Now we come to the big question. Lest you hold your breath in dread anticipation, I’ll not keep you waiting. The conclusion (surprise!) will be No. Christmas is not a fairy tale.
I know that, for the most part, I’m preaching to the choir here. And I know we in the choir usually believe not for intellectual reasons, but because we love Jesus and the Church. So you may think you don’t need all this talk about fact and evidence.
OK, if so feel free to skip the rest of this Post. I take no offense.
However, these days when the the number of unbelievers is increasing so rapidly and noisily, sometimes the choir, lovely as our music may be, needs some bucking up in our understanding of the Faith. Maybe it’s just my background in science, but I find that every time I think through the evidence for Christianity, my own faith grows stronger and I love God even more.
So, if you think you may find this helpful, read on.
The Evidence for Jesus Christ
Last week we talked about the need for facts and evidence in all things, and then about the evidence for God and how we came to believe in him.
As with the evidence for the existence of God, here again it’s very clear. Anyone who has read any of the ancient myths knows that the Gospel writers were not writing myths. The pagan myths took place sometime in the misty past, if at all – no one knew where or when. They were intended to convey general truths or feelings, not specific information. In the same way, fairy tales began: “Once upon a time…”
But how, for example, does Matthew begin? “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” Matthew 1:1. He placed the Lord right in the middle of history, as best he could determine it.
Likewise Luke immediately assures his benefactor that this is contemporary history: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilos, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” Luke 1:1-3 He begins his account of Jesus’ ministry not with “Once upon a time, somewhere”…, but with: “In the fifteenthth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Luke 3:1-3 Is that historical and geographical enough for you?! Some contend that the Evangelists got some of the details wrong. Perhaps. But that doesn’t negate their purpose, which was to say: “This is no myth, no fairy tale. This is history.” The difference is obvious.
We have more records of Jesus Christ than anyone else in ancient history – written or dictated by those who knew him, or who like Luke went back to the original sources. The Gospel accounts were written and circulated while many who knew the facts were still alive, so if they had been wrong they would have been rejected. They were not – as some other fantastic “gospels” were. The Gospel accounts present a clear consistent picture of Jesus Christ, his life and death and what came after, and of who he claimed to be – the first three working out of a common source, though each adding some materials he alone knew or thought was especially significant. The Fourth Gospel apparently gave the inside story from the man who had been Jesus’ closest companion, young John whom tradition says was his second or third cousin (or nephew?). An addendum, seemingly written by someone else, says that the Gospel account came directly from the Apostle. John 21:23
The central point of the Gospel writers is that the salvation of mankind hung on the appearance of Jesus Christ the Son of God in history, in the flesh. They tell the story of a Man whose teachings have guided mankind ever since. Even many who disbelieve in him as the Son of God revere him as a great teacher.
In all the accounts, in passage after passage, Jesus spoke and acted as if he is God, “equal with God” John 5:18 – not a god but the one God. That was why they got rid of him. Then he rose from death to prove the point. We have four separate accounts of the resurrection – not agreeing in details, just as one would expect from reports of such an incredible happening.
Therefore, as C.S. Lewis put it, let’s have no foolish talk about Jesus being only a great teacher. Based on the evidence given (on what rational grounds would we reject it?), we have three choices: Either 1 He was a charlatan. But those who knew him personally thought he was without sin. 2 He was a madman. But you can’t read his brilliant teachings and think that. 3 He was what he claimed to be. In some unfathomable way which we’ve been struggling to describe ever since, he is the One who created all things, the One who orders the universe from the farthest galaxy to the innermost subatomic particle, the One in whom the meaning of life and death and eternity, and the Way into eternity, has been opened to us, the One true God – the Son of God, of the same “nature” as God, who came to earth incarnate as the Man Jesus of Nazareth and who thereby revealed the depth of God’s love for us and his power over death.
Does the story of Jesus sound in some ways like the old myths of gods walking the earth, dying and rising gods? Yes. In his book God in the Dock Lewis titled a chapter “Myth Became Fact”. He wrote that the things which mankind had dreamed of and hoped for in the ancient myths finally became Reality. The fairy tales had primed us for the Real Thing, so to speak. Lewis wrote somewhere of an old atheist friend of his who studied myth and religion and had just read the Gospels. The man said to him: “All this talk about gods walking the earth. Rum thing *: It almost looks as if it actually happened once.” The atheist never came to belief. But Lewis was ready for it, and this pushed him over the edge.
- “Rum thing” is British for “odd, strange thing”.
A myth? a fairy tale? Ask the Apostles who had seen it first hand and all but one were martyred rather then deny what they had seen, Whom they had seen. Nobody died because they were faithful to Osiris. Nobody gives his life for a fairy tale.
There is much more that could be said, but: Dear atheist friends, have you ever taken a serious look at the evidence for Jesus Christ?
So what about the Christmas Stories?
Our Orthodox Christmas Eve Gospel from Luke begins: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” Luke 2:1-2 We know when Caesar Augustus reigned. The last I heard, no one has found a record of Quirinius. But even if Luke made a mistake about this (historians sometimes do), his purpose remains the same – to say that Jesus’ birth was an historical event. Our Christmas Day Gospel reading from Matthew is the same: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?’” Matthew 2:1-2
I don’t mean to run this point into the ground, but it is obvious that Matthew and Luke present the Christmas stories in exactly the same way as the rest of their Gospel accounts. As history, definitely not as myths.
Where did these accounts come from? It seems clear that Matthew’s came somehow from Joseph. In Matthew, Joseph doubted, Joseph had a dream, Joseph led them to Bethlehem and into Egypt and so on. It couldn’t have come directly from Joseph himself, for he was long dead. * Most likely it had been passed down in the family. James, Joseph’s son by his first marriage, who was first Bishop of Jerusalem, seems a likely source.
- The Church’s earliest tradition was that Joseph had a first marriage and family before he married the Virgin. This was once common belief, East and West. There’s an old English carol: “Joseph was an old man, an old man was he, when he married Virgin Mary…” Above: a Coptic icon of old Joseph leading them into Egypt.
Luke tells it from Mary’s side. The Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin – you know the story well – and how she “kept these things in her heart”, that is, remembered them, and “pondered them”, considered and absorbed their meaning. Tradition has it that Luke actually interviewed the Virgin Mary in her old age.
Now, historians were not present taking notes when the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary. Television personalities did not breathlessly anticipate and then describe the arrival of the Wise Men. (That’s kind of fun to imagine! I think.) We couldn’t expect that kind of evidence. These were family events – like our own family stories, passed down undocumented unless someone should later choose to record them, like a book written by my mother’s second cousin two generations later, which I treasure greatly, even though I can’t otherwise document what he wrote. That’s all we would expect.
But consider: The Apostles bet their lives on the mighty acts of Jesus Christ in history. Why ever would Matthew and Luke then have destroyed their credibility by beginning their accounts with fairy tales? That makes no sense at all.
Next consider how appropriate the Lord’s Nativity stories are: If what they believed and what we believe about Jesus is true, if this is the beginning of God’s saving work on earth, the unique appearance of God himself in history, then it is entirely fitting that it be reflected in remarkable events. He came to the lowly of this earth, so it is revealed first to simple shepherds, by a sky full of angels. God the King who came to die receives the ancient symbols of gold for royalty, incense for deity, myrrh for burial. And since he came to the whole world, the Wise Men are Gentiles, foreigners. The stories hang together. They are “just right”.
All the above is only circumstantial evidence, but by the nature of the situation that’s all we could possibly have.
To which must be added the simple fact that the Church was never tempted to reject these stories. As I said a while ago, many fantastic stories from many strange Gospels were rejected. But not these.
The only question remaining is: If we believe in Jesus Christ, why ever would we reject the Christmas stories? So far as I can see, the only reasons would be: 1 Because we don’t believe in Jesus Christ. 2 Or because we reject the existence of miracles, don’t believe such things can happen. But we Orthodox have historical evidence of so many miracles in modern times. We have seen so many things that “can’t happen”. I’ve seen three weeping icons myself.
Which is the Fairy Tale?
Here’s what I think. I think atheism is the wishful thinking, the irrational dream that fulfills the modern desire for absolute freedom: If there is no God I have no Lord and Master, and so I can do anything I want with no ultimate consequences, no judgment. Wouldn’t that be nice if it were true?
Or would it? I think the atheist dream is a nightmare, a very “grim” fairy tale. The evil get away with it and die with no final accounting. The innocent suffer and die with no justice. There is no ultimate mercy, no love, no help, no hope. We’re on our own, folks, and there’s no happy ending. That’s the “gospel” of atheism. This goes so contrary to what we all long for, to the depths of our being. I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said somewhere that if his only choice were between an atheist reality and a false fairy tale, he’d take the fairy tale in a minute.
That is why the Christian proclamation is called the Gospel, good news. People have always feared like the atheists that there is no hope, in the end it’s bad news. The Gospel, the good news is that the beautiful things mankind has longed for and wished for and sometimes even dared to hope for are not fairy tales. They are true, they are what we were created for.
And if you, dear atheists, want evidence for that, you have just heard it. Please don’t turn away in blind disbelief.
And if you, dear Christians, are afraid to think about your Faith for fear it’s a myth, think! Go for it! Jesus Christ is the Truth. He gave us brains for a reason. Never fear to think about anything. The whole Created Order is his.
At Christmastime and all the time, feel sorry for the poor atheists. How they manage to get through life without despair I don’t know. Or death. A old nurse once told me she had witnessed the deaths of many Christians who died well, at peace, and of one professed atheist who before he died just about climbed the walls.
At Christmastime and all the time, be glad and grateful for our Faith which – despite appearances sometimes, despite our fears sometimes – is built on solid evidence. Evidence that at the heart of Reality are goodness and mercy and joy and love and life and hope – and One who has come to earth to call us home to be with him forever.
For Christ is born! Glorify him!