How Does One Explain the Crucifixion of Jesus to Young Children?

Recently, a reader asked an excellent question. This is our discussion, but I have not used their real name. Joe wrote:

I’ve talked with you in the past. The other day, my 3 year old son and I were talking about Easter and how Jesus died on the cross. He asked “why did Jesus die?” Even though I don’t believe this, I said “He died for our sins”. He answered, “that’s not fair”, which I thought was cute.

In the past, I just said that “Jesus died for us”. I think that leaves it open so others can develop their own beliefs. I’ve read your post regarding Atonement theory and the Ransom theory, which I don’t believe those theories either.

I haven’t quite understood the Christus Victor Theory. But what do I say when my son asks “why did Jesus die on the cross?” I want him to know the love of God, and the example of that love through Jesus, but I don’t want to put on him my lack of belief/understanding of Christ death and lead him astray.

Philipe Champaigne: La Crucifixion

Philipe Champaigne: La Crucifixion

My Response to the Questions

Hi, Joe, I am glad to hear from you again, and I found our discussion together on the resurrection from last year to refresh my memory.

I think your concerns about explaining Jesus’ death on the cross to your toddler are very important; the very idea of Jesus dying on a cross can be traumatic for a three-year-old. Actually, I think it is amazing that a three-year-old would even ask such a question; and his response, “that’s not fair” is remarkable! Perhaps I am out of touch with toddlers’ levels of development but this entire discussion seems quite advanced to me.

I agree with you that “He died for our sins” is probably not the best answer because it sets the stage for a possible transition into penal substitution later on. But it is not in itself a ‘wrong’ answer; the problem with penal substitution is that it is a very misguided misunderstanding of that answer. And I think “Jesus died for us” is a better answer, but it can also be a set-up for accepting penal substitution. However, I wouldn’t worry about either answer, as you have plenty of times to talk with him further about the issue as it comes up over the coming years.

You mention the Christus Victor understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Essentially, this simply means that Jesus’ resurrection was a victory over the power of sin (evil) and of death. Jesus’ resurrection destroys the power of evil in our lives (such as that of the Romans who crucified him); evil is no longer dominant. Jesus’ resurrection also demonstrates his ability to provide for our own resurrections at some point after death. So death is no longer final and it loses its terrible fear and control over us.

How to Answer a Three-Year-Old regarding Jesus’ Crucifixion

Of course, I cannot advise you on how to talk to your son, but I can share how I might talk to my son had I the opportunity to do so again. I am sure the first time it came up many years ago I probably told him that ‘Jesus died for our sins’–just as you did. But I think I would take a different approach today. I wouldn’t elaborate on the terrible things that happened to Jesus—those discussions can come later (I think you did well with your brief response!).

I think I would just address his specific question of “why did Jesus die on the cross?”–perhaps along these lines:

Jesus was killed by the rulers because he taught people much differently than they did, and many people were beginning to listen to Jesus instead of them. So they killed him.

However, the most surprising thing happened. A few days later Jesus was alive again! They killed him, but he came back to life even better than he was before. So the rulers failed; they killed Jesus to get rid of him but he came back again to live forever.

And, if my son were ready, I might add:

There is another wonderful thing about Jesus coming back to life: because Jesus overcame death we know that we will also overcome death some day and live forever like Jesus does. So death is not nearly so scary as it used to be.

I don’t know if this is helpful at all; it might be a bit much for such a young child. In any case, this is not a recommendation but only what I might do if I had another chance.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Readers, what are your thoughts? How do you think one might explain to a young child why Jesus died on the cross?

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19 Responses to How Does One Explain the Crucifixion of Jesus to Young Children?

  1. A Jordan says:

    To me, this is a simple and accurate explanation for Jesus’ death by execution. I personally believe God overcame the sin the religious and Roman authorities committed. I really don’t need the penal substitution or atonement ideas today. Perhaps in the days following Jesus it made sense to the hearers, but I don’t believe it makes much sense to me today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      A Jordon, I agree with you. But I don’t think any of Jesus’ early followers believed in what has come to be called penal substitution. It was mostly the invention of John Calvin almost 1500 years later.

      Like

  2. hoju1959 says:

    I was a devout Christian for 35 years, and all I can say is Jesus’ death didn’t destroy the power of evil in my life. I have a niggling habit of being a selfish jerk

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hoju, I still have faults I have to work with as well. But I know evil is not ultimately powerful and successful, and neither is death.

      Like

  3. In the Presbyterian Church USA, we have a confession called the Brief Statement of Faith which states that Jesus was condemned for blasphemy and sedition. I find that helpful when explaining the crucifixion.

    It was against Jewish law, punishable by death, to say that you were God. Jesus was God and told the truth and said he was God, and so he was crucified for blasphemy. The people also wanted Jesus to be their prophesied Messiah and to overthrow the Roman government. So the Romans crucified him for sedition. Even though Jesus told the truth, even though Jesus just acted with love toward everyone, people just like you and me killed him because they chose their love of their own rules and their love of their own power over God’s love. And Jesus, because he loved them, let them kill him in order to show us all how terribly bad humans can be toward each other. Jesus came to teach us how to love God, others and ourselves; and instead of following him and learning from him, we killed the teacher because we would rather listen to ourselves.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dear Rev. Fitz La Barge, I gather that, as well as the Rpmans, the Southern Judean Jews – practitioners of blood-sacrifice, with which neither Jesus nor God approved – played a large part towards the killing of Jesus?
      He confronted them severely – in the Temple – that they were following the god of death, not the One of Love and compassion – and he rejected their wish that He “unite” the Jews as one nation by joining their cult of animal(blood)sacrifice. They had apparently fought for 300 years trying to force that route to “unity” upon the Northern Jews, (i. e. according to the ten years of historical research by author Antonio Sebastian, recorded, e.g., in his historical fiction book, “The Last Letters of Jesus” (Amazon etc) (Blog, thejesusofhistory.com) It all adds up, do you think?

      Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Karen, I think this is a very accurate and concise way to sum it up. “Jesus was condemned for blasphemy and sedition.” That is exactly what it was.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Kathleen Green says:

    I am honored to teach 5-10 year olds at Faith Presbyterian,Austin,Texas.We are one of the few More Light Presbyterian Churches perhaps in the state.I answer questions during Lent and Easter as asked.I keep telling the life cycle story of butterflies-we made seed balls Easter Sunday.I explain life is beautiful-and very hard-Jesus life was an example of how to make it easier.I do not go into the nailing of the cross-unless asked -then I say-that is what was done then to people who were different from the rulers of a country-it does not happen now.I hope to God it never does.I believe all Faiths are God’s people-why would a loving God ” make ” us -and not love us.I would love other explanations-ideas.I am a firm believer in the Beauty of Science and God-and have been for a very long time.Also-God may possibly be a she.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kathleen Green says:

    Also-I converse with their parents!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. newtonfinn says:

    Kierkegaard was on top of this issue back in the 19th Century. Nothing more profound about it has, in my opinion, been written since. Here’s a summation I pulled off the web:

    “In his book Training in Christianity, Soren Kierkegaard tells a story of a father introducing the person of Christ to his son. In the story, the father places a picture of the crucified Christ in the middle of a pile of pictures depicting childhood heroes. After flipping through the pictures of heroes such as Napoleon and William Tell, they fall upon the picture of the bloodied Christ. Although told from a third person perspective, it is generally accepted that the Father is Kierkegaard’s own father and the young boy is Kierkegaard. The following is Kierkegaard’s retelling of the event:

    The child will not at once nor quite directly understand this picture, and will ask what it means, why he hangs like that on a tree. So you explain to the child that this is a cross, and that to hang on it means to be crucified, and that in that land, crucifixion was not only the most painful death penalty but was also an ignominious mode of execution employed only for the grossest malefactors. What impression will that make upon the child? The child will be in a strange state of mind, he will surely wonder that it could occur to you to put such an ugly picture among all the other lovely ones, the picture of a gross malefactor among all these heroes and glorious figures.

    And then the child will ask: “Who is he? What did he do?”

    Then tell the child that this crucified man is the Savior of the world. Yet to this he will not be able to attach any clear conceptions; so tell him merely that this crucified man was the most loving person that ever lived.

    And what will the impression of this story be upon the child? First and foremost surely this, that he has entirely forgotten the other pictures you have showed him; for now he has got something entirely different to think about. And now the child will be in deepest amazement at the fact that God did nothing to prevent this from being done; or that this was done without God raining down fire from heaven (if not earlier, at least at the last minute) to prevent His death. . . . That was the first impression. But by degrees, the more the child reflected upon the story, the more his passion would be aroused, he would be able to think of nothing but weapons and war—for the child would have decided that when he grew up he would slay all these ungodly men who had dealt thus with the loving One; that was his resolve, forgetting that it was 1,800 years ago that they lived.

    Then when the child became a youth he would not have forgotten the impression of childhood, but he would now understand it differently, he would know that it was not possible to carry out what the child —overlooking the 1,800 years—had resolved to do; but nevertheless he would think with the same passion of combating the world in which they crucify love and beg acquittal for the robber.

    Then when he become older and mature he would not have forgotten the impression of childhood, but he would understand it differently. He would no longer wish to smite; for, said he, “I should attain to no likeness with Him the humble One, who did not smite even when He Himself was smitten.” No, he wished now only one thing, to suffer in some measure as He suffered in this world.”

    For Kierkegaard, Jesus died not so much FOR sin but BECAUSE of it. His crucifixion was a judgment upon the world, revealing that it preferred darkness to light, deception to truth, power to principle, mammon to God. By casting the crucifixion as payment for personal sins, institutional Christianity undermined the magnificent parable of the prodigal son, whom a loving father (representing God) forgave unconditionally. This misinterpretation also allowed the institutional church to evade the social implications of Jesus’ life and teaching–that the Kingdom come on earth in corporate form, not merely in individual human hearts.

    Today, more than ever, this misinterpretation perpetuates a trivial ticket-punching Christianity that makes little or no challenge to the evils of American Empire, the even more powerful and sinister successor to Rome. Indeed, the prophetic edge was already being lost when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, advising a deference to and adulation of governmental authority that could never have come from the mouth of Jesus. If and when the church starts preaching the revolutionary words and acts of Jesus, the world again will be rocked to its foundation, and there won’t be enough pews to hold the oppressed people thirsting for his Truth.

    May I live, by the grace of God, to see the day.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Wow, Newton, this is a wonderful story! And I have never heard it before.

      Though the crucifixion of Jesus can be very traumatic for children, it appears to have made it’s mark on the life of this person. I particularly like the line, ” Jesus died not so much FOR sin but BECAUSE of it.” I believe this to be true.

      Liked by 1 person

    • tonycutty says:

      Brilliant

      Liked by 1 person

  7. michaeleeast says:

    Tim, I think I would say that Jesus revolutionary teachings about God’s love and forgiveness became a threat to the religious authorities (the Pharisees) and the Romans’ feared that he would lead an insurrection. So the Pharisees handed him over to the Roman’s who humiliated him and crucified him. Over the cross they fixed a sign which said “King of the Jews”. Thus making an example of him which would keep the Jews in order.
    I realize that this is an anti-establishment message which may be confusing for a child who is taught to obey his elders. But there you have it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, I agree with you on both counts–a threat both to the Pharisees and to the Romans. Solution: execute him. Problem: he came back!

      Like

  8. consultgtf says:

    This is is most confusing statement of Christianity!

    Was he sacrificed? to please whom?

    Because, if you tell me that he was sacrificed to GTF for our sins? Then it breaks the belief in TRINITY!

    Like

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