The Atonement: A Simple Explanation for Children

Son:        Hey, Dad, can I ask a question?

Father:   Sure, kiddo, what’s up?

Son:        Well, I’ve been wondering about the Atonement.

Father:   O, great. Another easy one. At least it’s not about girls, so maybe I can help. What’s the question?

Son:        I can’t see how the death of Jesus helped us. I get that God wanted to help us get back to him, but I don’t understand why he didn’t just make it happen, the way he did when he created light. Why send his Son to Earth, and then have him killed? Why was that necessary? Why did Jesus have to die?

Father:   Those are some good questions. Hard, I mean. It makes sense that you should be thinking about this today.

Son:        Yeah, I was worrying about it all through the Good Friday service.

Father:   Let’s take a stab at it. The first thing to notice is that you are asking two quite different questions. The first one is, why didn’t God just make us perfect and holy, instantly, the way he created light? The second is, if he had to do it some other way, why did he need to do it through the sacrifice of the Cross?

Are you with me so far?

Son:        Yes. What’s the answer to the first question?

Father:    You remember the Fall, right?

Son:        Sure.

Father:   Who acted to make it happen?

Son:        Adam and Eve.

Father:   Yes; and Lucifer before them. So, it was not God who did the injury, right?

Son:        Right. Adam and Eve, and Lucifer, were free to sin, and they sinned.

Father:   OK, good. Now step back from that for a moment. Let’s say you break Mr. Anderson’s window with a baseball.

Son:        [Blushing] Dad!

Father:   Now, now, I’m not scolding you. The same sort of thing happened to me – or rather, I did the same sort of thing – when I was your age. In fact, I still do, all the time, but in less obvious ways. All I’m doing is pointing out the damage that the baseball inflicted. Who must pay for the repair of the window, in justice? You, or Mr. Anderson?

Son:        Me.

Father:   Correct. And to pay for the repair, you had to dedicate resources you might have liked to use in other ways, right? Like, the money you had earned last summer?

Son:        [Bitterly] Yeah.

Father:   Think now of all the resources available to the whole human race. Were they diminished when the window was broken?

Son:        Yes.

Father:   And the repair diminished them even more, right? I mean, it’s not like you can repair a window by handing over a few dollars. Someone must arrange for a fenstermaker, schedule the repairs, and so forth.

Son:       A fenstermaker? You mean a window guy?

Father:   Yes. You get my point, right?

Son:        Yeah. Breaking the window made the world poorer. Fixing it made that worse, a bit, even though the window was better.

Father:   Yes. Do you remember the principle from physics that expresses this character of the world?

Son:        Entropy. Doctor Peters was talking about it last week.

Father:   Exactly. Do you remember the version of that principle in economics?

Son:        No.

Father:   There is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything must be paid for; everything bears a cost.

Son:        That makes sense.

Father:   There is a version of that principle that is at work in every aspect of reality. It is right there in the idea of decision, of choice. If you choose one thing, you have chosen against all other things. If there were no cost to decisions, there could be no decisions. And that would mean there could be no such thing as freedom, or agency, or acts. Or us. Of course, that would have implications for the Many Worlds Interpretation. It is mathematically obvious, perhaps. But does that mean it is actually implemented? Not all formal truths must be actualized; or, wait … [Falls silent … silence continues …]

Son:        Dad.

Father:   Yeah. What? What was I saying?

Son:        No free lunch.

Father:   Oh. Right, yeah. OK, back to the Fall. Like your baseball, the Fall made the whole creation poorer, no?

Son:        Yes.

Father:   It separated the creation from God. That’s where evil comes from. Or rather, that separation *is* evil.

Son:        Yes.

Father:   So, when that happened, was it God who departed from creation – from us – or was it the other way around?

Son:        It was the other way around.

Father:    So, if the separation was going to be reversed, would it be God who would need to bridge the gap of the Fall, or would it be creation? Specifically, at least as far as our own separation is concerned, would we need to move closer to God, or would he need to move closer to us?

Son:        It would have to be us, I suppose. I mean, God is everywhere already, right? So as far as he is concerned, there is no separation between him and anything else. The separation from God is all inside us. It’s not a part of who God is right now. It’s a part of who we are. It isn’t God who needs to change in order for us to be with him. It’s us. If we don’t change, then … well, we won’t change, and we won’t be together with God. We *can’t* be together with God, if we don’t change inside.

Father:   Brilliant. Exactly correct.

Son:        Really? Thanks, Dad!

Father:   No kidding, you are good at this stuff. Keep it up.

Son:        Wow, thanks Dad. OK!

Father:   Alright then: we must change, in order to heal our separation from God. But, the whole creation has been diminished by the Fall. To heal the separation, the world would have to divert resources to the wound from other purposes. And that would involve other sorts of costs. We’d have to rob Peter to pay Paul, and we’d end up no better off than before. In fact, we’d be worse off.

But the real problem is, it wouldn’t do us any good, no matter how much we robbed Peter and paid Paul! We don’t have enough to fix the window! There isn’t enough in the world to fix the window!

Let me put it this way: can you satisfy a debt of $1 million with $1.00? Or no: say the debt was infinite, and you had only the value of planet Earth to pay it. You’d be out of luck, right?

Son:        So Jesus came to pay the cost for us?

Father:   Yes. A creature had to compensate for the damage to creation inflicted by the Fall. Creation had to change *itself,* and heal *itself,* in order to move back to God. Because, as you said, God didn’t need to move back to us. It was we who needed to move back to him.

But only an infinitely powerful person could cover the cost of the repair of the damage of separation from God that creatures of our world had inflicted upon themselves in the Fall. So an infinitely powerful person became a man. That’s something that infinitely powerful persons can do. And he supplied to creation the value that the Fall had destroyed, so that we could get back to our original, natural state – and to him – if that’s what we wanted to do.

Son:        So Jesus the man was also God, and because that man had all the power of God, he could use it to save everyone, the way an ordinary good man would use that power, if he had it?

Father:   Pretty much. Jesus fixed things so that we can all get back to God. If that’s what we want to do.

Son:        OK. But why did Jesus have to die, in order for that to happen?

Father:   This is a much tougher question. Think of Mr. Anderson’s window. To repair it, you had to give up some money, right? You had to sacrifice that money, to do justice to Mr. Anderson, no? You had to sacrifice a bit of yourself in order to repair your relationship with Mr. Anderson, even though that didn’t improve the whole situation of you plus Mr. Anderson, at all.

Son:        Yes. Doggone it.

Father:   Your sacrifice didn’t make the world better. It only made the window better. The world as a whole was made poorer when that window broke, no matter what you ever do to make it better.

Son:        Yeah.

Father:   Why would it be different when it came to man repairing the damage he had done to his relationship with God? How could man repair the thing he had broken without paying anything for the repair?

Son:        So we – man – had to sacrifice something of infinite value – something way bigger than all the good things in the whole universe – in order to fill the empty gap between us and God. So, we had to sacrifice God. Jesus had to sacrifice himself. And he knew that. And he did it.

Father:   [Sorrowfully] Bingo.

Son:        But why did Jesus have to die? [Chokes] Why did he have to be killed like that? Why couldn’t he just become a monk or something, or a king, and devote himself to God, and live a perfect life, and then die like a regular old man? Wouldn’t that have worked?

Father:   [Gently] I know. It’s hard. But think of Mr. Anderson’s window again. What you are asking is sort of like asking, “Why couldn’t I just set aside the money and never touch it again, instead of giving it to Mr. Anderson so he could use it up to repair his window?” That can’t work. If you tried that, the window would go unrepaired, *and* you’d lose the use of your money. No: the cost must be paid. It must involve a bit of death.

Son:        [Weeping] I wish he hadn’t had to die.

Father: [Weeping] Me, too, son. But he did. And there is something about that which you must never forget, something good; something wonderful.

Son:        [Still upset] What?

Father:   Well, remember how what you had to pay to Mr. Anderson to repair his window didn’t fix the damage that the baseball did to the whole world when it broke the window?

Son:        Sure.

Father:   What was the value of the price Jesus paid for us on the Cross?

Son:        I guess it was infinite. Right?

Father:   Yes. So, not only did it make up the cost of the broken window – er, I mean, of the Fall – so that the window was repaired, but also it restored all the value that had been broken with the window – I mean, with the Fall. It restored the whole creation, so that it was all as good as new. It made everything as good as if it had never been busted, even though it had been.

But there’s even more. The sacrifice of Jesus was enough to repair our relationship with God – was enough to repair the whole world. But it bought – or well, perhaps it would be better to say that it generated – lots, lots more. It didn’t just get us back to being able to be natural men again, like Adam. It got us to being able to be gods. If that’s what we want. It didn’t just repair the world, so that it was again the way it was before the Fall. It made the world a heaven. That’s what is meant by the talk of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation.

The sacrifice of Jesus was in effect the sacrifice of this whole world – and indeed, of infinitely more – for the sake of its repair and its redemption. And the thing about that redemption is that it is a recreation. It is a whole new world. And it has started already. It has already begun.

So, son, thanks to Jesus, you and I can start being gods in heaven, right now. If that’s what we want to do.

Son:        You mean, we can become saints.

Father:   Yes. Exactly. Not easy, right? But, thanks to Jesus, it’s doable. Jesus is the first demonstration of that new capacity in us, which he made possible.

Son:        Because of the Resurrection.

Father:   Yes. Because he did what he did when he died – because he rose from death to everlasting life – so, we can do the same thing he did, when we die. If that’s what we want. But not if we want something less. To do what Jesus did, we have to want something infinite. We have to want God.

Son:        So, all I have to do is want God.

Father:   Pretty much. That’s a big and complicated want to fulfill, in practice. But, thanks to Jesus, you can at least be sure that you can do it, if you want. You just have to keep trying, all the way to the end.

Son:        So I can be a god, if I want, with like superpowers and stuff?

Father:   Yes. But not by wanting to be a god with superpowers. You can do it only by wanting God.

Son:        That doesn’t sound so terrible.

Father:   It isn’t. It’s terribly hard. But it isn’t terrible. Once you get started, it’s kind of fun. But it does get harder as you go along. In that way, it’s kind of like climbing a mountain. The air gets thinner just as the trail gets steepest and trickiest. But the views get better and better. And if you keep going, the sky gets so blue you can see the stars at midday.

Son:        Is that why you like to go out into the woods?

Father:   Yes. All the woods are bits of the mountain. It’s also why I like being your father.

Son:        Love you, Dad.

Father:   I love you, too, son. You are a good son, to me. Hey, want to help me hide some Easter eggs for your little brother?

Son:        Can I have a chocolate egg if I do? Or two?

Father:   That’s how it works. But you have to do it for the sake of his joy, and not for the chocolate eggs.

Son:        OK, Dad. I get it. Mostly I want to do it because it’s all fun.

Father:   It is. Let’s go then. How far out into the woods do you think we should hide them?

Son:       Somewhere this side of Big Rock. The Flume would be way too far for him …

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