Do You Really Believe This? On Santa Claus, Jesus, and the Unbelievable

December 24, 2016

It is during this season, the glorious Christmas season, that my wife watches her favorite channel the most. Unfortunately for me, that channel is not one of the ESPN family of networks, but the Hallmark Channel. I’m generally a fan of Hallmark’s usually wholesome television programming, stuff you can actually watch with your nine-year-old in the room, so please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.

Here it is: The endless string of Christmas rom-coms I’m forced to watch with my wife makes me want to channel William Wallace in Braveheart, rip off my shirt, and yell, ”Freedom!”

Maybe it’s the very simple plot lines (wealthy developer wants to tear down a small town’s sacred institution to build condos–oh, the horror–until a scrappy heroine saves the day with a pitched local campaign and then falls in love with the formerly evil developer), the overwrought sentimentalism, or the poor acting. Or maybe it’s just the difference between men and women. My wife can’t get enough of the Hallmark Channel at Christmas.

If there’s a message in every new Christmas special (and perhaps every Christmas movie ever made), it’s pretty simple: Do you believe? By “believe,” we typically mean that really joyful, spirited, wonderful people put their faith in Santa Claus at Christmas. And this faith injects a spirit into a normally grouchy, stressed, terrible world.

Christians have historically been all over the map with Santa, from denouncing him as a work of the devil (Santa = a rearranged version of Satan!) to moderate disgust, to passive participation. The latter is where I’d guess most evangelicals are now. And if you’ve read my work for long, you’ll know that I’m no Santa grouch. Like most parents, we make the annual pilgrimage to the mall to have our kids sit on the fat man’s lap. I’ve yet to talk to a prodigal who identified Santa as the catalyst for his departure from the faith, so I think an honest engagement with Santa Claus is mostly harmless and fun.

But I want to circle back to the theme of most Christmas movies: Do you believe? It seems absurd to most rational people that a man in a red suit lives in a cozy home workshop at the frigid North Pole, and that he could possibly worm down every chimney and deliver gifts to good kids. It’s a pretty far-fetched idea. So rational people don’t actually believe it. Yet this part of Christmas makes us really want to believe it. Because, the story goes, if this were true, all would be right in the world.

Does that not sound just a wee bit familiar to another argument? I’m not suggesting the Santa myth is a perfect allegory of the Christian story or that to believe in Christ is the same as believing in Santa. We know the gospel narrative is not “be good for goodness sake” but that Christ was good for us, satisfying the law’s righteous demands and absorbing the punishment of a just God on our behalf.

But this question, Do you really believe this? Is this not the same question asked of us by the world about the Christian story?

Of course, the substance of the Christian question is a more robust, more unbelievable premise than Santa: Do you believe God became a man, entered space and time, was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, was unjustly crucified, stayed dead in a rich man’s tomb for three days, and then miraculously was raised to life and is now the reigning King of the world?

The Christian story is buttressed by solid circumstantial evidence (many infallible proofs), and yet it is an unbelievable narrative. Perhaps we American Christians have gotten so used to the gospel story that we’ve forgotten just how incredible it is. But an increasingly secular society is asking us the question, Do you really believe this? It’s not an intellectual question they are asking. It’s not a search for archeological proof. It’s a rhetorical question of near incredulity. You can’t possibly believe this.

Because rational people, educated people, progressive people just don’t believe that this man Jesus was the Son of God, that there really was a virgin named Mary, that the ugly intersection of humanity and divinity at the cross really is the pivot point of human history. Young people spend their parents’ hard-earned money at our finest educational institutions learning just how preposterous this is. Scientists write strongly worded rebuttals to the biblical narrative, because things like this just don’t happen.

And yet…what if it were true? Imagine if the story the Bible tells about Jesus is not allegory or myth, but actual historical record? What if the 500 witnesses who saw the nail-scarred Jesus after his resurrection were right? If this is true, then the world really will be made right. Evil really has been defeated, and a new kingdom awaits those rescued by the King. Lamb and lion really will lie down together. All races will one day come together in praise of God’s glory. Creation will once again be restored from its tumult.

In other words, if the real story of Christmas, the Incarnation, is true, it changes everything. In fact, I would argue, even if you don’t believe it to be true, you might wish it to be true. Maybe this is why we cling to fantasies like Santa Claus, like the Disney fairy tales. It reflects within each of us a deep, heart-felt longing for things to be made right.

Could it be that the nostalgia for the good old times is really us missing our original home, Eden, before sin and death destroyed what God made perfect? Could it be that our hopes for a world where things are magical and beautiful is a yearning for heaven? Perhaps this inspired Phillips Brooks when he wrote the famous words of “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” and the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee (Christ) tonight.”

To believe in Santa defies logic, to be sure. But to believe in the Christian story is also to believe the unbelievable. Not that Christianity cannot be logically explained. Not that the wisest believing scholars haven’t given it weight. But at the end of the day, to follow King Jesus, to be a Christian, is to bow the knee to a baby turned man, God in the flesh, fully human and fully divine. And the question of Christmas becomes rhetorical: Do you really believe this?

Yes, with my life, my heart, and my mind, I do. And I hope you do, too.