The Implications of Christmas

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I admit that there's something a bit dissonant about quoting Christopher Hitchens on Christmas, but I've been meaning to say something about a peculiar passage in his anti-Yuletide burst of spleen, and tonight seems like a proper time to do it:

... Suppose we put the question like this: Imagine that conclusive archaeological and textual evidence emerged to prove that the whole story of the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth was either a delusion or a fabrication? Suppose the mother had admitted shyly that, in fact, she had fallen pregnant for predictable reasons? Suppose we found the post-Calvary body?

Serious Christians, of the sort I have been debating lately, would have no choice but to consider such news as absolutely calamitous. The light of the world would have gone out; the hope of humanity would have been extinguished. (The same obviously would apply to Muslims who couldn't bear the shock of finding that their prophet was fictional or fraudulent.) But I invite you to consider things more lucidly. If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating. It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide through this labyrinth.

I'm not entirely clear on Hitchens' meaning here - whether he means that everything would be the same for himself, and other committed skeptics, in the event that the Christian story was inarguably discredited, or whether he wants to make the more sweeping claim that even if one takes Christianity seriously it has nothing to offer on the Big Questions that hasn't been said and thought and wrestled with elsewhere. Either way, though, I think his claim is self-evidently false - and false in a way that reflects a misunderstanding about what the Christian story really is, at its core, and what lends this particular Palestinian revelation (I believe, for what it's worth, that the Bronze Age ended some time before the birth of Christ) its power two thousand years after the events in question took place.

The Christian story is not, for instance, a theological or philosophical treatise. It's not a set of commands or insights about our moral duties. Nor is it a road map to the good life. It has implications for all of those questions, obviously; certainly, Jesus of Nazareth wasn't exactly silent on "the concept of justice" during his lifetime, and Christians have been deriving theologies, philosophies and codes of conduct from his example ever since. But fundamentally, the Christian story is evidence for a particular idea about the universe: It recounts a series of events that, if real, tells us something profound about the nature of God, and His relationship to His creatures, that we couldn't have been expected to understand or accept in precisely the same way without the Gospel narratives.

Of course a philosopher could have come up with the formulation that God is Love without the assistance of the Gospel According to Saint John, just as Aristarchus of Samos could draw up the heliocentric hypothesis without the assistance of a telescope. But the telescope made a pretty big difference in our understanding of the heavens - and the Gospels, with their claim to bring the nature of God into clearer focus, likewise had a revolutionary impact on how human beings thought about the divine, by making the idea that the Author of the universe actually cares about individual human lives seem much more plausible to first hundreds, then thousands and then millions of people than it had before the evangelists put pen to paper. And just as we would be in a rather different position vis-a-vis our understanding of the universe if all our astronomical evidence were suddenly discredited, the conclusive discrediting of the Gospels would almost certainly provoke a slow-moving revolution in how the world approaches the idea of God.

Any such revolution would affect atheism as well as belief. Consider, for instance, the way in which the dominance of the Christian story has actually sharpened one of the best arrows in the anti-theist's quiver. In Western society, especially, the oft-heard claim that the world is too cruel a place for a good omnipotence to have created derives a great deal of its power, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the person of Christ himself. The God of the New Testament seems more immediate, more personal, and more invested in his creation than He had heretofore revealed Himself to be. But this arguably makes Him seem more culpable for the world's suffering as well. Paradoxically, the God who addresses Job out of the whirlwind is far less vulnerable to complaints about the world's injustice than the God who suffers on the Cross - or the human God who cries in the manger. For many Christians, Christ's suffering provides a partial answer to the problem of theodicy. But for many atheists and agnostics, it only sharpens the question: How can a God who loves mankind enough to die for us allow us to suffer as much as we do?

Take that question away, and all the arguments that spin away from it disappear as well. Which is just one small reason why a world in which nobody had any reason any longer to believe that God had been born in human flesh to a poor Jewish woman in Bethlehem, or died a miserable death on a Roman cross, would be a world in which atheists as well as believers found themselves arguing about life, the universe and everything in very different ways than they do now.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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