It’s that time of year when we tell the story of Christ’s Nativity. Then someone writes an article, publishes a book, or posts an exposé on social media telling us that everything we thought we knew about the old, old story is wrong. Yesterday, I saw one in my newsfeed shouting that Jesus’ family wasn’t poor after all. Joseph was a skilled tradesman who could afford to rent the stable because the inn was full. According to the retelling, it turns out that the stable wasn’t as rude and bare as the songs say. It was clean and private. I think it had wifi too.
Atheists have long accused Christians of casting God in their own image. Their complaint has some warrant. In human relationships, the people we like the most often seem to be those whose thinking is like ours. It is the person who reflects our own thinking that we deem to be the most astute, just as it is the person who asks questions about us that we consider a great conversationalist. Something similar happens when it comes to God.
Sin has left us with a penchant for seeing ourselves in God. We want to believe that God is like us. We can easily persuade ourselves that He thinks like us and mirrors our values. Scripture says otherwise: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). In the apostle Paul’s description of the downward spiral of sin In Romans 1:23, he notes that it caused humanity to exchange the glory of the immortal God “for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). The biblical word for this is idolatry. There is more to idolatry than the worship of images. It is ultimately a deconstruction of the image of God. The Bible does not treat idolatry as an art form or even a curious artifact of culture but as a symptom of moral degeneration.
Idolatry deconstructs God by reversing the order described in Genesis. According to Genesis 1:27, God created humanity “in his image.” The impulse of the idolater is to move in the opposite direction. Instead of seeing ourselves as those made in God’s image, we look to find our image in God. We ascribe to God the features we most admire about ourselves, or we attribute to Him the deficiencies that we suffer. We especially see the latter tendency in the ancient myths of the Greeks and Romans, whose gods are narcissistic and selfish. Irritable and unpredictable, their exploits seem to exhibit all the worst traits of human nature. Indeed, in those stories, it is often not the gods who are the heroes but the mortals who outwit them. Although more powerful than mortals, in the end, the gods of myth frequently prove to be petty and stupid.
The original myth, and the prototype of all subsequent myths, is recorded in the book of Genesis. The world’s first myth was spun by Satan when he told Eve that the command not to partake of the forbidden tree sprang from the creator’s selfishness and jealousy. “You will not certainly die,” the serpent assured the woman when she explained that disobeying God would lead to death. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).
Satan framed his false account in the classic triangle that one so often finds in mythology. In the ancient myths, the gods enjoy some blessing that in their vanity and might they withhold from the mortal hero. What is prohibited is usually forbidden because it is a prerogative of the gods or perhaps out of spite. A third party enters the story and shows the hero a way to obtain the boon. The hero usually accomplishes this by outsmarting the deity or performing some great task. But in Satan’s myth, the task is simple. Disobey. Do what God has told you not to do, and you will become like God. The terrible irony in Satan’s lie was that the gift he urged them to steal was already theirs. Adam and Eve had been created in God’s image. They were already like God in some measure (Gen. 1:26–27).
In the tempter’s story, Satan plays the role of savior. He claims to offer secret knowledge that will enable them to seize what God withholds. But the testimony of Scripture, as well as the record of human history, shatter the tempter’s myth and show Satan for what he is. He is not their savior, only the trickster of old. Satan is not a helper but a thief who “comes to kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10).
The purpose of Scripture in recounting this first and oldest story is not to entertain us with tales but to set the record straight. The Genesis account, and all that the Bible says subsequently, shows that God’s intent from the very beginning was not to withhold but to grant. He created us in His image so that He could share Himself with us and so that we might ultimately be like Him. Even though sin has profoundly marred that image, it has not erased it (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). We were made to resonate with God. Just as the strings of one musical instrument will cause another to vibrate when their frequencies match, we are designed to seek God. As David puts it, Psalm 27:8, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Ps. 27:8).
To change the metaphor, we might think of the divine image as a vestigial memory of the God who created us embedded in our nature. When the gospel comes in power, It sparks recognition. Not only do we begin to see our sin for what it is, but we remember God and His goodness. Jesus portrays this moment in the parable of the prodigal son. According to Jesus, when the prodigal came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father” (Luke 15:17-20).
“The repentance of the lost son is therefore not something merely negative,” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “In the last analysis, it is not merely disgust; it is above all homesickness; not just turning away from something, but turning back home.” We usually understand repentance to be a feeling of disgust over our sins. But Thielicke notes that this by itself would not have helped the prodigal. It might have made him a nihilist or driven him to despair. But it would not have motivated him to return to his father. The dismay the prodigal felt was a byproduct of something else. “It was the father’s influence from afar, a byproduct of sudden realization of where he really belonged,” Thielicke explains. It wasn’t the far country that made him sick but the consciousness of home. In other words, according to Jesus’ story, repentance begins with remembering. Not the memory of our sin but a grace provoked memory of God and His goodness.
It should not be lost on us that these lessons about our nature, humanity’s fall into sin, and the way to recovery have all come down to us in story form. One reason atheists accuse Christians of mythologizing God is because the Christian message is often couched in forms that sound to them like myth. There is a garden, a serpent, a virgin who bears a child conceived by God. This God who comes in human form dies and rises again to save the day. As C. S. Lewis observed, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” In saying this, Lewis was not minimizing the historicity of the biblical accounts, only noting that God revealed these things to us in forms that echo the myths of old. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history,” Lewis explains. “It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable consequences.” In this way, God not only captures our attention, but He also shatters the original myth, spun by Satan to our first parents in the Garden of Eden.
By acting in history, God turns the old myths on their head, retelling the ancient story in its true form. God is not the enemy. He is the hero. He alone can restore our memory, and along with it, our lives. By acting upon us through the gospel story, God brings us to our senses and restores our memory of home. That recollection causes us to see ourselves for what we are. It also reminds us of what we were meant to be. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we return to our Father to be restored to our true image, the image of the God who made us (Col. 3:10).