A while back I received an email from a friend of mine, a retired Princeton University professor, in which he detailed some of his objections to Christianity, and in his last line—as if to trump all other considerations—he wrote, “Nor can I believe in a virgin birth.” No further argument. As if to say, it would be crazy to believe in such a thing.
It did make me think, why is it so often the virgin birth that we have the hardest time accepting? Why not Jesus walking on water? Why not him multiplying the loaves?
Maybe it’s because we’re happy for God to do what he wants with his own body, and we’re happy for him to give us gifts, but we get offended at the thought of a miracle that inconveniences us, that has a claim on our lives, that requires us to respond “I am the Lord’s servant,” as Mary did (Luke 1:38).
I thought to write back to my friend with reasons why perhaps he could believe in a virgin birth. But then I realized, he already does. In fact, every person is committed to a virgin birth, whether they realize it or not.
We find one virgin birth in Chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel:
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:38).
Admittedly, this is out of the realm of the ordinary. But what exactly is the alternative?
My colleague John Lennox recently debated another Princeton professor—Peter Singer—who is one of the world’s most influential atheists. John challenged him to answer this question: why are we here? And here’s how Peter responded:
“We can assume that somehow in the primeval soup we got collections of molecules that became self-replicating; and I don’t think we need any miraculous or mysterious [explanation].”(1)
And I remember thinking, How does us somehow getting self-replicating molecules in the primeval soup not count as a mysterious explanation? That sounds a lot like a virgin birth to me.
Or take the brilliant Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking’s latest attempt to propose an atheistic explanation for our universe: “. . . the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”(2)
Is that any less miraculous of a birth than the account from Luke Chapter 1?
We live in a miraculous world. Regardless of whether you are a theist, an atheist, or an agnostic, there’s no getting around that fact. It’s not a matter of whether we believe in a virgin birth, it’s just a matter of which virgin birth we choose to accept.
We can believe in the virgin birth of an atheistic universe that is indifferent to us—a universe where “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”(3) Or we can believe in the virgin birth of a God who loves us so deeply that he came to be born among us and to live beside us, to call us “family” (Hebrews 2:11) and “friends” (John 15:15), and to give himself the name “God with us” (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14).
There is a depth of relationship that is only possible between people who have been through the worst together— those who have been there in each other’s suffering, those who have fought through disaster side by side, those who have sat beside one another in devastation with nothing left to say other than “I know exactly what you’ve been through, and I still love you and I still believe in you.” Because of Jesus, that depth of relationship is possible with God. That is what we celebrate at Christmas.
Growing up near New York City, one of my most vivid memories of Christmas is of homeless people begging on the street corners. And I would give some change if I had some. Imagine someone who offers to trade his home for a cold street corner, who instead of giving a few coins sat down on the street corner himself and handed over the key to his home.
At Christmas, Jesus literally comes and lives in our home—with all of its suffering, sin, and shame—and he shows us the home it will be, the home he is preparing—an eternal home where “[God] will wipe every tear from [our] eyes,” where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
The way we accept this gift is with simple words: I’m sorry. Thank you.
I’m sorry for the times I’ve hid from you. I’m sorry for the times I’ve run from you. I’m thankful that you didn’t give up on me, but were willing to make even the greatest sacrifice in order to be with me. I want to be with you too, wherever that leads, not only this Christmas but always.
Senior Tutor, Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics
(1) “Is There a God,” Melbourne, Australia. 21 July 2011.
(2) Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010), 180.
(3) Richard Dawkins, A River Out of Eden (New York: Perseus, 1995), 133.