Reflection on the recent ‘holiday’: Did this Christmas thing actually happen?

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:

  1. Raising these such means raising doubts, and Christmas and Easter are not the time to raise doubts.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

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6 thoughts on “Reflection on the recent ‘holiday’: Did this Christmas thing actually happen?

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  1. Thank you! Very insightful. I give thanks to God that He put me in a church where these truths are preached, and by His grace, the percentage of young people that stay in our churches is probably 90% or higher.

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  2. I’m very pleased that this survey did NOT incinerate us atheists or blame us for a falling out of the faithful from the various houses of worship. I would like to know, however, WHO conducted this survey and HOW it was carried out. For the past decade I have received numerous emails and articles indicating the decline in church attendance, especially in the so-called Christian churches. You can bet that the Muslims are INCREASING their attendance and running to the two levels of government for grants of one sort or another.
    But I would like to add this, with respect, that I can recall when Christmas was a day when families and friend got together in meaningful relationships. I recall when all the stores and businesses were closed and even so on Boxing day. I can recall when the churches were packed with the faithful. But those days are gone because people have found other faiths and that is in their gadgets and devices, watching the worst form of violence on TV and harbouring evil thoughts. I see videos of signs on church properties advertising them for sale. I don’t see loving and caring and sharing people any more. At 81 years of age I see sadness, moral decay and a lack of LEADERSHIP at all levels. I can say a lot more but it is of little use.

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  3. This is a very important question, and you are right, not many dare to ask it. The answers you gave are not convincing though. You say: 1) Nearly all the Gospel references to Jesus’ divinity originate with Jesus himself. 2) Jesus’ followers spent more than 300 years trying to make sense of it. 3) 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.” All we got here is a self proclamation, and a slowly but steady grown religion. You did not say that it was the Catholic church that came up with this common answer and that the same church forced that answer onto the whole Roman empire. Now that we finally have freedom to ask that question, more and more people do and study themselves out of Christianity. Because the real question is not what people say, but what does God say? When God spoke on mount Sinai to a whole nation saying that He is the only God and He is One no one had to figure it out. It was powerful and clear. The same God has stated that He is not a man and there is no one beside Him.
    Keep asking that question …

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  4. Thank you Mr. Byfield. In the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, when I lived away from the West, I would read your magazines at Christmas while visiting my family.

    At first I found them quaint — a reminder of an older, “not fully evolved” attitude. When I came back to my faith, coincidental with getting married and raising a family, I was able to discern more truth in the articles even though most of them were not faith-based. Now I look back on those publications as a warning against what society and in particular we Christians are experiencing. I understand why the post-modernist / Marxist anti-Christian’s in our society took aim at them with the view of destroying them. To gain power they have to smother truth especially the message of Christ.

    My response and my hope has been to learn more about my faith with my wife and our children. So far, so good. Our children, now all young adults, lead by their own example in the Church.

    So much of your life’s work stood and continues to stand as a light in a world that seems to be getting darker.

    May God bless you.

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