Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dark Side of Christmas

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:16-18).

Yes, this story finds its way into the birth narratives of Jesus. It’s a gruesome story, barbaric, an atrocity against life and all civilized behavior. There’s murder here, there’s intrigue, jealousy, rage, and the abuse of power. There are lots of tears—inconsolable grief, mothers weeping for their children.

And then that last line: “because they are no more.” One minute those little boys were playing in their homes or sleeping in their beds; then suddenly the sound of thundering hoof-beats, soldiers barging into homes, the flashing of the sword, an arm here, a leg there, and the blood of children pooled and splattered everywhere. One minute the boys are fine; the next minute “they are no more.” Based on what we know of the population of Bethlehem and its vicinity at that time, biblical historians estimate that the death toll could have been anywhere from 30-60—a real blood bath. And to make matters worse, it was the blood of innocent children who could do nothing to protect themselves. If you put your ear to the page you can still hear those mothers weeping. And this is a Christmas story?

These young boys were murdered and these mothers are weeping because of Jesus. Jesus didn’t kill them—He was a toddler himself. But they were killed because of Him. The Magi told Herod they had come to worship the newborn King of the Jews. Using a text in Micah, the priests said they should find Him in Bethlehem. The wicked King Herod wanted no rival, so he did what kings sometimes did in that day: he ordered the murder of every boy two-years-old and younger: “Just kill them all and surely we will kill this baby-king in the process.” So much for a merry Christmas. You’ll never see this story imaged on a Christmas card.

And I have no answer to this story. I can’t soften it up. I can’t spiritualize it away. I can’t explain why God would stand by and allow such an atrocity—and with children no less. God warned Joseph to get his kid out of Bethlehem. Why didn’t God warn the other dads in the city? I have no answer for it. All I can say is that this is the kind of world into which God sent His only Son, the kind of world into which Jesus was born. It is a world where kings abuse power, people get victimized, and little kids get murdered. It is a world where children suffer and parents weep for them. It is a world where Satan has a foothold and where evil appears to win as many battles as it loses and sometimes even more. It’s what we cynically call "the real world." Christmas happened in the real world—not the make believe world of jolly elves and flying reindeer or the little drummer boy, talking animals, and cute little angel babies flitting around the manger, not the world of the “perfect” Christmas or a world where all is peace and sweetness and light.

And maybe that’s why Christmas is “good news of great joy.” God entered this world—this corrupt, evil, unjust, devil-serving, sin-loving, war-mongering, baby-killing world. God entered this world. He didn’t wait till it was safe. He didn’t send Jesus to some rich family that lived in the lap of luxury. He didn’t place Jesus under the protection of some friendly government, have him be born in a state-of-art hospital, or make reservations for his family at the Peabody. God entered this world—the real world—just as it is with all its attending dangers. And before His Son could say one controversial word or do one eye-brow raising deed, the powers-that-be tried to snuff Him out. God entered this world. And He came to redeem it.

Don’t think that Jesus got a pass on that wicked, bloody night in Bethlehem. Sure, God warned Joseph in a dream to grab Mary and the Baby and high-tail it for Egypt. Jesus escaped that slaughter in Bethlehem because it wasn’t His hour, His time. But His time would come soon enough: on a hill outside Jerusalem where another ruler beat the living daylights out of Him and then killed Him on a cross. They thought they got the best of Jesus. They were wrong. Jesus came to redeem the world, and He did it through a cross. That was God’s plan. And the cross and the resurrection and the promise of His return remind us that evil doesn’t get the last word; God does—and that word is victory and life and justice.

Evil was judged at the cross, defeated in the resurrection, and will one day be destroyed forever when Christ comes back. There are a lot of tears in this world; God will wipe every one of them from our eyes in the world to come. There’s a lot of violence in this world; but there will be no more violence in the world to come. There’s a lot of corruption and sin in this world; it will be conspicuously absent in the world to come—that Holy City that will come down “out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). In the end, in God’s world to come, evil will not just be wounded; it will be destroyed—more than destroyed, it will be vanquished—gone, gone forever, gone once and for all. No more evil ever. And no more darkness either for in that Holy City “there will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun for the Lord God will give them light” (Rev. 22:5). And that light will burn all the darkness away … forever.

When you think about it, it is that promise and that hope that makes Christmas "good news of great joy" even in a world like ours.


  1. Excellent!!! Thx u for this insight! Blessings to u & yours!

  2. Amazing Message, Thank You so much for sharing!

  3. Just hit the spot in my why prayers. Thanks, John

  4. Thank you Dr. John, this truly touched my heart. Merry Christmas to you and your family

  5. I'm speaking at a church on Sanctity of Life Sunday representing a crisis pregnancy center. This post on your blog has given me my outline! Thank you! "Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more" is the scripture that inspired the name of our ministry. Whether a king orders the killing of children, or a modern government protects the right to kill children, women weep as a result and need to know about the Savior who came to redeem them.

  6. Thanks, Mary W. I'm grateful this can be some help. It does seem hypocritical to some extent that while we grieve the children killed in CT, we ignore the millions of children killed by abortion each year. Thanks for you efforts to support crisis pregnancy centers and abortion alternatives.