Easter is the essential story of our faith, but parts of it are not child friendly. Not only that, but whatever version of the Easter story you use (and there are many!), there are theological implications for how we understand who God is and how we understand human nature. Anna Skates has written about the Bible not being a children’s book. She says children need:
“spiritual knee pads (“God is love and is bigger than we can imagine”), seatbelts (“People have been asking questions about God for forever – our ideas about God change, but God does not”), and helmets (“You are good, and safe, and made in the image of God – so is everyone else”).
As adults, part of providing this spiritual safety is doing our homework before we crack open a children’s Bible or storybook with a child so that we can share the story appropriately. Parents and Christian Educators: You don’t need to have it all figured out, but do consider the following when choosing a children’s version of the Easter story:
How is the violence portrayed?
In Matthew, Jesus is spit on, mocked, beaten, stripped, and a crown of thorns is placed upon his head. Children have no difficulty imagining such things. Matthew also states that Jesus was “crucified.” Crucifixion is a more abstract word for children because it is an ancient form of torture that they likely do not know much about. As a parent, you will need to decide which of these details your child is ready for, depending on their age, personality, and reasoning ability.
While we know that crucifixion was horrifically painful, children may not understand that part of the story. The Bible is more vague about the violent details than many retellings of the story. For example, there is no mention of nails in any of the Gospels. There are children’s Easter stories that do describe Jesus’ pain in the first person. I tend to steer clear of those potentially traumatizing versions. When in doubt, I believe it is ok to wait. There is plenty of time to share the story when they are older and better able to understand Christ’s death in the context of the Roman Empire.
Why did Jesus have to die?
This question has been central to the Church since it began. Most protestant denominations have a doctrine of atonement, meaning that Jesus’ death makes up for human sin. Substitutionary atonement means Jesus suffered for us. Penal substitution means Jesus is punished for us. These are uncomfortable ideas to wrestle with because they may lead children to think that they are so awful that God’s own son had to die. There are countless books on the subject of atonement. For a briefer, more nuanced perspective, still accessible to “beginners,” I recommend this article from the United Methodist Church.
You are probably asking, “do I really need to know about atonement to read a children’s book?” I believe the answer is yes. Because, within the texts of children’s books there is often an underlying suggestion of what Christ’s death means. Here are three examples which offer different understandings of atonement:
“God was going to have to blame his son for everything that had gone wrong. It would crush Jesus.” – The Jesus Storybook Bible
“Father, are you there?” Jesus said quietly [in the Garden of Gethsemane]. “Do I have to die? Is there any other way to teach the world about heaven?” -Easter Love Letters from God
Under the heading, “God Suffers for Us”: “Father, forgive them for they do not understand your dream.” – Children of God Storybook Bible.
There may be things you don’t agree with or haven’t figured out about what Jesus’ death means. You are not alone. As a parent, I believe it is most important NOT to present something that you aren’t comfortable teaching your children – something they will need to unlearn later. You can always let the story be the story and let children take up the question of “Why” when they are ready. It is also ok to say there are many answers to this question.
Does the story match the Bible text?
Children’s writers paraphrase the Bible, adding some things that capture children’s interest, and omitting things that they don’t feel are needed in their version of the story. These word choices can be important. I recently had a thoughtful conversation with author Glenys Nellist about how she approached retelling the stories of Holy Week in Easter Love Letters from God. We discussed the use of gendered pronouns for God, the depiction of the women at the tomb, and more on the Christians Engaged in Faith Formation blog*. This post raises important questions to ask about any version of the Easter story you read to children. If you are a Christian Educator, it is especially important to examine the story from your church’s theological perspective.
Which Easter stories would I recommend?
Tough question. Being a person who most finds hope in Christ’s proclamation of the kingdom of God, The Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu is my favorite, because of its focus on “God’s dream.” Christ’s death is presented without too much embellishment (but again with the nails-ugh!):
To please the crowd, Pilate ordered the soldiers to beat Jesus and then to kill him. They whipped him and made fun of him, pretended he was a king, they put a crown of thorns on his head and a red cloak around him. Then they made him carry a heavy, wooden cross to a hill outside the city. They nailed Jesus to the cross.
Another favorite is The Faces of Easter by Godly Play which beautifully names the mystery, while allowing children to explore the meaning of the stories of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection for themselves.
Another option is to walk children through the stories of Holy Week by creating watercolor dyed butterfly flags.
For a list of Lent and Easter articles on this website, see 2018 Lent and Easter Inspiration.
*In the interest of transparency, I currently serve as the part-time Content Manager for the Christians Engaged in Faith Formation blog.