While the Easter story is the central story of our faith, it can be a challenging story for kids and adults alike. For adults, the Easter accounts often raise questions about biblical literalism, the meaning of Resurrection and the role of faith and doubt in our lives. Since Easter has often been a litmus test of belief and belonging in some Christian communities, Easter comes with some baggage. Additionally, the theology of substitutionary atonement (the theology that Jesus was a sacrifice by God for the forgiveness of sins) is troubling for many. All of this means that adults have to do some personal wrestling with their faith before in order to join children on the Easter journey.
The second set of problems for adults seeking to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with kids is that these stories aren’t exactly kid-friendly. Sure, the Resurrection is life-affirming but we can’t get to Resurrection without going through betrayal, violence and death first. That means that we have to address the Holy Week stories in ways that are truthful but also developmentally appropriate. Here are a couple guidelines I use when talking to kids about Holy Week and Easter:
1. No gore. I read the story of the crucifixion to kids, including my own daughter, but I avoid gory pictures, detailed descriptions and especially movie depictions. There’s a vast difference between hearing a story and seeing a story. Letting kids imagine a hard story is self-limiting; people can’t imagine events in the same depth or detail that a movie producer can show it. (For what it’s worth, this is a rule I follow in other areas as well. Reading a news story is different than watching it. Reading a novel is different than watching the movie version.) As the saying goes, once we see something we can’t unsee it.
2. Keep it simple. “People who didn’t like Jesus’ teaching had him killed.” That’s the storyline I start with when I’m talking about the crucifixion. From there, you can add details as kids' maturity allows. Somewhere between kindergarten and second grade, depending on the child, they’ll want to ask about the cross and how it was used. That’s when I explain that the cross was a commonly used way of killing criminals in Jesus’ time and that people were tortured and hung on a cross until they died.
3. No violent theology. For me, the bigger problem with teaching about the crucifixion isn’t the story itself, it’s the theology of violence that surrounds it. Personally, I don’t believe that Jesus was a human sacrifice made by God in order to atone for our sins. That doesn’t fit with my experience of a loving God, nor does it fit with other biblical accounts of how God works. This means that I don’t teach kids that they have to “accept that Jesus died for their sins,” or impose on them a sense of guilt for Jesus’ suffering. Instead, I emphasize the sadness of Jesus' death.
For pre-k through early elementary school, it’s enough to know that Jesus died. For older elementary school kids, we can start to talk about how Jesus’ death was an injustice committed by people in power. Middle school to high school kids, depending on their church background, can start to wrestle with the question of what it means when we say “Jesus died for the sin of the world.” With them, I explore the ways in which human sin, like greed, fear, power, corruption, led to Jesus’ death and how those sins are still alive in the world today. The Resurrection doesn’t prove that Jesus’ death “worked” by saving us from hell, it proves that God’s love will always have the final word, even when it looks like sin and death have won. (The theology of the crucifixion and resurrection is a whole separate topic and too long to cover well here but I’d love to talk about it with you if you’re wondering how to piece it together either for yourself or with your kids.)
The way this topic comes up is usually through questions about why we call “Good Friday” good. We have that conversation every year in children and youth groups and, because I know someone will ask it, I just wait for it to come up naturally. My answer is, “Some Christians don’t call it Good Friday. They call it Black Friday. Christians that call it Good Friday do so because they’re remembering that Easter is coming. Good Friday is only “good” because it’s only after Jesus dies that we can find out that he was risen again. Personally, I wish there was a different name for it. I don’t think it was good either. What would you call it?” Every year, kids prefer something like Sad Friday, Hard Friday or Bad Friday. (We’ve also been having this discussion around Black Friday because black doesn’t equal bad. This year’s group settled on Sad Friday or Bad Friday as their preferred name.)
4. So…the bodily resurrection. This is the story that’s harder for adults than it is for kids. I have rarely had a child younger than middle school ask if the resurrection really happened, or whether it was bodily or spiritual or a metaphor. Developmentally, elementary school kids are still very capable of trusting in Mystery and Story. So, for the most part, I just tell this story and let them teach me how to appreciate the wonder and beauty of it.
If you have older kids who are asking about the bodily resurrection, or you want to introduce it to your kids, by all means, talk about it! Again, I’ve not experienced kids to be scarred by encountering different views. If they’re asking about whether this story is true, you can let them know that the authors of the Bible were writing about their experiences of God. It’s very hard for us to know exactly what they meant, or what they were trying to describe. We do know that they experienced something very powerful, different than anything they’d experienced before, and that they described it as Jesus being alive among them in a new way. Then as a family you can wonder together what that might mean.
5. About “The Jews.” It’s impossible to read the biblical accounts of Holy Week without coming across the troublesome language about “the Jews” who killed Jesus. I address this in a couple different ways:
First, I rarely read the stories that way, not even with grown-ups. None of our Story Bibles use that phrase. Instead, they say, “People killed Jesus.” This isn’t just a nicety—it’s more accurate. When we read the story as a whole, we know that there were Jewish and Roman authorities who colluded to have Jesus executed. If I’m reading out of a regular Bible, I change the language and either say, “people” or “authorities.”
Second, I address this issue early and often. Quietly changing the language only works until kids can read the Bible themselves. Once they can read, they’ll encounter this language in the story. So I point out a couple different things:
- Jesus was Jewish himself, as were his early followers. When the biblical authors criticized “the Jews,” it was an internal spat. They meant it the same way we do when we say “those Christians who believe…” It wasn’t a blanket condemnation against a whole religious group, which is how it sounds to us today
- I tell kids that these passages have been used to attack Jewish people and so we have to be careful about how we use them. Go ahead and point out that we don’t read it that way and encourage them to do the same. Do talk about it, though, otherwise they won’t know why you’re changing the way you’re reading it and they’ll have to do the hard work of wrestling with this by themselves later in their faith journey. It’s far better for them to know that in this Christian community, we love people from other faiths and we take responsibility for standing up against injustices even in our own scriptures.
Although I've highlighted a few of questions that people ask around this time of year, I believe there’s still far more Beauty and Truth in these stories than there are dangers. Kids, who experience both fear and miracles everyday, grasp the deep truth and timeless wonder of the faith. In this way, they are capable not only of hearing and celebrating the stories but leading us deeper into them.