By Anna Mussmann
God kills people. Holy Scripture records multiple instances. Sometimes the victims are obvious evildoers, but sometimes they are just ordinary men, women or children. When Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt, for instance, the Lord passed through the land and struck down every firstborn male except for those protected by the blood of a lamb painted on the doorframe of their home. Exodus 12:30 says “there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead.” It is a deeply disturbing story.
Yet God explicitly told the people of Israel to share this story of plague and punishment with their young children. Exodus 13 instructs fathers to say, “By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem” (v. 14–15).
Modern Americans are squeamish about disturbing stories. Unlike those Israelite fathers, we avoid even the word “death,” let alone the idea that the righteousness of a good and holy God might involve judgment. How often have you seen a picture book about Noah’s ark that mentions anyone drowning? How many accounts of Jonah and the whale make it clear that God would actually have destroyed Nineveh rather than simply telling the people to be nice so they could be happy?
We protect our kids from these stories because of our own discomfort. What a mistake! Our children need to know about ugly realities like sin, death and the devil in order to understand the faith. It is our job to teach our kids how to read a book that defies cultural demands for niceness. If we don’t, we risk three consequences.
Three reasons not to sanitize the Bible for kids
1. Our children will not really understand why Jesus died. Without stories that show them the hideous consequences of sin, they cannot understand sin’s gravity. They may easily wonder why a Heavenly Father could not “just be nice” and forgive their misdeeds like Daddy and Mommy do — without having to torture anyone on the cross. Furthermore, a sanitized Bible gives the impression that Christianity is about good, functional people doing good, functional things. It misrepresents the God who is so loving and so powerful that He works through confused, broken, incompetent sinners to accomplish His will and to save each one of us from ourselves.
2. Our children will soon realize that sanitized Christianity does not reflect reality. They already know the world is not safe. Even the happiest, most sheltered child can sense that evil exists. It is why kids fear the dark and imagine monsters in the closet. Old Testament stories give children a chance to process the horror of a sin-wracked world. They show them that God’s promises are the context through which we understand suffering, and they let kids grapple with hard questions while we are there to help. Without these hard stories, we nurture a faith that is easily outgrown.
3. We risk giving the impression that Christians hush up disturbing scenes in the Bible because they are shameful. We’ve probably all met apostates who discovered “dark” Biblical content in adulthood and now cite it triumphantly as if it somehow proves that Christianity is a sham or that God’s Word could not possibly be inspired by a real God. We do not want to raise children who will feel betrayed the first time they try to read the book of Genesis and encounter material that does not fit their mental framework.
How, then, should we share difficult stories with our children without overwhelming or unduly distressing them? Prepare yourself to teach by reading the Bible. Think about what you read. Ask questions in Sunday morning Bible study. Grow into the kind of Christian who grapples with tough issues in the spirit of faith. Be a model who shows children we can approach Scripture confidently, knowing it is for us, and that we read it with reverence, knowing it is from God.
Trust the Holy Spirit to work through the Word
If you believe the Bible is important for you and your family to read, your kids will pick up on your attitude. Read to them. A good Bible storybook or children’s Bible helps with chronology and shows how the stories relate to each other — but read the real Bible too. Trust God to work through His Word.
Welcome engagement and questions. Try not to give off weird vibes if kids ask about something sexual. Give simple, age-appropriate answers like, “Yes, God punished him because he slept with a woman in the special way a husband and wife do, even though he wasn’t married to her. That’s wrong.” Be franker with older kids: “Yes, he had sex with a prostitute and broke the Sixth Commandment.” Children are almost always matter-of-fact if you are.
There will be times when your children struggle with more difficult questions. “Is it fair to punish me for sin even though I wouldn’t sin if Adam hadn’t eaten the apple?” “Why did God kill the firstborns in Egypt when some of them must have been children or babies?” “How could God bless Jacob when Jacob got the blessing through trickery?” Welcome these questions too. Answer them as best you can, but resist the temptation to solve your child’s cognitive dissonance by making up answers. It is OK to say you do not know. It is good to acknowledge that pondering difficult questions is sometimes part of the Christian life. It is helpful to point out that “nice” is not always the same as “good.” Invite your children to trust our Lord even if we do not fully understand.
Remember, also, that our overall parenting style impacts the way our kids respond to difficult concepts like God’s judgment. If we are tyrants, they will think God is, too. If we are pushovers who only punish when we lose our temper, our kids will likely think the God of the Old Testament is doing the same thing. Teach right and wrong in your home in a way that helps kids recognize it in the Bible.
Do not sanitize Scripture. It comes naturally to modern Americans to prefer cute baby Moses in the bulrushes over God’s strong hand, but baby Moses cannot save us from sin, suffering and death. Our children need Jesus because they too are sinners. They need God’s Word in its truth and purity because they too are Christians. It is our job as parents to give it to them.
Image: “Plate 7: The Flood, from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,'” Antonio Tempesta, 1606. The MET Collection.