Engaging Christmas in the Light of Easter

November 24, 2014

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly . . . . ‘Tis the Season to Be Jolly.”

‘Tis the season again—the season when “wars” break out over Christmas.

These wars are fought on several fronts. Private businesses and retail stores decide what greetings to use, and pro-Christmas forces counter attack with boycotts and lists of naughty and nice businesses. In public institutional settings, such as public schools and courthouse squares, officials select music pieces for programs and symbols for public displays, and pro-Christmas forces campaign in opposition, sending threatening letters, drafting legal memoranda, and filing lawsuits. In these engagements, the law and the courts can become instruments of force strategically employed in the combat.

Without a doubt, many within our society actively oppose Christianity and expressions of Christian faith in public settings. Some certainly seek to secularize the Christmas holiday season, remove Christian symbols from public places and institutions, and chill Christian witness. The mayor of the city of Houston, Texas, recently demonstrated with unmistakably clarity the eagerness of some public officials to use the coercive powers of government and law to intimidate and silence Christian speakers. Furthermore, the forces of secularism are especially busy during the Christmas holiday season, which is the second most important holiday season in the Christian calendar. In some cases, however, decisions and actions may be motivated by more benign factors, such as a heightened sensitivity to the religious pluralism found throughout American society.

The Christmas wars stir us to think about important legal, constitutional, and social issues raised by these battles over greetings at cash registers, Christmas carols in public schools, and religious symbols in public squares. But, before we resume our engagement in the Christmas wars, let us pause to reflect on a larger issue that remains a perpetual concern for Christians—how do we relate to the world around us? Our answer to this question will shed light on the aims we seek to achieve through our participation in the Christmas wars and the tactics we employ, and the greatest insights into our answer were provided by Jesus in words he spoke in the days just before his crucifixion.

“Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne and Thy Kingly Crown, When Thou Camest to Earth for Me.”

We can begin to answer this question by placing Christmas in a broader context. In the Western Christian calendar, Advent is the first season of the liturgical year, and the first Sunday of Advent (November 30th this year) is the first day of the liturgical new year. The Christmas season follows the Advent season, and it begins on December 25 (Christmas day) and lasts for 12 days into January. Christians have set aside Advent as a season of preparation and hope for the first and second comings of Christ and Christmas as a season of celebration of the incarnation of the Lord and the kingdom of God.

We see thus that the Advent and Christmas holiday seasons focus our attention on the coming of our Lord and the coming of the kingdom of God. In coming as a man and being born a defenseless child, the Son of God “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being found in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:7, NIV) He left his throne in heaven to live among us in a world in rebellion against him, but he did not come simply to be born and live among us. He came to make the kingdom of God present among us, to suffer and die at our hands, and to rise from the dead for our salvation. As Matthew wrote, he came “to serve” and “to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, NIV) Consequently, the seasons of Advent and Christmas direct our attention to Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday and to the seasons of Lent and Easter, which are set aside in the Christian calendar as seasons of repentance, preparation for Jesus’s death and resurrection, and celebration of salvation in Christ and his victory over sin and death.

During the days leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus provided some clear teaching regarding the kingdom of God and the place of his followers in the world. When he appeared before Pilate, Jesus was asked whether he was the king of the Jews. He answered: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV) In response to Pilate’s observation that Jesus was a king, he responded: “You say I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into this world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37, NIV)

One day earlier, in his high priestly prayer for his disciples, Jesus prayed:

I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

(John 17:13-19, NIV) In his statement regarding his kingdom and his prayer for his disciples, Jesus revealed a paradox: his followers remain in the world, but they are not of the world. They do not belong to the world, and they are not citizens of this world. Rather, their citizenship is in the heavenly kingdom. The Apostle Peter amplified this point when he wrote of Christians as “exiles” and “foreigners” in the world. (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11, NIV) The writer of Hebrews also observed that the people of faith honored in Hebrews 11 understood that they were “foreigners and strangers on earth” and that they “long[ed] for a better country—a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13, 16, NIV) For them, God “has prepared a city.” (Hebrews 11:16, NIV)

Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom immediately before his death built upon his earlier instruction regarding the heavenly kingdom. He taught that, with his coming, the kingdom of God broke into history, becoming present in the here and now. (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15) He taught that this kingdom will, as the gospel is preached, grow throughout the world until completion. (Matthew 13:31-33, 24:14) Jesus thus revealed that the kingdom of God is already here and that it is still to come. (Luke 16:16, 17:21, 22:16, 18, 29-30)

Jesus’s teaching regarding the two kingdoms that are present in this age gives us critical insight into how we answer the question of our relationship to the world. Jesus drew a sharp distinction between the earthly or worldly kingdom, which includes civil rulers and social institutions, and the heavenly or spiritual kingdom, which includes the redeemed who in faith receive God’s grace and submit to his rule. Although those who follow him may live in the world, their citizenship is in his spiritual kingdom, and thus they are not truly at home in the world.

“Truly He Taught Us to Love One Another; His Law Is Love and His Gospel Is Peace.”

Our recognition of this fundamental distinction gives us insight into our work and our engagement with others in the world. Over two centuries ago, during the American revolutionary period, the prominent Baptist minister Isaac Backus discussed the two kingdoms and some broader implications. In his Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty(1773), he wrote:

[Our Lord] declares, that the cause of his coming into the world, was to bear witness unto the truth; and says he, Every one that is of the Truth heareth my voice. This is the nature of his kingdom, which he says, is not of this world: and gives that as the reason why his servants should not fight, or defend him with the sword. John. 18.36,37. And it appears to us that the true difference and exact limits between ecclesiastical and civil government is this, That the church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same. And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished, and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued; of which the Holy Ghost gave early and plain warnings.

Reprinted in Daniel L Dreisbach & Mark David Hall, eds., The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding 209 (2009).

The weapons used to advance the kingdom of this world—aggression and violence, striving for, seizing, and exercising power, and obtaining and extending dominance—do not advance the heavenly kingdom. Rather, Christ’s kingdom is built and extended through the preaching of the good news of God’s love that was revealed in Christ. The “weapons” used to advance Christ’s redemptive kingdom are prayer, truth, and righteousness, faith and salvation, the gospel of peace and the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-18) Through the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives, Christians are equipped with such qualities as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) The contrast between the weapons used by citizens of the world and those used by citizens of the heavenly kingdom should be stark—so stark in fact that Jesus’s disciples are identifiable in the world by their love. (John 13:35)

Christians do, nevertheless, live their lives in this fallen world, and they engage in social and cultural activities. They work to order relationships and societies justly and to promote peace among all people. The lives Christians live and their good deeds in the world are meaningful and important. As the salt of the earth, they have a flavoring and preserving influence. (Matthew 5:13) As the light of the world, they illuminate those around them, and their good deeds point to God. (Matthew 5:14-16) In their cultural and social activities, they collaborate with other bearers of God’s image in creating and ordering, and these activities reflect the truth, goodness, and beauty that are deeply imprinted on their being by their creator.

But, their lives and their good deeds in this fallen world are not, in themselves, redemptive, kingdom-establishing, or kingdom-building. Rather, in such efforts, Christians faithfully serve according to their callings and participate in God’s providential governance of his creation, doing all for the Lord and his glory. (Colossians 3:17, 23-24) Although such efforts in the world may not come within the realm of God’s redemptive rule, God may use some of their good deeds for redemptive purposes in building his kingdom.

It is thus important that we not conflate the two kingdoms or confuse the nature of our work in the world. We need to refine our understanding of our lives and our work in the world based upon the two distinct realms of God’s rule—his spiritual, redemptive rule of his people and his providential rule of the temporal world he created.

“Lift High the Cross, the Love of Christ Proclaim, Till All the World Adore His Sacred Name.”

Yes, ‘tis the season again. But, before we reengage in the Christmas wars and become engrossed in the range of important legal, constitutional, and social issues that come with them, let us pause and reflect more broadly on our participation in these wars.

We can keep the Christmas wars in perspective by viewing Christmas in the light of Easter and recalling Jesus’s teachings regarding his kingdom and the place of his followers in the world. Jesus, the Incarnate Lord, came to suffer and die in this world and to rise for our salvation. He was clear that his kingdom is not of this world. Additionally, he taught that we, his followers, are not of this world. We need to remember that this world is not our home; rather, we are citizens of his redemptive kingdom. We have been left in the world to be his witnesses, telling the good news of God’s loving and redemptive work in Christ, and it is through the preaching of this gospel that Christ builds his kingdom.

Another key to having a proper perspective is to acknowledge that the two kingdoms use fundamentally different weapons and are advanced by different means and to understand that many of our efforts in the world are not within the realm of redemption, but rather within the realm of God’s providential rule of his creation. It is also important to remember that this world is hostile to God’s rule, that this world is temporary, and that life here is quickly passing. Consequently, civil government and social institutions have temporal ends, and our work in this world and our efforts to promote justice and peace through social institutions (while important) are provisional.

Michael J. DeBoer

Michael J. DeBoer is an Associate Professor of Law at Faulkner University, Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. He holds degrees from Liberty University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Valparaiso University, and Indiana University. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24