And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:14a)
On the scale of crazy, this claim is tops. There’s no doubt that the Gospels trade in the extraordinary throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry. Walking on water, multiplying fishes and loaves, and even raising folks from the dead are all incredible, amazing and miraculous. We’d all be mystified and compelled to worship if we got to witness these events. However, the original Christmas events, when we stop to reflect on them, seem to be on a whole different level. Consider this: the transcendent, all-powerful and self-existent one, the creator of all reality, the one who literally holds all things into being was born human in a common manger!
The idea of the incarnation is so big that it seems to require us to pause and consider whether or not it is even a coherent thought. Is it even logically possible that God becomes man? Though the notion merits some serious reflection, the short answer is yes, or so it seems to me. To be sure, this idea is as big as it gets, and when we try to grasp all that is involved in the incarnation of Christ, we all too quickly hit the limits of our finite powers of comprehension. But being unfathomable is not being logically inconsistent. It seems to me (and I encourage you to reflect on this as well) that there is nothing logically contradictory about the incarnation. But that is a discussion for another time.
I won’t here say a lot about the doctrine of the incarnation. My purpose rather is, in this holiday season, to challenge us to consider the bigness of the fact of the incarnation and to ask how we can believe something as extravagant as that in our day and age.
The idea is, to be sure, a major stumbling block for the “secular” person. The person I have in mind is the one who thinks that the physical universe, as discoverable by science, is all there is. On this view, God and the supernatural are mere holdovers from a prescientific, more superstitious time and, today, we should know better. This worldview is known as Naturalism. The naturalist in view here believes that there is nothing beyond the natural world. This is the world described by science. On this worldview, there are no non-natural facts (supernatural or otherwise). Naturalism is nicely summarized by Carl Sagan when he says, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”
The idea that there is a supernatural (or perhaps supra-natural) being is already ruled out on the naturalist worldview. So this view is, in a way, automatically atheistic. Thus, the idea of any miracle is not taken seriously, much less the miracle of the original Christmas. It sounds to secular ears like a fairytale or a myth.
Now so far, this really isn’t an objection to the miraculous. To assume naturalism, have an ultra high view of science, and then say that Christian theism is therefore false or a fairy tale is not an argument or a true objection. The naturalist would need to say why naturalism best explains the world as we find it. The problem is that there are a variety of features of the world that go unexplained on the thesis of naturalism. These include the universe itself (how did nature come to be?), the fine tuning of the universe (if there is nothing beyond the cosmos, then the way the universe works is nothing more than extraordinary good fortune), moral facts (human value, meaning and purpose), human consciousness (this seems to involve far more than physical brain states), and even things like emotion. The naturalist can tell me what my typical brain chemistry is like when I’m experiencing overwhelming love for, say, my wife and children. However, this does not seem to even be close to what it is to be deeply in love with another. It seems to many of us that our rich human experiences are prime counterexamples to the naturalist worldview. If one takes naturalism seriously, all we have recourse to in describing our emotions are neural firings and brain chemistry. How do you write a compelling love song or poem about that? I wouldn’t try that at home!
Thus, naturalism, in my view, is an impoverished view. It cannot explain the most important aspects of life and is thus ill-motivated. So the view itself is not sufficient to make a problem for miracles. There is, however, a far more serious objection to the supernatural. This is the so-called Problem of Miracles. The problem is that, when we consider the nature of miracles (they are rare and unrepeatable and thus improbable), it seems problematic to rationally believe something that is extraordinarily improbable. This is especially the case when we are not ourselves witnesses of the improbable event. Many have concluded that, given their nature, miracle claims can never be rationally believed. The most famous presentation of this view is David Hume in his essay “Of Miracles.” Hume argued that no amount of evidence could ever convince us of the truth of a miraculous event. The reason is that we all have a plentitude of evidence that people don’t, say, walk on water. Our experience is that one always sinks in water. Now, the Gospels claim that Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee. The fact that the Gospel according to Mark claims this may count as some evidence that it is true but is immediately swamped, Hume thought, by the many, many experiences we have of people not being able to walk on water. Hume thought that when one is weighing the evidence for a miracle, given the nature of a miracle, one will always have more reason to think the miracle claim dubious than believe it, no matter how good the evidence is.
So how can we believe in the miracle of Christmas in the face of the Problem of Miracles? Isn’t the claim just too big and unlikely to take seriously?
There are many ways to respond to Hume’s arguments, and these are well detailed in a variety of sources. One problem is that it simply proves too much. Unlikely events occur, and we can be quite rational in believing in them. Imagine a woman has been killed, and the prime suspect is her husband. Suppose his defense lawyer gives his closing argument and tells the jury that they have had a plenitude of experience of husbands not killing their wives. Each juror has experienced thousands upon thousands of husbands who did not kill their wives. Thus, even though there is significant evidence against this husband, the jury should find him innocent given the fact that it is so unlikely and improbable.
I’m guessing that this defense will not be very convincing. Likewise, the mere fact that a miracle is unlikely is not enough for it to be ruled out given our experiences of the non-miraculous.
There’s a deeper point here, however. We need to get clear on just what is being claimed when we claim a miracle has occurred. Christians never understand miracles to be mere tricks or the exercise of a superpower. They are never there to merely impress and mystify (though they are surely impressive and mystifying). When I claim that miracles have occurred as recorded throughout Scripture, I’m not claiming that certain people have had certain powers to perform miracles. This is not a superhero movie! The Christian understanding of miracles is that God, the one who upholds the cosmos, is doing something extraordinary in the world in and through human agents. Christian miracles are always a purposive work of God. Thus, to make a claim about miracles is to make a claim about God.
So I don’t necessarily think that the evidence for a particular miracle claim outweighs my vast experiences of natural occurrences. What I find plausible is that a supernatural God exists. I find the evidence for this to be extremely compelling. Though I don’t have the space to make the connection to the Christian account, let me just say that I find the Christian account of God to be far and away the most plausible account of the divine.
When it comes to the original Christmas, I confidently believe every single aspect as presented in the Gospels, and I think I do so rationally. I will not soft peddle this fact. How can I believe that there was a large star in the East, Jesus was born to a virgin, the multitude of angels, wise men, shepherds, etc. How can I believe this in our contemporary age? It is because I believe in a supernatural and all-powerful God. I have no problem believing this because I think that it’s God’s prerogative of how He works in the world. It may read a bit quirky to one, but again, quirky does not mean false. Moreover, it is in the quirkiness that we find rich significance. It seems to me that, given a belief in a supernatural God, we should expect wondrous and amazing events.