Fun year for atheists!
The atheists have had a fun year, with five or six high-profile books attacking religion indiscriminately. We used to be told that all religions are equal because they all lead you to God. We are now hearing that no religions will lead you anywhere – least of all to God. Either way, of course, we are saved the trouble of discriminating between one religion and another.
The trouble is that religions are by no means all the same. They are not merely different ways of looking at the same thing. They make conflicting claims about historical events, about the world and about the nature of God. They may all be wrong, of course, but you would have to examine them all before coming to such a sweeping conclusion. Perhaps one is right and the others mainly, though not completely, wrong.
How to discredit Christianity
Certainly, Christianity could be discredited by a discovery that its basic historical claims are untrue. I am not a Christian because it feels good, or because it suits my personality or my lifestyle. I am a Christian because I have been persuaded that the Christian gospel is the truth.
This gospel is based on a person who really lived and really said and did the things recorded in the Gospels – and who really was crucified and raised from the dead. Jesus Christ spoke the truth about the world and about God with such profound wisdom and understanding that from that day to this people have believed him, have entered his kingdom, and have sought to serve him.
But there is a deeper issue here. The accounts we have of Jesus are not found in isolation. He was not a sort of guru whose life could equally have been lived out in China or Spain. What impresses me about Jesus is that God had prepared the way for him – had set up an identity for him centuries in advance, so that he could be recognised when he came.
His Jewish identity is not accidental; it is integral to who he was. Had he not been a Jew he could not have been the Christ.
His birthplace tells the story. Hundreds of years before Christ came, the prophet Micah had written that a ruler ‘whose origins are from old’ would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). The choice fell on Bethlehem because that was King David’s home town.
A child born in Bethlehem from the line of David would fulfil God’s promise that David and his family would be the permanent royal family of Israel (2 Samuel 7:16). This is why the opening pages of the New Testament are given over to a genealogy of Jesus, showing his descent from David. It could not be otherwise.
His title tells the story. When we call Jesus ‘Christ’ we are using a title not a name. ‘Christ’ means ‘Messiah’ and reflects the Jewish expectation that a great Saviour would one day come. When we say ‘Jesus Christ’ we are really saying ‘Jesus is the Christ’ – identifying Jesus as the expected one who has come to save God’s people and to bring in the kingdom of God.
The great division in the early days of Christianity was between Jews who believed that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures and those who denied this.
His ministry tells the story. When the followers of John the Baptist came to Jesus and questioned his identity, he pointed them to the evidence of his mighty works and words. He was referring them back to the prophet Isaiah who, hundreds of years earlier, had foreseen just such a time and just such a person (Matthew 11:2-6; Isaiah 61:1-3). It was because Jesus fulfilled the ancient promises of God that they should and could believe in him.
His death and resurrection tell the story. The great prophetic passage of Isaiah 53 both describes and explains the death and resurrection of the Christ. When he met his disciples after his resurrection, Jesus explicitly referred them back to the Old Testament Scriptures – as the starting-point from which they could work out who he was and what God had been doing. He told them: ‘This is what was written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:45-47).
Subsequent events tell the story. It has become literally true that the name of Jesus has been preached in all nations. But even this emerges straight from the Old Testament promises of God, who told Abraham that through his descendant ‘all the families of the earth will be blessed’.
No one can deny that ever since Jesus lived on earth he has had a kingdom among men and has brought the joy of salvation to the hearts of millions of people throughout the world.
Recognising the Messiah
Does God exist? Well, there is no doubt that the kingdom of God is a reality and that Jesus is the King in this kingdom. The task for all of us, atheist or not, is to examine this Jesus in the context of the prophecies he claims to have fulfilled – prophecies by which we can recognise him as the promised Messiah.
I maintain that when we do justice to the reality of Jesus we come to the grand and joyful conclusion that the universe is not empty after all, but filled with the presence of a loving and powerful God who sent his Son to seek us out and save us and bring us home to himself. This alone makes for a truly happy Christmas!