© 2014 Robert Osburn
At Christmas, at least in the West, we are swollen with pleasant sentiment: gifts, lights, and music. We might, therefore, miss one of the most important questions that humans should consider in a world blasted and bewildered by terrorism, mistrust, and inequality: “Is the Incarnation the key to human flourishing?”
When we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the historical fact that God entered human history in Palestine. God taking on human flesh is called “the Incarnation.” When He became a man, Jesus was still also very much God. We say that He was the God-Man: two natures, divine and human, yet one person.
The Apostle John wrote about this in his gospel: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).
I propose that God’s becoming a human being made an enormous difference in human history. Societies with an historic Christian heritage, especially ones that are Protestant Christian, have:
much better economic and political indicators
much lower rates of bribery and corruption
nearly universal education
dramatically enhanced the status of women
made great advances in science and technology
developed systematic efforts to help the poor and those suffering diseases
One metric speaks volumes: In the 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index of about 180 countries, did you know that 9 out of 10 of the least corrupt countries are historically Christian, while 8 out of 10 of the most corrupt are historically Islamic?
The salutary effects of Christianity are still very real, even though Western societies have jettisoned Christianity for secularism. Academics, government leaders, and people in cultural leadership reject the Christian metaphysic but maintain much of its morality, except, of course, in the area of sex.
If I am right, this leads to another question, which is, “Why did the appearance two millennia ago of the God-Man Jesus Christ generate a movement that has significantly improved the overall prospects for human flourishing?” I suggest that the answer lies in the fact that in God Incarnate the material and spiritual realms are simultaneously affirmed. In other words, Jesus makes projects that concern the development of science just as important as projects that cultivate the soul. Likewise, projects that concern morality are just as significant as those that concern material wealth.
The Problem in Most Societies Today
Historically, most societies around the world have either cherished the spiritual realm, such as in Buddhist, Hindu, and animistic societies, or, by contrast, have valued material wealth and prosperity, such as in modern secular or Marxist societies. Darrow Miller in his excellent text Discipling the Nations (1998) makes a convincing argument that those societies that prioritize matter tend to be materially rich but spiritually poor, whereas those that value the spiritual will tend to be spiritually rich but materially poor.
Buddhism and Hinduism teach that the material world is illusion and that our highest goal ought to be to merge with pure, infinite spirit. Animistic societies, for example in Africa and portions of Latin America and Southeast Asia, believe that matter is animated or empowered by spirits who need to be paid in order to produce desirable consequences for human beings. These are the spiritually rich, but materially poor societies, by way of generalization.
Western secular societies (all of whom were formerly Christian, at least until the mid 1960s) and Marxist societies proclaim that matter is really all there is and that human beings should use the tools of economics and politics to create societies where people become wealthy. The spiritual realm, they say, is either illusion or something that is to be pursued privately and personally. Thus, they are materially wealthy, but spiritually poor societies, by way of generalization. Those who are spiritually and materially rich in Western societies are those who have privately pursued God without encouragement from or coercion by their governments.
What about Confucian and Islamic societies? Confucius taught that humans must focus their energies on the practical world before them, while also cultivating harmony and moral development. In some respects, attention to balancing the spiritual with the material is greater in Confucianism than in all other belief systems except Christianity. Thus, they are becoming materially wealthy and, at least in South Korea and China, also cultivating some degree of spiritual health as they turn to Christianity.
As for Islamic societies, they claim that “God is Great” (allahu akbar). The concept of God entering human flesh, a central teaching in Christianity, is absolutely forbidden. Thus, Muslims tend to prioritize the spiritual over the material, and, not surprisingly, they are materially poor except for the vast amount of oil wealth found under many of their Middle Eastern countries.
So, today, most of the world’s societies are either materially poor and spirtually wealthy, or spiritually poor and materially wealthy. I suggest that this is because the spiritually wealthy put most of their attention on God and the spiritual realm, whereas the materially wealthy put most of their attention on material wealth and concerns. I am also suggesting that because, at Christmas we celebrate Jesus as both divine and human, those societies that cherish both the spiritual and the material will become societies where both material and spiritual wealth are cultivated. In other words, the Incarnation—God in human flesh-is necessary for human beings to flourish.
How the Incarnation Makes All the Difference
The question is “How does the fact Jesus was both fully God and fully man create societies where human beings flourish?” There are many ways to answer this question, but I want to focus on what is perhaps the primary answer: By becoming man, God made it possible for us to be forgiven of sin, reconciled with God and man, and regenerated so that as new people we can undertake our God-given responsibilities to protect creation and produce that which makes humans flourish.
The human problem is that we are all sinners, that is, we all disobey God while simultaneously taking advantage of our neighbors. Roman 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” We are not this way all the time, but enough so that we deserve to be judged. So, God has a problem: “How can I, as a holy God, welcome sinful humans into my presence and my plan?”
God’s solution to our problem was to become like one of us (a human being) while still remaining God (and thus sinless and perfect). But, for what purpose? God sent Jesus, the perfect God-Man, to not only announce that God’s Kingdom has come and to invite us to join it, but He also sent Him to become a perfect sacrifice who would solve the sin problem that separates sinful humans from a holy God.
When Jesus was crucified, out of love He made himself a sacrifice that would satisfy the just requirements of God’s holiness. Someone sinless had to die for sinful human beings, and then, and only then, would God be able to forgive, reconcile, and regenerate.
If Jesus had been only a man, and not God, then He would not have been sinless. If He had been only divine, and not human, then He could not have bled and died on a cross. He had to be both God and man simultaneously in order to successfully accomplish the purpose of His self-sacrifice.
Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Regeneration
The heroic self-sacrifice of the God-Man Jesus solved three things that are necessary in order for human beings to flourish materially and spiritually. First, His death solved the problem of our moral guilt by forgiving us. Colossians 1:14 says, “In Him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Being forgiven means that we no longer have to be guilty before God. The universal problem of moral guilt has endless negative effects on people and their societies (well summarized in J. Budzizewski’s 1999 book The Revenge of Conscience), and so when guilt is replaced by forgiveness, those negative effects are removed. People often describe this as a kind of liberation to achieve greater things without the burden of guilt.
Besides forgiveness, the self-sacrifice of the God-Man made reconciliation possible, between God and us and with each other. Ephesians 2:14 says, “For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” This means that by His death, Jesus was able to reconcile us to God and to our neighbors. The profound reality of putting an end to ancient hostilities means that all the resources devoted to war can now be devoted to peace and development.
Finally and thirdly, Jesus’ self-sacrifice accomplished our regeneration, making us new people. Colossians 2:13 says: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him.” Being “made alive” refers to the way God renews His image in us through Christ’s death. When He made us in His image, according to Genesis 1:26, He gave us responsibilities to rule and exercise dominion over the rest of His creation. We were designed to protect His creation and to produce those things that result in human flourishing. But, when humans sinned, we humans began to distort and diminish those protective and productive abilities, making bullets instead of books, commissioning spies instead of scientists, fighting rather than farming. Because of Jesus’ death as the God-Man, those original abilities are restored by virtue of spiritual regeneration, and thus we can put our efforts to constructive enterprises that build society and civilization.
Without forgiveness, reconciliation, and regeneration, human beings will not flourish both spiritually and materially. You must believe in Jesus Christ, and receive, as a gift, His self-sacrifice.
Worldviews that focus on the spiritual and the divine lead to materially poor societies. Those that focus only on the material realm are materially rich societies. But, most humans want to be both spiritually and materially wealthy. And the only way to get there is through the God-Man, God Incarnate, both material and divine, who through His self-sacrifice achieved, for those who believe in Him, forgiveness, reconciliation and regeneration.
The pathway to genuine human flourishing runs, as you now see, right through the heart of Christmas and the Incarnate One whom we celebrate.