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim, who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the table would crack and death itself would start working backwards.”
The resurrected lion returns to life to complete his task of emancipation, first thawing the stone statues of the faithful, then leading them to victory and setting the children to rule in his stead.
Aslan is Christlike in demonstrating his love by laying down his life for his friends. There are echoes of the uncomfortable Old Testament idea that sacrifice is required with blood (Leviticus 17:11). Like Christ, Aslan returns to life having somehow atoned for the sins of Edmund. The precise mechanism by which that atonement works is simply described as “a deeper magic”.
The effects of atonement are first offered to those who have died in Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:14), which is seen in Aslan’s initial task of reclaiming his followers, whom the witch had turned to stone. CS Lewis then shows the heavenly rule being reinstated. Eventually, the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26), and the witch’s stone wand is broken.
Theologian Paul Fiddes identifies four major atonement theories in Christian thought: the point of sacrifice (model 1), the demands of justice (model 2), the decisive victory (model 3) and the act of love (model 4).
The point of sacrifice goes back to the Old Testament idea that only a sacrifice could remove sin. Initially, there was no theory of how sin was removed other than that the blood bought freedom (Leviticus 17:11). In the New Testament, the sacrifice was understood to have been made by Christ.
Demands of justice is the law court language used by Paul to describe how the innocent Christ became a substitute. Christ was the pure victim who took the punishment intended for guilty people. The language of sacrifice and justice has entered a lot of modern worship songs.
“The sadness of the crucifixion can add meaning for a child reflecting on difficult encounters in life”
The decisive victory often takes shape in fantasy literature, for example in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This is a major theme picked up in children’s literature to show how evil is finally overcome, and the outside world is depicted as a battleground. This model is very appealing to children because it dramatically demonstrates that God is more powerful than the devil. The danger is that it can promote dualist thinking by suggesting to young minds that cosmic battles between good and evil are being played out (in a galaxy far, far away), and that the devil is almost as strong as God.
The act of love reveals a more subjective understanding of atonement. It offers greater insight into the psychological processes of atonement, but doesn’t offer a rational explanation as to how it takes place.
All four models are reflected in The Chronicles of Narnia. Because The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is allegorical in its treatment of Aslan’s death, it is no surprise that we see an act of sacrifice (model 1) fulfilling the demands of justice (model 2) to bring about a decisive victory (model 3) in what is understood to be an act of love (model 4).
The precise interpretation of Aslan’s atonement seems to be penal substitution (being punished in Edmund’s place), though the mechanics of the shedding of a righteous victim’s blood are not explained. There is more than a hint that this knowledge is hidden until the time of disclosure, when it will be used as power to defeat evil. In order to make sense of Aslan’s victory, he effectively deceives the witch through his greater awareness and outwits her by returning to life. This story is compelling to children because it explains, yet not fully. Much is left to their imagination.
“Children very often ‘get’ the deeper meaning of a story that defies logic; that carries a magical dimension of truth”
Helping children understand
We want to pass on the Christian message to children from the earliest point in their lives. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky emphasises the importance of a safe place where a child follows an adult’s example in order to gradually develop the ability to undertake certain tasks without help. When a child is present at Communion or hears the Easter story, the meaning becomes absorbed and internalised, and can offer deeper understanding.
Another psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, suggests that stories containing violence or darkness can help children solve other difficulties in their lives. His study, which focused on fairy stories, showed that children who were in a safe place when they listened to stories with harsh emotions (eg ‘Little Red Riding Hood’) were able to process meaning. The sadness of the crucifixion can add meaning for a child or young person reflecting on difficult encounters in life.
For many children, the Easter story is understood as one of ultimate victory or repayment. It shows that God wins in an unexpected way by using love rather than force. Using Paul Fiddes’ four categories, this suggests that the second (demands of justice) or third (decisive victory) models are satisfactory for children.
Regarding the demand for justice (model 2), Jesus is the person who has repaid the debt they cannot. Most children know they need an adult to help and support them. Through their behaviour, they may push the boundaries of conformity by exploring what is permitted, but they expect society’s rules to be maintained via a system of fair play. They want to know that the same rules apply to everyone. Justice must be done. They also know that the same rules won’t always be ones they can keep. If they fail to live up to the rules, it’s good to know that God offers a way back; that the price has been paid (not overlooked).
In terms of decisive victory (model 3), Jesus is the winner who finally overcomes the powers of darkness. This satisfies a child’s need to know that God will ultimately put everything right. Many children love the sentence: “Wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight.” God is the ultimate ‘goody’, able to outmuscle the worst ‘baddy’. It might look as though God is on the verge of losing, but if God is God he will come out on top. Against all odds, the light will shine in the darkness. This motif is found in all the epic stories of adventure and exploration, and the ending is a good one.
In early versions of this atonement theory, the early Church understood that Jesus allowed himself to become a type of bait to catch the devil. The devil couldn’t resist the lure of grabbing Jesus into his jaws of death, but this would be his last significant action. Jesus was able to overthrow the power of death, and by doing so defeated the devil (1 Corinthians 15:26).
A child might struggle with the first model (the point of sacrifice) because the idea of killing an animal or person as a substitute for them may appear illogical. They might not be happy to hear that Jesus endured a gruesome death on their behalf. It is not likely to make logical sense to say that a scapegoat can take away the sins of another person. This is especially so since culture has generated greater empathy for animals, so the idea of sacrifice sounds barbaric. When this is applied to Christ’s sacrifice it might fail to resonate with a 21st Century, Western child.
Finally, the fourth model (the act of love) is a widely valued concept, but for those approaching adolescence it might appear sentimental. The idea that atonement takes place because of an act of love can work, but it takes some getting used to.
An example in children’s literature where this does work is when Harry Potter’s mother, Lily, dies protecting him. Voldemort, who was defeated by her, says this in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “His mother died in the attempt to save him…and unwittingly provided him with a protection I admit I had not foreseen...I could not touch the boy...his mother left upon him the traces of her sacrifice...this is old magic.”
While different models will speak to different children, the key thing is to tell the story and allow them to reflect on the greatest story ever told this Easter.
Bedtime (and not so bedtime) reading
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Past Event and Present Salvation by Paul Fiddes
‘Popularised Atonement Theory Reflected in Children’s Literature’ by HJ Worsley in the Expository Times Vol 115, No 5, February
‘Children’s Literature as Implicit Religion: The Concept of Grace Unpacked’ by HJ Worsley in the Journal of Implicit Religion, Vol 13, No 1, April