Posted by: Philip Rushton | November 28, 2011

Advent Apologetics: Coming to terms with the mystery of the Christmas Story

Behind the pageantry, the traditions, and the decorations of Christmas stands a mind-boggling story. Christians profess a belief that God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ through the virgin Mary. The traditions of Christmas normalize the story, but when you step back and look at what is really being professed it inevitably raises some questions. A few years ago, during an Advent worship service, I was struck by the oddity of the Christmas story. I had heard it numerous times, but this time it sounded more confusing. I left that service asking – ‘Do I really believe that these events took place?’ Do I really believe in the incarnation – that God took on human flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14)?

I think it is normal to wrestle with these questions. In fact, I think it is even healthy to ask some of these hard questions about what we believe. This process of inquiry and searching after God can function to strengthen our faith and enable us to respond well to others who are wrestling with questions. Nevertheless, it is a disorienting experience.

What follows are a couple of thoughts that have resulted from this journey of inquiry. This is by no means an exhaustive argument that covers all the possible questions one might encounter. Instead, these are a a couple of issues that have helped me come to terms with the mystery of the incarnation.

First, I discovered within me an inherent contradiction. When I asked some of these questions about the incarnation I realized that I was not struggling with other beliefs about God that are equally mysterious. For example, I was not wrestling with the idea that there was a God who had orchestrated life and created the world. In fact, I find that to reject God requires much more of a leap of faith then to accept the existence of God. When I consider the miracle of life, the vast landscape of human emotion and experience, I have trouble believing that this is the product of chance alone. Yet, while I believe in a creator God I sometimes get tripped up over the possibility of miracles or things like the virgin birth. Timothy Keller argues that this is a contradictory train of thought. He writes, “if there is a creator God, there is nothing illogical at all about the possibility of miracles. After all, if he created everything out of nothing, it would hardly be a problem for him to rearrange part of it as and when he wishes. To be sure that miracles cannot occur you would have to be sure beyond a doubt that God didn’t exist, and that is an article of faith.” Keller poses an important question. If we believe that God is powerful enough to create the world, why would we struggle to believe that he might intervene in our world in a smaller way?

Secondly, I think it is important for us to understand the intent of the gospel writers. The witnesses we have to the story of Jesus’ life intend to record actual events not legends. Luke, from which we get our most detailed Christmas story, begins his gospel by saying that his intent is to write an orderly account of the events about Jesus life which are based on eyewitness accounts (Luke 1:1-4).

Indeed, the genre of the gospels read differently than ancient myths and legends. C.S. Lewis, an expert in ancient myths, says that the gospels are either reporting actual events, or the gospel writers somehow developed the technique of modern realistic novels that had never appeared before and would not appear again for thousands of years (From his book “Christian Reflections”). You see, the gospels do not have the normal elements of myths. For example, they include realistic and unnecessary details – such as the fact that Jesus sat on a cushion in a boat (mark 4), or the disciples caught 153 fish (John 21). These types of details were foreign to ancient myths and read like historical reports. Along with this, the gospels are too counterproductive to be legends. Many have argued that the gospels were ideological myths used to procure power by the early leaders of the church. However, if that was the case they would be counter-productive myths because they characterize the early leaders of the church as imperfect and even foolish. They also show women as the first eye witnesses to the resurrection, which would not have gained credibility among first century readers. Lastly, the gospels were published too early for them to gain ground if they had no historical footing. By the time they were published (40-60 years after Jesus death), eyewitnesses of both followers and skeptics would have still been alive. The letters of Paul, which attest to Christ’s divinity, were written 15-20 years after the life of Jesus. So it is important to keep in mind that the gospels intended to report actual events not present legends. (This paragraph summarizes some of the main arguments in Chapter 7 of Keller’s “The Reason for God.”)

There are of course many other things to consider. This is really just the beginning of what could be a very long and in-depth conversation. I haven’t even scratched the surface of some of the fundamental arguments for the existence of God, or talked about the significance of spiritual experience for our faith development. These, however, are a couple of issues that are directly related to the significance of the Christmas story and have helped me in my faith journey.

What sort of questions do you wrestle with when you consider the miracle of the incarnation?

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Responses

  1. I enjoy reading your blogs and find them informative and inspiring. I also find it interesting to think about some of the examples you cite. Perhaps I have a blind faith, but I just figure God can do anything, period. Not to say I don’t have my doubts at times, it’s just not with things you talked about. Thanks for writing.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Daryl! Hope that you and Stephannie have a great Advent season.


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