That very small minority of people who think that Jesus Christ never even existed contend that Jesus was simply a copy of some pagan myth -- a "god" who was born again like many other gods of ancient times. Of course, to draw this conclusion requires the advocate to stretch the analogy beyond recognition as has been shown by many well-documented articles. The CADRE's own Mark McFall has written a number of excellent essays which respond to these claims on his site In the Word Ministries -- Frontline Apologetics, and many other essays can be found at our own The Historical Jesus page.
While it is good to know that Jesus' life account is not a copycat by comparing the actual myths of ancient times with the accounts of the life of Jesus given in the Bible, it is also important, especially at this time of year, to focus on yet another difference between the Jesus of the Gospels and the other mythological "dying and rising gods" noted by the Jesus Mythers. It has to do with giving and receiving. This, in turn, requires that we recall the account of the fall of humanity given in Genesis 3.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempted Eve in two ways. First, he raised questions about the Word of God by saying "Did God really say . . . ?" Eve rightly responded that God had told them that they should not eat of the tree in the midst of the Garden, for it they were to do so, they would surely die. The serpent then played his trump card -- the temptation which has served as the basis for most of mankind's failures ever since -- by saying "You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Roughly translated, the serpent was saying "God is lying to you. If you eat from this fruit of the tree of the 'knowledge of good and evil' you will be a god." And that simple temptation -- our desire to be gods -- has collectively been our biggest failing ever since.
In all of the world's religions, save one, spirituality depends on what the follower does. Salvation needs to be earned. In the ancient world religions, the dying and rising gods died and rose for their own purposes. I have never seen another religion like Christianity where the god comes to humanity and offers them a totally free gift -- eternal life. The only requirement is that the gift be received.
Last night, I was reading an essay by Dr. William Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University entitled "The God We Hardly Knew" in which Dr. Willimon suggests that what makes Christmas so unusual is the way that God, through Jesus, came to us, and the counter-intuitive way that this "gift" is received because of our own secular view of Christmastime.
[C]onsider what we do at Christmas, the so-called season of giving. We enjoy thinking of ourselves as basically generous, benevolent, giving people. That’s one reason why everyone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity. The newspaper keeps us posted on how many needy families we have adopted. The Salvation Army kettles enable us to be generous while buying groceries (for ourselves) or gifts (for our families). People we work with who usually balk at the collection to pay for the morning coffee fall over themselves soliciting funds "to make Christmas" for some family.
We love Christmas because, as we say, Christmas brings out the best in us. Everyone gives on Christmas, even the stingiest among us, even the Ebenezer Scrooges. Charles Dickens’s story of Scrooge’s transformation has probably done more to form our notions of Christmas than St. Luke’s story of the manger. Whereas Luke tells of God’s gift to us, Dickens tells us how we can give to others. A Christmas Carol is more congenial to our favorite images of ourselves. Dickens suggests that down deep, even the worst of us can become generous, giving people.
Yet I suggest that we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story -- the one according to Luke not Dickens -- is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.
We prefer to think of ourselves as givers -- powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we -- with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities -- had little to do with God’s work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from a God we hardly even knew.
You see, we want to be our own gods. We want to be the ones in charge. There is an aspect of Christmas, when separated from the connection with the true foundation of the gift that first came from God, that is arrogant. It is about us giving the best gifts. It is about our generosity. It is about our kindness. But that misses the point of Christmas altogether.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special first debuting on television. I once heard an interview with Charles Schultz about the special in which he admitted that it wasn't very good. I recall that he said that neither he nor the producers were satisfied at all with it. (For example, in one scene near the end while the gang is doing the opening to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", Pigpen disappears from the screen for a split second.) So what was his conclusion as to why it was so popular despite its many flaws? He felt it was the great musical score and Linus' quoting from the original Nativity account in Luke as the "true meaning of Christmas."
Skeptics don't get it. They see Christmas as a time of giving, and it is. There is no question that we should all give at Christmas as a means of expressing love to each other. But it is not a time to give to show how generous we are or how loving we are. That type of attitude focuses on "us" instead of "others" which is completly counter to the true meaning of the holiday as first expressed by the baby in the manger 2000 years ago. The true meaning of Christmas is in receiving. We need to first off receive the great gift that God gave to us when Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, came down with the gift of Himself. With that foundation, we will be in the right frame of mind to truly receive all that the Christmas season has to offer.