The Virgin Birth: Plausible, if God Exists
The Apostles’ Creed, an early creed of the Christian faith, affirms that Jesus Christ “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” If this belief is true, it means that Jesus’ entrance into human history isn’t just a tad different, but completely unique.
We can’t, of course, make the same kind of historical argument for the virgin birth that we can make for the resurrection. In the case of the resurrection, numerous eyewitnesses saw Jesus die and also later saw Him come back from the dead. But no eyewitness can attest to how Mary became pregnant. If Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that event was private.
Atheists declare it to be a “biological impossibility” for a virgin woman to give birth. In one sense they’re correct: humans, like other mammals, are normally incapable of parthenogenesis (a word that derives from Greek words meaning “virgin” and “birth”). But in another sense they’re completely wrong.
Affirming the virgin birth of Christ as “miraculous” does not mean having to believe that the laws of nature have been broken or violated. Just because a virgin birth is not naturally possible doesn’t mean we rule out the possibility of there being a God not bound by the laws of nature.
Is anything impossible for the God who designed and crafted our meticulously detailed universe?
The Virgin Birth: The Ultimate Miracle?
People in the ancient world knew that human conception naturally required sexual intercourse. For that reason, they viewed Jesus’ conception by Mary to be a miracle. Joseph, the man who took Mary as his wife, certainly believed that Mary was telling him the truth when she said she had yet to be with a man.
Writes the great Christian thinker C. S. Lewis,
“Some people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. … No doubt the modern gynecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point — that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And Joseph obviously knew that.”
When scientists imply that Christians claim Jesus was born through an unusual but ultimately natural process of parthenogenesis, they are mistaken. Rather, Christians claim divine intervention to be the force that reconfigured the normal course of events.
As New Testament professors Andreas Kostenberger and Alexander Stewart point out, much of the criticism of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth proceeds from hostile assumptions:
The only reason to doubt the possibility of the miracle itself would be a prior commitment to philosophical naturalism; that is, the belief that the material world is all that exists and that there is no such thing as God or supernatural intervention. From this perspective, miracles just don’t happen. This worldview assumes that science can explain everything, but such an approach demands more from science than it can produce.
Our ability to accept the virgin birth as plausible depends largely on our view of the existence of God. One who refutes the existence of God likely also refutes the possibility of miracles.
The Idea That Jesus Was Born of a Virgin Originated Very Early
Skeptics commonly assert that the story of Jesus being born of a virgin must be due to legend or myth. But there are several problems with this claim. First, the virgin birth was a foundational component of early Christianity, not an idea that made a later appearance in the church. Second, the virgin birth was contradicted by no one in the first century.
The New Testament books of Luke and Matthew contain accounts of the miraculous conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Scholars agree that the books were written sometime between AD 50 and 90 — less than a century after Jesus was born, and less than 60 years after His death. Some scholars even shorten the time between Jesus’ death and Luke’s gospel to be only 30 years.
Matthew and Luke, despite working entirely independently from each other and not being dependent on the same source, agree on an amazing number of very specific facts about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. So we are on solid ground in concluding that the accounts are factually based.
Explains Bible scholar and pastor Mark Roberts,
“Contrary to what is sometimes stated by hyper-critical scholars, you can tell the whole Christmas story with all the key facts by using only what is common to both Matthew and Luke. This means that we have two, relatively early, independent accounts of the birth of Jesus that confirm each other’s reliability.”
The general consensus among scholars is that neither writer drew on the other’s narratives in composing his own. As New Testament scholar Michael Bird states in the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus, “The differences between Matthew and Luke in the birth narratives are so sharp that they probably wrote their accounts independently from one another and used different sources.”
The idea that Jesus was conceived of a virgin predated both Matthew and Luke.
The simplest explanation for the similarities and differences in these two gospels is that Matthew’s account derived from Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, and Luke’s account derived from His mother, Mary. This explanation doesn’t require that Matthew and Luke spoke with Mary and Joseph directly. In fact, Joseph is generally thought to have died before Jesus began his public ministry. So, presumably, his story of the virgin birth was passed on to his sons — including James, the half-brother of Jesus. Likewise, Luke may have heard Mary’s story from Mary herself, or perhaps from the apostle John or one of the women who had known Mary.
If Jesus was not born of a virgin, we must dismiss the Bible as being unreliable. And without the miraculous intervention of God in the process, we lose the very nature of Jesus’ divinity.
Jesus’ Virgin Birth Story Didn’t Derive From Pagan Myths
Skeptics also claim that the virgin birth borrows from ancient pagan myths about noble human figures being the offspring of the gods and mortal women. The critics who draw these parallels often couch their descriptions of these pagan myths in language that deliberately imitates Christian language. Despite trying to depict Christianity as a copycat religion, the pagan myths do not have anything to do with virgin births.
Asserts Bart Ehrman, a famous agnostic-atheist New Testament scholar who doesn’t believe in Christ’s virgin birth,
“In none of the stories of the divine humans born from the union of a god and a mortal is the mortal a virgin. One has simply to diligently compare these myths to the virgin birth of Jesus to see that they lack any useful comparison.”
Note: there is no realistic chance of any substantial contact by Christians in the Mediterranean world with myths about Krishna or the Buddha, within the first 50 years or so of Christianity. And the Aztecs lived on the other side of the world in Central America, and did not emerge as a culture for several hundred years after Jesus was born. Even Genghis Kahn, which legend says was birthed from the virgin daughter of a Mongol king, lived twelve centuries after Christ.
Christianity didn’t borrow the virgin birth from another myth or religion. But those religions perhaps borrowed aspects of Christianity.
Clearly, a strong case can be made that the virgin birth is the best explanation of the available evidence, provided that we accept the existence of God or are at least open to the possibility of His existence.
Admittedly, for those skeptical about God’s existence, the conclusion of the virgin birth may seem intolerable. But if a person can accept that God is big enough to do what humans deem impossible, then believing in the miracle of the virgin birth doesn’t actually require much faith.
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.