Doubt and Belief in The Polar Express

Jesus' saying in Mark 10 is a familiar one: "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it." Children show us how to approach Jesus: with wide-eyed belief and unquestioning faith.

One animated film worth seeing again this Christmas reminds us of what it means to have faith like a child's. Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express takes us on one boy's journey from doubt to belief. On one level, the story can be interpreted as a retelling of The Miracle on 34th Street, but for Christians, this film can also be seen as a tale about a return to untainted belief.

In the movie, a young boy struggles with his belief in Santa Claus. He lies in bed on Christmas Eve, hoping to hear the bells on Santa's sleigh, but his doubt grows. Later, he is awakened by the loud and surprising arrival of a train in his front yard. Walking outside, the boy is greeted by a conductor, who asks, "Well, are you coming?" Boarding the train, we find, is the most important decision he makes.

Along with many other children, the boy travels to the North Pole, where Santa will present the first gift of Christmas. During the trip, the boy continues to struggle with doubt, at one point trying to wake himself up.

There are two messages from the movie that stand out. First, as the conductor later remarks to the boy, "It doesn't matter where you're going; what matters is deciding to get on." Often we allow life's disappointments to make us cynical. Or we expect to get something for our faith. But life usually doesn't work out according to our plans. So yes, what's important isn't where we end up or what we get, but that we trust God enough to act on faith.

Second, the conductor also reminds us: "The most real things in the world are the things we can't see." That's when we need the faith of a child to ask what Max Lucado calls the "fundamental question": "Can I afford to believe in what I have never seen?"

I first recommended The Polar Express two years ago on "BreakPoint." This year, I have another reason to recommend it. With its release of a new two-disc DVD set of The Polar Express, Warner Brothers and Motive Entertainment are promoting Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program. That's our ministry to the children of prisoners that is so close to my heart. They are also providing 1,000 promotional copies of the DVD for giveaway to prisoners' kids. I am deeply grateful to Warner Brothers and Motive Entertainment for their efforts.

Bill Broyles, the film's screenwriter, notes: "We all go through that passage… to that world of adulthood where that magic and wonder is gone — or maybe deeply buried." As we enter the Christmas season, this is a good time to rekindle a sense of wonder and awe of our Creator and Savior. The Polar Express is a great holiday film with a story even the youngest child can understand — and a profound message about faith and belief that no adult can miss.

The original commentary first aired on November 10, 2004.

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