Much of the modern world is offended by religion in general and by Christianity in particular. One popular generalized attack on religion is this. “God supposedly created man in His image and likeness. And Man returned the favor. Man created God is his image and likeness.”
Many gods obviously have been created by man. The gods of the Greeks, for instance, get jealous, commit adultery, fight among themselves, kill humans, take revenge, and occasionally fall in love. Very human characters who happen to be immortal and have superhuman powers. It’s easy to believe people invented these gods.
But the god of Christianity is something different altogether. Christians believe God is love. They hold that God is a communion of three persons: the one who loves, the one who receives love, and the love itself. That union is so intense that it is One God, just as the Hebrews had already insisted. What other religion has ever invented such a god?
Christians believe that in the fullness of time, God, the one who loves, sent His only Son, whom he loves, to live on earth among human beings. And God did not choose to flaunt his power over his creatures, nor did He demand adulation. Instead, He humbled Himself and allowed Himself to take on the most vulnerable and dependent form. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit, Love Itself, came upon a humble girl from Nazareth, and that “the Power of the Most High overshadowed” her. The creator of the universe allowed himself to be formed within a woman’s womb, carried for nine months, and then born as a helpless child to impoverished parents, weary from travel, who had only a stable for shelter.
Who ever heard of a god doing something like that?
That humble beginning set the stage for the most radical part of Jesus’ message. The God of the Christians especially loves the poor and the weak. When we care for the poor and defend the weak, we are in fact caring for and defending God Himself. Not a common message around the Roman Empire.
And was that humble origin simply a staging ground for a massive display of power or pique as we might expect from some of the other gods humanity has invented for itself? Jesus never took over anything, or even bossed anybody around. He didn’t defend himself when unjustly condemned. He accepted an ignominious and painful death. His claim to divinity is that he was seen alive after his very public and very thorough execution. His followers claimed that they touched him, talked with him, and saw him eat. None them could ever be talked out of their story, despite some fairly aggressive attempts to do so. Peter and Andrew were crucified. Bartholomew is said to have been flayed alive. But none of them changed their account.
You can’t make this stuff up.
This God of the Christians grew out of the God of the Hebrews, who had already distinguished himself from the other gods of his time and place, and not only in his insistence that he is the only god. “Hear O, Israel, the Lord your God is One.” The God of the Hebrews is unique among the ancient gods in that the Hebrews believed God, a non-material being, created the world out of nothing.
This is really remarkable, in that it answers the ultimate question, “How did the material world come to be?” Other cultures had invented creation stories which answered a slightly different question, “how did the world as we know it, come to be?” The answers they gave usually involved some god or other transforming matter into the world as we know it now. An Earth Mother goddess gave birth to a giant egg, from which the world emerged. Or a god regurgitated and there came earth. These myths leave unanswered the question of where the Earth Mother goddess got her body or how the Father God had a mouth. These myths did not explain how these raw materials came into being. The Hebrew account is unusual in answering the ultimate question: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Christianity added to Judaism the motivation for creation: The Triune God created the world out of nothing, as an act of pure love. And God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
I am not ashamed to believe that. I do not find it degrading to believe that at the center of the universe is a deep and abiding love, and that I am invited to participate in it and partake of it. I am not embarrassed to believe that my life is a gift from God. All my talents are given by Him to be placed at the service of love. I am proud to be a follower of Jesus.
Happy Birthday, Jesus. Thanks for coming here.
– Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is Senior Research Fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, and the author of Love and Economics.