We have made Christmas into a time of ballyhoo. In a modern “Christian” community Christmas is a fun time, an occasion when the family foregathers. Preeminently it is the festival of children. The kids visit stores with Father Christmas in attendance and hang up their stockings (or pillowcases) with gusto. Stores reap their annual harvest as people prepare to exchange presents. And when the great day comes it is celebrated with the consumption of prodigious quantities of food and drink. A visitor from a distant planet might be forgiven for concluding that Christmas is the festival of fun and self-indulgence.

Now, I have no objection to a festival of fun; there is far too much sadness and sorrow in our modern society. Anything that can lift our depressed spirits and introduce some genuine enjoyment into a sad old world is to be welcomed. It is the misunderstanding of a great Christian festival that troubles me. Christmas is too great and too important to be caricatured as no more than a fun time.

Traditionally, the church has seen things very differently. She has regarded Christmas as a time to think of the meaning of the Incarnation, the coming of her Lord in lowliness and deep humility. So solemn and significant is this that the church has set aside a whole month to get ready for it. The season of Advent (from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until Christmas Day) is meant to be a solemn season of preparation.

During Advent the church has thought it important to give emphasis to two great thoughts: Christ will come again, and Christ will come in judgment. There are other aspects of Advent, but let us think about these two.

Christ will come again. This thought is repeated again and again in the New Testament. I have read that this doctrine is referred to on an average of once in every 13 verses from the beginning of Matthew to the end of Revelation. Whether that calculation is exact or not, there is no doubt that the New Testament Christians came back to this doctrine again and again. It is the most frequently mentioned doctrine in the whole New Testament.

For the early Christians, it was wonderful to know that the Savior would return. They were but a little band. And they were confronted by strong forces of evil. Sometimes they were imprisoned for their faith, and there were martyrs among them. But the final victory would not lie with their tormentors; it would lie rather with their God and Savior. So they looked with eager longing for the day of his coming, the day when the kingdom of this world would be the kingdom of their God and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). That day stood for the decisive overthrow of evil. It meant the triumph of good and of God.

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It is extraordinary how the church has trivialized this great doctrine. Some of its members have argued that it was all a mistake. It arose, they have said, out of the unreal expectations of the early church. The first Christians expected that Jesus would return within their own lifetime, and the fact that he did not do so is held to discredit the whole doctrine.

It does no such thing, of course. To begin with, it is not at all clear that the early Christians did expect the Lord’s return quite so soon. They remembered the words of Jesus that he did not know when the coming would be (Mark 13:32). And if he did not know, how could they?

Sometimes Paul is brought in to bolster the argument. His words, “we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up” (1 Thess. 4:17), are said to prove that he thought that he would still be living when the Lord came. But by parity of reasoning, 1 Corinthians 6:14 shows that Paul thought he would be dead: “God will raise us up through his power.” Paul never claimed he would be alive at that day and he should not be quoted as though he did.

Neither the fact that the coming did not take place in New Testament days, nor the fact that it has not yet occurred, affects its truth. It is still in Scripture and it is still needed, for it expresses the precious truth that the evil we see in the modern world will not triumph finally. In the end, Christ will return and sweep it all away. This is a truth we cannot live without.

Evangelicals have often put their emphasis instead on particular views of the millennium. They have discussed the relative merits of pre-, post-, and a-millennial views. Such discussions are important—but they are not as important as the main fact. Christ will come again. In our world this great truth demands continued emphasis.

The other part of the Advent emphasis to which I would draw attention is that the coming of the Lord means judgment. He will come to judge the living and the dead. In other words, while the thought of the coming brings comfort as we reflect on the certainty of the final overthrow of evil, it does not encourage complacency. There will be a judgment of all, and Peter reminds us of the uncomfortable fact that judgment begins with the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17). We are accountable people; the coming means that one day we will give account of ourselves to God.

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Our generation would do well to give this more heed. We are inclined to pride ourselves on our scientific and technological achievements and to overlook our considerable moral shortcomings. Indeed, we typically deny moral failure. We simply assert that in earlier days people were too straitlaced. We are more enlightened, we think, and our relaxation of standards is a mark, not of moral failure, but of enlightenment.

This is simply a failure to look clearly at what we have done with our world. A few years ago D.R. Davies wrote a book he called The Art of Dodging Repentance. In it, he refers among other things to “the generation of our blood-soaked, cruelty-ridden world.” He further says, “Of all the men who have lived and died since Calvary, we men of today can least pretend to the possession of superior virtue, of a deeper, finer, more responsible morality. The unnumbered millions done to death and the millions condemned to a living death in remote spaces scream denial of any such pretension. No century has more clearly recrucified Christ than the twentieth.”

No fair-minded examination of the world in which we live can deny the justice of Davies’s accusation. We live in a world where it is possible to produce abundance of food and where millions are starving. And while they starve, the governments of the world spend uncountable amounts of money on armaments, while the world (the nonstarving part) goes complacently on its way.

Is Christmas a fun time? The judgment of God stands over our modern world.

Leon Morris is principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

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