Every year, around this time, parents and churches ponder how to communicate the Easter story to children, as something more than dyed eggs. The problem is, of course, that it’s impossible to talk about the resurrection of Jesus without talking about death. And, in the case of Jesus, it’s really hard to talk about death without talking about crucifixion.
Some churches resolve this tension by deeming the cross too violent for kids. They talk instead about Easter meaning that Jesus is our “forever friend.” They say that Jesus “went away for a little while, and his friends were sad,” but that he soon “came back to see them.”
Most Christian churches, thankfully, still speak on Easter of the cross and the resurrection, but in many places this is, well, precisely because it’s Easter. The story seems particularly strange to the children in such places because “Jesus is my forever friend” is the standard fare the rest of the year.
We need to understand that this temptation isn’t just related to children, although we see it perhaps most explicitly there.The temptation that comes to all of us, in every era of the church, is to have Jesus, without seeing ourselves in the gore of his bloody cross and the glory of his empty grave. In the way that we speak of Him to our children, or to skeptics, or to seekers, we sometimes believe we’ll gain more of a hearing if we present Him as teacher but not as a former corpse. It is too disturbing, we think to ourselves, too weird.
Peter thought that way too. Not the bold preacher of Pentecost, mind you, but the Peter of just a short time before that, the Peter of Caesarea Philippi. Peter certainly knew Jesus as friend, and he had just confessed that He was Messiah and Son of the living God. But when Jesus began to teach that He must “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” Peter was outraged (Matt 16:21).
Peter was no preschooler, but he was disturbed. Matthew tells us that he began to rebuke Jesus. His cognitive development was not yet to the point where he could understand such things. This will never happen, Peter said. He loved Jesus. He wanted to be with Jesus. He wanted to stand with Jesus. He just didn’t want the Jesus of the cross or the empty tomb. Jesus didn’t call this shallow theology. He didn’t call it inadequate teaching. He called it Satan (Matt 16:23).
Our children need to hear the Gospel. They need to see Jesus. That means they need to see both sides of skull place. That’s graphic, sure. It’s confusing, of course. And not just for kids. But it is the only message that saves. It’s the only message that prepares one for salvation. It is, as Paul says, that which is “of first importance,” the message he received from Jesus Himself (1 Cor 15:3-4).
The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the Gospel. That’s the first word. If we cannot speak of that, we would be better off not speaking of Jesus at all, rather than presenting another Christ, one who meditates but does not mediate, who counsels but is not crucified, who is accessible but not triumphant over sin and death.
The apostle Paul told us the word of the cross would be folly to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18). He didn’t warn us that it would sometimes also be folly to those who are publishing. No matter. It is still the power of God
This Easter, preach the Gospel… to the senior citizens, to the middle-aged, to the young adults, to the teenagers, to the seekers, to the hardened unbelievers, to the whole world. And, yes, preach the Gospel to the preschoolers.
Russell Moore is Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004) and Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009). Visit his website at RussellMoore.com.