A few years ago, American Atheists launched two nationwide billboard campaigns urging viewers to celebrate Christmas by skipping holiday worship gatherings. The first billboard depicts a young woman informing a friend that she won’t be going to church with them and that her parents will “get over it.” The second billboard mocks Trump supporters, urging viewers to “Make Christmas Great Again!” by rejecting Jesus, who is the reason for the season.
When interviewed about the billboard campaign, American Atheist President David Silverman responded, “It is important for people to know religion has nothing to do with being a good person, and that being open and honest about what you believe—and don’t believe—is the best gift you can give this holiday season.”
While I find it tacky and a little weird that Silverman gets such pleasure thinking about family division during the holidays, I agree with him that honesty is a good policy. So, in the spirit of Silverman and the American Atheists, I want to tell the honest-to-God truth about Christmas.
The truth is that the Christmas story is…
The Christmas story is bigger than you think.
Do yourself and your family a favor this December. Start by reading Luke or Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth; but don’t stop there. Tell the whole story, starting with Genesis and ending with Revelation.
You see, the Christmas narrative—fully told—is quite different from what one might typically imagine. It’s not the sappy and sentimental tale of a harmless baby, welcomed by shepherds and angels. It’s not only the true story of the whole world, but it’s one in which the “harmless baby” engages in a cosmic battle to defeat the forces of evil.
The cosmic battle begins in Genesis. After God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden as the crown of creation, a serpent slithers up to the first couple, questioning God’s word and his character. For unknown reasons, the first couple fell for the serpent’s lie and rose up in mutiny against their Creator.
By way of response, God arranges a meeting with them in the Garden, replete with a curse and a blessing. The curse is that humanity would now be alienated from God, live under the harsh yoke of Satan, and experience the many consequences that stem from rebellion. The blessing is that God would provide a way “out” of Satan’s clutch, an escape hatch, through the birth of a baby (Gen 3:15).
Following this promise, the whole Bible—and all of history—is about the triumphant march of God to fulfill his promise. We learn that the baby would come from the nation of Israel (Gen 12:1-3), specifically from the line of David (2 Sam 7:12-13); be born of a virgin (Is 7:14) in the town of Bethlehem (Mic 5:2); and offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (Is 52:13-53:12).
What’s more, we are reminded regularly that this baby will destroy the Evil One (1 Jn 3:8). In John’s Revelation, the Evil One is depicted as a menacing dragon who rages and casts down stars from the sky (Rev 12). And yet, his fate is sealed: he will be crushed by the baby born in a manger.
You see, baby Jesus’ first cries weren’t merely the cooing of a swaddled babe; they were the first battle cry of the Warrior who would gain victory over humanity’s evil overlord (Rom 16:20), gather the world’s worshipers to himself (Rev 5), and purge the world of evil once and for all (Rev 21-22). Mary may have rocked Jesus’ “cradle,” but his cradle is one that rocked the world.
Jesus is the hero you want, whether you know it or not.
Given that God created human beings in his image and likeness, and given that we therefore manifest God’s character in the things we create, it follows that we humans cannot help but retell his Story in the stories we create. Put differently, the Bible’s story of the world—centered on a heroic baby who would one day crush the Evil One and set the world to rights—is the master narrative on which all many human stories are modeled. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Hollywood blockbusters released during Christmas seasons past.
Consider The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Released during Christmas 2005, it grossed nearly $800 million, was nominated for dozens of awards, and became an instant classic for children and adults alike. What is so compelling about this movie? It is based upon a book whose plot, by the author’s design, parallels the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Aslan represents Christ when he says, “When a willing victim who committed no treachery would take the place of a traitor,” then the “deep magic” is fulfilled. The White Witch represents Satan when she mocks Aslan before killing him: “Behold, the Great Lion” (just as King Herod mocked Jesus with “Hail, the king of the Jews”).
Aslan’s resurrection, like Christ’s, was accompanied by an earthquake and witnessed by two female characters. As the movie comes to an end, Aslan kills the White Witch and says, “It is finished” before breathing on some statues, bringing them back to life—just as Jesus breathes new life into us through the Spirit.
There is something deeply compelling about the story of Jesus, something powerful enough that unsuspecting moviegoers—atheist and Christian alike—are drawn in.
This season is a reason to pause and reflect.
Thus, Christmas is a time to pause and reflect. Call to mind the whole story of Christmas, not just the warm-and-fuzzy components. Remember that all of it—not only Jesus’ birth in a manger but also his bloody crucifixion, victorious resurrection, and promised return—reminds us of the need for a Warrior-Savior who will crush the Evil One and set the world to rights. Indeed, any resistance to Jesus is futile because the babe in a manger is simultaneously the triumphant King.
And remember, more than anything, that we are able to celebrate this wonderful holiday because God loved us enough to roll up his sleeves, suffer on our behalf, and walk by our side. The God who created the world also entered it as a babe and experienced all the world’s evil so that he could be our Comforter and Sustainer in times of trial. Because of the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, we are never alone in our sorrows and pain.
So, if the atheist at your Christmas table follows Silverman’s advice and is open and honest about his disbelief, take it as an opportunity not to debate but to tell a story—the Story. Use the moment to demonstrate how the Christmas story, with its redemptive Hero and doomed nemesis, speaks a word to us all. And know that your skeptical friends, deep down in the recesses of their hearts, want this Story to be true, whether they know it or not.