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Are the Atheists Right about Christmas?

[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew's Cathedral in Sydney.]

This Christmas the American Atheists have posted a large billboard in Times Square New York. It has two pictures: one of Santa Claus and the other of Jesus on the cross. The captions under the pictures are “Keep the Merry” and “Dump the Myth”. Apart from having the captions under the wrong pictures, the sentiment is one I agree with.

Christmas is a merry season that is based on truth, not myth. Confusing the truth with myth doesn’t help people understand the event, or experience the merriment. Santa Claus is an ever growing and developing myth. It is possibly based on some fact, lost to any serious historical research. St Nicholas is said to have been born in AD 270, and became a bishop in Myra. He is reputed to have suffered and been imprisoned under the persecution of Diocletian and subsequently attending the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that this is “most improbable, as he is not in any of the early lists of bishops present at the Council, nor referred to in the writings of Athanasius.” Indeed the Dictionary goes so far as to state that “scarcely anything is historically certain about him”. The earliest reference to him is a church built in his honour in AD 565, and his popularity only rose after his supposed remains were moved to Bari, in Southern Italy in AD 1087. The mythical quality of Santa Claus has increased over the last century through American advertising campaigns. Today, he is one of the most treasured and universal icons of Western civilisation—promising to generously give gifts to good children.

In comparison to this, the historical evidence for the death of Jesus is overwhelming. It is widely referred to during the first century. The very earliest Christian writings build their arguments on the basis of his crucifixion. Some of these were written within 20 years of the event. Non-Christian writings (both Jewish and Roman) also refer to his death by crucifixion.

Even sceptical scholars accept that Jesus was crucified. After all, it is an extraordinary idea to have the Messiah killed. Who would have expected such an outcome? Yet it is in his death, and subsequent resurrection, that the merriment of Christianity is found, as Christians claim to find forgiveness and new life in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The difference between Jesus and St Nicholas is not only in the historical evidences but also in their meaning. One man comes like a cargo cult, as the smiling face of our malignant materialism; rewarding morality by giving gifts only to good children. The other does not give gifts but himself – and not for the good, but for the bad, for he came to not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. His gift means forgiveness and a fresh start.
The gift of Christ is the joy of Christmas. Christians cannot help but rejoice in the coming of our Saviour and our joy is expressed in song. We sing because of his birth, we sing because of his death, we sing because of his resurrection. We sing because we are His! Few people are as committed to singing as Christians. We are not like the shops playing carols because it is that time of the year again. The gift of rebirth is not like a toy: coming without a battery, broken on Boxing Day and discarded by New Year. The joy that comes from knowing our Lord and sharing in his spiritual family far exceeds the “happy holiday season” of those whose world is limited to materialism (economic or philosophical).

Some cultural Christians—even atheists—like to share in our merriment by singing the carols with us. And of course they are very welcome. However, true joy is found not in the music or the emotions or the nostalgia it produces but in the words and ideas the carols express. Christians are singing of their Lord and Saviour, who loved them and died for them. Their joy, which the congregational singing clothes, is the message of the gospel.

Some other people have an arrogant confidence that somehow the shifting sand of modern scholarship has disproved the Bible. This enables them to make up a new religion and call it “Christianity”. A frequent SMH Christmas columnist wrote: “The Christian God exists within us, and nowhere else. It is a spirit within us to make us whole… If we nurture that spirit and revere its power, we will have found God—not in the wonders of “creation” but in the greater wonders of human kindness and charity. Since there’s no supernatural God…” Such mythologists attack believers for not sufficiently doubting, while apparently never doubting their own confident assertions. They misuse the truism that doubt is an essential part of belief, to gut Christianity of all historical certainty; reducing Christmas to symbolic myths and knowledge to the post-modern faux humility of relativism. The ancient world was well versed in mythology, but every reference to myths in the New Testament is negative (1 Timothy 1:4, 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:4; Titus 1:14 and 2 Peter 1:16).  Indeed one apostle contrasts myths with truth and another goes out of his way to say, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty”(2 Peter 1:16).

This history is certain: the New Testament writers believed they had witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection of the true Messiah. Accepting their witness is not arrogance, but has brought to every generation unbounded joy—”Joy to the world—the Lord has come!” It is possible that they were wrong, and Jesus isn’t the Saviour of the world. However, it is arrogance, not humility, to claim the name “Christian” while rewriting Christian beliefs in terms of mythology or replacing the historical Jesus with the mythical Santa Claus.

The atheists are right—dump the myth and keep the merry.

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