Answering Objections to the Christmas Story, Part 2

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus on the road

Last week I started a two-part series looking at the Christmas story with a critical eye, considering the objections which skeptics often raise to the Gospel accounts. The first article looked at the differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus, their accounts of which of his parents an angel appeared to, and their descriptions of where Jesus’ family lived. In each case, we saw that different details are not the same as contradictory details—and, in fact, that the varying perspectives of Matthew and Luke reinforce their credibility as independent witnesses testifying based on their own knowledge and research.

Having considered these not-really-inconsistencies between the two accounts, this week we’ll be looking at two more alleged mistakes: An apparent misquotation by Matthew, and what looks like a historical error by Luke.

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Answering Objections to the Christmas Story, Part 1

Nativity scene

The account of Jesus’ birth is one of the most famous and best-loved stories in the Bible. The pathetic little group in a Bethlehem stable would have made an unimpressive scene, but with the hindsight of history we know the instant of Jesus’ birth marked the thunderclap moment when God stepped into a dying world to beat death at its own game. And what an invasion! The Creator of the universe, born as a human infant, dependent on a young mother’s care to survive. On both a cosmic and a personal scale, it is hard to beat the story—and it has the added merit of being true.

Or so we believe. As we head into the season when we particularly celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world, you are likely to hear attacks on the Christmas story, as skeptics argue that parts of it are implausible or contradictory. I hope my articles this week and next week will prepare you with good answers for the most common objections to the historical accounts of Jesus’ birth.

Of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke describe the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem. That in itself is an interesting window into the way in which God divinely orchestrated the testimony of four different writers to create a fuller and richer picture than any one author provides. Four parallel birth narratives would have done us little good. In fact, it would have been hard to avoid the suspicion that they were simply copying from one another. Instead, each Gospel’s introduction of Jesus offers a little window into its author’s particular passions and focuses.

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Faith Amid the Waves

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

One of my favorite Bible stories is the account of Peter walking on the water in Matthew 14. Caught in a dangerous storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples were surprised and frightened by the sudden appearance of their Master, walking through the storm. Peter, impetuous as always, cried out to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” and Christ replied simply, “Come.” So Peter came, but partway there his fear of the waves overcame his faith in the Lord and he began to sink, until he cried out for help and Jesus snatched him to safety.

The story has much to teach us about the nature of faith—about the danger of focusing on our circumstances rather than our God, and about the hope that comes from having a God who acts to help us even when our meager faith is spent. But there is also a danger in Peter’s story if we take it too specifically as a guide for what faith should look like. The danger lies in a detail which is vivid and memorable—the stuff of ten thousand Sunday School flannelgraphs—but is ultimately of secondary importance: That faith, in this particular situation, involved getting out of the boat.

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Born Bound Together

Crosses

According to the Bible, the sinful choice of one man and his wife thousands of years ago profoundly affected the course of every human life after theirs, including your own. As Romans 5:12 puts it, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” I Corinthians adds simply, “in Adam all die” (15:22). We are not told the precise mechanics of the Fall and how it influences us today, but the Bible makes it clear that it had debilitating effects on every one of Adam’s race. We still make real, meaningful choices whether to sin or not, but there is something ugly in us now; something which draws us to sin and keeps us from the innocence and freedom that Adam and Eve enjoyed, and squandered, in the Garden.

It’s easy to feel this isn’t especially fair. Why should the rebellion of the first humans have any effect whatsoever on their descendants? Why should we be tied to our first parents by metaphysical cords which pull us down after them?

On one level, the answers to these questions are simply a mystery. Perhaps we will understand more in Heaven, or perhaps not. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which God’s ways are not our ways, and our finite understanding cannot plumb the depths of divine wisdom. But that does not mean we cannot understand at all. As we consider why the Fall had such a morally crippling effect on the rest of the human race, something which appears at first glance to be another, different “problem” with the biblical account is both clarifying and comforting.

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Virtue, vice, and double negatives

You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.

Christian virtue offers just one example of the mysterious coexistence of divine sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility. Even for those who are saved, any attempt at self-reliant virtue promises to be about as successful as Peter’s stroll on the Sea of Galilee. We cannot foster our own holiness any more than a bee can conjure honey through sheer willpower. Yet on the other hand, the Christian walk is described as a fight, a race; we are exhorted to “run in such a way that you may win.” Like Peter, we’re entirely dependent on Christ for any hope of reaching our destination, but, also like Peter, it’s still our responsibility to fight our way over the waves.

Part of that fight is to resist sin. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit”; being a Christian means learning to hate what our Father hates. In fact, one might easily imagine virtue as a sort of path threaded safely among various “thou shalt nots.” So we pray that our children will not fall into bad company and we exhort teenagers to avoid premarital sex and we counsel men on how to avoid being pushovers, and very often we completely miss the point.

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Could Jesus have sinned?

A discussion after church today raised the question whether the possibility of sin entailed, in itself and apart from any actual evil, a diminution of goodness. The question led me to suggest that Jesus could have sinned (suggesting, if true, that perfection is not incompatible with the possibility of sin), a position which seemed in retrospect to require further consideration.

Could Jesus have sinned? One can begin by stipulating that God is incapable of sin (e.g. Hebrews 6:18, James 1:13), but even this incapacity raises some interesting questions. I cannot fly, see through walls, or live a perfect life, because something limits me–whether external constraints or internal deficiency. Obviously, such a definition of “cannot” does not apply to a perfect, omnipotent God. Perhaps the closest human analogy to the divine incapacity for sin is “will not,” rather than “cannot”?

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Could Jesus be anything less than fully God?

One of my students recently recounted a conversation in which his friend argued that Jesus was created by God, making him less than fully participatory in the Godhead; instead, a sort of lesser deity, perhaps somewhat akin to the Gnostic idea of a demiurge. It’s an interesting argument and one that is, on its surface, harder to respond to than the standard argument that Jesus was merely a good man.

As with the “Jesus as good man” argument, we should begin with consideration of Jesus’ own testimony. He claimed to be the I AM (John 8:58), and said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He forgave sins (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 7:44-48), and spoke with divine authority, frequently prefacing his teachings with, “I say unto you.” The contrast with the phraseology of the prophets (“This is what the LORD says”), and the religious teachers of his day who grounded their pronouncements on the authority of Scripture, would have been highly significant to Jesus’ audience. Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly, throughout the Gospels we find Jesus freely accepting worship, as in John 20:28, when Thomas falls at Jesus’ feet and cries, “My Lord and my God,” the literal Greek translation of which is, “The Lord of me and the God of me.”

In light of these historical accounts, let us consider the claim that Jesus might have been some sort of lesser god created by Jehovah. There are two significant problems with this view. First, of course, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that there are gradients of “godness.” It’s not enough to point out that not every verse about Jesus disproves the idea that he is a lesser god, when no positive evidence has been advanced to suggest that another hypothesis is even worth considering.

The second problem is the fact that the idea of any sort of “lesser god” is simply incoherent within a Judeo-Christian framework. We may smuggle the idea in from the Greeks and the Romans, who could have lesser gods because they had whole sets of hierarchical deities, but the very foundation of Judeo-Christian thought is, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4, emphasis added). The Judeo-Christian God is not merely a super-powerful being à la Jupiter or Zeus, but a being possessed of maximal perfection.

This creates a stark and unbridgeable dichotomy between God and not-God. What is “almost perfect”? “Almost infinite”? “Almost God”? Speaking of a lesser god is like attempting to conceive almost-infinite. It just doesn’t work.

In fact, the closest thing to a lesser god that Scripture offers us is Satan before he rebelled. We are told that Satan’s power and glory were second only to God. He was “almost God,” insofar as the term can have meaning. Yet, his desire to elevate himself above God resulted in his downfall. (Helpfully illustrating the massive gap between infinite power and almost-infinite power.) In contrast, we see Jesus accepting worship and praise as “very God of very God,” in the words of the Nicene Creed, without giving any indication that the worship would be better directed toward the “supreme God.”

In Acts 14:8-18, Paul and Barnabas are completely dismayed when the inhabitants of Lystra conclude they are gods. If anything, it seems that the closer a being is to God, the more it would be conscious of how much not-God it is, making it even more horrified to be treated as equal with him. Yet, as noted above, Jesus accepted worship as if it was his prerogative. Either he was indeed very God of very God, or his closest analogy in Scripture is to Satan!