A Christmas thought experiment


Picture yourself in a large plain room, like a school hall, with lots of people. You’ve just woken up from a deep sleep along with the hundreds of others around you. You’re confused, and a little anxious. You realise that you have no memory of how you got there, and no knowledge of your life before that moment; your mind is a total blank. It soon becomes obvious that the same is true for everyone else.

There is just one large Door, but it’s locked shut. There are no windows. The only world you know is the Room you’re in, the people you’re with, and the time that has elapsed since you woke up.

Pretty soon you start to wonder about the obvious question: Is there anything outside this Room we’re in? Or is this it?

As time goes by, speculation grows about the World Outside. And one day everyone’s startled by a loud noise as one man wakes up shouting about a dream he’s just had. He has a frantic look in his eye. He’s seen things. He’s seen things outside the Room.

This Prophet seems a little wild, but nobody else has ever seen a vision, so some people start listening. He tells amazing tales of the world outside, and he develops a following. But you’re not convinced. I mean, how can he prove it?

A while later you come across a quiet woman who has taken refuge in the corner of the Room. She wears a permanent frown, with deep-furrowed creases in her brow, as she contemplates everything. It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t brushed her hair for weeks; people are drawn to her powerful mind and compelling logic. She has started a discussion group in her corner of the Room, and each day the numbers have swelled as curious types are drawn to her fascinating speculations about the metaphysics of the World Outside. But, even though you’re impressed by this Philosopher and her musings, you’re not really the speculative type. There’s only so much we can infer by logic and reason alone.

In your frustration you make a decision. The only things we can ever be sure about are the things we can see, and touch, and measure. So you start recording all your observations in a big book, and over time, with the help of some like-minded friends, you start to unfold the mysteries of the Room. You have discovered your calling. You are a Scientist, and your sense of confidence in your field is matched only by your sense of wonder in the world around you. 

But at the back of your mind there’s always doubt: What if there is something outside? Why do I always have that nagging sense about there being more, but no idea what it might be? Certain puzzles gnaw away at your sense of peace, like how did we all end up in here in the first place? Who made this Room anyway?

And then it happens. A murmur ripples through the great hall and then comes excitement and shouting. This hubbub is coming from one corner, near the great wooden Door. People are talking about a sound outside the Door.

You’re starting to feel desperate to see for yourself — to hear and know and get close enough to find out for certain. But the crowd has started pressing in and you can’t get very near. In your adrenalin-pumped effort to push towards that door, you trip and fall hard, and all you see is the hard floor.

All of a sudden it’s over, and you realise you haven’t seen a thing. The story reaches you from someone who heard from someone that something extraordinary had taken place: the Door had been opened and a man had entered from outside.

Impossible.

You feel left out, so you retreat into a familiar and comfortable cynicism. If you didn’t see it happen, then how can you know it is true? There were so many people crowding around the Door, and there was so much confusion and hysteria. It’s easy for stories to get blown out of proportion. All it takes is for one deluded mystic to start a rumour, and pretty soon all these gullible people are saying it’s true.

But what if it is true? If somebody came in from Outside, then everything you’ve ever believed is going to be shaken to the core. The visions of the Prophet, the speculations of the Philosopher, and even the cold hard facts of Science, must all bow to what this man has to say.

***

Allow me to join the dots here. Christmas is based around a central claim relating to a historical event: that God became human, and was born in Bethlehem. If true, this is something earth-shattering and world-changing. If false, it is at best an irrelevance, and at worst a great tragedy, when you consider the devotion this God-man has commanded for so long. But what reason do you have to dismiss the story out of hand? Have you really weighed it up with the kind of care it demands, given the uniqueness of this particular claim? Have you ever doubted your doubts?

You can either decide that the rumour was nothing more than a depressing example of our human tendency to believe what we hope to be true — or you can go and hear what that man has to say.

What have you got to lose?


Questions or comments? Email Andrew