I never thought I’d be using Saint Athanasius to explain God to a fifth grader. But this Wednesday, I found myself thinking over Athanasius’ arguments in On the Incarnation as I challenged a group of squirmy 10-year-olds to tell me why Jesus had to die on a cross. Why couldn’t he die in his sleep of old age? Could he have died from a disease, and still save us? A lively discussion ensued about public executions, gruesome pain, and hell. I was a very proud vacation bible school leader.
The theme of this year’s VBS at my home church was EPIC: the most amazing, gargantuan, mind-blowing, ridiculous, unbelievable but totally believable story ever. (Yes, that was really the tagline.) The intention of the church was clear: present the story of Jesus in a way that would get the kids excited about the gospel. Throughout the week, the story built from creation (“God made you—that’s amazing!”) to the climax of Jesus’ death on the cross and the choice we have to follow or reject him. The church did a terrific job of laying out the good news so that elementary kids could understand and become enthusiastic about it.
While I had high hopes for the kids to learn and grow, I didn’t think I would do the same. I’m a college honors student at a Christian university. I have read pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and I have also read quite a bit of theology—Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure and Calvin, to name a few. My studies have taught me to ask good questions and seek the truth, but they have also pushed my already-analytical self toward reason and logic, and away from faith and emotions. It is difficult for me to get excited or emotional about God because I want to make sure I have all my facts and arguments lined up in a nice, neat row. Satan uses this tendency to trap me: I can think condescendingly about someone who does not have as much knowledge of theology as I have, even if they are seeking Christ with their entire soul.
Going into VBS, I expected to have fun and teach kids some basics about God along the way. I wasn’t expecting to have deep theological conversations, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to learn anything myself.
In past years, I’ve led 1st and 2nd graders at VBS, but this was my first year with 5th graders. At the top of the elementary school food chain, they are a little bigger and smarter, and have a greater capacity for deep thinking. I wanted to help challenge them in their relationship with the Lord, and was amazed at the conversations that resulted. Here is a sampling of some of the questions they asked:
- If someone never has the chance to hear about Jesus, will they go to heaven or to hell?
- How can Jesus be God, and also a son?
- Will we be able to see someone’s soul in heaven?
- If Satan was an angel before he fell, why did God give him all those blessings, if he knew that Satan would use the blessings against him?
- In heaven, will we be able to remember everything we’ve ever done? What about the bad things?
It was thrilling for me to help the kids think deeper, and to push some of them beyond their well-rehearsed “church answers.” It was also thrilling to have them hit upon questions I didn’t have the answer to.
The gospel is simple, but it’s also very complicated—a fact I felt keenly during vacation bible school. It can be boiled down and explained to 5th graders, but has also been debated for millennia among intellectuals. It is both wonderful and awful, in the true sense of the words. Amidst hand motions and water balloon relays, I rediscovered the awe of the basic gospel story through the kids’ thoughtful questions and the church’s enthusiastic teaching. The work of redemption that God has wrought for humanity is truly epic. Sometimes in debating the minute points of theological doctrine, I forget the power of the Almighty’s saving grace. It’s good to be reminded by 5th graders.