Is the Story of Christmas Believable?

Can you blame Joseph for doubting Mary? If a woman said she was pregnant and no man was involved in any way, would you believe her? Sometimes a person’s claim may be surprising, but believable. At other times they go beyond surprising to being unbelievable.

We are not explicitly told what Mary said to Joseph, but it is unimaginable that she would not have shared about the angel visitation we read about in the Gospel of Luke. We do learn how Joseph responds to the surprising pregnancy:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. Matthew 1:18-19

Joseph was a righteous man, and the right thing to do was get out of the betrothal. Joseph was also a good man, and the good thing to do was to get out of the betrothal quietly so that Mary would not be exposed to scorn and disgrace. Joseph is also a reasonable man, and the reasonable thing to think is that Mary is covering up a lack of faithfulness with an angel story. That is the most reasonable explanation. At least until an angel shows up:

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:20-21

So Joseph believes the surprising news, with some help. But what about us? Why would we trust this one account of a virgin conception, and no other? Joseph, so we are told, had the evidence of an angel to help him believe. Is there anything that will help us know that the Christmas story does not cross the line from surprising to unbelievable?

History helps us believe the Christmas miracle is true and reasonable.

Can anything make the surprising story of Christmas believable in our scientific age?
Doesn’t science tell us that belief in such a conception is unreasonable? First, we should recognize that science is limited in its subject matter to what can be seen and observed in some way. Therefore, there are two kinds of facts not available to science; spiritual and historical. You will never be able to “see” God out in space no matter how powerful your telescope. God simply is not in our realm that we should see Him. Also, you cannot “observe” events that have already happened. When we want to know about history we turn to historians, not scientists.

Knowing that science does not specialize in spiritual or historical facts, let us now consider the Bible. The Bible primarily speaks not about science, but about spiritual and historical truths.  The Bible records for us historical events that speak about the relationship of God with people. Now let us consider that history very briefly. God created a world of great order and beauty. God created humanity for relationship. Humanity fell out of relationship with God having rebelled against Him. However, God did not give up on a relationship with humanity, rather He made loving promises which we find throughout the Old Testament. The only way God could keep those promises was through dealing with the sin that separates us from Him. The only way to deal with sin while maintaining both perfect justice and grace, is through becoming the suitable sacrifice Himself.  The only way to become that sacrifice is for God to be “killable,” to be “crucifiable.” The only way to do that is to become incarnate:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8 (emphasis added)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:4-6 (emphasis added)

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:14 (emphasis added)

This is what we celebrate at Christmas. God Himself was “born in human likeness,” “born of a woman,” through God the Son, Jesus. When you follow the history of humanity’s relationship with God, then of course there would be a virgin conception. How else could  the events of Easter be effective in reconciling us to God except by the event of Christmas? And of course, such historical events, both Christmas and Easter, would only happen once. So yes, virgins do not conceive, and dead men are not raised from the dead (yet). But these things did happen this one time. The history between God and humanity, as recorded by many different people, over many centuries, leads us to consider that the virgin conception is not just believable, it is not even that surprising!

Jesus helps us believe the Christmas miracle is true and reasonable.

Look at the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is all unique. Look at the impact of Jesus on the world and individual lives. He is unique. He is widely held to be the greatest figure in history. If your Mum told you one day that that you were conceived without a man, is there anything about you or your life that would make you believe her? Are you unique in some way, or in many ways, that such an announcement would suddenly make sense of everything else about you? Of course not! But ask the same question about Jesus.

Consider what the apostles were saying about Jesus following the events of Easter. To give a summary, “Jesus rose from the dead, we knew him, we heard his teaching, we saw his miracles, we experienced him as being someone, or rather Someone unique. He is both the promised Messiah and Lord.” They were not going around talking primarily about the virgin both, and oh, by the way, he also died and rose again. Rather, he, as the impressive and unique figure that we experienced him to be, died and rose again, oh, and as you might expect, even his birth was unique. Too many people dismiss the story of Christmas without really considering the whole story of Jesus.

What makes a unique conception believable is the fact that Jesus himself is unique in every way. What makes Jesus believable, is the fact that he fits with what God had promised to do. The good news of Jesus, though surprising in some ways, fits the fact that “God is love.” Therefore the Christmas story is not only believable, it is not that surprising after all.

For Joseph the news of the baby was surprising, even unbelievable. But Joseph, with some help, trusted and good things happened. When we trust God good things happen. We might not have an angel appearance in a dream, but we do have history and Jesus as evidence that the story of Christmas is reasonable and true.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

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To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, HOPE . . .

(This is part five in a series based on the tagline of our church: “To the Glory of God, Helping PeopleWalk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and Love”)

We threw out the anchor, but nothing changed. At the age of thirteen it was my first year as a sailor in an old wooden sailboat which we bought with everything needed including an anchor. Except that it wasn’t really an anchor. More of a tin of beans filled with concrete and a hook. We threw it out as a last attempt in too strong a breeze for inexperienced sailors. It didn’t help. Yes, we remembered to tie a rope to it, but it didn’t help. It was not a good anchor.

“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul . . . ” Hebrews 6:19 (NRSV)

The Bible describes hope in Jesus as a good anchor. But is it? Are there other anchors, or even better anchors, for our souls?

Can science be an anchor for the soul? On the one hand science provides good reason for hope. Having a son with Type 1 diabetes, I am very hopeful that a cure will be found someday. I am also hopeful that the technology will get better while scientists work toward that cure. My hope in both these things won’t be realized without scientists doing their thing! On the other hand, hope in science cannot be an anchor for our souls for at least two reasons.

First, nothing kills hope like what we learn from scientific discovery. Centuries of scientific observation tells us that we will not be alive for very long. Even as we attempt to extend our lives through better medical care, scientists tell us that the universe will not always be life permitting. Ultimately there is no hope for humanity if science is all you can base your hope on.

But more importantly, science cannot tell us everything about everything. Science has its limits. For example, scientists cannot teach us the facts of history. As a scientist, if you knew nothing about airplanes, you could, by observation, figure out how they work. However, you will never know about the many people, engineers, designers, and test pilots for example, who were behind the evolution of the airplane. Scientists can tell us a lot about how things work, but we rely on historians to teach us about the who behind things, the creators throughout history.

Science cannot teach us about things beyond the reach of the telescope, microscope, or any other instrument used to “observe” things. It cannot discover spiritual realities. Going to a scientist to learn about spiritual realities is like going to an auto-mechanic for heart surgery. Sure, the mechanic may know something about the heart, but heart surgery is not her or his expertise. Going to science to learn everything about reality is like buying a house off the internet based only on photos of the outside. There is much that can be learned from those photos, but there is so much more to learn. Science provides too narrow a view. There is so much more that cannot be seen or measured. Science cannot be a good anchor for the soul, for it is far too limited in the truths it can discover.

So religion is the anchor for our souls, right? Well, not so fast. Perhaps I might start my own religion. Let me begin with the promise that you will live forever if you give me $1000. Will you buy in? Why not? You know you will die and I will be $1000 richer! Placing your hope in my made-up religion is unreasonable. Placing our hope in any made-up religion is unreasonable. Every man-made religion, even though it may contain elements of truth, is not going to be reliably true in the things that really matter. The religious leader may point to things the scientist could never discover. But the religious leader may be far from the truth in what he thinks and says. Mere religion cannot be a good anchor for our souls, for it can be unglued from reality.

In what can we anchor our souls if neither religion, nor science, provide good anchors? The question turns out to be not “in what” but “in Whom?” Hope in Jesus Christ provides a good anchor for our souls for it is grounded in realities that science cannot discover, and reality religion cannot reasonably point to.

Hope in Christ is grounded in realities that cannot be observed, and which therefore scientists could never discover through science alone. There is no hope of finding just the right camera or instrument to be able to see God. But God has revealed Himself to us throughout history, to the patriarchs, people, and prophets of Israel, then supremely though Jesus. Through scientific discovery we may infer the presence of a creator, but we cannot discover the truth about the fall of humanity and God’s rescue operation. However, God can reveal it.

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. John 1:18 (NLT)

But how do we know that all this Jesus-talk is not just more made-up religion divorced from reality? Unlike man-made religion, hope in Christ is grounded in realities that have been observed. It is based on real events experienced and observed by real people, many people. For example;

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)

The call to trust in Jesus is not a call to believe what one man claims to be true without providing any evidence for its truthfulness. It is a call to trust what many eyewitnesses were testifying to and willing to die for. It is a call to trust that the New Testament exists for good reason, not because a few people were trying to create a religion that would get them killed, but because so many people were responding to the events around Jesus, including his resurrection. It is a call to trust the reality of God as experienced through His presence as recorded in the Bible. It is a call to study history. There is a long history of God revealing Himself and people experiencing Him.

Our hope in Christ is also a hope that neither science nor religion could provide:

We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever . . . Hebrews 6:19-20 (NRSV)

The talk about a curtain, inner shrine, and high priest relates to Old Testament symbolism around the presence of God. The temple, the “Most Holy Place” within the temple, and priesthood all symbolized God’s desire to be with people, but also the impossibility of a sinful people being able to approach, and so be fully with, a holy God. So there was a sacred space and a whole lot of rigmarole to teach people about holiness and the Holy One. Enter Jesus, who being God the Son, is the only One Who could dwell fully in the presence of the Father. He became our “high priest”, meaning that He is the mediator between ourselves and God. Through His death and resurrection Jesus did what religion could never do. He also did for us what we will never be able to do despite the wonderful advancements being made through science. He reconciled sinful people to a holy God. Neither science, nor religion, can do that.

As a church we are called to help people walk with Jesus in hope. We do that best by living as people of hope, anchoring our hope in Jesus while always being ready to say why:

. . . you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. 1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)

 

Investigating Jesus. Untampered Evidence.

In objecting to Christianity many people cite a lack of trust that the evidence has been handled well and has not been tampered with. The “telephone game” is raised as an example of how things get changed when passed from one person to another so that you cannot trust the final message to be the same as the original. So how do we know that the Christian message has not changed over time from the original? How can we trust anything we hear about Jesus from the New Testament?

J. Warner Wallace points out that with policing there is a “chain of custody” which exists to ensure evidence is properly documented and protected. There is a paper trail documenting all the people who have ever handled it, with policies and procedures in place, all to ensure that jurors can trust they are indeed presented with the facts. The evidence cannot be tampered with. So can we identify a “chain of custody” with respect to the New Testament and the Christian message? Wallace has done the hard work for us in identifying at least three different “chains” which link the New Testament as we now have it to the original apostles. I will refer you to Wallace’s book, “Cold-Case Christianity” where he treats these with much greater detail, but to summarize:

  • John’s students confirm the accuracy of the Gospels: John taught Ignatius and Polycarp who taught Irenaeus who taught Hippolytus who lived 170-236 AD.
  • Paul’s students confirm the accuracy of the Gospels: Paul taught Linus and Clement of Rome and then we have Evaristus, Alexander 1, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Hyginus,Pius, Justin Martyr and then Tatian.
  • Peter’s students confirmed the accuracy of the Gospels: Peter communicated through Mark who taught Anianus, and then we have Avilius, Kedron, Primus, Justus, Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Pamphilus of Caesarea and then Eusebius who lived 263-339 AD.

These “chains” represent three different parts of the Mediterranean world, with John’s chain running through Asian Minor, modern-day Turkey, Paul’s running through Rome, and Peter’s running through Northern Africa. In each of these locations and through time we find the same message consistently communicated with the New Testament works quoted or referred to often. Wallace points out that if we did not even have a New Testament, we could piece together the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in quite a lot of detail just from what these “Church Fathers” tell us.

As I had done a joint-major in Classical Studies I was intrigued by Wallace’s mention in this chapter of Herodotus and Thucydides. These two authors from antiquity, and many others like them, are used by classical historians in piecing together ancient history. Now the historians may or may not agree that Herodotus and Thucydides are accurate in their respective telling of history, but it is important for us to note that historians do not cast much doubt at all upon the fact that they are reading the works of Herodotus and Thucydides. Remarkably, there is no chain of custody to which we can turn to verify that these sources have not been tampered with. We can not refer to the the writings of the students or of the students of the students and so on of either Herodotus or Thucydides. And yet, no one ever brings up the “telephone game” as a reason we should suspect these books as we have them now to be fabrications or distortions of the originals. It seems obvious that many people develop a hyper-scepticism when it comes to the New Testament.

Scepticism is a very good thing. It keeps us from being naive, from believing things we ought not to. Scepticism can keep us from believing false witnesses who are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. However, hyper-scepticism is a bad thing. If all judges and jurors fell into hyper-scepticism, justice would be obstructed and many a guilty person would go free. Evidence would never be trusted as authentic. So why is it that a healthy scepticism with regard to ancient works turns to hyper-scepticism with regard to the ancient works that make up the New Testament? It goes back to Genesis 3 when Satan used his first and best tactic, saying to Eve: “Did God really say?” He continues to inspire a God denying hyper-scepticism in our day.

The apostles knew that God really was speaking into the world through Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. They, and all their students knew the great importance of handing truth on correctly:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,  through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (NRSV emphasis mine)

From a historical perspective, there is a wonderful “chain of custody” which gives us confidence that the New Testament and all that is said in it has been preserved well and untampered for us. From a theological perspective, of course there is a chain of evidence. God, having gone to such lengths to love us, would not allow his love to be hidden by layers of deceit. Do you need to read the New Testament with a new appreciation that it is genuine and untampered evidence?