Atheists often find the absence of God deeply troubling. They wonder: if God existed, why doesn’t he make it more obvious? Why doesn’t he spell out “Yahweh” in the stars so we know that he’s there? Why doesn’t he heal people or prevent disasters? Why doesn’t God do something?
Christmas is God’s answer. Christianity doesn’t preach a distant God who turned a blind eye to mankind, but rather tells of a God who became a man himself. God didn’t simply send a message; He became the messenger. We recall this momentous occasion – the divine incarnation – each year at Christmas.
Of course, the ultimate purpose of the incarnation is not simply that God became a man, but that He would eventually suffer like man to redeem mankind on the cross. Christmas – despite the name – is more of a derivative holiday for Christians. The importance of Christmas derives entirely from the significance of the events on Easter. Were it not for Easter, Christmas would be meaningless. Were it not for Christmas, Easter could not have occurred. So as we examine the significance of the incarnation, we must constantly look toward the resurrection as well. An essential element of both events is that Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God.
The story of Yahweh becoming Jesus is not like the other stories of gods being born. He does not spring from His father’s skull fully armed for war like Athena, powerfully god-like from the moment of birth. Rather Jesus is painfully human, born meekly, entering the world as a tender infant, needing protection from the powers that be. We have a God who can relate to us, being born just as we are.
We like to glamorize the Christmas scene: a blissful Mary, a glowing baby Jesus under starry skies on a still night. Yet I doubt it was so idyllic. Instead, I imagine a weary Mary, already buckling under the pain of contractions, stumbling into the barn. The smell of manure was overpowering, but she could go nowhere else. I wonder what ran through the mind of Joseph; maybe he was overcome with sorrow that he could not help poor Mary, that he had not the means to secure a bed for his betrothed on the night she gave birth. Perhaps he was beginning to doubt her, questioning whether God would truly send this child with not a single place to lay his head.
Was there a midwife? Or was it too late, too close to midnight, in that tiny town of Bethlehem? Even if there was assistance for the birth, there must have been blood. Did Mary have to wipe the blood from her newborn baby with her own sweaty hands?
This birth is painfully human, meek, dirty, bloody. Yet simultaneously, it is the birth of God, the incarnation of the divine. This poor birth would well foreshadow the teachings of a man who would declare “blessed are the poor.”
Yet birth was not the only time Jesus shared in humanity’s sufferings. Jesus felt the same suffering that we experience. He lost his father. He experienced torture on the cross. In the life of Christ, God feels our sufferings and knows our experience. In the life of Christ, God demonstrates that the height of the divine – the pinnacle of goodness – is loving sacrifice. This can only be understood when we fully grasp that Jesus was also fully God.
Jesus’ birth did not resemble that of other gods: he is not conceived by copulation, nor is his birth that of a new god. Jesus was formed from the Holy Spirit indwelling in Mary; he is still one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, being one person of the Holy Trinity.
Once one with God, Jesus sacrificed his position of status and power in heaven to become man. Once the most powerful being in existence, Jesus willingly gave it all up to become part of God’s grand plan of salvation for mankind. Imagine the sacrifice involved if a human being – full of consciousness, intelligence, wit, and grace – decided to become an ant, and you might get an idea of how it must have felt for God to become man. Yet the incarnation was not some divine fancy; it had an essential purpose vital to solving the problem of evil.
God knew that mankind was suffering under the burden of sin and death; a sentence self-imposed by our own love of doing wrong. Yet in spite of our responsibility for the evil in this world, God’s solution to this problem of evil was to become man himself, that he might free man from slavery to sin and death. In so doing, he offered a unique type of healing: redemption.
I believe the best analogy to explain this process comes from Anathasius, an early church father who wrote On the Incarnation:
“For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.”1
Jesus’ Two Natures
God did not come to earth and simply wipe away sin and suffering. He became a man that he might help to transform man. Offering both the forgiveness of sins and the right way of living, Jesus serves as our savior and example. It is only through his fully divine nature that he can offer the former, and through his fully human nature that he can serve as the latter.
In the end, God’s message to mankind about suffering is provided through his example. Though suffering is clearly bad, it can also be purposeful. Though evil can provoke great pain, this pain can ultimately be redemptive. By participating in suffering for the sake of others, we make ourselves live like God lived. In the end, evil does not triumph over good. Rather the greatest good – the salvation of mankind – is achieved through the worst suffering – the death of God himself. This is the message of the cross, the answer to the problem of evil, and the ultimate purpose of the incarnation.
At Christmas, we recall and celebrate the incarnation: that day on which God took on flesh to put an end to death and redeem mankind. This, of all things, should inspire utmost celebration.
1Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Christian Classics Ethereal Library Ch 2, par 9.
Jordan Monge ’12, a Philosophy and Religion joint concentrator in Quincy House, is the Editor-in-Chief of The Ichthus.Tags: apologetics, atheism, atheist, Christianity, Christmas, death, Easter, evil, forgiveness, God, Harvard University, Incarnation, Jesus, redemption, resurrection, sin, suffering, theodicy, Yahweh