Peace on Earth


There is a Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” its refrain from Luke 2, the announcement of the angels at Christ’s birth as per the King James Bible: “Peace on Earth, good will to men.” And the singer goes no to lament that there is, in fact, no peace on Earth.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on Earth,” I said

For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on Earth, good will to men

So shame on us, right?

But then again, isn’t that also shame on God? Were the angels lying, then, when they promised that the birth of Christ would bring peace? Apparently: for it is not just the millennia of wars since; even immediately after Jesus’s birth, came the slaughter of the innocents. The life of a sincere Christian is hardly without conflict. Just the reverse: much of the world is set on crucifixion.

But by this interpretation, the Bible contradicts itself. In the gospel, Jesus says, “I bring not peace, but the sword.” St. Paul tells us to fasten on our buckler and gird up our loins to “fight the good fight.” The Apocalypse imagines salvation history as a war of good and evil.

The problem seems to be in a mistranslation of the original Greek. While the King James Version has it as “peace on Earth, good will to men,” the New International Version has “peace to those on whom his favour rests.” The American Standard Version has “peace among men in whom he is well pleased.” The Revised Standard Version has “peace among those whom he favors!” Douay-Rheims has “peace to men of good will.”

It looks as though King James’s translators were cooking the book. Many people no doubt want the message of the Bible to be universal peace and reconciliation. This is especially useful for those in power. It retains them in power. But this is not the Christian message.

The “peace” of which the angels sing is not the absence of external strife, but the absence of internal strife. It is peace of mind. It is the assurance that God is here, and has not forgotten us, and all will turn out well for the good in the end.

It is not at all an assurance of peace for the unrighteous in power, as Herod immediately recognizes.

It is urgent for the sincere Christian to read the Bible and the Catechism closely. The Devil himself can quote scripture for his purposes. 

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