December 25, 2009
The Greatest Story Ever ToldBy Vasko Kohlmayer
Someone once called the birth and life of Jesus Christ the greatest story ever told. It most certainly is, for no other story offers such a powerful and sublime mixture of wonder, pain, hope, and love. Paradoxically, the very thing that makes this story so irresistible to some also stands as a stumbling block to others, because to them its claims seem so fantastic that they could hardly be true.
Why, it is often asked, would God come down to this earth -- a tiny planet tucked away in a forlorn corner of the universe -- and assume human form? Why would the all-powerful Creator of this vast cosmos become a common man, and then let himself to be spat upon, tortured, and executed in a most demeaning and painful way?
To many, this notion seems far-fetched and strange. Some even think it outright absurd and preposterous. Of course, one can see why they would feel this way. But once we transcend the confines of our self-centered frame of reference and look at things from a higher plane, it will begin to make sense.
Wondrous as every aspect of creation is, man stands without question as its crowning glory. Hebrew scriptures tell us that man was created in God's image. Man indeed possesses astonishing faculties that render him godlike in more ways than one. Man can, for example, perceive and drink in the beauty that surrounds him -- be it a dewdrop, a person, or the glittering stars of a distant galaxy. Man can love. He has a sense of right and wrong. Man knows good, and he knows evil. He can conceive of the eternal. Man can contemplate his own existence. Man can dream and hope and grieve and rejoice.
No other creature possesses any of these wonderful abilities. Neither are they explainable by evolution, for they are not particularly useful in such a context. In fact, these abilities only make our lives unnecessarily complicated from an evolutionary point of view because they divert our attention and energies from seemingly more gainful pursuits. Thus man's possession of these faculties cannot be justified in terms of scientific theories or materialistic categories. In this sense, they are supernatural, grafted as it were upon our cognitive apparatus from above.
But even as he possesses all these marvelous aptitudes, there is at the same time something deeply wrong with man. The evidence of this is all around us. Strife, conflict, and selfishness are facts of life. Mankind's history is full of hatred, murder, and war. Even though man exhibits divine qualities, he can also be fiendishly cruel and ruthlessly rapacious. We make laws and erect fences to protect ourselves against the inhumanity of our fellow human beings. But it is not only other people we need to fear. Each one of us has lied, deceived, betrayed, taken, and injured. We have all been wronged, and we have all wronged in turn.
Scriptures call this sin and tell how it infected human nature, how it caused cracks and dislocations all throughout creation. Sin is deeply embedded in our nature. We incline toward it from early on, as anyone who has children quickly learns. It requires laws and rules and self-discipline to restrain sin's destructive tendencies. And yet we fall for it again and again as we do things we later regret. Humanity, the pinnacle of God's creation, has been doing this ever since the Garden of Eden.
Although physically speaking, human beings make up only an infinitesimal portion of the universe, the issue of sin is of the highest cosmic import because it is a brazen trespass against the moral law that God has implanted in man. This presents a great problem in the grand scheme of things and renders even apparently much larger phenomena small in comparison. This is because even the most violent and spectacular cosmic events are ultimately subject to physical laws, mind-boggling as those laws may be. Sin, on the other hand, is a direct violation of God's decree. To compound the woe, this violation is carried out by God's own rebellious children.
Human beings intuitively feel that willful wrongdoing demands retribution. This primordial premonition is embedded in every children's story, where purveyors of evil are invariably punished. This is an echo of the cosmic truth sewn into man's conscience by God himself -- that in the end, evil will receive its just recompense.
The evil committed by human beings -- the bad things each of us has done -- must and will be eventually dealt with. It is not a pleasant prospect to contemplate, given how much and how often we transgress in the span of our lives. To make our case worse still, we fail to render proper thanks and worship -- or even so much as acknowledge -- our creator, the very being who gifted us with life and all the good things we enjoy.
God would be fully justified in meting out swift punishment to wayward and ungrateful humanity. He could easily destroy this strife-ridden, sin-beset earth by placing it on a collision course with another terrestrial body and wiping out the stain of unrighteousness in a ball of fire. Or he could cause the sun to collapse upon itself, an event that would bury human iniquity under layers of ice and turn this planet into a grim testimonial of divine justice as it travels silently through the cosmos's vast expanse.
But God is not like that. Even the irreligious can intuit that a being responsible for the manifold wonders of creation would take no pleasure in the stern execution of righteous wrath. Only a gentle and generous heart could form a snowdrop or a baby. Only a heart of love could conceive such glorious things. A heart like this would not punish mercilessly, but would rather stretch the wings of mercy as far as they could reach.
And this God did just that in the person of Jesus Christ, whose incarnation we celebrate during this festive season. The second person of the divine Trinity, he came down to earth to deal with human sinfulness by taking on a man's body. Why did God decide to condescend so much? He did it out of love, because this was the only way in which he could save humanity from its predicament.
Only by having a physical body could God perform that seemingly unachievable feat: to take away from his fallen children the punishment due for their moral transgressions. God could not simply wink and let the guilty walk away without exacting the penalty that's due. If he did that, he would violate his own edict. This he cannot do, for at that moment he would cease to be God.
But God found a way to set men free while at the same time satisfying the uncompromising demands of the law. He did this by setting up a mechanism through which people's transgressions would be transferred onto Jesus, who would then absorb the mandatory penalty in his own person. The dynamic is analogous to the old-testament conception of laying people's trespasses on the head of the sacrificial lamb. But while the blood of an animal could never adequately wash away the curse of sin, the blood of Christ can. While the ancient Jews effected the symbolic transference of their transgressions by placing their hands on the body of the victim, under Christ's dispensation, the transaction takes place through faith. The Bible teaches that if a person sincerely believes that Jesus died in his stead for his sins, then that person is no longer subject to divine penalty -- he is saved and will receive eternal life from the Creator's outstretched arm.
Some people may think that such grace is cheap. It is most certainly not. Even though salvation is free for those who choose to accept it, it cost the Son of God everything to make it available. But thankfully, his story did not end with the agonizing crucifixion on a hill called Calvary, for it was followed by resurrection the Sunday after, when Jesus received back all that he had given up and more. And so, the Bible teaches, will everyone who believes in him. Because of this, God's saving grace is the most precious thing a man or a woman can ever receive. It not only forms the basis of the greatest story ever told, but it is truly Christmas's priceless gift.