Do Christmas and Christianity Worship the Same God?

Are Father God and Father Christmas fundamentally alike—basically the same person in different seasonal attire—sandals for summer and a big red hat for winter?

To watch more on this, see Vince Vitale's livestreamed message on recapturing the wonder of Christmas here.

My brother and I used to love leaving letters in the chimney to be whisked away by Santa, telling him what we wanted for Christmas. That worked until I designed a science experiment to determine if Santa existed by leaving letters in the chimney in August, when my parents would never think to look for them. But at seven-years-old I still believed in Santa, and I airmailed an odd Christmas request through the chimney. I asked for the answer to the following question which I wrote on a paper plate in my best cursive handwriting: “Dear Santa and God, Was God ever born?”

That was one of the only Christmas requests that my parents didn’t come through on. They didn’t know what to do with that. I mean, who asks for that as a seven-year-old? My friends wanted superhero toys and I wanted the answer to an age-old philosophical dilemma!

It was actually a profound question, much more profound than I could have realized at the time. “Was God ever born?” Only many years later would I begin to understand that while God never began, he was indeed born. He was born among us in the person of Jesus.

But I want to linger on the beginning of my letter: “Dear Santa and God.” The fact that I addressed my letter to both Santa and God reveals that the two of them were very closely aligned in my psyche. It wasn’t quite clear where one left off and the other began, so I figured I’d cover all of my bases.

Now as a philosopher and apologist I have had many conversations about whether different religions worship the same God. Many people like the idea of different religions being basically the same, having just slightly different understandings of the same divine being. I have always found that just like two people might be hard to distinguish from afar—when seen from a great distance—the closer you get, the clearer and more significant the differences become.

So, what if we put a Christmas slant on that common question? Not, for instance, Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Rather, Do Christmas and Christianity worship the same God? Are Father God and Father Christmas fundamentally alike—basically the same person in different seasonal attire—sandals for summer and a big red hat for winter?

Superficial Similarities

When we view them from afar, I can see how Santa and God could seem to many people to be one and the same. Here’s how it could look:

Both have supernatural powers.

Both live far away. Santa is far away in the North Pole. God is even farther away on some distant heavenly throne.

We write letters to Santa asking him for what we want for Christmas. Many of us write in our prayer journals to God, expressing to him what we want or need in life.

We get to be in Santa’s presence once a year, but he’s elusive; we never quite get to see him; he’s always in too big of a rush to stop and say hello. And likewise, once in a while there is that sense in life of something more, of something transcendent, of God being around—somehow, somewhere—but He seems hidden; He can’t be seen and He can’t be touched.

Both Santa and God are concerned with whether we are naughty or nice. They are watching how we live and they are keeping a list, and they are going to either reward us or punish us. The only difference is that Santa makes his judgments annually whereas God makes his eternally.

Deep Differences

That’s how it looks to many people. When viewed from a distance, Santa and God look a lot alike. That’s how it used to look to me. It was only years later as a skeptical college student, when I was challenged by soccer teammates to read the Bible for the first time, when I was challenged not to view God from afar but to draw near and take a closer look, that I began to see the decisive differences between Santa and God.

For starters, only one is confirmed by evidence. That’s why people don’t start believing in Santa as adults and yet many adults, like myself, become fully persuaded of the reality of God.

And the closer you get, the more the differences begin to pile up:

Santa lives as far away as you can get. But the Bible says that God is never far from any one of us, that he is Emmanuel—“God with us”—and that when we put our trust in Him He comes even closer; He even comes to dwell within us.

Santa keeps a list of our wrongs. God says that as far as the east is from the west, that is how far He will remove our wrongs from us (Psalm 103:12). And the Bible explicitly says that love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5).

Santa only gives gifts if we deserve them, if we’ve done enough throughout the year to earn them. God gave us the greatest gift—the gift of reconciliation and of peace—even though we are completely undeserving. We could never earn such an extravagant gift, but it is freely offered.

Santa is not about relationship. None of us ever thought as kids, “I really hope this year I deepen my friendship with Santa.” No, we thought, “I hope Santa gives me cooler stuff this year!” Our interaction with Santa was transactional—basically an early version of Amazon Prime: We order stuff from him and then it magically appears at our address, anywhere in the world, with no one in sight.

But what God desires with us is not transactional. He is all about relationship. His most fundamental desire is not for us to be good; it is simply for us, as people, as children, as friends. His primary interest is not in your achievements. It is simply in you. And He desires for us to truly know Him, to spend real tangible time with Him—not just once a year, but every day, and for our relationship with Him to be so valuable, to be such a treasure to us, that by comparison any and every material gift under the tree will seem trivial.

What God desires with us is not transactional. He is all about relationship.

Luke 1:78-79 speaks of “the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

It is an image of the tenderness and peacefulness of sunrise. And it’s speaking of Jesus. When we look closely, when we get close enough to read these sacred words, the more we find that the differences between Santa and God are not just superficial. They are deep divergences in character.

Jesus the rising sun comes to shine and to be seen. Santa waits until the sun sets so that when he comes he won’t be seen.

Santa comes to us once a year. Jesus will never leave us or forsake us; he is our ever-present guide.

Santa comes to give coal to those living in the darkness of disobedience. Jesus came not to condemn but to save. Coal—a symbol of coldness and death. Jesus—the warmth of sunlight on shadowed faces and the spark of life to stagnant souls.

To someone willing to admit that there is darkness in his heart, the contrast between coal and tender mercy could not be starker. Even if you have a good enough year to receive Santa’s gifts rather than coal, what about next year? What about the year after that? We talk about Christmas gifts, but really Santa’s burlap sack is filled not with gifts, but with rewards. And by the time the first of January hits, the fleeting pleasure of reward fades, and once again anxiety over next year’s judgment begins to build.

Rewards vs. Gifts

Much like Santa and God, rewards and gifts are frequently mistaken for one another, but there is a world of difference between a reward and a gift. Rewards are received on the condition of our merit. Gifts are given with the unconditionality of grace. Measurements yield rewards but also the crippling concern that one day we won’t measure up. Mercy overflows with gifts, and only a gift can guide our feet out of the shadows and into the path of peace.

Much like Santa and God, rewards and gifts are frequently mistaken for one another, but there is a world of difference between a reward and a gift.

Santa came with carefully measured rewards. Jesus came with the immeasurable gifts of reconciliation and redemption. The presents of Santa, as exciting as they are, can never compare with the presence of God.

Let me ask you a Christmas question: If you were given the choice, would you prefer a gift or a reward of the same value? Both are worth exactly the same, and you can have either, but one is a reward that you earned; the other is an unearned gift from someone else.

Your answer to that question reveals which you value more: the trophy of success or the generosity of relationship. Sadly, for many of us, we spend our years competing for success rather than resting in relationship, choosing temporary rewards of finite value over a permanent gift of infinite value.

This Christmas, will we hope that we have been good enough to receive a reward, or will we celebrate that Jesus has been good enough to give us a gift?

This Christmas, will we hope that we have been good enough to receive a reward, or will we celebrate that Jesus has been good enough to give us a gift?

The difference between Santa and God was never more important to me than when I sat at the deathbed of my best friend’s father.

The doctors had given him only weeks to live. And he began to share with me that, although he had always been confident that God exists in some way, he was finding himself increasingly scared about what comes next. As we spoke, what became clear to me was that his understanding of the central message of Christianity, of what it takes to be right with God, was almost identical to the story of Santa. You should try to do more nice things than naughty things in your life, and then just hope that in the end your good deeds will outweigh your bad deeds. If they do, something wonderful awaits. But if they don’t, you’re in trouble. And as my friend’s father reflected back over his life, he recognized that if this were the case he had reason to fear.

Never was I so incredibly thankful to be sitting before someone as a Christian. As an atheist, I would have had to say that there is no hope beyond the grave. If I adhered to almost any other religion, I would have had to tell my friend’s father that he basically was right; it was a matter of whether he had been good enough, and because he was now too late to rebalance the scales, he had every reason to fear what was next. If God were just a souped-up version of Santa then, again, I would have had nothing hopeful to share. Then God would have looked at his list and checked it twice, and there my friend’s father’s name would have been on the wrong side of that list.

I was so thankful to be sitting there at that bedside as a Christian, because as a Christian I was able to explain to my friend’s father that while Christianity does say that God wants us to do good, that is not ultimately what makes us right with God. I was able to share with him that the message of Christianity is that what makes us right with God is not about anything we do or ever could do, but rather about what Jesus has already done—once, and in full, and for all. I explained that if we trust in Jesus, we no longer need to fear judgment because when he died Jesus already took the judgment for everything we have ever done wrong. He couldn’t bear for us to collapse under that burden, and so he shouldered it for us.

I explained this at length, and when I asked my friend’s dad if this made sense, he responded, “That's a heck of a realization.” He said, “69 years and I never thought of that. I thought Christianity was one thing, but it was something else entirely.” There was an extended pause, and then he said, “You know, Vince, you spend your whole life trying to make up for your mess-ups, but this finally explains how we can deal with guilt.”

I asked him if he wanted to pray with me to accept this gift from God. He said that he did, and with great conviction he thrust out his arm to me. We clasped hands, and we wept, and we prayed, and as we finished praying he exclaimed a loud “Amen.”

Then he asked me if my wife Jo knows this great truth about Jesus as well. I said that she does, and he responded, “It must be a happy life.” And then, after a thoughtful pause, “Now I’m actually looking forward to what’s next.”

Not all Christmas gods are the same. No gift from Santa can renew a person’s mind and refresh a person’s soul like that. Only Jesus Christ can give such life, and so, this Christmas, let’s delight in celebrating him.

Hear more on this in the video below, where Vince Vitale talks about recapturing the wonder of Christmas.

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