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Three Reasons Christmas Matters for Morality

By Jonathan Pruitt 

At this time of year, Christmas images are everywhere. As we walk into the grocery store, we see Santa and his reindeer painted in the window, adorned by the phrase, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” As we drive by a neighbor’s house, we notice a brightly lit nutcracker. Close beside, a nativity. These decorations go up right after Thanksgiving, and by the first week in December, they just blend into the background. I think the lack of attention we pay to ornaments often extends to Christmas itself. We hear the sermons and sing the carols, but the reality they point to, we often overlook. The preacher says, “One of Jesus’ names is ‘Emmanuel.’ That means ‘God is with us.” We nod our heads, and we know that is a good thing. But why is it a good thing, exactly? And what is this business about “peace on earth and good will to men?” That’s a question I aim to answer at least partially by giving three reasons Christmas matters for morality.

  1. Jesus’ birth reveals the metaphysical nature of human beings

Many atheists today think that human beings are merely biological machines. For example, Richard Dawkins has famously said, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. … This is exactly what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.” A similar idea is expressed by Daniel Dennett who thinks of humans as “information processing machines” created by mindless natural forces. Now, Dawkins and Dennett are likely quick to affirm the dignity and value of human persons. But difficulty arises when we ask, “How is it that a machine could have such value?” It does not seem the bare matter could ground real value. Besides that, what follows from such a view is that humans have no genuine free will. Instead, their actions are determined by physical necessity. Not everyone agrees this precludes free will, but the views of such compatibilists strain credulity and common sense. Another problem is that on such reductive materialist views, humans as humans don’t even exist. Instead what we have is a pile of parts arranged human-wise. Humans are, when we take the view seriously, a collection of elements hanging together due to natural forces. “Human” is just the term that human-shaped piles call other human-shaped piles. With a view like this, it easy to see why ethicists like Peter Singer have argued that very young babies or the mentally disabled are justifiably euthanized.[1]

Consider the contrast presented in the Christmas story. For one, there is a certain metaphysical view of human persons at work. God became a man.  We’ve got to keep in mind that God did not just appear to become a man. He really did become a man. If this is true, then humans could not possibly be mere machines. As Jesus tells us, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Something that is essentially and necessarily spiritual cannot become only material and retain its identity. If God, who is spirit, became a pile of parts arranged human-wise, he could no longer be called God. Therefore, there must be something more to man than his physical parts. But what kind of thing must humans be for God to become one of us? It seems that, at the least, humans need to be souls.

Why is this so? First we must realize that the Second Person of the Trinity existed as a person prior to his incarnation. This person is a person without any physical parts. If this person continues to be a person in the incarnation, his personhood cannot depend on any physical parts or else he would not be identical with himself prior to incarnation. That is to say, the material parts of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God must be only accidental properties and not essential ones. If they were essential, it would mean there was an essential difference between Jesus incarnated and Jesus prior to his incarnation. The person incarnated would not be the same person as the Second Person of the Trinity. But, Jesus, who is an essentially spiritual person, became an actual human person. Consider what this must means for humans in general. If Jesus really became a human, humans must also be essentially spiritual persons. Humans, then, must essentially be non-material substances; humans must be souls.[2]

If humans are souls, everything they do is not determined by the physical laws of the universe. Having a soul also provides the “metaphysical goods” to ground a human nature. If humans are souls, they are not piles of parts. Instead, they are a unified substance endowed by God with personhood. These powers include the power of volition so that humans are able to direct their lives toward one end or another. So when we see Jesus laying in manger, one of the things we ought to perceive is a rejection of the reductive view of human persons proposed by Dawkins and Dennett. The incarnation tells us that humans are body and soul. As such, they have the capacity to transcend the determinative laws of nature and become agents, capable of directing their own lives.

  1. Jesus’ birth demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings

Jesus’ birth also demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings. It does this a couple of ways. First, as we read in John 3:16, God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world. God loved humanity and so he made a way for us to be saved from our sins. And he did this at very great cost. God could have loved us, but only a little. In that case, he might refrain from sending his Son, but feel very bad about doing so. Suppose you have a friend who you loved only half-heartedly. Unfortunately, some malicious criminals take your friend hostage. They are the kind of criminals that will slowly torture and kill your friend just for the fun of it. And then these criminals send you a ransom note saying that, if you agree, you can take her place. Now, only loving your friend half-heartedly, you feel empathy for her, but you don’t make the trade. You would have to love your friend deeply and fully if you were to trade your life for hers. And this is what Jesus has done for us.

For humans, though, we often love what we should not. We love things that are not good. However, God, who is maximally good, has no misplaced affections. When God loves us, he does so because we are his children and made in his image. We have intrinsic value and are therefore worth loving. Notice, though, that this worthiness is not autonomous from God, as if we could make ourselves worth loving. Instead, we are only worth loving because God graciously made us in his image, investing us with the worth we possess. As Mark Linville puts it: “God values human persons because they are intrinsically valuable. Further, they have such value because God has created them after his own image as a Person with a rational and moral nature.”

The fact that Jesus came as a man is another way his birth shows the value and dignity of humans. Not only were humans worth saving, it was also worth becoming a human to do it. Consider this proposition: “Being a human is good.” How could we know whether this was true or false? A reductive atheist would have real trouble here because (1) there are no such things as human beings, only human shaped piles, and (2) there is no clear way to make sense of “good.” David Bentley Hart, with his characteristic confidence and cadence, writes, “Among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics.” However, as Christians we know both that humans exist and that God grounds the good. We also know that God, being maximally great, only ever does what is good. Therefore, if God became a human being, being a human being must be good. That may sound like a trivial idea, but consider the implications. If being human is good, it means that our lives have meaning. We do not need to progress to the next stage of evolution, we only need to live as humans as God intended. It also means, contra the worldview of many, that there’s nothing inherently bad about the body; salvation includes the redemption of the body, not deliverance from it. If being human is good, all humans have dignity and value.

  1. Jesus’ birth means it is possible for humans to live the moral life

If we consider the possibility of living the moral life on reductive atheism, we end up with some dim prospects. One worry is that there is no objectively good moral life. This is why so many atheists talk of making one’s own meaning in life. Though the universe is cold and dark, human ought to nevertheless pull themselves up by the bootstraps and choose to live a life of meaning. I am inclined to think this is just wishful thinking. Besides this, if humans are machines and have no free will, it seems impossible to live a moral life. It seems that for a choice to be moral, it must be chosen by an agent. We don’t think our computers are immoral when they crash (despite the temptation); neither are human biological machines when they do something destructive.

Further, unless the universe just happens to cause us to live a moral life by accident, we will have to work at becoming a virtuous person. We must act as agents who are capable of making moral progress. Atheist Sam Harris agrees and makes this suggestion: “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”[3] But of course, to say that we can steer ourselves in any sense is to discard the idea that humans are machines. In order to steer ourselves, we must be something more than that. So reductive atheists seem to have no hope for living the moral life, whatever that might be. And the way Harris in such sanguine fashion affirms a contradiction as if doing so makes sense doesn’t eliminate the incoherence.

The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, suggests a very different outcome. To see why, we must go all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There we see that God made man in his image and to rule and reign as his representatives on the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam and Eve were, in a very real sense, responsible for realizing the kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is what humans were made for, a place where God, humans, and creation live together in peace. It is important to understand here that peace means much more than we modern readers might normally think. We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence. But for the Jews, peace was much more robust than that. Peace, for them, was happiness and human flourishing—shalom. If we live in peace, we live according to the created order, enjoying and appreciating God and all that he has made, especially other humans.

However, humans chose to disobey God and thus sin entered the world. The effects of sin were so dramatic that humans could no longer live as God intended; the kingdom of God could not be established by these fallen humans. However, God did not leave us in this predicament. God set into motion a plan that would restore the kingdom of God to the earth and the story of the Bible is very much this story. God called Abraham and promised that through him, all the people of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Then, from the descendants of Abraham, God formed the nation of Israel. God promised Israel a King who would restore peace to the earth. God says this King will take away punishment and take great delight in his people. He will “rescue the lame” and “gather the exiles”; he will restore their fortunes (Zeph 3:15;19-20).  Zechariah records for us what God says it will be like when this King comes (8:3-12):

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty. Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies, since I had turned everyone against their neighbor.  But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.

The takeaway from this passage should be that this King will restore the robust, Jewish notion of peace to the world. Without this King, humans would be left without hope and the possibility of ever flourishing as humans. But, under the reign of this King, the effects of sin will be done away with and human flourishing will once again be possible.

We are also told by Micah that this king would be born in Bethlehem and from the tribe of Judah; his origin will be “from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). So when Jesus, Son of God and from the family of Judah, was born in Bethlehem, we know this must be the King about whom we were told. We should understand that God has kept his promise to make the world right again. Now, while Jesus was still laying in a manger, how this would happen had not been made clear. That would come later. But we should be very happy indeed to know that God, our King, was born on Christmas some 2000 years ago because with his birth came the promise that humans can live as God intended – in peace.

 

 

[1] Singer thinks that the only thing that counts as a person is a rational, self-conscious person. Babies and the mentally disabled are therefore not persons and do not deserve the same rights as other persons. See for example his Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (1988), Oxford University Press.

[2] This is not to say that having a body is not the ideal way for humans to exist. However, humans can apparently be separated from their bodies at least for a short while. Paul, for example, was caught up to the third heaven. Also, prior to the Second Coming, humans will apparently exist sans bodies while they await the resurrection. J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae defend this view in Body & Soul (2000) IVP Academic.

[3] Sam Harris, Free Will. Simon & Schuster.

Photo: “Nativity” by Jess Weese. CC License. 

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