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.
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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