“Believing in God is like believing in Santa.”
“Wait… Santa doesn’t exist? Lol!”
“But God’s not the same as Santa.”
“Er… Big guy in the sky with a beard and a naughty list? Sounds familiar.”
We’ve all sung it: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!”
Santa’s famous naughty and nice list has been used by countless parents to encourage or threaten their kids into behaving for a few weeks leading up to 25th December. Apart from the fact it’s actually quite a creepy song (who wants to be watched while they’re sleeping?) the words of ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ are also a pretty good summary of the way many people picture God.
They think of him as an old bearded man living far away; someone we only think about at Christmas. And he’ll only be nice to people who believe in him. I don’t blame people when they reject this view of God. It’s as make-believe as Santa. But I think having faith in the God of all creation is very different from believing in Santa.
Christian thinker Andy Bannister, a recent guest on The Big Conversation debate series, puts it this way: “I often [say to] Christian audiences, ‘Raise your hand if you became a Christian after the age of 15.’ In most audiences about half the hands in the room go up. Many Christians have found their faith in adult life. But ask: ‘How many of you became believers in Santa after the age of 15?’ and no hands go up.”
Making a list, checking it twice
“Religious people only behave well because they want to go to heaven,” says my friend Jay. “Why can’t people just be good ‘for goodness’ sake’, not because of the threat of divine reward or punishment?”
It’s a fair point. If religious people only behave well so they can earn their place in heaven, doesn’t that make God just like Santa when it comes to distributing presents according to his naughty or nice list? Isn’t God watching everything you do and calculating whether you did enough good stuff to go to heaven? (Netflix comedy series The Good Place is based on this exact idea.)
In a word, no.
According to the Bible, there is nothing we can do to earn our place in heaven. We can only get there because of what Jesus did on the cross. Being put right with God is actually about admitting that none of us will ever be ‘good enough’. The Bible says that even the ‘naughtiest’ people on the list get to be with God if they just turn to him, say sorry and trust in Jesus.
Our good deeds as Christians are not a way of getting into heaven but a response of thankfulness and joy. Not to a bearded old man who lives far away, but to a God who has shown his love by coming close to us in Jesus; something we celebrate at Christmas.
Be good for goodness’ sake
Here’s a return question for Jay. In the absence of God, how do we decide what is ‘good’ in the first place?
If human life is just an unlikely fluke in an otherwise random universe, where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Why should we believe that some ways of living are better than others? What difference does it make if we are naughty or nice?
An atheist might reply: “It’s just obvious that we should be kind to others, treat people equally and make a difference for good.” The problem is that it isn’t obvious to everyone. Dictators, abusers and bullies have always existed. To claim that they are ‘wrong’ is to claim that there is a ‘right’ way for the world to be.
Andy Bannister says: “If you see a pile of wood in my garden and I say, ‘I spent all day making that pile, it was better than my last three attempts,’ it’s probably important to know what I was trying to build: a bonfire or a Wendy house for my kids?”
If you claim that some ways of living life are better than others, there must exist a standard beyond us for what a good life looks like. No such standard can exist ‘out there’ in a random, purposeless universe. But if there is a God who made us, the belief that there is a way that life should be lived makes perfect sense. The one who is writing the story has created us for a purpose within it.
Belief in Santa is something we grow out of, but trusting in God is something we can continually grow into as we learn to appreciate just how deep, true and good he really is. He is the same God who showed us his unlimited love in Jesus Christ – the original Christmas gift