Not a Wonderful Life: What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?

Nathan Busenitz | December 20, 2018

In 1943, Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story called “The Greatest Gift.” He tried to get it published to no avail. So, he printed 200 copies himself and distributed them to friends and family members at Christmas time.

One of the booklets made its way to Hollywood, where it eventually fell into the right hands and was converted into a screenplay. The name of the project was changed to “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film debuted in 1946 and is now a holiday classic. Stern’s short story was actually published a year earlier, but not as a book. It was released as a feature in Good Housekeeping magazine with the title, “The Man Who Was Never Born.”

The story is a familiar one, about a troubled man named George who is rescued by a theologically incorrect angel named Clarence. In an effort to earn his wings, Clarence shows George how terrible things would be in Bedford Falls if he had never been born.

Though the comparison is obviously inadequate, the title of Stern’s story raises an infinitely more important question when applied to the heart of Christmas. What if the Lord Jesus had never been born?

You may not think of Hebrews 2 as a Christmas text, but it is one of my favorites. This chapter provides us with a profound theology of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In verses 9–18, we find three answers to the question, “What if Jesus had never been born?”

If Jesus had never been born, there would be no salvation from sin

If Christ had not come, His substitutionary atonement on the cross would never have taken place and thus there would be no forgiveness, no redemption, no justification, and no salvation. In verse 9, the author of Hebrews connects the reality of Christ’s incarnation with His redemptive work on the cross.

But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. – Hebrews 2:9

As this passage demonstrates, it is not cliché to say that Jesus was born so that He could die. The glory of Christmas culminates in the suffering of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter. Jesus came to die. He came so that through His death, He might give life to everyone who believes in Him.

In verse 10, the author of Hebrews continues to build on the benefits of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice.

For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. – Hebrews 2:10

The one unique Son of God came down from heaven to earth, so that the many sons and daughters of Adam might become children of God in Christ.

The word for “perfect” (in v. 10) here can mean to perfect or to complete. Of course, Jesus was already perfect. His absolute perfection was evidenced in His humanity, as He perfectly submitted to the will of His Father even in His sufferings and death (cf. Heb. 4:15). Through His death, Christ completed the redemptive purposes of God. Therefore, He is the perfect High Priest who is able to cleanse the sins of His people through His own sacrifice.

This theme continues in vv. 11–13.

For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren saying,

“I will proclaim Your name to My brethren,
In the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.”
And again,
“I will put My trust in Him.”
And again,
“Behold, I and the children whom God has given Me.”

– Hebrews 2:11–13

Notice the familial language in those verses, speaking of our adoption into the family of God. Christ is the Son of God by divine right, on account of who He is. Believers are children by adoption, on account of what Christ has done on our behalf.

Verses 10-13 reiterate the reality that our justification, adoption, sanctification, and future glorification are all predicated on the truth of verse 9—that, “for a little while He became lower than the angels.” Without Christmas, we would have no part in those saving realities.

If Jesus had never been born, there would be no victory over death

It is somewhat shocking to consider the average number of people who die every day—over 150,000 people. Nine souls enter eternity every five seconds. If the Lord tarries, death will one day be a reality for all of us.

Our world fears death. Those who live apart from Jesus Christ are right to fear it on account of the judgment that follows (Heb 9:27). But as believers, we should not fear death because, as the Apostle Paul exclaims, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor 15:54). In Philippians 1:21, we’re reminded that to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The next verses in Hebrews 2 echo that same confidence. We need not fear death because Jesus conquered death for all those who trust in Him.

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

– Hebrews 2:14-15

Verse 14, again, puts the emphasis on Christ’s incarnation—noting that He partook of flesh and blood in order to save fallen human beings. He who was sinless became a man so that through His death, those who were sinful might be liberated from both sin and death.

If Jesus had never been born, there would be no victory over death. We would still be slaves to the fear of death, and rightly so because we would have had no future but hell. But because Jesus came, the hope of heaven has been given to all those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

If Jesus had never been born, there would be no mediator between God and man

Angels play a prominent role in the Gospel accounts surrounding the birth of Christ. They similarly occupy a featured place in most Christmas decorations. Yet, although angels participated in Christmas, there is no equivalent to Christmas for angels.

Consider what the author of Hebrews says in verse 16:

For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. – Hebrews 2:16

The phrase translated give help could be rendered to take on the nature of. The Son of God never took on the nature of angels. The Son of God never became an angel so that He might redeem fallen angels. Therefore, there is no gospel for fallen angels. They have no opportunity for redemption or salvation.

We would share in that same state were it not for Christmas. To be sure, there are holy angels, who will live in the presence of God forever.  But for fallen angels, no forgiveness is offered, because no mediator exists between fallen angels and God.

How the angels must have wondered and marveled on that first Christmas Day at the mystery of all that was happening. This was something completely foreign to their experience, which helps explain why 1 Peter 1:12 says that the gospel consists of things into which angels long to look. There is no help for fallen angels, but for the descendant of Abraham, there is help.

That phrase, the descendant of Abraham, would have been particularly meaningful in a letter written to Jewish believers. But the author likely intends to include those who are Abraham’s children by faith (cf. Gal. 3:29). After all, Christ came to help all whom He would redeem both Jew and Gentile—those who through faith would believe in Him.

The author of Hebrews continues in verse 17:

Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.

– Hebrews 2:17

The incarnation is again in view in this verse. To help the descendant of Abraham, Christ had to become like His brethren—He had to become a man. The incarnation was not optional in the redemptive purposes and plans of God. The only way there could be a true mediator between God and man is if that mediator were on equal footing with both parties involved. Christ alone can be that mediator because only He can relate to God as God and, because of His incarnation, to us as a human being.

For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.

– Hebrews 2:18

Having experienced life on this earth for more than 30 years, the Lord Jesus Christ can relate to us as a sympathetic Savior. He knows what it is like to be tempted and to suffer. As a result, He can sympathize with our trials and troubles.

Yet in all of this, He was without sin (Heb 4:15). Consequently, He not only sympathizes with our weaknesses, He can save us from them. He is both the perfect High Priest and the perfect sacrifice for sin. These grand realities were made possible by the incarnation. As Charles Spurgeon expressed, “Man became royal when Christ became human. Man was exalted when Christ was humiliated. Man may go up to God now that God has come down to man.”

The Reason for the Season

At Christmas time we remember Jesus’ birth, but He is not a baby lying in a manger anymore. No, He is seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father and He will return to this earth to judge the world in righteousness. One day, all who reject the Lord Jesus Christ will stand before Him in judgment. When we celebrate His first coming, it ought to remind us of the reality that He is coming again. For those who know and love Him, that future reality is our blessed hope. But for those who reject Him in unbelief, it is the culmination of every fear.

If Jesus had never been born, we would have no salvation from sin, no victory over death, and no mediator between us and a holy, righteous, wrathful God. But because of the incarnation, we have something that even the angels can’t fully understand. We have grace, redemption, salvation, sanctification, and the hope of glory. We have a place in the family of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Take time this Christmas to reflect on those theological truths—worshipping the One who humbled Himself for our sakes, and who now sits exalted at the right hand of the Father.

Merry Christmas and Maranatha!


Nathan Busenitz avatar
Nathan Busenitz is the dean of faculty and associate professor of theology at The Master's Seminary. He is also one of the pastors of Cornerstone, a fellowship group at Grace Community Church.

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