Funny that at both Christmas and Easter this central question is
rarely allowed to arise
“What a sad thing it is,” a friend wrote to me last fall, “to see so many young people leaving the church.” But are they? Whenever the point arises, someone invariably replies: “Yes, but they return when they are older.” There have been an impressive number of studies on this question, but they all reach a chilling unanimity. Few of the departees do come back. Nearly all are gone for good. Moreover, the exodus begins in the high school years, not in university. The supporting data are alarming. Examples:
- If current trends continue, in ten years, church attendance will be half what it is today.
- 61% of today’s young adults, churched in their teen years, are now spiritually “disengaged.”
- Intellectual doubt and scepticism is the chief cause of student departures. (Typical comments: “It didn’t make any sense anymore.” “Some stuff is too far-fetched.” “I think scientifically and there is no real proof.” “Too many unanswered questions.”)
- 70% of teenagers in church youth groups stop attending church after high school.
- 63% of teenaged Christians don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
- 51% don’t believe he rose from the dead.
- 68% don’t believe that the Holy Spirit is real.
- Only 33% of churched youth say the church will be a part in their adult lives when they leave home.
To recite all these dreary facts might seem an odd way of marking a joyous Christmas, but I have a reason. Over my lifetime, I have no doubt heard about 65 Christmas sermons and twice as many Easter sermons. I can’t remember more than three that dealt with this question: Did The Thing Really Happen? Did Christ really rise from the dead? Was the conception of Jesus in his mother really accomplished without a human father? Was Jesus really God Himself reduced to human terms? Did the death and rising of Jesus really bring about a total change in the relation of God to man and of God to the whole biological order? And what of all the recurring miracles– the raising of Lazarus, the changing of water into wine, the curing of probable hundreds of hopelessly stricken people—did these things really happen, or are they myths?
You’d think sermons delivered at Christmas and Easter would focus in on such questions. Well, thy don’t. Nor are they mentioned in most churches at any other time. Why is this? Several reasons suggest themselves:
- Raising these such means raising doubts, and Christmas and Easter are not the time to raise doubts.
- Many clergy are not competent to answer them. Defending the truth of the faith is called apologetics. Hard as this is to believe, I’m told this subject has been virtually eliminated from most theology courses.
- As the 20th Century Christian essayist Dorothy L. Sayers pointed out, many people believe that having faith means “resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact.” Well it doesn’t. What it does mean, however, is facing the reality that science itself is distinctly limited. It can tell us how man behaves. It cannot tell us how man ought to behave. That introduces realities far beyond the merely material.
- Thanks chiefly to the news media and headline hunting academics, people have come to believe that modern scholarship has destroyed the historical credibility of the New Testament. Precisely the opposite is true. All the textual discoveries of the last century have served to strengthen the historical authority of the four gospels.
However, nearly all the doubts raised by honest inquirers inevitably come down to one issue, raised by Jesus himself: “Who do men say that I am?” Today the popular response would be that Jesus was a benevolent and gentle teacher who preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. But his message was soon buried by theorists like St. Paul and replaced by a set of complex dogmas that few people can understand and fewer want to. Again, the precise opposite is true: Nearly all the Gospel references to Jesus’ divinity originate with Jesus himself: (“Before Abraham was, I AM”) (“The man who has seen me has seen God.”) (“Your sins are forgiven,”) and at his trial when the High Priest asks: “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus replies: “I AM, and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, coming in the clouds of heaven.” For this, he was convicted of blasphemy, and blasphemy it certainly was unless, course, it was true.
But far from inventing this perplexing talk, Jesus’ followers spent more than 300 years trying to make sense of it. Was he God? Was he just a man? Was he even real, or was he some kind of apparition? Numerous theories were advanced, until In the sixth century the Christians came up with a common answer: Jesus Christ was and is “perfect God and perfect man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting.” In one word, he is “Emmanuel,” meaning “God With Us.”
But why was he with us? To save us from the consequences of our own behaviour, we are told. To do this, he had to become a creature in his own creation. He had to live a human life and die a human death, both perfectly, in order to rescue his fellow creatures who do both so imperfectly. Thus, at one particular place, and at one particular date and time, that which was outside nature broke through into nature. If it happened, it would have to be the apex of all the events in human history.
So then do I also believe the stories that come down to us in the Bible—the shepherds, the newborn baby, the angels, the wise men, some sort of celestial manifestation in the heavens? Of course, I believe them. If the man was what he said he was, would some manifestation of it in the heavens be all that hard to believe? I don’t think so. So enjoy Christmas. And while you do, give some thought to who this man Jesus actually was. You might find in the pursuit of this question the best Christmas present you will ever receive.
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.