Explaining Jesus to a Twelve-Year Old

One of the more delightful requests to emerge from my Reasoned Conversation on FoRK (about Christianity and atheism) was the challenge to explain Jesus in a manner that could be understood by an intelligent 12-year-old. I have perhaps taken that too literally by framing my response as a letter to a hypothetical pre-pubescent “Strawman”, and I fear my response [Read More, below] doesn’t do full justice to the question, but I hope it will nonetheless serve to increase our mutual understanding and help move the conversation forward.

Dear Strawie,

Thank you very much for the chance to write you this letter. From your question, I assume that your family doesn’t attend church very often, so you aren’t aware of any Christians in your circle — at least that you trust — whom you can ask about Jesus. I am painfully aware that I don’t have all the answers, but I’m happy to share with you what I do know.

To explain Jesus to you, though, I first have to talk to you about “love.” I would hope that you’ve had the privilege of growing up in a family full of people who love you and love each other, so that you have a good handle on what “love” means. At the very least, I hope that you have at least one parent, friend — or even a dog! — whom you know loves you unquestioningly, who would be willing to joyfully sacrifice themselves for your sake. [If not, then we probably need to have a different conversation.]

The reason I make such a big deal about love is that the older I get, the more certain I am that happiness really only comes from love. My greatest wish for you is that you would live a long live filled with love and happiness and be a source of love and happiness for others.

Unfortunately, not every wish comes true. Perhaps you or a friend know the pain that comes when love fails, such as when parents discover that their love for each other isn’t strong enough to keep them together. You are old enough to know that even though your parents love you, sometimes they do things that hurt you. You’ll also quickly discover that trying to do the “right” thing — telling the truth, caring for others, facing up to your mistakes — can often be both costly and painful. There’ll be an enormous temptation to take the easy way out: cheat on a test, lie to your boyfriend or girlfriend, or hide your pain in drugs and alcohol.

Now, I’m sure you’ll run into many well-meaning people who tell you to “just say no”, and to buck up and do good “just because it is the right thing to do.” Which is true, but (at least if you’re anything like me) isn’t enough. Sure, it is usually easy to maintain some sort of love (most of the time) for a close circle of friends, but as the years go by and you discover that the world is full of people who don’t love you — and may even hate you — it is hard to muster up much love for them. You may ask yourself, “Why shouldn’t I just look out for me and mine, and let the rest of the world go to hell? Don’t I deserve to be happy? Isn’t that just what everybody else does, anyway?”

I pray you go a long time before you reach that point; but when you get there, I ask you to do one thing:

Open your eyes.

Yes, there is a lot of evil and selfishness in the world. But there’s also many people who have somehow transcended the petty narrowness of mind that threatens to engulf us all — and who’ve made us all richer by their love and sacrifice. People like:

* Mahatma Gandhi, who demonstrated the power of non-violence
* William Wilberforce, who abolished the English Slave Trade
* Mother Theresa, who inspired millions with her compassion for the poor and dying
* Saint Patrick, who pacified the violent island of Ireland a millenia ago
* Martin Luther King, Jr., who kept the U.S. from tearing ourselves apart in racial violence

And don’t just look to the past. Visit the Salvation Army or Alcoholics Anonymous, and see how people with more reasons than you for despair end up rededicating their lives to hope, love, and service. If you have the money, go visit hospitals serving African tribals, orphanages in Latin America, or schools educating Indian slumdwellers, and talk to the people who work there.

Because if you do, I’m pretty sure you’ll notice two things. One, these people (as imperfect as they are) have discovered a love for others that is worth sacrificing their comfort, self-pity, and fear in order to pursue. Two, an overwhelming majority of them were inspired by the life and teachings of a man called Jesus Christ. In fact, a huge percentage of them — especially of those who founded such organizations — will tell you that it is their relationship with Jesus which motivates and empowers them to do such things.

Which at last brings us to your question: Who is this Jesus? What is it about him that leads so many people to give up their time, money, position and comfort to tackle such impossible tasks — and succeed?

Now, there have been more words written about Jesus (both for and against) than any other subject in human history, and I can’t possibly add anything meaningful to that. However, the main thing you need to know — the one thing virtually everyone agrees on — is that Jesus taught people to love each other, and even to love our enemies. Though he never wrote anything down himself, he is credited with coining what we often call “The Golden Rule“, among many other famous and well-loved sayings.

Now, you might think a person who talked about love like that would be uniformly kind and compassionate and beloved by everyone. Unfortunately, that’s not the way things work. See, whenever you love something, you get angry at anything which threatens harm to those you love. This can be either a wonderful or a terrible fact — depending on what it is you love. For Jesus, it meant that he got angry at the religious and political leaders who never lifted a finger to help those they’d loaded down with guilt and shame. Conversely, those same leaders got really angry at Jesus for showing them up by the way he talked about (and treated) the poor, “sinners”, and even God.

Which brings us to the other point virtually everyone agrees upon: after only three years of public preaching, in the prime of his life, those leaders conspired to have Jesus sentenced to death and nailed to a Roman cross.

That was — or at least should’ve been — the end of Jesus. Instead, Something happened, something that changed the world forever. What that Something was is a matter of much debate, but let me tell you what we do know.

Soon afterwards, his followers began making the outlandish claim that Jesus had actually risen from the dead! Amazingly, they spoke with such credibility and authority that multitudes believed them; this despite the threat of being cast out of the synagogue, which Jews of that time considered a fate worse than death. More shocking still, one of the very leaders commissioned to enforce that threat — a man we now call Paul — switched sides after what he claimed was an encounter with the risen Jesus. And in the two thousand years since — in culture after culture, continent after continent — millions more have made similar claims; many of whom proceeded to back those claims up with extraordinary acts of selflessness, courage, and compassion.

Now, let me make one thing clear: I am not asking you to become a Christian (though I myself am both proud and humbled to bear that name). Christianity is a term too often associated with people who do terrible and evil things — including, on occasion, myself. I am not asking you to turn off your brain, think like I do, join the Republican Party, or give money to somebody you see on TV.

But more than any thing I could give you, I long for you to meet my Jesus, as I and millions more have done before. I want you to encounter the Something that provides a rational, empirical, historical basis for believing that truth, love, forgiveness and happiness are not merely desirable, but doable; as seen in the transforming life of Jesus and the best of his followers.

Sure, there are many who will tell you this Something was (and is) all a scam. That Jesus never lived, or never said those things attributed to him. Or at least that he didn’t die on that cross, or if he did then he certainly never rose again. Or, at the very least, that we can never know for sure what really happened.

And in one sense, they’re right. We never know anything for sure. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow, but I could be wrong. I believe my wife loves me, but it could all just be an act. However, I choose to believe — rationally! — based on what I have seen and tested to be true. Based on what others before me have trusted in enough to bet their lives on at great cost. And win.

So when you reach the place where the comforting simplicities of childhood are attacked by the cold realities of the modern world, when you realize you must choose your own voice from the multitude of voices pressing in upon you, I pray you will hear the voice of the man called Jesus. And discover that he loves you with a love as real and powerful (if as invisible) as the air we breath. For I believe that if you open your eyes, heart, and mind to the love of Jesus, you will see that all good things really are possible.

Ernest Prabhakar
October 30, 2006 A.D.