Before my first child toddled around the house, we owned an illustrated story bible. As a new mom who wanted to raise my child to know and love God, I thought this was an important resource. Maybe even an essential one. Families around us read stories from their own illustrated children’s bibles, using them as tools to tell their young kids about Jesus before they could even speak full sentences.
Nearly seven years later, our bookshelves are lined with Bible retellings for kids. Some are thick and heavy, the binding falling apart. Others are small and simple with short phrases and familiar characters. Some focus on the redemptive narrative and person of Jesus. Others focus on famous stories and fuzzy animals. But the thing they all have in common? None of them are the actual Bible.
As moms who want to be wise, checking every book and snack and toy that comes through our doors, we know it’s not a Bible replacement—at least at some level. We recognize that the authoritative word of God is not equal to the illustrated one we hand our kids. But at times, we can still get the two confused. When the “real Bible” feels inaccessible for the little one who would rather tear pages than listen to big words, we happily hand over something that feels like a substitute.
These books, written by human authors seeking to communicate the essence of scripture for children, can be really helpful. (Our kids have used and enjoyed them for many years!) But we can’t make them an end in themselves. We’re not hoping that our kids memorize the Jesus Storybook Bible but that they hide the sacred word of God deep in their hearts.
At Risen Motherhood, we get many messages from moms who want to use these helpful tools and aren’t sure how to sort through their questions or concerns. So we hope you’ll find these thoughts helpful as you evaluate the use of children’s story bibles in your own home.
They Won’t Be Comprehensive
Illustrated retellings of the Bible significantly condense scripture. Where the actual Bible has over a thousand pages and 66 books, a children’s story bible might have 50 pages and tell 20 stories. The author decides what to include based on their goals for the book and their personal theology.
As we open up a book like this with our children, we should expect there to be big missing pieces, both in the overall narrative and in the details of the stories. This is someone’s summary, not the Author of history’s word-for-word account. Only God himself is able to look back over the years and decide what to include and exclude in his kingdom story.
This doesn’t mean we can’t use story bibles, but it means that we’re not shocked by the exclusion of details. Maybe as moms, we look for storybook bibles that include the aspects of scripture that most align with the true story of scripture as we understand it and most reflect our theological views. Maybe it means that we tell our kids frequently, “This isn’t God’s word to us. These are just stories that remind us about things in his true word, the Bible.” There are many ways to help our children see these differences over time.
The Illustrations are Meant to be Artistic
Artists and illustrators take in the world around them and interpret those stories visually. Some artists portray subjects exactly as they are, more like a photograph, and others use abstract styles to convey feelings and impressions. Just like other forms of art, the illustrator makes choices about how to portray characters and settings. To make this even more complex, there are characters in the Bible which don’t have easy-to-comprehend forms, like angels and demons, the Holy Spirit or God himself.
When we show a picture of a Bible story to our children, we should expect it to reflect the illustrator’s goals and interpretations. Most children’s book illustrators are trying to be faithful, but they aren’t necessarily Bible historians with the goal of precise representation. And the reality is that none of us were first-hand eye-witnesses to the stories in scripture, so we can’t really know for sure about details that aren’t included in the Bible itself.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the accuracy of illustrated story bibles, but that we do research, look for ourselves, use discernment, and decide whether or not we think the artist's interpretations are helpful or too problematic.
What about pictures of Jesus as a man?
At Risen Motherhood, we get a lot of questions about whether or not a book contains pictures of Jesus as a man or whether or not we believe that’s okay. While we think that Bible-believing, faithful, and gospel-centered Christians can come to different conclusions on this topic, we do include illustrated story bibles that depict Jesus in our recommendations. If you believe that a physical portrayal of Jesus in an image violates the second commandment, we encourage you to live according to your conscience and proceed with caution when making a purchase.
The Stories Might be Inaccurate
As we talked about above, when an author sits down to write a retelling of the Bible, they have to remove tremendous amounts of content. As they summarize the word of God in their own words to convey the main message, they are going to put their spin on things—whether intentionally or not. They might even change details, put stories together, or embellish aspects of an event for effect. Some writers rephrase sentences or paragraphs and put them in quotations as if they are words from the person speaking or from God himself.
We think this is one of the trickiest aspects of children’s story bibles. It requires discernment and sensitivity to your own conscience. If you’re not sure whether or not a changed detail or summary “crosses the line” for you, reach out to the children’s ministry leader at your local church, get insight from a pastor, a trusted friend, or an older woman. Although we do our best to recommend the best children’s bible retellings we can, each one has unique benefits and challenges.
How are you planning to use this book?
A lot of this boils down to our goals for a resource and the way we hope to use this tool in our own homes. If we rely on an illustrated story bible to be the meat and potatoes of our child’s spiritual upbringing, we’re going to be disappointed and our child’s spiritual hunger won’t be adequately satiated. We recommend that if you use illustrated story bibles with your kids, that they serve as more of an appetizer and not the main meal itself.  Even young children can be transformed by the truth of the real Bible. It alone should be held up as the authoritative story of God and his people—the only one that is complete, accurate, living, and active.
A Matter of Conscience and Discernment
If you’ve never heard of those phrases, your conscience helps you know whether something is “right” or “wrong.” Maybe it’s a bad feeling or a pit in your stomach or something that worries or concerns you. Although all humans have consciences, as Christians, ours should be shaped by the Bible and the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us that as we live under the authority of scripture and engage in healthy community with other Christians, we should, on the whole, listen to and act according to our consciences. So if you have a bad feeling about a particular children’s bible retelling, you should listen to that. If you like a version and want to use it as one tool in your toolbox, go for it.
Biblical discernment is the ability to spot the difference between authentic truth and counterfeit replicas. We grow in our ability to see inaccuracies as we know and grow in our understanding of the word of God itself. When we’re extremely familiar with the scriptures, we’re going to more easily spot a fake. As far as illustrated retellings of the Bible are concerned, the reality is—they are all counterfeits. So we shouldn’t be surprised that our discernment “red flags” go up. Some moms are able to handle this by putting them in another mental category altogether, thinking of them more like children’s stories or Sunday school curriculum. And others can’t get there at all and choose not to use illustrated retellings. Many moms are somewhere in-between.
Pray. Learn. Grow.
God has entrusted our children to us. He hasn’t given us a Holy Spirit curated resource page outside of scripture. Instead, he promises to help us parent our kids one day at a time through the help of his Spirit, his people, and his word.
We know that this makes it hard because we can’t just sit back and select from a Netflix-like queue of biblically-sound options, but instead, we have to engage our very tired mama minds in the spiritual upbringing of our children. But remember, we’re not alone!
As we wrestle through the benefits and challenges of illustrated re-tellings of the Bible, we can pray. We can try things and then learn from them. Maybe you read one to your kids for a while, and then you stop. Maybe you expand your library and use it as a great teaching tool when you find inaccuracies. There are a lot of wise ways to go about it!
God will be faithful to help us grow into the image of his son. To this end, we all step out and trust him—with our toddlers, our teenagers, and even our home libraries.
Emily Jensen is the Content Director for Risen Motherhood, and the co-host of the weekly podcast. She’s a busy mom of five, a frequent downloader of audiobooks from the library, and a lover of Friday nights at home.
Hebrews 4:12, 2 Timothy 3:16
Romans 14:23, For an overview read Conscience: What it is, How to Train it, and Loving Those Who Differ by Andrew Naselli (Crossway, 2016)
James 1:5, Proverbs 18:15
Romans 8:29, 1 John 3:2