“You don’t really believe in all that, do you?” His voice was as earnest and unwavering as the dark roasted Kenyan coffee we drank one rainy afternoon. “I don’t see how anyone could believe all that stuff. Virgin birth, resurrection from the dead; it’s all so…unbelievable. I mean, science has disproved all that.” The fantastic parts of Christianity are often a topic of conversation in my line of work. Being a church planter in the post-modern (and some would say post-atheist) culture of Germany lends itself to such discussions; both with and without coffee. Thanks to scientific rationalism, key doctrines of the church, like the Incarnation, have become (in the words of theologian T.F. Torrance) “unthinkable” in modern Western society. If science can’t substantiate the incarnation of Jesus, then it never happened (so goes the thinking).
One of my favorite missiologists and theologians, Lesslie Newbigin, says this kind of thinking is partly a result of the Church’s reaction to the Enlightenment. “Facts”—offered by science—were divided from “beliefs”—offered by religion. Rather than reject this false dichotomy, the church bought into it. The church submitted itself (and its theological claims) to the Enlightenment’s demand for rationalism. As a result, anything deemed “irrational” or scientifically “unverifiable” (such as the incarnation of Jesus) was deemed false. The one problem with this, is that scientific rationalism cannot use science to substantiate its own claims. In short, scientific rationalism fails its own test.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Newbigin responded by calling us to see “the Christian story as a set of lenses, not something for us to look at but to look through.”1 In Newbigin’s view, “There are not two separate avenues to understanding, one marked ‘knowledge’ and the other marked ‘faith.’ There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing.” If he is right, that Christianity is objective truth and a set of lenses to look through, then the truth claims of Christianity can and should be asserted. Our task becomes to walk the tightrope between science and faith. We must continually and consistently defend the harmony of the relationship. Why? Because beautiful truths like the Incarnation and its power to change lives are at stake.
The Power of Heaven on Earth
Jesus, who was fully God, took on full humanness to become fully God and fully human. As such, he was the physical representation of God on Earth. Both the fullness of heaven and the fullness of Earth came to dwell in the person of Jesus. In joining heaven and Earth together in himself, he embodied healing and peace. He embodied a life of redemption and peace, and modeled how we should live our lives. In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul lays out what it means to “have the mind of Christ” and to live according to Jesus’ example (Philippians 2:5-11). That is, after all, the purpose of the church: to live as the redeemed new humanity.
The Church is a group of people who are saved by and follow God. They are the representative new humanity. The church is a community of how humans ought to live. They foreshadow the heaven and Earth overlap. Those whom experience the Church experience that overlap. They experience the wisdom, love, mercy, and rightness of God. The people of God are living examples of Jesus’ incarnation.
The Presence of Heaven on Earth
Missiologist Harvie Conn passionately argued that the Church’s purpose in the world is to do justice and preach grace.2 They are to embody the work and message of Jesus. We don’t simply declare God’s love, we also demonstrate it to the whole world. We bring the good news and the justice-giving, peace-creating work of the gospel to every man, woman, and child.
My friend Anna is a wonderful example of this. She grew up in a broken home. She never knew what it was like to have parents who loved her. She struggled with relationships for most of her life. She moved from one abusive boyfriend to another. One day she told me, “I cannot believe in God, when I look at how messed up the world is, I cannot believe God exists.” Not long after making these comments, Anna was invited to a church service. While she was there, she met another woman about her age who shared a similar background. The two women talked for four hours, swapping life stories. Anna decided to return to that church and joined a small group. That small group accepted Anna. They showed her love she had never experienced before. They gave her acceptance. In that small group and in that church, she experienced healthy relationships for the first time. After her first year at the church, Anna told me, “I feel like my soul is healing. I feel like I’m starting to see God in his people.”
The Church is the people who worship the resurrected Jesus and embody his message of love, hope, and peace. When Christians embody this message, they demonstrate the power of the incarnation. Through love, they leave a real and lasting impact on other people’s lives.
The Church provides a context to experience the power and love of God, and the deity and lordship of Jesus. When the Church faithfully follows its Lord, it is the city set on the hill that cannot be hidden. It is the light that shines in dark places. It is the living evidence that Jesus is the crucified and risen King who reigns. The most obvious and powerful example of this is the experience of love. Those who experience love in the church experience divine love and the divine presence. Which is why Jesus himself said in John 13:35, “all men will know that you are my disciples for the love that you have for one another,” and again, in John 15:9, “as the father has loved me so I have loved you. So, remain in my love.”
Jesus as Objective Reality
The incarnation of Jesus is true not because it is scientifically verifiable, but because it is a beautiful objective reality. The Church exemplifies that reality. As fully God and fully man, Jesus incarnated the overlap of heaven and Earth. His mission of loving reconciliation lives on through his followers. The Church is the place where people can experience the overlap of heaven and Earth. As the people of God, when we serve the poor, defend the weak, give generously to others, and make room for the outcasts, we demonstrate his love in a powerful way. We demonstrate the love that brought the reality of heaven and Earth together into the person and work of Jesus. Those of us who work to defend the harmony of science and faith are engaged in vital work. The more we help others to see such harmony the easier it is to point to how “thinkable” and “believable” doctrines such as the Incarnation really are. We can recover the simplicity of the Christmas message: Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, came in love to reconcile God and humankind.