In the modern Western world most everyone is familiar with the basic story of Christmas, even if they aren’t Christian. Linus Van Pelt did a pretty good job of explaining it back in 1965:
The passage Linus reads in the video above is from the book of Luke and it’s amazing to see how the author of that book took such care to place the birth of Jesus into the context of human history. This flies in the face of the claims commonly made by atheists that Jesus is just another mythological, man-made god no different than Zeus, Mithra, Santa Claus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This recent tweet from Thomas Doubtmoore is a perfect example:
— Thomas Doubtmoore (@Doubtism) December 23, 2016
Perhaps these kinds of claims are intended to be more sensational than literal, a poke at thin-skinned Christians in the hope of offending them. That’s my suspicion about many Tweets from Mr. Doubtmoore (with whom I’ve interacted quite a bit) and his comrades-in-worldview. But, when taken at face value, many atheists seem to really believe that Jesus is a myth. I’ve written about the side of this claim that asserts Christianity was created by hijacking a bunch of ideas from earlier religions, showing how similarities between those religions and Christianity actually support the truth claims of Christianity.
Today I wanted to take a look at another side of this atheist claim and show how Christianity has it’s basis in human history, not mythology. While Christmas may be an over-commercialized holiday that has become a social tradition the world over, it’s origins in the birth of Christ are very real.
To show you what I mean let’s take a quick look at what are perhaps the three most common non-Christian myths cited by atheists when trying to make the case that Christianity is a myth. And then let’s contrast them with the Christian story of Christmas and see how they stack up.
One caveat: The history of religion and mythology is incredibly complex and I’m only able to take a broad look at the differences here. So I would encourage you to do the research and study the origins and earliest writings of popular mythology. The more you read the more you get a sense for the “feel” of mythology, and by comparison, the more you realize how non-mythological, real and historical the Christian truth claims are.
Mithra, often referred to by atheists as the “Pagan Christ”, was the Indo-Iranian god of the sun and war. According to myth, Mithra was born bearing a torch and armed with a knife, beside a sacred stream and under a sacred tree, a child of the earth itself. He soon rode, and later killed, the life-giving cosmic bull, whose blood fertilizes all vegetation.
Note the lack of falsifiable historical truth claims related to Mithra. If we take this story at face value we’re left with a tremendous amount of empathy for his poor mother, who gave birth to an infant who was holding a torch and a knife. Ouch. So where was Mithra born? What do we know about his life and family? No one knows and the legend doesn’t say. The earliest Mithraic writings, dated back to 1400 BC, were Vedic hymns in which Mithra is frequently mentioned, but beyond the bare occurrence of his name, little is known of him.
How about scientific evidence? I’m not aware that any scientific effort has been invested pursuing Mithraic truth claims, but to date we know there is no scientific evidence of a cosmic bull, much less evidence that it’s blood is what fertilizes all vegetation.
As opposed to Mithra, who is now universally regarded as myth, there is Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, which is currently the world’s 3rd largest religion. Over a billion people today still worship Vishnu.
Vishnu is usually depicted as having blue skin and four arms. Hindus believe he has been incarnated nine times so far, including as a fish, a turtle, half lion/half man, a dwarf sage with the ability to grow, a mentally advanced man, and as Buddha, the all knowing one. He lives in the milky waters of Vaikunth on a bed made of the coils of the thousand-hooded great serpent, Adishesha of infinite dimensions. It is believed that he will be reincarnated one last time at the end of this world.
Vishnu, while generally taken by Hindus as real, is said to be experienced through the mind and intellect. There is a great deal of symbolism surrounding all Hindu gods, and typically they are not considered persons in the human sense, but rather entities whose nature is pure consciousness.
That way of believing in Vishnu doesn’t mitigate the fact that there is a dearth of historical and scientific evidence that support the truth claims about him. We have no evidence of any of his reincarnated forms, nor the time periods when this might have happened, and we’ve certainly never found a fossil suggesting thousand-hooded serpents could exist. Like Mithra, Vishnu’s story is a disembodied tale, floating outside of human history and physical reality. It’s full of arbitrary details and claims not subject to human logic, and accessible exclusively through tradition and faith.
Some versions of his life tell the story of an angel that entered into a plant which was then eaten by a priest. Meanwhile a heavenly ray of light entered the bosom of a maid who was part of the royalty. Then the priest married the maid and they had little baby Zarathustra. When he grew older, as the legend goes, Zarathustra left society and lived in the wilderness in order to pursue wisdom. After living a long life of preaching and teaching he ascended into heaven in the form of a flash of light.
So who was the priest? Who was the maid? When did they live? Where did they live? Unfortunately the Persian sacred scriptures contain no reference to any single historically reliable event that could be linked to world history. In fact, the historical sources we have for Zarathustra are highly contradictory. So once again we’re left with a story that is void of evidence and disassociated from human history, science and logic.
Now that you’re starting to get a feel for mythology, let’s take a look at another story. In contrast to the three stories listed above we have the origin of Jesus as recorded by a 1st century physician around the year 70 A.D.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
In bold contrast to the abstract origins of the gods mentioned above, Luke gives us a literal, historical description in which we’re told the specific names of a king and governor in power, a specific historical event that took place (the census), the names of cities, and even the specific family lineage of Joseph. These are falsifiable historical facts that have been found true through archeology and historical study. Augustus was really the Caesar at that time, Quirinius was really the governor, a census really happened, the cities of Nazareth and Bethlehem were real and, in fact, exist to this day.
Luke gives us context for the birth of a real person, Jesus, into the actual timeline of human history, whose existence (as a man) is affirmed today by even skeptic and atheist scholars. And now, 20 centuries later, world belief in Jesus as the Savior and Son of God is stronger than ever. While rational adults today don’t come to believe in mythical entities like Mithra or Santa Claus, they are still coming to believe in Jesus by the millions. Just look at what’s happening in China.
In the last 2,000+ years orthodox Christianity has unswervingly proclaimed the origin and deity of Jesus Christ as God incarnate, as the Bible indicates:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’
Jesus was real, He is still real. And Christmas is real, too!
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
So what of these other beliefs? Are we to write them off as completely false mythologies? I think not. While they miss the mark in many ways, I believe they do contain some elements of redemptive Truth. Personally, I lean toward the following interpretation of myth, as espoused by one of my favorite authors.
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.” — C.S. Lewis