The Virgin Birth and the Tooth Fairy (1)
I hope you were jolted by that title. Sadly, many aren’t. They contend that the virgin conception of Jesus and the existence of the tooth fairy exist on an equal intellectual plane. They both lack rational credibility and a person is as little justified in believing one as the other.
It happens about this time every year. Whether in Time magazine, Newsweek, or U.S. News and World Report, there consistently appears an article (or several) about Jesus: did he exist, if so, who was he, and perhaps most of all, can educated folk in the twenty-first century believe he was actually conceived in the womb of a virgin?
Just the other night there was a special program on CBS that focused on the Christmas story. John Dominic Crossan, heretical spokesman for the infamous Jesus Seminar, together with scholar of ancient Gnosticism, Elaine Pagels, waxed eloquent (and condescendingly) on how belief in the literal virgin conception of Christ is on a par with belief that some ethereal pixie will gladly remunerate you for a lost molar.
What’s most galling about these secular theories, presented under the guise of religious devotion, is how they consistently insist that only intellectually stunted, ill-informed zealots could possibly believe that a virginal conception actually occurred. I will give CBS credit for one thing: they sought out the input of one conservative scholar, Dr. Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, who did an excellent job of articulating the biblical truth of the birth and life of Jesus.
Why do scholars such as Crossan, Pagels, and others scoff at the biblical story of the virgin birth of Christ? It’s not as though they deny that Matthew and Luke record such a birth in their gospel accounts. Perhaps you thought they deny it because of some archaeological discovery that supports their contention. They don’t. Or maybe they reject the virgin conception because of careful biblical exegesis, as if something in the original Greek text undermines its integrity. Not so. Or could it be there are academic or historical or theological reasons that make a virgin birth impossible? There aren’t.
So why do these people find it so unacceptable? There are, I believe, two fundamental reasons. One is metaphysical, the other moral.
Don’t be put off by the word metaphysical. I use it simply to draw attention to their worldview, which is distinctly anti-supernatural. Of course, many of them would take issue with this point, insisting that they believe in a supreme being who is certainly capable of performing deeds that transcend normal expectations and go beyond what mere nature can effect.
But they are, at best, deistic in their understanding of “God”. In other words, “he” or “it” exists but rarely if ever intrudes into the affairs of mankind, rarely if ever responds to prayer, rarely if ever acts contrary to or in a way that might supervene the cause and effect processes of physical reality or what they call natural law. Hence, the idea that a woman can conceive apart from the physical contribution of a man is simply inadmissible before the debate even begins.
Of course, there are those even more rigidly and defiantly naturalistic in their perspective. As Robert Stein notes, "for some, the very possibility of such a conception and birth is excluded as a logical consequence of the elimination of the supernatural from history. If miracles cannot happen, then by definition there cannot be a virginal conception" (Jesus the Messiah, 64).
The second reason for their rejection of a virgin conception is moral in nature, and involves two elements: pride and personal autonomy.
Pride is a major factor because to acknowledge the supernatural sounds too much like a reversion to naïve religious fundamentalism that would threaten their status in the academic community and their cherished image as intellectually sophisticated scholars. Their greatest fear is being perceived as uneducated, bereft of critical thinking, and above all out of touch with modern scientific developments. In fact, it would be virtually impossible to gain employment at a non-evangelical seminary or major university if it were known that one embraced the supernatural or believed in the reality of the virgin birth of Christ or his bodily resurrection from the dead.
The commitment to preserve one’s moral autonomy is perhaps the greatest incentive of all. Here’s what I mean. To confess the reality of such supernatural phenomena as the virgin conception of Christ, his healing miracles, or his bodily resurrection is necessarily to acknowledge his identity as God incarnate. This in turn calls for the submission of one’s life, belief, and behavior to his absolute and unqualified Lordship. If Jesus Christ is who he claimed to be, one is no longer free to believe what one wants or embrace a sexual lifestyle inconsistent with his teaching or chart one’s course in life irrespective of his sovereign will.
Let me share a quick illustration. During my studies for a Ph.D., I had a long-running conversation concerning Christianity with one of my professors. After receiving my degree, we had lunch one final time. I asked him what, if any, questions remained unanswered that would keep him from embracing Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Were there any philosophical objections that had not been sufficiently addressed? “No,” he said. “Why, then,” I asked, “do you still refuse to submit to his sovereign lordship?” “Too much moral baggage,” he quickly replied.
I knew what he meant. Among other things, he was gay. Over the years I had countless conversations with him about his sexual behavior, but to no avail. The bottom line is that he didn’t want to forfeit moral autonomy in making decisions concerning his life-style and, in particular, sexual conduct.
He was a remarkably intelligent man who knew full well that to embrace Christianity meant that he would have to submit to the moral authority of Christ. His resistance to conversion wasn’t intellectual, as if there were arguments against the credibility of the faith that couldn’t be answered. His decision was energized by a moral agenda, a determination to live in a way that he knew was fundamentally inconsistent with the Lordship of Christ. I appreciated his honesty, but still grieve over his choice.
I’m fully aware that those who reject the virgin birth of Christ will loudly protest my portrayal of their motivation. They want everyone (themselves included) to think they have substantive, scholarly reasons for what they believe. But I’m convinced there are no historical, biblical, archaeological, philosophical, or theological grounds to rule out the possibility of a virgin conception. The only question that remains is whether the evidence from Scripture requires that we embrace it. We’ll turn to that issue in the next lesson.