It was a soggy, muggy, nineteenth-century India morning. A mist, rising like the spirit of an ancient Hindu deity, drifted off the Ganges and clouded the bank. A Christian missionary plowed through the fog, finding his way only by looking at the dirt path that appeared just ahead of him, the mist parting at each footstep. As he walked through the lifting haze, he saw a young Indian woman sitting near the water, a baby at her breast. She stared ahead, ignoring the fleeting figure behind her.
Later that morning, when the fog had lifted, the missionary walked back along the same path. To his surprise, the woman was in the same spot. Neither her face nor her stare had changed. He was about to continue walking but stopped when he noticed that there was one thing that had changed—there was no baby. It stopped him cold.
No! he thought. No! No! No!
He walked up to her, and when he halted, her eyes bored into his. Then, with tears running down her cheeks, she said, “I don’t know what your God demands, but my gods require the best.”
All through history, people have thrown their babies into rivers, burnt their children on altars, beaten themselves with whips and chains, or crawled on bloodied knees—all in an attempt to get right with God. They have cut themselves, starved themselves, and mutilated themselves. They have gone on long pilgrimages, carried crosses on their backs, shrieked and cried, howled and pounded their breasts—all to try to get right with God.
Despite all of it, according to the Bible, there is only one way to get right with God, and that is through faith in Jesus Christ. And what better time than now, Christmas—which celebrates Jesus coming in human flesh—to look at the contrast between the reconciliation offered by true Christianity and all other futile attempts to get right with our Maker?
appeasing the gods
Ask almost any anthropologist, a person who studies human societies and cultures and how they develop, and they will tell you something remarkable about the religious practices of pagan cultures and societies. And that is, no matter how diverse the religions, and no matter how separated in time and place—whether from Greece 2,500 years ago to Pacific Islanders today, from the ancient Carthaginians (now modern Tunis) to Native American tribes—almost all believe that their gods get angry, and in order to get right with their angry gods, they must find a way to placate them. Transcending culture and times and societies, this “theology” seems almost universal: when the gods or the spirits are angry, they had better be appeased, or else.
In one sense, the universality of this sentiment is not hard to understand. Many, if not all, of those pagan faiths worship nature in some way. Their gods are either nature itself or intimately linked with nature. And nature, as we all know—though often stunningly beautiful and peaceful and providing us with the very things that we need for existence—can also turn ugly, dangerous, and violent and can even threaten our existence.
Imagine living in the ancient Near East or as a member of some isolated tribe in the jungle of South America or in the Pacific, even today. The same sky that brings rain and sunlight crucial for survival can also hurl thunder and lightning and bring devastating winds. The same sky can also close its windows and dry the ground so that nothing, not even weeds, will grow. You would fear for your own existence. The thought, of course, would be that, somehow, the gods associated with nature or nature itself, whom you directly worship, are angry and are showing their anger through these devasting acts. And so, what else can you do to get right with these gods but placate and appease them?
“Serious illness, drought, pestilence, epidemic, famine, and other misfortune and calamity have universally been regarded as the workings of supernatural forces. Often they have been understood as the effects of offenses against the sacred order committed by individuals or communities, deliberately or unintentionally. Such offenses break the relationship with the sacred order or impede the flow of divine life.”1
And, in order to get right with those angry gods, adherents believed that sacrifice alone could appease them—mostly of animals, but sometimes of people, and even their own children.
the coming of Jesus
The concept of sacrifice leads right to Jesus Christ, who, as God Himself, “shrank down” and was born into this world as a human infant—the event we celebrate as Christmas—all so that He could eventually offer Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
In radical contrast to paganism, however—which teaches that sacrifices are needed to win back their angry god, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross revealed the reality of God’s love, a love that not only preceded the sacrifice but, indeed, motived it. Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t to make God love us. On the contrary, Christ, as God, offered Himself for sin to show us the depth of the love that He and the Father already had for us, a love most powerfully made manifest at the cross. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).2
That is, even though we are sinners—“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)—even though we are deserving of death, out of love for all of us, Christ came and died for all of us. The Bible calls Jesus “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8), which is God’s way of saying that His death, for us, had been planned even before the world was created, which also means that His love for us predated our existence.
Think, then, about what Christmas really means. Talking about Jesus, John 1:1–3 says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Also talking about Jesus, Luke 2:6, 7 says, “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
So, together, these texts are saying that the God who created all “that was made,” that is, all that once didn’t exist but then came into existence—basically the entire universe—this same Creator, which is Jesus, entered our world as the human infant known as Baby Jesus, born in the manger in Bethlehem. And, as if this condescending act in itself weren’t astonishing enough, He would, eventually, offer Himself as a sacrifice for us. Numerous times during His life, Jesus pointed to the necessity of His death. “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Luke 9:22). Just before going to the cross, which His human nature abhorred (whose wouldn’t?), Jesus prayed, “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12:27).
Every Old Testament animal sacrifice prefigured the death of Jesus, which, again, did not make God love us but, instead, revealed the love that was already there for us. From the start, however, Satan perverted the whole process in the minds of men. Though the sacrifices were designed to illustrate divine love, they were twisted into something that they were never intended to be—acts to appease angry gods and win back their love and protection.
The very act that was designed to reveal God’s love was twisted into something that was supposed to evoke that love instead. Somehow, by killing an innocent animal, or even more horrifically, by killing children (such as tossing them in a river), people came to believe that they could win back their gods’ favor. What a radical perversion of the true meaning of sacrifices, which was to point to the very One who, out of love for us—a love that never wavered, even when we spurned Him—offered Himself as the sacrifice.
The death of Jesus expressed God’s love by dying in our stead, the Innocent for the guilty. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Bible does speak of God’s wrath against sin. After all, how could God not hate sin when we see what suffering, evil, and devastation sin has brought to the beings whom He loves so dearly?
The penalty for sin—violating God’s holy law—“for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, KJV)—had to be paid. But the astonishing truth about Christianity is that God offered Himself as the sacrifice for those sins. He was the only one who could satisfy the demands of the broken law because He, Himself, is the Lawgiver.
What He did at the cross did not change His mind about us, but it should change our minds about Him. “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32).
glory to God, goodwill toward men
From His birth in the manger in Bethlehem to His death and resurrection, Christ revealed the character of God to a world that, for the most part, did not know Him. Even worse, what they thought they knew about Him was wrong, tainted by pagan notions of vengeful and hateful deities looking to punish humanity. In contrast, when the shepherds of Judea were told about the birth of Jesus, angels appeared and proclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14).
Glory to God in the highest! Yes, because Christ’s birth was the first step of His sacrifice, the most glorious expression of God’s love for a world of misguided humans that, even to this day, still think they need to earn His love. But Jesus—“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8)—shows that He has always loved us, and He is here for us when we need him.
Clifford Goldstein writes from Tennessee and is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.