Keep the Merry…and the Myth

atheist christmas billboard

“Keep the Merry…Dump the Myth.” According to a recent Fox News article, that’s the message the New Jersey chapter of American Atheists being shared with visitors in Times Square this Christmas, er sorry, winter solstice celebration season.

In recent years, various forms of atheist “evangelism” have become like Aunt Mable’s fruitcake: a regular scheduled holiday staple (my apologies to all fruit cake lovers and Aunt Mables out there). Not only that, the frequency of these messages have increased both in the size and scope with particular antagonism toward Christianity.

According to Silverman, a private donor gave over 25k for the sign to remain in Times Square until January 10, 2013. Now, I’m not going to so say the charitable atheist doesn’t exist. But I can’t help but wonder how that 25k could have been better spent elsewhere, say a homeless shelter in New York City or the struggling victims of Hurricane Sandy, a sleigh-full of toys for tots or one Big Apple size bell-ringing bucket full of change. To be sure, this isn’t the main thrust of the Christian apologetic – nor should it be. However, there is something to be said for an apologetic of mercy. [endnote 1] It is worth noting that this further illustrates the deep chasm between the Christian and the atheistic, naturalistic worldviews. What would most Christian churches you know do if they were given a gift of roughly 25k this time of the year? Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Or, as C.S. Lewis once said, “If you read history you’ll find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 134).

All that aside, here is the primary point: Christians should expect these kinds of messages in the public square to increase. We know they’re coming.

Here’s my take on this.

Avoid blazing the culture warrior warpath over whether or not we should say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” That will only leave you spinning your tires in the verbal snow.

Similarly, avoid the First Amendment issues of free speech and establishment clauses. Yes, it’s important to know the language and history of the Constitution, but this discussion will lead you down the wrong reindeer trail, away from Christ and closer to Caesar. That’s great if you’re in a political discussion. But if you’re trying to proclaim the Gospel, this will shoot your eye out.

Also, leave the debate about whether or not the United States is a Christian nation or not for another day. You only have so much time in a conversation with a skeptic. And so what if you can prove that the U.S. is based on a Judeo-Christian value system; that’s nowhere near the Gospel or saving faith in Christ and it doesn’t help one bit in demonstrating the truthfulness of the Christian claim that Christ’s death and resurrection is an historical event.

And finally, avoid beginning with emotional arguments such as, “I’m offended, therefore it should be taken down,” or appealing to nostalgic feelings of festive and holiday cheer. Offense, nostalgia and emotion have no bearing whatsoever when it comes to the truthfulness or falsehood of an assertion. For example, I thoroughly enjoy watching Charlie Brown’s Christmas but can’t stand Frosty the Snow Man, and yet, in either case, I have not demonstrated the truthfulness about either character’s existence.

Rather, Christians should deal with this billboard’s assertions head on: is it true that Christianity is just another myth to be dumped along the curbside with Santa’s sleigh and all the decorations on December 26th? And, when compared to the Christian worldview, does the atheistic, naturalistic explanation of the universe offer a better and more truthful explanation for the major questions in life (Where did I come from? What happens when we die? etc.). Of course, it is entirely possible that both the atheist and Christian worldviews are wrong, however, they cannot both be right. Questions of this nature simply cannot be answered on a billboard.

Atheists are quick to throw Jesus onto the island of misfit myths along with the likes of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, leprechauns, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Easter Bunny, and the like. You can understand why; it’s far easier to paint Jesus – and the Christian faith – as a foolish caricature and throw out a 25k “gotcha” message than it is to come meet the Christian claim on an intellectual, factual, evidential basis. Billboards like the one in New York have no interest in an open, honest debate. They are meant to poke fun and make assertions without examining any evidence for the Christian claim.

But Jesus is entirely different than any of the aforementioned mythical characters. That’s like comparing the nightly news to my daughter’s favorite cartoon world of Bubble Guppies. Because, unlike any other world religion, the core message of Christianity is objective and uniquely historical: a specific guy lived at a specific time in history, and did specific things that were heard, seen and recorded by eyewitness. What’s more, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence, both from Christian and secular sources, by which we can investigate this claim. Jesus is qualitatively, empirically, and historically different than the atheists’ definition of myth.

If Christianity really is a myth – that is, a fictitious lie –  Christians would agree with the billboard (1 Corinthians 15). However, contrary to atheist dogma, Jesus is not a myth. He was a real historical figure who claimed to die on the cross and vindicated his claim by rising on the third day. Therefore, Christians can and should make a well-reasoned case for the truthfulness of the Christian claim that Christ was born, lived, died and rose.

You see, Christmas and apologetics go hand in hand. These events didn’t occur “once upon a time” or in a galaxy far, far away” but out in the open for all – skeptic and believer – to see and hear. It happened in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria and Caesar Augustus decreed a census. To be sure, Luke (like the other gospel writers) presents the facts in historical narrative form. But the characters are nonetheless real historical figures: Caesar, Quirinius, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, John, Jesus, Mary, Peter, James, Paul, etc. These are real historical figures and real historical events. The facts of history simply do not fit the assertion made by this recent billboard.

The Christmas story reads more like an historical document at times than a proclamation of cosmic rescue from sin and death. In reality, it’s both a declaration and a defense. Proclamation was always accompanied by evidence for the veracity of the events themselves. Just read Acts, also written by Luke the historian and apologist. But don’t stop there. Examine the reliable eyewitness testimony. Look at the veracious historical records – both of Christian historians and secular. Study the numerous archaeological findings. Paul Maier spends almost ninety pages in his book, In the Fullness of Time going over the historical, archaeological, geographical and scriptural evidence for the empirical reliability of the events surrounding the Christmas story. [endnote 2] And Lee Strobel has also written a brief, but helpful book titled, The Case for Christmas.

 Also, consider using the following pieces of information when shaping your opening statement in the courtroom of skepticism:
First, begin with a few basic principles historians utilize in establishing the credibility of historical claims: [endnote 3]

1. Multiple, independent sources support historical claims.
2. Attestation by an enemy supports historical claims.
3. Embarrassing admissions support historical claims.
4. Eyewitness testimony supports historical claims.
5. Early testimony supports historical claims.

In every case, the Christian claim passes the historical test easily.

Second, continue the apologetic discussion by using a “bare minimum facts” approach, which builds a case using those facts that demonstrate a high degree of certainty among both Christian and skeptical scholars.

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
5. The tomb was empty.

The war on Christmas isn’t going to stop anytime soon. So, we need a little apologetics, right this very minute! Read the atheists’ books and tackle their arguments with critical thinking, answer their objections in truth and love, challenge your atheist friends or neighbors to be open-minded enough to look at the evidence, and continue steadfast in defense and confession of the orthodox Christian faith.

Christianity doesn’t ask us to check our brain at the door; rather, it is a faith founded on fact.  This message – Jesus died for your sins and rose again – is true. It is the greatest story ever told because it is also true.

And it shouldn’t be lost on us that this is also a story. Myths are stories that explain the world around us; but myth need not be a word defined purely by fiction or falsehood. A story that is true does not cease to be a myth and a myth certainly can be a true story, such as we find in the historic Christian faith.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be a myth: that is the miracle…For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar and the philosopher.

christmas icon

Lewis’s words remind us that the Christian Gospel – that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself – answers both the intellectual and existential questions of man. All of our questions about life and death, about God’s existence and his care for creation and our life after death are finally answered in the most unlikely places: Bethlehem and Jerusalem. God became man for you. God was in the manger for you. God was on the cross for you. So, this Christmas you can keep the merry and the myth, for the myth has become fact for you.

O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is

My paradise at which my soul reclineth.

For there, O Lord, Doth lie the Word

Made flesh for us; herein Thy grace forth shineth.

LSB 372:1

Endnotes —

[1] Here I have in mind books like Alvin Schmidt’s How Christianity Changed the World and Arthur C. Brooks’ Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divine, Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why It Matters.

[2] Paul Maier, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, And the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1991.

[3] The following lists come from a book by Michael Licona and Gary Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004.

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