Forget for a minute that you exist. Forget about your life, what it is and what you expected it would be. Forget about your likes and dislikes, your preferences and annoyances, your motivations and discouragements. Forget that you have a mother and a father, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, co-workers and colleagues. Forget that you have a place in this world, whether good or bad, happy or sad. Forget, if you can, that you exist at all. In fact, forget that you ever existed. Imagine a world that doesn’t include you. A world remarkably similar to the one that you do live in, but one that hasn’t bothered to include you in its plans; the world that you know, minus one thing: you.
Just such a world is the gift that is given to a particular sinner one Christmas Eve. Despairing of life and the struggles associated with living it, this individual decides he is better off dead. Just hours earlier, he was informed of a cold, hard financial truth: he is actually worth more dead than alive. In desperation, he throws up a half-hearted prayer to God for direction. When he receives a bloody lip instead, he takes this as God’s answer and becomes more resolved than ever to carry out his own death sentence. Unbeknownst to him, however, God’s answer—to his and every other prayer that was being prayed for him that night—was a bit more creative.
Like A Christmas Carol, which we discussed briefly last week, It’s a Wonderful Life is a redemptive story of the powerful effect that one man’s life can have. Unlike A Christmas Carol though, It’s a Wonderful Life gives its protagonist a glimpse of what the present world would be like without him. While Ebenezer Scrooge is given a foretaste of the wretched end that awaits him if he doesn’t alter his present course, George Bailey is allowed to see how dramatically different the present would be if he had never been born.
It never fails to surprise me each year at just how dark of a film It’s a Wonderful Life (IWL) really is. Similar to Dickens’ vivid descriptions of Scrooge’s foul demeanor, the viewers of IWL are taken on a hard, bumpy ride as they follow George Bailey’s path from a young bright-eyed soon-to-be world-traveler to a “warped, frustrated young man.” Director Frank Capra expertly lets the story unfold naturally, allowing the viewer to experience firsthand the steady weakening of George’s optimism, as events and circumstances slowly grind his life’s dreams into dust. (See A.O. Scott’s short video review of the film for a quick reminder of the bitter reality portrayed in the film.) As with A Christmas Carol, the dénouement of IWL centers on the importance of relationships and gratefulness, not material possessions and dreams of a better life.
I find it rather interesting that these two stories, A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, have become as synonymous with the Christmas season as wreaths and pumpkin pie. Christians should be quick to notice the Gospel in both of these similar storylines. While we can certainly approve of the not-so-subtle anti-materialistic message common to both stories, we should also be reminded of the savage world that Christ Himself entered as a baby, two thousand years ago. I am convinced that one of the key reasons that these two stories are as enduring (and endearing) as they are, is because they don’t try to paint a false picture of “good will toward men” where it doesn’t exist. Jesus was born in a stable in a world that wanted Him dead (Matthew 1:13-14). Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey are two kindred spirits that have been hardened by the world of profit and loss. In the black and white world of financial plusses and minuses, it’s a relatively small step to begin to see people the same way. Scrooge and Bailey become consumed with the dollar signs, forsaking their relationships along the way. Jesus came looking for a relationship—a marital one (Ephesians 5:22-33)—not temporal prosperity and financial gain. The reason that these two stories continue to stand the test of time is because they parallel the real story of the Christmas tradition: the Incarnation and nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is not to say, though, that these two stories are “Christian” in the sense that many modern Christians tend to think about things. It is true that neither of these stories have a comprehensive Gospel message that lead the readers and viewers to the Cross. But this misses the point entirely of what makes something Christian or non-Christian. Adding the “sinner’s prayer” onto the end of a story does not make it a Christian story. Using squeaky-clean characters whose only “sins” are missing a daily “devotion” time also does not qualify it as Christian (but it does qualify it as “fantasy”!). Christians should be able to tell the best stories because we have seen both sides of the “great chasm” (Luke 16:26). We understand the depth of the depravity of the heart of man because we have something to compare it to; someone who has never been clean has no idea how dirty they really are. Although A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life were never intended to be Christian parables, they are because their authors understood something about the reality of living in a fallen world. Whether or not the authors understood the Gospel, they certainly understood that something is wrong in the heart of man. And this is the first step in coming to terms with the radical solution offered by Christ. We can’t do it on our own; we need supernatural mediation. And this is exactly what Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey received through their respective Christmas Eve visitors. The power of these stories lies in the new understandings imparted to these two men, and what they do with this information. This is the true message of Christmas. As Jesus said: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).