Christmas seems banal to some, but Christ’s birth is unique. No other major religion has a founder who is God or one who dies so others may live. Muhammad and the Buddha both died from eating bad food.
The Prosperity Gospel is bad theology and bad storytelling. When someone notes every week a bank account growing larger, who cares? Memorable heroes face powerful and evil antagonists. They overcome obstacles to accomplish vital missions. Sometimes they sacrifice themselves for others.
This works even in tales for children. We might be mildly interested in the three little pigs and their mission of building houses, but the story is memorable because of the wolf’s big lungs and murderous disposition. The saga of Jack and Jill is intriguing not because Jack fell down and broke his crown, but because Jill went tumbling after: Did she sacrifice herself to help her mate?
Pastor Tim Keller, in his new book “Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering” (Dutton), examines several major theodicies—justifications of God’s ways. One major theodicy is that suffering can “empty us of our pride and lead us to find our true joy and only security in Christ.” That’s true, but it’s not slam-dunk satisfying because some people do not encounter the adversity they need, some get much more than seems fair, and some who are murdered do not have the opportunity for their hearts to grow two sizes.
Keller also asks hard questions about the popular “free will” theodicy, the idea that “God cannot lead us to do the right thing without violating our free will, and so evil is inevitable for free agents.” He writes that the Bible often shows God sovereignly directing our choices without violating our freedom. He notes that many atheists logically ask, Since we’re ready to violate the freedom of choice of a child walking into the path of an oncoming car, couldn’t a loving God have done more to keep Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit?
Keller points out the problems of other theodicies, including those based in natural law or emphasizing punishment. He concludes that each theodicy provides plausible explanation for some evil in the world but falls short of explaining all suffering. He then indicates his preference for “a defense” rather than theodicies: Instead of trying to say we know God’s mind, we acknowledge we don’t know all of God’s reasons, and ask skeptics whether they can prove that “God could not possibly have” any reasons for allowing suffering and evil. When skeptics have the burden of proof, they flunk.
What we do know, Keller says, is that (flashing neon sign) GOD CARES. We know this because of Christmas, God coming to earth and setting out on His mission of eventually suffering and dying on the cross “not to justify himself but to justify us.…We do not know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason is not.…It cannot be that he does not care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.”
Parents make mistakes, but children as they grow older forgive them as long as they understand that they’re cared for. Nonbelievers in Christ think that God, if He exists, makes mistakes; but worst of all is thinking that God, instead of caring, merely watches from a distance. That’s why some Christian community benevolences, such as DurhamCares, signal their goals in their names. That’s why President George H. W. Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992 after mistakenly reading aloud a cue card and telling his New Hampshire audience, “Message: I care.” (Which showed he did not.)
That’s also why, in a 20th century marked by Nazis and Communists who didn’t care how many they murdered, so many good movies, from “Casablanca” in 1942 to “Tender Mercies” in the 1980s and “The Family Man” in the 1990s, involved people learning or deciding to care. That’s why others had heroes risking (sometimes sacrificing) their lives for others, as in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Great Escape,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” or “Saving Private Ryan.”
But the best story of all is that of God showing how He cares, and it began at Christmas.