In correspondence with an old friend, a retired Princeton University professor, he detailed his objections to the Christian faith. His final remark seemed to overshadow all other considerations and was authoritatively written as if to definitively close the argument: “Nor can I believe in a virgin birth.” Such a belief was apparently implausible, absurd, immature.
Why is the virgin birth often the most problematic miracle to accept? Why is it more troubling than the thought of Jesus walking on water? Or multiplying the loaves?
Perhaps because we are content to let God do as he pleases with his own body, and we are delighted to be the recipient of gifts. However, we are offended by the thought of a miracle that inconveniences us, that has potential to disrupt our plans and our preferences.
I considered responding to my friend with positive reasons for believing in a virgin birth, but then I realized that he was, in fact, already committed to a virgin birth.
We find one virgin birth in the story of the Incarnation:
“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.’”
Admittedly, this is out of the ordinary. But criticism without alternative is empty; a hypothesis is only plausible or implausible relative to what alternative hypotheses present themselves. So what exactly is the alternative?
My colleague Professor John Lennox debated another Princeton professor, Peter Singer, one of the world’s most influential atheists. Lennox challenged him to answer this question: ‘Why are we here?‘ And this was Professor Singer’s response:
“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 .”(1)
Self-replicating molecules somehow emerging out of a primeval soup strikes me as leaving substantial room for mystery. In fact, without further clarification, this theory sounds not dissimilar to a virgin birth. Or take 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)
But physical matter doesn’t normally materialize out of nothing, so this account also presents itself as outside the realm of the ordinary. Is this a less miraculous birth than the story of Jesus?
Or, finally, consider the position of the prominent atheist philosopher Quentin Smith:
“The fact of the matter is that the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing . . . We should . . . acknowledge our foundation in nothingness and feel awe at the marvelous fact that we have a chance to participate briefly in this incredible sunburst that interrupts without reason the reign of non-being.”(3)
That is a refreshingly honest characterization, but again it is not at all clear why a foundation in nothingness should be viewed as comparatively more reasonable than a foundation in God.
The fact is, we live in a miraculous world. Regardless of a person’s worldview, the extraordinariness of the universe is evident to theists, atheists, and agnostics alike. It is therefore not a matter of whether we believe in a virgin birth, but 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)
Alternatively, we can believe in the virgin birth of a God who loves us so deeply that he became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Emmanuel, God with us.
Jesus was born in fragility, like the rest of us. The night before he died, he spoke words that resonate with anyone who has known despair: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he once said. Between birth and death, Jesus knew the experience of weeping at a dear friend’s tomb; he also knew the isolation of having friends desert him and flee when he needed them most.
There is a depth of relationship that is only possible between people who have been through the worst together. Because of Jesus—because the one who birthed the universe was also born among us—that depth of relationship is possible with God. That is what we celebrate in the Incarnation.
Growing up near New York City, one of my most vivid childhood memories is of homeless people begging on street corners. I would give some change if I had it, but imagine someone who offered to trade his home for a cold street corner, who, instead of giving a few coins, handed over the keys to his house. Imagine someone “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).
In the Incarnation, Jesus literally comes and lives in our home—with all of its suffering and mess and shame—and he offers us the home that it will one day be: 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.(5) Or, as J.R.R. Tolkien puts it, where everything sad will be made untrue.
Vince Vitale is director of the Zacharias Institute at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) “Is There a God,” Melbourne, Australia, 20 July 2011.
(2) Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010), 180.
(3) Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo 4.2., 2000.
(4) Richard Dawkins, A River Out of Eden (New York: Perseus, 1995), 133.
(5) Revelation 21:4. For more on this topic, see Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, co-authored by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale.