‘But how does it work, Miss?’
She really wanted to know. At the start of Year 5, still interested in the way things work, even in religious education, she was genuinely puzzled as to how Jesus dying on a cross saves us from sin. She may have been sweet natured, sincerely interested and willing to learn, but she was only ten years old. How was I to answer her question in such a way that she could grasp its truth without being overwhelmed by its depth?
The question of how the death of Christ saves us has long been debated. The essential truth is the doctrine of atonement which holds that our reconciliation with God has taken place through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This reconciliation covers both the forgiveness of our sins and adoption as children of God. After the Fall, our relationship with God was destroyed in such a way that humanity could never reestablish it. What we could not do however, God has done in Jesus Christ. Christianity’s central message is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus we have been saved from sin and made children of God.
However, although in teaching that atonement really happened, the question remains of how it happened, leading to more than one theory explaining the manner in which Jesus Christ brought this about. So which of the several different theories best lends itself to a child’s ability and imagination? We cannot help but think of God and his works in analogical terms, but all analogies eventually fail. Still there seems no other way to attempt any kind of explanation, both for ourselves and for our children.
I would like to consider the main theories of atonement and their appropriateness, or otherwise, for use with children, keeping in mind that they are not necessarily mutually contradictory, nor will they prove to be the solution to a ‘puzzle’; rather they provide a viewpoint from which to ponder the mystery.