As with so many words, the word God when used by different people may mean very different things. Below is a general sketch of some of the different ways God is conceived in the minds of different people.
- Theism – the view that God is a transcendent, intelligent, and personal being who created our universe and remains actively involved in and concerned with our world. God is also concerned with human moral behavior and will judge humans accordingly.
- Deism – the view that God is an intelligent being who created the universe, but who allows the universe to run its course through the cause and effect processes that God set in place. In other words, God does not remain directly involved or intervene in the world God created. Historically, some deist have also denied a future judgment for humankind, while others have held to the view of a future judgment of some sort.
- Pantheism – the view that the universe itself and/or the material properties of which it consists are eternal and is pervaded by a mystical, impersonal, co-eternal divine force that manifests itself within the universe in a plethora of ways such that everything and everyone is tinged with the divine. With this view all beings, humans on earth or the gods in the heavens are less than the overall unifying force of the universe but are a part of it. In this view God is not distinct from the universe.
- Atheism – generally a materialist view of the universe that rejects the belief in God or gods or other supernatural beings. With this view the universe is the result of natural, random forces, and processes period. Although, it may seem odd to imply that this is what some mean by the word God, there are people who consider themselves Christian Atheists. In this case an atheist “Christian” would use the word “God” to refer to something along the lines of the natural force that gives rise to all existence, “the ground of all being” (See Article: “What Does it Mean to be a Christian Atheist? here). Practically, it might be difficult to distinguish this view from some versions of pantheism. The militant atheist Richard Dawkins basically conceded in a debate with John Lennox that he could believe there might be a deistic or pantheistic sort of being, but not a personal god who would care about sin and morality (see debate here). One of the most infamous atheist “Christians” was the cult leader, Jim Jones, a communist progressive, who, for a short time, was a Methodist student pastor. He went on to found to be ordained by the Disciples of Christ denomination and founded The People’s Temple. In time Jim Jones came to believe in God; unfortunately he believed it was he himself who was God.
The meaning of the word God, as with any word, is determined by more than a basic dictionary definition. Context, in a profound way, also determines the meaning and significance of any particular word, and not only a single word but also sentences and entire passages of a particular text.
For example, take the scenario of a man who leaves home jogging. He runs a little ways and turns left, then runs a little farther and turns left again, then a little farther and turns left again, only to return home to find two masked men waiting for him. What’s going on?
Given this scenario most will guess a robbery or kidnapping is taking place, or perhaps even a political assassination or a mob hit. This very well could be the case, but let me give you one word to “bring it all home for you:” baseball. That one word provides the framework for you to understand that the guy who took off jogging from home hit a home run and the two masked men are the catcher and the umpire. If I gave you the word mobsters or espionage you would know that we were talking about something very different. Context determines meaning.
In the context of the Bible God is revealed to be the Sovereign Creator of the Universe who created the world by speaking it into existence. This God is distinct from the universe and in no way subject to forces within the universe and outside of himself; he exercises sovereign control over all that he has made. He is revealed to be the Creator of the whole world and every nation of people within it. The God of the Bible created humanity in his image with limited freedom to have dominion over the earth. And he cares about what we do. The God of the Bible didn’t just set things in motion with no care or concern for what the creatures within his creation do. God cares, not only for humans, but also for animals and the rest of creation over which he gave humanity dominion (see Jonah 4:11; Luke 12:6).
With a world of humans in rebellion against his reign over the universe and blinded to his will by idolatry and the distorted conception of the divine that goes along with it, God called a special people out of the rest of the nations and made a special covenant with them. He called them to be a bright witness for the one true God to the rest of humanity. This witness included the witness of a moral life to which God called them. Through Israel God sought to reveal himself, who he really is and what he is really like, and to call the rest of humanity back into relationship with him. He is a personal and a relational being.
He called Israel out of a pantheistic worldview and the worship of many gods through idols. Throughout its history Israel struggled unsuccessfully to maintain the worldview, and the holy and moral life that goes with it, for which God called them. They were continually lured back into idolatry and its consequent immorality. They continually failed not only to love God above all; they also failed to truly love and care for each other as God had commanded them. The Church too has always faced the same temptations.
Even during their best of times, one of the most renowned of Israelites, King David, at times even wondered how such an awesome and majestic Creator could actually care for individual human beings, who are less than a speck of dust in the whole scheme of things (Psalm 8). Israel certainly wondered whether God really cared during their worst of times when it seemed as if God had abandoned them completely. I would imagine that many of them wondered whether the God of their ancestors really existed at all.
Does the Creator really care? What if God is really just an impersonal force to be harnessed through impersonal spells, rituals, and incantations? What if God really doesn’t care about what we do in terms of morality and behavior? And if God really doesn’t care about what we do, could he really care about us at all. Could you say a parent who really doesn’t care about what his children do really cares about them? Is a caring and personal God really with us and for us? Or are we simply subject to capricious impersonal forces that might or might not bring us good luck and fortune, or worse yet the indifferent, impersonal random forces of nature?
The unique revelation of the Bible, is that the God who gave us life, cares about how we live. He cares about morality. As Saint Augustine noted in The City of God and as John Oswalt notes in his book, The Bible Among the Myths, pagan religions were really not concerned with morality. Morality in the pagan world was determined relative to who held political power, and the concern was to establish order to secure that power. Pagan religion was about attracting the favor of the gods who were often quite capricious and just as immoral as any human being, as Saint Augustine argued with regards to the Roman pantheon. Pagans worshiped to attract the favor of the gods through rituals, sacrifice, spells, and incantations among other things, but not through moral obedience.
The God of the Bible is unique in insisting that his blessing comes through obedience to his will, especially in terms of moral behavior. God cares not only about how we relate to him, but also how we relate to each other, every human being created in his image. And the God of the Bible doesn’t just care from a distance, he dwells among his obedient people. He meets with them. He miraculously intervenes on their behalf. Indeed he does demand obedience, but not as a pitiless taskmaster. He is a gracious and merciful God who forgives and provides the means of forgiveness for his people.
After exile and the departure of the glory of God from the temple, which was eventually destroyed, Israel wondered if God had forgotten them, had he abandoned them for good. Through prophets like Isaiah he assured them he had not.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15 ESV
Christmas is the confirmation that God did not forget us. God has not and will not abandon us to our own devices or to the impersonal forces of the universe. In Jesus Christ God has come to be with us in the most intimate and personal of ways.
Christmas is not just the celebration of the birth of a legendary religious leader. Christmas is about the incarnation of the one who created us. That is, Christmas is about a God who cares, who loves us so much that he became one of us. In Christ God became human to saves us and to guide us a our Shepherd. The first Christmas was replete with miracles, but the greatest miracle of all is that God became human. Jesus wasn’t just the greatest prophet; he was God in the flesh as the first chapter of the Gospel of John reveals. And he wasn’t just God in the flesh in a generic sense, but the particular God revealed in the words of Israel’s sacred Scriptures.
Because of the paradoxes that emerge when we begin to contemplate how the infinite was combined with the finite in one person, Jesus of Nazareth, over the centuries many have objected that Jesus could not really be both fully divine and fully human. Some have erred by exalting his divinity at the expense of his humanity; others by exalting his humanity at the expense of his divinity. But the human Jesus was the embodiment of the God of Israel. (In a later post I’ll explain in more detail how this is revealed in the Bible).
Christmas is a reminder that God really does care about us. He cares about what we do because he cares about us. Therefore, even when we fall short of his will, he is gracious and merciful, plenteous in patience and abundant in forgiveness. In Christ we not only know that God is with us, our Emmanuel, we also know that God is for us. He doesn’t abandon the wayward to their own devices; he doesn’t abandon his sheep to the whims of cruel and selfish shepherds. As he said he would do in Ezekiel, God, himself, in Christ seeks his lost sheep.
“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” Ezekiel 34:11
My wife and I have five kids and one on the way, due in June. With so many kids sometimes things can get a little confused. Once when we returned home from somewhere, my wife got our youngest daughter out of the van, and I thought, one of our older kids had grabbed our 3 year old son. I was wrong. We had left him for just a couple of minutes alone in the van in the garage. When I went to get him, he was not only terrified, but also emotionally hurt. Crying, he said, “Daddy you left me!!!”
“Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15 b
The message of Christmas is that God has not forgotten us. Jesus, is a revelation like none other, that God really is with us, and that he really does care about us. In Christ, our Emmanuel, God really is with us and he will never leave us or forsake us (Matthew 1:23 & 28:17-20).
Christmas is about a revelation of God, the eternal Word who became flesh (John 1:1-18). This was not just any kind of god in some generic sense, and not just about one manifestation of God among many. Christmas is about the revelation of the merciful and gracious God who is described in the pages of Israel’s sacred Scriptures, the one who claims to be the one and only true God and the Creator of heaven and earth, the one who is greater than and wholly other than the universe, yet intimately involved in it. The meaning and significance of the Word in the flesh is determined by the context of the Bible.
The message of Christmas quite simply is that we are loved. We are loved! and eternally so by our eternal, all powerful, yet intimately personal God.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” Jeremiah 31:3
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16