Back in the day, when I was a card-carrying atheist, one of my main reasons for not accepting Christianity was that it seemed to me to be little more than an escapist option. Here we all are, living in a world that is clearly problematic, and so many Christians seemed to be saying, “Come and join us in escaping it all. Believe in Jesus and you will go to Heaven.”
This never felt to me like a very satisfactory or substantial philosophy for anyone actually having to live in this problematic world, with all its myriad of evils, difficulties, and challenges. Yet is this really what Christianity is all about? On the contrary.
A little more than 2,000 years ago a baby was born in a manger. Of course, this wasn’t just any baby. This was incarnate Deity—God manifest in the flesh. Now all believers hold that His purpose in coming was to die for His people and to save them from their sins. But what happens when we flesh this out a bit, thinking about how it applies to our daily lives? Does the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection fit snugly into the view that the main point of Jesus’s work was to “rescue us and take us to Heaven”? Is that why Jesus came, died, and rose from the grave? Or was there something much bigger going on?
For much of the past century or two, Western Christianity has tended to become increasingly anti-Incarnational. This is not to say that believers are going about denying the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. But it is to say that in practice we often deny some of the ramifications of it. Western Christianity has been infested with Platonic dualism—spirit is good, matter is bad—and we often take our cue from this philosophy more than we do from the proclamation of God that all of His created order is Very Good.
The Incarnation refutes these Platonic assumptions. The Incarnation is, on one level, a celebration and testimony of the goodness of God’s physical creation. The Second Person of the Trinity became a real physical man living in the real physical world that He created.
The Incarnation is also an affirmation that—contrary to Plato and all forms of Gnosticism—the physical world is worth redeeming and indeed capable of being redeemed. The Incarnation is not about Jesus reluctantly becoming a physical being for a time, just because He had to become a man to pay for the sins of sons and daughters of Adam. Rather it is about Jesus wanting to put on human flesh and become one of us. This is why He is still incarnate flesh and blood, and why He always will be incarnate flesh and blood. If matter were somehow bad, He would have relinquished His humanity and His body as soon as the penalty for sin had been paid.
As we reflect on the day when most Christians throughout the world celebrate the birth of Christ, it really is good to remind ourselves of the Incarnation and all that it means. It is a good thing to remember that God, the infinite, immortal, invisible Spirit became clothed with human flesh. It is good to remember because this—and more specifically the Resurrection—was the herald of a new creation. This world was not in need of escapism then and it is not in need of escapism now. What it did need and what it does need was and is a new creation, a new way of living, a new humanity. This is what Jesus is, this is what He inaugurated, and this is what His people are meant to be and to become, beginning this side of death.
It is good to remind ourselves of the Incarnation for another reason. The Incarnation and the “Incarnation Resurrected” are doctrines that send shivers up the spines of wicked rulers. What was it that shook Herod? The idea thatbelievers might get to Heaven? No, it was the fact that a Child was born, a Son was given. He knew what this meant. It meant that all the promises to Israel were about to come to pass. A new king—The King—was in the world. The Kingdom of God—as John the Baptist and Jesus later proclaimed—had indeed come. And this was a direct enough threat to Herod the tyrant that he had all the infants in Bethlehem slaughtered.
What was it that shook up the first-century world and disturbed the rulers of that age? Was it a doctrine that said “we’re going to be taken out of here”? Or was it the powerful witness that the Son of God had come in the flesh and after being put to death had risen physically from the grave—defying,defeating, and destroying even death itself? This was the doctrine that turned the world on its head. There is a new King and even death cannot contain Him.
I believe that this message is so much more powerful than the one I heard from many Christians when I was still an atheist. Did the Ruler of the Universe enter His creation in order to snatch a people out of a wicked and degenerating world into eternity? Or did the Ruler of the Universe enter His creation inorder that a new creation might begin and the wicked and degenerating worldmight be redeemed and restored—beginning right there and then and continuing on through history, culminating in the resurrection of the entire physical creation at the end of time?
The second message is far more potent than the first. This is the message that would have challenged my atheism in ways which the more escapist view of things never could have done. And this is the message the world needs to hear at Christmas time: Jesus Christ, the eternal God, the Savior of the world, the restorer of all things, entered His creation as a baby in order that He might slowly, yet inexorably, redeem it to Himself. Hail the incarnate Deity!