‘What? He Died?!’

John FarrellBy John Farrell8 Minutes

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit (Matthew 27:50).


What is an appropriate age to talk about Jesus’ crucifixion with your children? When you do have this important discussion, how do you approach this topic with little kids?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer for the first question as it varies from child to child; however, I do think three was a little young for our oldest son, Hayden. Or perhaps I just wish he had learned about Jesus’ death differently.

Hayden’s Viewpoint

When Hayden was little, he saw the world and everything within it as black or white; there was no gray … no middle ground. You were either right or you were wrong. Something was either good or bad. There was no need for a middle area. When it came to death, he saw it completely as a bad thing. In his eyes, there was nothing good about dying.

That’s why when he first learned of Jesus’ crucifixion and His death, it was a shock to him.

By the time Hayden was three he knew who Jesus was. He knew that His birth was the reason we celebrated Christmas and, perhaps more importantly to a three-year-old, why he received gifts on that special day. Hayden knew that Jesus was our Savior and that He erased our sins; he just didn’t know that He accomplished this with His crucifixion on Good Friday.

My wife, Renee, and I hadn’t broached that concept with him. It’s one thing to talk to a three-year-old about a person’s birth, but another thing entirely to talk about a person’s death, especially when the person you’re talking about is the Savior.

We had planned to talk to him at some point in the future, but we found ourselves having to have that conversation a lot sooner than we would have liked.

The Truth Revealed at VBS

When Hayden was three, we were looking for a new church family. Among several factors that were important to us was that the church had to have a strong children’s and youth ministry. We found a church that seemed to check all the boxes, especially with its children’s program.

Being that summer was quickly approaching, we signed up Hayden for the church’s annual Vacation Bible School. We were always excited whenever we learned something new about what we could expect during the weeklong program and the various lessons and Bible stories our son would be exposed to. Therefore, when we were asked to co-lead the class of three-year-olds, Renee and I immediately agreed.

Everything was going smoothly. We had a great group of children who eagerly listened to whoever was talking and participated in all of the activities. We loved that Hayden was learning so many new things and making friends.

Then it happened.

At the end of the third night, all of the groups gathered in the sanctuary for a closing skit and message. Somewhere during the skit one of the performers mentioned that Jesus died. I’m pretty sure he mentioned that He had died for our sins, but that was buried beneath the ensuing commotion.

Hayden, who was sitting between me and Renee, exclaimed in as loud a voice as he could muster, “What? He died?!” It would’ve been okay if he had only bellowed this once or maybe even twice, but my son must have wanted everyone within earshot to hear him because he repeated it over and over again each time more dramatically than the last. And if there is one thing you must know about Hayden it’s that he does not have an inside voice. (He has always had no problem projecting his voice, which comes in handy when he’s on stage.)

As could be expected, everyone in the sanctuary burst out laughing while Renee and I tried to bury ourselves in the pew. Finally, Renee sheepishly muttered, “We haven’t gotten to that part of Jesus’ story yet.”

Although we ended up leaving that church a short time later, our embarrassment soon abated and everything returned to normal. We had a full conversation with Hayden soon thereafter to discuss the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion and what it means in our lives.

Explaining the Crucifixion to a Young Child

When we sat down with him to discuss it, we understood that we had to approach the subject gingerly and explain it in terms his three-year-old mind would comprehend and realize its significance. For us, the easiest way to illustrate this was to paint it in both historical and biblical lights.

From a historical perspective, it was a normal occurrence for people in Jesus’ time who were being punished to be hanged. This is why there were two criminals on Golgotha being crucified alongside Jesus:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left (Luke 23:32-33).

Then we explained His crucifixion from a biblical perspective and what it means to us as Christians and sinners—that His death wipes away our sins.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

But in order for our sins to be wiped away we have to believe in Jesus Christ just as John 3:16 states: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

This was all made true through the crucifixion, which, unfortunately and rather shockingly to my three-year-old son, involves Jesus’ death.