You don’t have to look very far to find people telling you that the virgin birth is really unimportant, fatuous theology. We don’t need to believe that sort of unscientific nonsense these days, they will tell you. After all, the Hebrew word translated ‘virgin’ can legitimately mean ‘young woman’ so we’re not textually bound the view. We can readily dispense with the virgin birth, our credibility in the eyes of the world can go up a little and we can maintain the main shape of the Christmas narrative.
Except, of course, there are a number of problems that arise when we insist the virgin birth didn’t really take place. Here are a few of the big problems with dispensing with it.
We lose a credible sign
The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and[c will call him Immanuel.Isaiah 7:14
This was the word of the Lord given through the prophet Isaiah. But let’s just re-work it with our alternate translation.
The Lord himself will give you a sign: The young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Now, which one of those two might constitute a legitimate sign? There can be no doubt that a virgin (as understood in modern parlance) giving birth to a son is, indeed, a miraculous work of God. There can also be little doubt that a young woman giving birth to a son amounts to no sign at all. It would apply to almost every woman who ever gave birth to a son. That is a lot of people and it is hard to see how it amounts to a sign at all. If we deny a miraculous virgin birth, we deny that God gave a legitimate sign of a coming messiah.
We deny the nativity narrative
Of course, if the only thing we had was Isaiah, the lexical range argument would bear more weight. But, of course, we have the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. To deny a miraculous virgin birth we can’t just dismiss Isaiah but we suddenly have to dismiss the words of Mary (and Luke who records them) in Luke 1:31-35.
Then, separately to that, we have to deny the account from Joseph (and Matthew who records them) in Matthew 1:18-25. Joseph was evidently aware of Mary’s pregnancy and – as his intention to divorce suggests – he drew the obvious conclusion that she had been unfaithful. It is the visit from the angel that convinces him something miraculous has taken place and he evidently told somebody that he did not have sexual relations with Mary until after the birth of Jesus.
It is one thing to suggest that ‘virgin’ means ‘young woman’ and that is what Isaiah intended to say. But, to maintain that view in respect to Christ, we similarly have to deny both Matthew and Luke’s accounts and the separate views of Mary and Joseph too. What is more, we have to explain why – even if Mary and Joseph were lying – Matthew and Luke were so ready and willing to read Isaiah’s prophecy as referring to a virgin, if it obviously meant young woman. Denying the virgin birth speaks against the narrative.
We deny Christ’s divinity
If there was no virgin birth, Jesus was born in a usual way that every other man is born. But this has the knock-on effect of limiting Jesus to nothing more than a mere human. Unless you take the view that, when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in God’s people, we become little gods (and, for the avoidance of doubt, that is heretical), there is no means by which the human Jesus could be at one and the same time divine apart from being birthed by the Holy Spirit. To deny this carries the implication that, even if Christ had kept the law perfectly, he would only be able to pay for sin like any other human; namely, finitely. There would never be a time when the infinite punishment for sin would be paid on behalf of anyone. There would never be a time when he could say, ‘it is finished!’ If we reject the virgin birth, we are rejecting a divine Christ.
We deny Christ’s impeccability
If Jesus was born like any other man, then it follows that he must inherit the same sinful nature every man has inherited. He would be a son of Adam and inherit Adam’s sinful nature. What is more, he would inherit Adam’s imputed guilt. All who are born in Adam stand guilty in Adam and all of his children inherit the same tendency to sin because we are, paradoxically, born dead in a sin. If Jesus was simply born like any other, then he inherits Adam’s guilt and sinful nature. As such, he would have sinned like any other man. As a result he could offer no perfect sacrifice on behalf of his people. There would be no perfect life to impute to anyone else because he would not have been capable of living the perfect life that God demands. There would be no acceptable sacrifice for sin because he would have been guilty of sin himself. Denying the virgin birth is to deny a sinless Christ.
We deny a saviour who can save
If all the above is true, the Bible itself is an unreliable guide because it offers signs that are shadowy and meaningless and the gospel writers are credulous gulls who believe a cock and bull story rather than the simpler ‘young woman’ version. This means what the Bible claims about Jesus is cannot be trusted. What is more, if Jesus is neither God nor impeccable, then there is no salvation from sin. The one presented as the only means of atonement is simply incapable of providing it. We lose scripture as a faithful record of God’s revelation to man and we lose a saviour who has even the remotest capability of saving anybody.
Of course, if the virgin birth is true, then it gives a powerful testimony that Jesus Christ is, indeed, God become man. It would act as a clear sign from God that his messiah has come into the world to save his people from their sin. It would make the promises of God genuinely possible. If it didn’t happen, then all those promises are vain nonsense. There is far more riding on the virgin birth than many seem willing to acknowledge.