In this clip from J. Warner Wallace’s longer talk on the existence of God from cosmological evidence (based on his book, God’s Crime Scene), J. Warner examines several atheistic explanations for the beginning of the universe. Do any of these explanations eliminate God as the most reasonable inference from evidence?
Alternatives to God as the First Cause of the Universe - YouTube
For some, the miraculous claim of the virgin conception of Jesus disqualifies the Gospel accounts as reliable history. The famous writer, atheist and debater, Christopher Hitchens regularly referred to the virgin conception as a clear example of the unreasonable nature of the Gospels. Hitchens would occasionally attempt to demonstrate the illogical, unreasonable nature of his debate opponent by asking the simple question: “Do you believe Jesus was conceived miraculously and born of a virgin?” when his Christian opponent replied, “Yes,” Hitchens would typically say, “I rest my case.” For many atheists, the virgin conception is so obviously irrational it disqualifies the story of Jesus before it even begins.
Skeptics and critics of Christianity reject the mere possibility of the virgin conception because their philosophical naturalism (their belief that the natural world is all that exists) precludes the possibility of the miraculous intervention of a supernatural Being. As it turns out, this presupposition of naturalism lies at the heart of the dilemma:
Naturalism Is the Worldview Under Examination
When we begin to examine the possible existence of God (the aforementioned supernatural Being), we are actually examining the viability of philosophical naturalism. We are, in essence, asking the questions, “Is the natural world all that exists?” “Is there anything beyond the physical, material world we measure with our five senses?” “Is there any way to actually know immaterial, spiritual entities (or truths) exist?” In asking these questions, we are putting naturalism to the test.
Naturalism Shouldn’t, Therefore, Be Our Presupposition
It would be unfair, therefore, to begin by presupposing nothing supernatural could ever exist or occur. If we are attempting to be fair about assessing the existence of God (or assessing the reasonable nature of the virgin conception), we cannot exclude the very possibility of the supernatural in the first place. Our presupposition against the supernatural would unfairly taint our examination of the claim. Instead, we ought to remain open to the the miraculous to fairly examine any claim of supernatural activity.
Naturalism Accepts At Least One “Extra-Natural” Event
Most of us already accept the reasonable reality of at least one “extra-natural” (aka “miraculous”) event. The Standard Cosmological Model of naturalism is still the “Big Bang Theory”, a hypothesis that proposes that all space, time and matter (all the elements of the natural universe) had a beginning (a “cosmological singularity”). Whatever the cause was, it could not have been something from the natural realm, as this realm was what resulted from the “singularity”.
Naturalism May Not, Therefore, Be An Accurate View of the World
It appears that the beginning of the Universe can be attributed to an all-powerful “extra-natural” source. If this source was the supernatural God of the Bible, it would appear that He has the ability to intervene in the natural realm with creative force. The virgin conception, in light of this kind of power, is a reasonable prospect.
We cannot reject the virgin conception on naturalistic grounds without first examining the larger claims of the Christian Worldview. Click To Tweet
The virgin conception defies naturalistic explanation, but that shouldn’t surprise us. Christianity has always argued that the supernatural (the miraculous) is reasonable; Christianity has always challenged naturalism. We cannot reject the virgin conception on naturalistic grounds without first examining the larger claims of the Christian Worldview. If there is sufficient reason to believe God exists (and created everything from nothing), then the virgin conception is certainly within His power and equally reasonable.
We’ve been looking at the virgin conception of Jesus recently, and in this post, I’d like to address an objection leveled at the writings of Paul. Many critics have argued that Paul was either completely silent about the virgin conception or spoke directly against such a concept in his writings. In either case, these critics argue that Paul’s silence or apparently contradictory statements cast doubt on the truth of the virgin conception. But is this really the case? The evidence does not supports such a claim:
Paul’s Silence is Not Enough We need to be very careful about drawing conclusions from silence. Paul may not have mentioned the virgin conception simply because it was widely understood or assumed. Paul may also have been silent because it was not the focus or purpose of his letters (which are often devoted to issues related to the Church). Remember that Paul was a contemporary of Luke (who was one of the two authors who wrote extensively about the conception of Jesus). Paul appears to be very familiar with Luke’s’ gospel (he quotes Luke in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). If Paul disagreed with Luke’s account of the conception, we would expect to hear Paul say something about it in his letters. Paul never refuted or openly questioned the claims of Luke regarding the “virgin conception”.
Paul’s Statements May Be More Than Enough Critics also cite two verses in Paul’s letter as specific proof that Paul was not aware of Jesus’ virgin conception. The first is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
Galatians 4:4-5 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
Paul says that Jesus was “born of a woman” and not “born of a virgin”. Critics have argued that this is proof that Paul was unaware of the virgin conception. But this is not necessarily the case. Many scholars have observed that the expression, “born of a woman, born under the Law” implies that Jesus had no earthly father because Paul curiously chose to omit any mention of Joseph in this passage. It was part of the Hebrew culture and tradition to cite the father alone when describing any genealogy, yet Paul ignored Joseph and cited Mary alone, as if to indicate that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. In addition to this passage in the letter to the Galatians, critics also cite the openly lines of Paul’s letter to the Romans to make a case against Paul’s knowledge of the virgin conception:
Romans 1:1-4 Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord
Critics claim that Paul’s statement that Jesus was a “descendant of David according to the flesh” reveals the fact that Paul believed Joseph, a descendant of David, was the physical father of Jesus. But careful examination of this letter leaves open the possibility that Paul may simply have been referring to the fact that Mary was herself was also a descendant of David. Mary’s relationship to David was important, because Joseph was a descendant of Jeconiah, the King of Judah described in 2 Kings 24:8. Jeconiah was cursed by God:
Jeremiah 22:30 “Thus says the LORD, ‘Write this man down childless, A man who will not prosper in his days ; For no man of his descendants will prosper Sitting on the throne of David Or ruling again in Judah.’ “
According to this passage, no descendant of Jeconiah would ever sit on the throne of David. If Jesus was a direct descendant of Joseph, he would be excluded according to this curse, as Joseph was in the line of Jeconiah. But Paul consistently omits Joseph when describing the genealogy of Jesus. In addition, Paul later refers to Jesus as the “son of God” in the same passage from the letter to the Romans. Paul often used this expression to describe Jesus, and Paul was consistent and clear about Jesus’ divinity throughout his letters. If Paul believed that Jesus was born of a human mother and father, we would expect Paul to describe how a normal man, born of human parents, could be God Himself. Paul never does that, and this is consistent with the fact that Paul was aware of the virgin conception.
Paul’s writings simply cannot be used in isolation to determine what he knew (or didn’t know) about the virgin conception. Click To Tweet
Paul’s writings simply cannot be used in isolation to determine what he knew (or didn’t know) about the virgin conception. It’s hard to believe that a man familiar with Luke’s gospel would be ignorant of the birth narrative Luke wrote.
In this interview with Bill Arnold from Afternoons with Bill Arnold, J. Warner answers a number of questions about Christianity and the evidence for God’s existence. This Q&A provides several examples of how to answer unscripted questions about the Christian worldview.
You can also subscribe to the Cold-Case Christianity Weekly Podcast on iTunes, or add the podcast from our RSS Feed.
I thought I would complete this week’s series of Christmas blogs by addressing three common objections to the virgin conception of Jesus. I’ll start with the objection that the virgin conception was borrowed from prior pagan mythologies such as those of Mithras or Horus. Skeptics have properly observed that many ancient legendary heroes and kings were said to be the offspring of the gods, and a number of non-Christian religions describe virgin conceptions as well. Did the early Christians simply apply the idea of the virgin conception to the evolving fiction of Jesus? I think there are a number of problems with this idea:
While skeptics may reject the notion of the virgin conception for other reasons, they cannot reasonably claim it was borrowed from pagan mythologies. Click To Tweet
The Mythologies Aren’t That Similar
First and foremost, the pre-existing mythologies described by critics are not as similar to the “virgin conception” of Jesus as they would like people to believe. As an example, neither Mithras nor Horus was the product of a “virgin conception”. Mithras emerged from rock and Horus was conceived through a sex act between Isis and Osiris. While it is true that many pagan mythologies describe the gods having sex with mortal women, the blatant sexual activity of these mythologies is missing from the Biblical narrative.
Isaiah Wasn’t That Specific Some have argued that paganism may have influenced Judaism first and corrupted the writers of the Old Testament prior to its transferred influence on New Testament writers, but this theory is also deficient. If Isaiah was borrowing the idea of a virgin conception from pagan sources, wouldn’t he have used more explicit language to describe the mother of God as a virgin? Isaiah uses the Hebrew word, “almah” in describing the mother of the messiah. This word means literally “young woman”. As a result, many Jewish apologists have historically argued that Isaiah was not describing a virgin at all, but was only referring to a young woman. While Matthew interprets Isaiah as describing a virgin, it is reasonable to assume that Isaiah would have been more explicit if he was trying to express an idea borrowed from paganism.
The Jews Weren’t That Accommodating It’s unreasonable to presume that Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian or other pagan mythologies related to the birth of God would be embraced as part of a narrative targeted at Jewish believers. The Gospel writers were clearly trying to convince their Jewish readers that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies related to the Messiah; it is irrational to believe that these Jewish readers would embrace any part of paganism in the story of Jesus’ conception as being continuous with the Jewish narrative from the Old Testament.
New Christians Weren’t That Accepting Early Christian converts were called to a new life in Christ and repeatedly told that they were merely travelers passing through this mortal (and pagan) world. They were called to live a life that was free of worldly influences and told to reject the foolish philosophies and stories of men. This group, in particular, would be the last to return to pre-existing pagan stories and superstitions; we would expect the early Christians to be vigilant in protecting the Biblical narrative from the insertion of paganism given the repeated admonitions of the New Testament writers.
The Narrative Wasn’t That Late The insertion of false pagan mythology into the birth narratives assumes the late writing of the Gospels. If the Gospels were written early (as the evidence confirms), the earliest eyewitnesses would have been available to challenge the false insertion of the supposed “virgin conception” narrative. Jesus’ own relatives would have been among the first century “fact checkers” who would have exposed this narrative as mythology.
The Borrowing Wasn’t That Directional Even the weak resemblances between the Biblical account and pagan mythologies may be the result of Judeo Christian influence rather than contamination from a pagan source. Justin Martyr recognized this in the second century. In “The First Apology of Justin”, he argued that the surrounding pagans adopted elements of Judaism into their own religious beliefs.
The Similarities Aren’t That Surprising Finally, the fact that some pagan mythologies describe gods who were born through some supernatural manner really shouldn’t surprise us. As early men and women began to think and dream about God, it was reasonable that they would imagine that an incredibly powerful, supernatural being would emerge into the natural world in some unexpected, supernatural way. For this reason, we would expect pre-Christian mythologies to bear some resemblance to the truth of the Christian narrative. This resemblance does not, in and of itself, invalidate the “virgin conception”.
There are several problems with the notion that the virgin conception was borrowed from prior pagan mythologies. While skeptics may reject the notion of the virgin conception for other reasons, they cannot reasonably claim it was borrowed from pagan mythologies.
J. Warner Wallace answers questions about Christianity in his “Think Like a Detective”series on RightNow Media, the “Netflix of Christian Bible Studies”. In this video, J. Warner addresses the question: Can we be certain that Jesus died on the cross? If he was only unconscious when they took him down from the cross, this might explain why the disciples errantly believed Jesus rose from the dead? Do we have any good evidence to demonstrate that Jesus was dead prior to his resurrection?
Remember that the first Christians were raised within the Jewish culture and religious environment, and these first adherents were familiar with the birth stories of Isaac, Moses, Samson and Samuel; these characters had irregular and unusual births. Were the early authors of the New Testament canon simply trying to create a new hero in the tradition of other Jewish heroes who had unusual birth narratives? There are several reasons to reject such an accounting of the birth story of Jesus:
Most Birth Stories Were Not Heroic
Not every Jewish hero from the Old Testament had an unusual birth story. Joshua, King David and King Solomon are just three of the more obvious examples of powerful Old Testament heroes whose birth stories were less than surprising or unusual. Jesus is often connected to David in the New Testament, yet there is no similarity in their birth stories.
No One Else Was Born of a Virgin
In addition, there is no other character from the Old Testament who was born of a virgin through the miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit. This characteristic of Jesus’ conception is unique to Jesus and follows no pre-existing Old Testament pattern.
They Wouldn’t Invoke Paganism in the First Place
Finally, given the fact that pagan mythologies utilized irregular, supernatural birth narratives in describing the origin of their pagan Gods, it is unreasonable to believe that early Jewish Christian adherents would attempt to convert Jewish believers to Christianity by inserting anything into the story of Jesus that would draw even the slightest parallel to paganism.
It’s unreasonable to believe the early authors of the New Testament canon were trying to create a new hero in the tradition of other Jewish heroes who had unusual birth narratives. Click To Tweet
It’s unreasonable to believe the early authors of the New Testament canon were trying to create a new hero in the tradition of other Jewish heroes who had unusual birth narratives. Yes, the “virgin conception” is a miraculous event, but if there is a Being who created all space, time and matter from nothing, such a Being would certainly have the power and ability to accomplish what we read about in the birth narratives of Jesus. The miraculous conception of Jesus is well within the power of God. There’s no need to look for an alternative explanation.
The Early Church Fathers Believed It
The early leaders of the Church taught that Jesus was born of a virgin and they wrote about this in their letters to those they led. They agreed with the Gospel of Matthew and interpreted Isaiah’s prophesies as predictions of the virgin conception:
Ignatius (35-117AD, the third Bishop and Patriarch of Antioch)
“He was truly born of a virgin” (from his “Letter to the Smyrnaeans”, written around 103AD)
Justin Martyr (100-165AD, the early Christian Apologist)
“But you (Jews) and your teachers venture to claim that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, ‘Behold the virgin will conceive,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman will conceive, and bear a son.’ Furthermore, you explain the prophecy as if (it referred) to Hezekiah, who was your king. Therefore, I will endeavor to soon discuss this point in opposition to you“. (from his “Dialogue with Trypho”, written around 160AD)
Irenaeus (115-202AD, the Bishop of Lugdunum)
“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, because of His surpassing love towards his creation, humbled himself to be born of the virgin. Thereby, He united man through Himself to God.” (from his “Against Heresies”, written around 180AD)
Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD, the Christian Theologian) “… Jesus, whom of the lightening flash of Divinity the virgin bore.” (from his “Paedagogus, Book I”, written around 195AD)
Tertullian (160-220AD, the Christian Apologist) “This ray of God, then, as it was always foretold in ancient time, descended into a certain virgin, And He was made flesh in her womb. So, in His birth, God and man were united.” (from his “Apology”, written around 195AD)
Origen (185-254AD, the Christian Apologist and Theologian) “A sign has been given to the house of David. For the virgin conceived, was pregnant, and brought forth a son.” (from his “Contra Celsus, Book I”, written around 225AD)
The Early Non-Canonical Writings Affirmed It In addition to the writings of the earliest Church leaders, there is also evidence from many non-canonical books and gospels that the “virgin conception” was an early established belief. While these writings are not considered scripture, they do reflect the fact that the story of the “virgin conception” was already well known by the time the Christian “Pseudepigraphon” was forming:
Ascension of Isaiah (Late 1st to Early 2nd Century) This text was written very near the time of the canonical Gospels and records a narrative of the miraculous appearance of Jesus to the Virgin Mary:
“And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant.” (Chapter 11, verses 2-5)
The Infancy Gospel of James (approximately 150AD) This apocryphal Gospel also includes a claim to Mary’s perpetual virginity and presents her as the new “Eve”:
“And the priest said unto Joseph: Unto thee hath it fallen to take the virgin of the Lord and keep her for thyself.” (Chapter 9, verse 1)
The Early Creeds Proclaimed It The early recognition of the “virgin conception” is also apparent in the creeds that emerged in the Church from the earliest times. Even before the emergence of the first creed of the Church (the Apostle’s Creed), the first believers were forming creedal statements that included the “virgin conception”:
Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” (Late 1st to Early 2nd Century) Irenaeus’ early written work was highly influential to believers at the time, and he was an excellent apologist for the faith. He found himself battling with a number of false teachings within Christendom, and as a result, he developed a statement of faith designed to affirm a number of Christian truths, including the “virgin conception”:
“…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; And in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; And in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race…”
The “Interrogatory” Creed of Hippolytus (approximately 215 AD) Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus and he included language that was distinctly similar to Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” in his “Baptismal Instructions”. Hippolytus used the following instructional statement to prepare his new converts for baptism and to confirm that they had a correct understanding of the Christian Worldview:
“Do you believe in God the Father All Governing? Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, Who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died (and was buried) and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church and in the resurrection of the body?”
The Apostle’s Creed The first widely accepted creed of the Christian Church continued the claims of both Irenaeus and Hippolytus related to the “virgin conception”:
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen”
The early Church believed that Jesus was conceived of a virgin. These writers did not invent the concept, as it appeared within just a few years of the canonical Gospels (Ignatius wrote to the Smyrnaeans approximately 10-13 years after John wrote his Gospel). They simply repeated what they had been taught by the first generation eyewitnesses. The “virgin conception” was not a late invention that appeared for the first time centuries after the fact. It is, instead, part of the early, reliable testimony related to the nature of Jesus.
As we get ready to celebrate Christmas, I’ve been thinking a lot about the birth of Jesus and the Christian claims related to His conception. The “virgin conception” is an essential belief of the authors of Scripture and the early Church. It is listed in the earliest creeds as an essential ingredient of Christian Orthodoxy. Yet many of us, as Christians, give little or no thought to the reality of the claim or the significance of the event. Why does it matter how Jesus was conceived, anyway? As I’ve been pondering this question, three truths are brought to my memory about the importance of the virgin conception of Jesus. I thought it might be good for all of us to remember the essential importance of the virgin conception on the eve of Christmas:
The Virgin Conception Is An Essential Piece of Evidence The “virgin conception” fulfills the Old Testament prophecy initially given by the prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”
Matthew cited this prophecy of Isaiah when describing the birth of Jesus. Matthew saw the role that the “virgin conception” made as an important piece of evidence (fulfilled prophecy) demonstrating that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah.
The Virgin Conception Is An Essential Explanation of Jesus’ Nature God could have entered the world in any number of ways, but it’s significant that Jesus was born to a virgin. The supernatural God of the universe came into the world in a supernatural way that retained his sinlessness. If Jesus had been born of two fallen human parents, He would have inherited the same sin problem that plagues all of us as descendants of Adam. Instead, Jesus entered the world untouched by human sin so that He might serve as our Savior:
2 Corinthians 5:21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
The Virgin Conception Is An Essential Truth of God The Bible makes many claims about the nature of the world and about the nature of God’s activity in the world. The “virgin conception” is just one claim of many. If we trust that God is telling us the truth in other areas of Scripture, there is no reason for us to doubt Him with this essential truth related to the conception of Jesus.
Psalm 31:5 Into Your hand I commit my spirit ; You have ransomed me, O LORD, God of truth.
The “virgin conception” of Jesus assured that the Son of God (the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present God of the universe) would be uniquely qualified to act as the “propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Jesus is the man-God of Divine and human origin, completely God and completely human. He understands our struggles as a result of His humanity, but He is capable of paying the ultimate price for our sin because of His divinity.
The “virgin conception” is an essential belief of the authors of Scripture and the early Church. It is listed in the earliest creeds as an essential ingredient of Christian Orthodoxy. Click To Tweet
While the “virgin conception” is often dismissed by unbelievers and ignored by Christians, it is an essential truth that can be defended and explained as yet another miraculous act of God, intended to save and restore the crown of His creation. What better day to remember the importance of how Jesus was conceived than Christmas Eve? Merry Christmas to you as you ponder the magnitude of what God did for us through Jesus Christ.