“Even atheists love a manger scene!”
I’d posted four potential cover designs for my new Christmas book on Facebook, hoping for feedback from my non-believing friends. This comment caught my eye. The friend who posted it grew up in Christian circles and is now a loving, giving, cheerful atheist. She exposes her kids to as many religious traditions as possible so that they can be good citizens of the world. But notwithstanding all of this, she loves a manger scene.
The opportunity we have at Christmas to engage with non-believing friends and neighbors is unique. For many, Christmas brings warm fuzzies of nostalgia. For others, it prompts pangs of loneliness or disappointment. In either case, these feelings open up a chink, a crack, a keyhole through which we can shine some gospel light. But in order to do so, we must take seriously the reasons why our non-believing friends might be quite skeptical about the Christmas story.
Here are three reasons they might have for thinking Christmas is unbelievable.
1. Jesus Didn’t Really Exist
For some non-believers, Jesus’s actual existence is in doubt. The Christmas story might be cute: a mostly harmless myth about a baby being born while angels sang. But their assumption is that, outside the biased Bible, there’s no clear evidence that Jesus was ever even born—let alone born of a virgin.
So, is there real historical doubt about Jesus of Nazareth’s existence? No.
We need to take seriously the reasons why our non-believing friends might be quite skeptical about the Christmas story.
As famously skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman puts it, “The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.” What’s more, Ehrman says this view “is held by virtually every expert on the planet.” We know this from evidence outside the New Testament texts—from documents written by people who didn’t even like Christians. Their writings confirm the basic facts of Jesus’s life: that he was a first-century Jewish rabbi, claimed to be “the Christ,” was executed under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and was subsequently worshiped by his followers.
This question should no longer stand between the gospel and our non-believing friends. Without being jerks about it, we must graciously tear this cardboard barrier down.
2. The Gospels Were Written Too Late to Be Credible
Do you remember things that happened 35 to 45 years ago? Depending on your age, your answer will be one of these three:
- “Um, no. I’m not even that old yet.”
- “Err, maybe? I have some early childhood memories that might just be accurate.”
- “Of course! Let me tell you about the time when . . .”
Mark’s Gospel was likely written 35 to 45 years after the events it records. We have good reason to believe it’s based on Peter’s memories. My parents vividly recall significant events and conversations from that long ago, including my birth narrative. (I came out very quickly.)
John’s Gospel, the last to be written, was probably composed about six decades after Jesus’s death, and there’s good evidence to think it was written by an actual eyewitness of Jesus’s life. My grandparents tell many stories from this long ago, including the time my grandma went into labor with my mother after my grandpa made her laugh too hard by throwing an overcooked gingerbread cake at the wall.
Jesus had 12 chosen disciples whose full-time job was to travel with their Lord and learn his teachings. Like actors learning scripts, they learned their rabbi’s words and watched his deeds, and after his death—or, as believers insist, after his resurrection—they went on tour, proclaiming his message and telling their stories.
Jesus also had many other followers, including a number of women who traveled with him from the start of his public ministry. The four New Testament Gospels were written when these first eyewitnesses were beginning to die out. It was vital that their testimony be preserved with accuracy.
3. The Virgin Birth Is a Myth
For some, belief in God seems reasonable. But believing in a virgin birth is a supernatural bridge too far—especially as the earliest Gospel (Mark) says nothing about Jesus’s nativity. But if there’s a God who made the universe, it’s not irrational to think he could also make one human being in a uniquely supernatural way. In fact, it would be irrational to think he couldn’t.
And while Mark, which is by far the shortest Gospel, doesn’t start with Jesus’s birth, it does say from the outset that Jesus is the “Son of God” (Mark 1:1). In fact, Mark tells us that when Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven declared: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
If there’s a God who made the universe, it’s not irrational to think he could also make one human being in a uniquely supernatural way.
But what about modern science? Hasn’t that disproved the possibility of a miracle like the virgin birth? No. Science describes the regular workings of nature. Miracles are, by definition, irregular. Some of the world’s top scientists believe in the virgin birth—not because they don’t understand how human reproduction works, but because they believe Jesus’s claims about who he is and the historical testimony about him.
Most non-believers will have many other reasons to reject the Christmas story: their disappointment with the church, their sense of our hypocrisy, the clash between the Christian faith and several tenets of our modern, Western creeds.
But as we prepare for Christmas this year, let’s ready ourselves, and the churches we serve, to open our doors and hearts and minds to non-believing friends and family. Let’s arm ourselves with answers to the questions they might ask—not so we can knock them down, but so we can clear the ground in front of them and call them in this Christmas.
Because even atheists love a manger scene.