Something like 1,983 years have now passed since Jesus of Nazareth was executed, a timespan that few men have traversed with such prestige. So adaptable is the life of this man that generation after generation have grown up in rather extreme devotion to his legacy. But what is it about this apocalyptic sect that accounts for its staying power? Surely its not applicability, of which it has relatively little in today’s world. It seems, rather, that the power behind the Christian message is its assurance of safety at the end of all things, even if it seems that such an event might not be coming any time soon.
Unlike its predecessor, Judaism, the first century Jesus-movement was never intended to be a movement that spanned across generations. In fact, we have record of the panic that swept over the first Pauline-Christians when some among them were starting to die before their promised eschaton had come. When the converts in Thessaloniki are worrying whether or not those who have died are still among the saved, Paul reminds them of the coming resurrection of the dead and urges them not to worry about the time and place of the event; that is to say that it’s surely coming very soon, but it might not be tonight or tomorrow morning. In other words, they should continue going about their business and stop worrying so much–they won’t have to be explaining this conversion decision to their grandkids one day. And in fact, most of them probably never had to do so given Paul’s advocation of celibacy (see 1 Corinthians 7:29).
Judaism, on the other hand, was a long established tradition very much concerned with the practicalities of both daily and family life. There are rituals along life’s path from birth to death because traditional Judaism at its core is concerned with one thing–following the commands of God. Raising one’s children according to these commands is a part of following these commands. For Jews, how one’s children turn out reflects on the character of the individual, hence the popular Jewish proverb: Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Paul’s gospel, on the other hand, is not about going anywhere, but about accepting God’s gift that relieves all men from the condition of needing to go anywhere in the first place. If obedience to God’s commands comes out of this acceptance it is because of the freedom from sin experienced at having been accredited righteousness through faith in Christ. It makes sense, then, that Paul’s message is accompanied by a fast-approaching apocalypse and transformation–the pursuits of men for all things of the world, including holiness, have been made void in God’s gift of grace.
So we see why Paul never speaks of matters of raising children in his letters. Firstly, in light of this new identity, what need is there for procreation, the extension of man’s earthly identity? Secondly, what time is there for birthing offspring faced with the return of Jesus on the horizon? Thirdly, even if there were time to raise kids, what kind of message is this for children? Kids, I know you’re only three and can barely talk and don’t even know what your life is, but I think it’s time you give it up. This makes no sense to children, to whom the complexity of the human condition has yet revealed itself.
But Christianity has evolved. The apocalypse might remain a possibility in the eyes of some, but for many others salvation has become something to be attained at death i.e., faith in Christ during life allows entrance into God’s kingdom at death. Heaven is not coming to earth when Christ returns. People’s bodies are not being raised into spiritual bodies. Israel is not to be restored as God’s people. Faith in Jesus alone is sufficient for eternal heavenly life when you die.
This is Christianity’s power–that it can move freely from the specific to the general as it needs. What was once a message to Gentiles that they could be grafted into the Jewish faith through a messiah and participate in the coming resurrection of man is now a message for the world, Jews included, that acceptance of a fourth-century creed will save you from eternal punishment for your earthly sin.
In summary, it is difficult to say which message is more appropriate to teach children–that Jesus saves them from their sinfulness for admission into the afterlife or the original message of an existential escape from the trivialities of earthly existence. The first would be deceptive and the other a bit heavy for children to grasp. Still, it seems that if we do believe God loves us in our fallen state and that Jesus is our gift of God’s acceptance, we are impelled to pass along this message to younger generations however we are able to truthfully communicate it.