It’s Christmas again! That time of the year when your neighbor can decorate his yard with a plastic baby Jesus, a fat man in a red suit, tacky multi-colored lights, and an inflated snowman named “Frosty” and no one calls the homeowner’s association to complain. It’s also the time when some normally crazy ideas seem possible; Santa Claus traveling the whole earth in one night delivering millions of presents, standing under mistletoe entitling one to a free kiss, and hanging socks over the fireplace not being an interior decorating faux pas. One idea becoming increasingly crazy to Americans and to Christians is that this holiday is built largely around a baby who was born without need of a father. The virgin birth has long been a cornerstone of the Christmas celebration and Christian theology. But this is one cornerstone many are now insisting we don’t need. So who is crazier? Those who cling to the virgin birth of Christ like Arnold Schwarzenegger to a Turboman doll in “Jingle All the Way” or those abandoning it faster than the E.L.F.s got Tim Allen out of prison in “The Santa Claus”?
The attack on the virgin birth began in the 19th century with radical scholarship and their “Quest for the Historical Jesus” which denied Christ any supernatural quality. Taking their lead, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his famous sermon – “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” at First Presbyterian Church in New York in which he took aim at the virgin birth. He said:
…there are within the evangelical churches large groups of people whose opinion about our Lord’s coming would run as follows: those first disciples adored Jesus—as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God—as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God’s special influence and intention in his birth—as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.
He argued a virgin birth is merely a way the ancients described those with superior qualities and should be dismissed as a relic by modern Christians.
Closer to the present, Bishop Joseph Sprague of the United Methodist Church has claimed the “myth” of the virgin birth was not intended as historical fact, but was employed by Matthew and Luke to appoint poetically the truth about Jesus. Cecil Sherman, founder of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has said this about those who teach in Baptist colleges and seminaries: “A teacher who might also be led by the Scripture not to believe in the virgin birth should not be fired.” While naturalism and the Enlightenment might lead a teacher not to believe in the virgin birth, it is hard to imagine any arguments against Jesus’ birth narrative being found in the pages of the Bible.
What do we make of this? Sure, some Christians who think more of science and culture than the Bible will deny the virgin birth and some who trust the Scriptures will hold to it. But does it really matter? The answer of one wildly popular author is no. Rob Bell in his book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith writes:
… if Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and DNA samples and prove that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in we would essentially not lose any significant part of our faith because it is more about how we live.
So we don’t need the virgin birth, right? Jesus, Son of David, Son of Larry will work just as well for our faith? If your faith is only “Jesus was a good, maybe even God-like, guy who did good things and I should be like him and do good things to” then no, to quote Bell “we would essentially not lose any significant part of our faith because it is more about how we live.” But if your faith is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who incarnated himself into our world, lived a sinless life, died on the cross paying the price for our sins, was buried and rose from the dead on the third day, and is one day returning in glory then yes, we’ve lost something significant if Jesus was not born of a virgin.
First, we lose the Bible. The virgin birth is the introduction to two of the Gospels. If it is a fabrication, then those Gospels are lies. Second, we lose Mary. If the Holy Spirit did not conceive Jesus then historical deduction would suggest a man other than Joseph did. Mary is either a fornicator, adulterer, or rape victim. Third, we lose Jesus practically and theologically. Practically, he becomes the illegitimate son of a liar who makes fantastic claims about himself. While God loves to use illegitimate sons, it’s one thing to be used by God and quite another to be God. Theologically, we are left without an answer as to how Jesus came to be divine. This can easily shrink Jesus into just a man specially empowered by the Spirit who can encourage us but not command us.
This Christmas season, don’t buy into the hype – the virgin birth is not disproven. Any modern Christian that can accept the resurrection of a dead man after three days can grasp a virgin birth. Furthermore, it matters. If all you’re looking for out of Christ is a motivation for doing good things then it doesn’t matter if Jesus was fathered by Larry. But if you are looking to surrender your life to the Man who claimed to be God and proved it by conquering sin, death, and hell then it does. A Jesus not born of a virgin has no Bible with which to speak to us, no divinity with which to command us, and no story with which to inspire us. Call me crazy, but this is one belief I won’t be abandoning this Christmas.