The records of Jesus’ life and ministry cause controversy from the very start. The extraordinary narrative of the circumstances surrounding His conception and birth provokes howls of protest from the critics of supernaturalism. They must begin their work of demythologizing early, wielding scissors on the first page of the New Testament. Following Matthew’s table of genealogy, the first paragraph of the first Gospel reads as follows: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18).
Though the New Testament is replete with miracles surrounding the person of Jesus, none seems more offensive to modern man than the virgin birth. If any law of science is established as immutable and unbreakable, it is that human reproduction is not possible without the conjoining of the male seed and the female egg. We may have developed sophisticated methods of artificial insemination and “test- tube” intrauterine implantations, but in some manner the reproduction process requires the contribution of both genders of the race to succeed.
Thus, the birth of Jesus violates the inviolable; it mutates the immutable; it breaks the unbreakable. It is alleged to be an act that is pure and simple contra naturam. Before we even read of the activities of Jesus’ life, we are thrust headfirst against this claim. Many skeptics close the door on further investigation after reading the first page of the record. The story sounds too much like magic, too much like the sort of myth and legend that tends to grow up around the portraits of famous people.
The arguments against the virgin birth are many. They range from the charge of borrowing mythical baggage from the Greek-speaking world, with parallels evident in pagan mythology (Ovid’s Metamorphosis is cited as “Exhibit A”), to the scientific disclaimer that the virgin birth represents an empirically unverifiable unique event that denies all probability quotients. Some have offered a desperate exegetical argument trying to show that the New Testament doesn’t teach the idea of virgin birth. This we call the exegesis of despair.
The real problem is that of miracle. It doesn’t stop with the birth of Jesus but follows Him through His life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. The life of Jesus carries the aura of miracle wherever it is described in the primary sources. A “de-miraclized” Jesus is not the biblical Jesus, but the invention of those who cannot abide the biblical proclamation. Such a Jesus is the Jesus of unbelief, the most mythical Jesus of all, conjured up to fit the preconceived molds of unbelief.
Behind the problem of miracle are certain assumptions about the reality of God the Creator. Matthew’s infancy narrative raises questions not only about parthenogenesis but about genesis itself. Creation is the unique event to beat all unique events. It’s not so amazing that a God who has the power to bring the universe into being from nothing (ex nihilo)—without preexistent matter to work with, without means, but by the sheer omnipotent power of His voice—can also produce the birth of a baby by supernaturally fertilizing a material egg in a woman’s womb. What defies logic is that a host of theologians grant the former but deny the latter. They allow the supernatural birth of the whole but deny the possibility of the part. We have to ask the painful question: Do they really believe in God in the first place, or is espoused belief in the Creator merely a societal convention, a veil to a more fundamental unbelief?
The Ironclad Law of Causality
Perhaps the most ironclad law of nature is the law of causality. Effects require causes. If the universe is an effect, in whole or in part, then it requires a cause that is sufficient to the effect. The cause may be greater than its effect, but it certainly cannot be lesser. Modern science has not repealed the law of causality, though some injudicious thinkers have sought to do so when prejudice requires it. The other option to causality is that something comes from nothing—no cause is asserted: no material cause, no efficient cause, no sufficient cause, no formal cause, no final cause. Such a theory is not science but magic. No, it cannot even be magic; magic requires a magician. The law that something cannot come from nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit) remains unassailable.
Does not Christianity assert a universe that comes from nothing? Do we not assert an ex nihilo creation? Indeed we do. However, that “nothing” has reference to the absence of a material cause. There is a sufficient cause for the universe. There is an efficient cause for the universe. There is a God who has within Himself the power to create. God has the power of being within Himself. Such an assertion is not gratuitous, nor is it the mere dogmatic assertion of religion. It is a dictate of science and reason. If something is, then something intrinsically has the power of being. Somewhere, somehow, something must have the power of being. If not, we are left with only two options: (1) being comes from nothing or (2) nothing is (a contradiction). These options would be more miraculous than miracles if such were possible.
Some seek to escape the dilemma by pointing to the universe itself or to some undiscovered part of it as the eternal source of being. They try to explain the present world by saying that a supernatural or transcendent being is not required to account for the presence of being. To argue in this manner is to slip into a serious confusion of language. The universe daily exhibits effects. Nature changes. The very meaning of supernature or transcendence refers to questions of being. A being is said to be transcendent not because it is spatially or geographically located on the far side of Mars but because it has a special power of being—a higher order of being—defined precisely as that which has the power of being within itself. Wherever or whatever it is is beside the point. I know it does not reside in me. I am not it. My very existence depends on it—without it I pass into nothing. I know I am an effect and so was my mother and her mother before her. If we retrace the problem infinitely, we compound the problem infinitely. Modern man strains out the gnat and swallows the camel when he thinks he can have an existing world without a self-existing God.
The question of the virgin birth is not so much a philosophical question as it is a historical one. If one whom we call God has the power of being—sovereign efficient and sufficient causal power—then we cannot rationally object to the virgin birth on the grounds that it couldn’t happen.
The real issue is not could it happen but did it happen. It becomes then a question of history and drives us once again to the historical sources. Those sources must be accepted or rejected on the basis of their credibility, a credibility that may not be predetermined by philosophical prejudice.
Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from the book, Who Is Jesus? in the Crucial Questions series by R.C. Sproul and was first published on December 12, 2018.