It is that time of year again when a holiday becomes the front in a culture battle. I need not give examples- google Dan Barker and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. It is not uncommon to find skeptics and secular humanists insinuating with a sneer that belief in God is exactly like belief in Santa Claus, the only difference being that people grow out of belief in Santa Claus. Atheists who think this way have no problem being contemptuous punks because in their mind, given the similarities between the two examples (in their mind), a person who still believes in God exhibits prima facie evidence of being infantile and irrational: exactly the kind of people we need to cull from the population one way or another.
In light of this situation, it is useful to point out that Santa Claus actually is real.
‘Santa Claus’ is the modern expression of the legends originating with a certain, real, person, named Nicholas, or as he came to be known, Saint Nicholas. Do you see it? Saint/Santa? Good ol’ Saint NICK? NiKLAUS? Here is an unsubstantiated account that is accurate as far as it goes and helps lay the background here.
Not as well known, this same St. Nicholas wasn’t a rotund and jolly fellow. At the Council of Nicea c. 325 AD, Jolly Ol’Saint Nick got into a fist fight with one of the Arians and was ejected from the council.
This is discussed in the more extensive and more substantiated account on Livius.
(To digress, Arians believed that Jesus was not God, but a created creature- if you’ll pardon the redundancy. You may think this isn’t a reason to get bent out of shape, but as many of the participants of the Council of Nicea had just barely survived the Diocletian persecution of c. 300-310 AD, many losing limbs and enduring torture- ie, bearing the marks of being a Christian in their body, you can see how many participants were offended by the insinuation that they had suffered on behalf of a non-offensive doctrine that could have allowed them to give into Diocletian’s demands in good conscience. This fact, and Diocletian’s behavior in general prior to Emperor Constantine is always absent from Da Vinci Code style conspiracy mongering.)
In the Livius page listed above, there is no hint given that anyone believes that Nicholas didn’t exist. The legends that surrounded him come at a later date and even a history of America can show how the commercialization of Christmas developed notions of Santa Claus. But I say again, no one who has studied the matter believes that there wasn’t a man, St. Nicholas. Yet the Livius article says:
This is about all we know with certainty. ….
This is not necessarily a problem. Three and a half centuries are the same interval that separates Alexander the Great from his main biographers. As long as we can check the chain along which information was handed down, there’s no need to worry. However, we have no idea about Michael’s informers, although it is certain that he used an earlier source. In this article, we shall make some educated guesses.
Christian apologists are constantly asking skeptics and genuine seekers to hold to the question of God and Jesus the same standards of evidence they hold anything else. The question of Jesus being also a question of history, we are satisfied if non-biased standards of historical research were employed. Usually, it is the skeptics employing ad hoc standards based on priorly held beliefs about reality.
On this basis then, we see that one cannot dismiss the idea that there was really a man named St. Nicholas just because 350 years separates him from the (current) best sources. On that reasoning we’d have to ditch much of what we know about a great many historical figures, including big ones like Alexander the Great. So, let it be agreed: Santa Claus existed; it is a fact of history.
Now, if on this basis we have come to terms with the fact that Alexander the Great and Santa Claus existed and they are separated by hundreds and hundreds of years from their main biographers, what can we say about Jesus? Growing out of the commercialized myth that is Santa Claus in America means growing into knowledge of reasonably certain historical facts. There is no reason why it can’t be the same for Jesus, but it is not difficult to find ‘scholars’ and skeptics who cannot even bring themselves to accept that Jesus existed as a real person, let alone as a miracle-worker. That is the first clue that the atheists do not occupy the intellectual high ground.
Now, Jesus may have existed, but it doesn’t follow of course that he is God. That is a longer and larger conversation. Suffice it to say that in the first place, the time between Jesus’ existence and his ‘main biographers’ is exceedingly brief- it beats the pants off of most historical figures of note, including the aforementioned St. Nicholas and Alexander the Great. Even on some Liberal datings, the four Gospels can’t be dated beyond 120 AD or so, which is just 90ish years after Jesus’ alleged death and resurrection. I say ‘some’ because even here, liberal scholars, including some very prominent ones, put the dating of the Gospels well before 100 AD.
The evidence for early composition of the New Testament books has become so overwhelming that of late one doesn’t even find radical atheists taking issue with the dating of the documents or the how accurate the documents reflect the original autographs. Instead, they are focusing on the so-called ‘legendary’ material. Like Santa Claus started out as a real person but legends accrued over time, likewise Jesus.
But in the case of Jesus, the legends are concurrent with the earliest materials. If there is a time when Jesus was understood to only be a man, it was a very narrow timeframe indeed. For example, while there are often disputes about the dating of the four Gospels, there is little dispute about the dating of 1 Corinthians, by Paul, c. 55 AD. WIth Jesus being crucified between 30 and 33 AD, that leaves a mere 20 years for the historical person of Jesus to blossom into a legendary figure who died to atone for the sins of the world and defeated death, being resurrected, promises life to those who are ‘in’ him. This isn’t just within one lifetime, friends. This is within an easy to recollect period within a lifetime with witnesses, both friendly and hostile, still living and still popping around the Roman empire. And Paul says in this early document:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. …
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; 1 Cor. 15
You may not be convinced- but one can see now that beleif in God and Jesus need not be ‘childish’ and infantile at all. It very well can be the outgrowth of a considered study of the historical record. This is why I believe pointing out that Santa Claus is real is potentially very helpful- not that I agree that promoting the whole ‘naughty and nice’ and reindeer thing is helpful (we don’t do it in my household). But by pointing out that underneath the accretions there is a sound historical basis for the existence of Nicholas, one has the ability to immunize their children against the coming secular challenges as kids get older and begin to evaluate their Christian faith.
Maturity does not mean abandoning ‘legends and myth.’ What requires that is cynicism, skepticism, and the pre-arranged decision to interpret everything in naturalistic terms because it is already presumed that there is no God. No, maturity merely means being able to weigh evidence and thoughtfully evaluate EVERY thing you believe. And in the words of Antony Flew, be ready to follow the evidence.