Years ago I read an interview with the pastor of one of our nation’s largest churches. Asked specifically what he believed about the virgin birth, he said, “I could not in print or in public deny or affirm the virgin birth of Christ. When I have something I can’t comprehend I just don’t deal with it.”
That pastor’s statement implied that the virgin birth is somehow optional or irrelevant truth. It isn’t. Satan knows that, even if we don’t. Perhaps that is why he has worked so hard to discredit the virgin birth.
Attacks by Unbelievers
Challenges to the virgin birth have taken many forms, from mockery to outright denial. One book claimed that Jesus was the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier who had a love affair with Mary. There’s nothing new about that theory of Christ’s origin. Jesus’ enemies often questioned His parentage (John 6:42; 8:41). As early as the eighth century, an extremist anti-Christian cult popularized the teaching that after Mary married Joseph, she unwittingly conceived a child by a neighbor who came in the dark of the night and had sex with her. She assumed the man was Joseph and because she never saw his face in the dark, she never knew the difference. According to the legend, Joseph knew he was not the father, so he left Mary after she delivered a son. Of course none of that has any basis in historical fact. The antagonists who concocted the story wanted only to invalidate Jesus’ claim to be Messiah.
Similar attacks have been made in our own generation. Hugh Schonfield in The Passover Plot, a popular book during the 1960s, postulated that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary. Schonfield viewed Jesus as nothing but a master conspirator who thought he could be the Messiah and purposely tried to fulfill Messianic prophecies. Schonfield wrote, “There was nothing peculiar about the birth of Jesus. He was not God incarnate and no virgin mother bore him. The church in its ancient zeal fathered a myth and became bound to it as dogma.”
Attacks by Professing Believers
Those attacks, coming from avowed unbelievers, are predictable. Other attacks have been made against the virgin birth by those who masquerade as friends of Christianity. Several years ago, one influential theology professor concluded that it makes no difference if the virgin birth really happened. We can view it as a myth in the highest and best sense of the word, he said.
Such skeptical thinking is foolish and directly contrary to the explicit teaching of all four Gospels, the epistles, and the historical testimony of the entire early church that Jesus was none other than the virgin-born Son of God.
Lending credibility to skepticism, some New Testament commentators will concede that the authors of Scripture sincerely believed that the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus without any assistance from a human father. But such interpreters nevertheless glibly discount the validity of Scripture’s claims by immediately asserting that its writers were naïve, uneducated and subject to the myths and superstitions of ancient times.
Attacks by Counterfeits
Another way Satan attacks the virgin birth is through counterfeits. A number of religions have claimed the equivalent of a virgin birth. For example, Greek mythology taught that Dionysus, the god of wine, was born out of the union of his human mother, Semele, and the god Zeus. In ancient Assyrian mythology, Semiramis, wife of Nimrod, gave birth to Tammuz, who was supposedly conceived by a sunbeam. One legend about Buddha claims he was miraculously conceived when an elephant entered his mother’s belly. Ten months later Buddha was born.
Other, more subtle counterfeits have obscured the truth in the Christian world. Don’t confuse the virgin birth with the Roman Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception. That is the teaching that Mary was conceived in her mother’s womb as a sinless being, preserved from the effects of Adam’s sin. However, Scripture says nothing about that; Mary was not sinless. It is an invention of the medieval church, not even recognized as official Catholic Church dogma until Pope Pius IX declared it so in 1854.
Sowing doubts about the reliability of God’s Word is one of Satan’s favorite pastimes. His typical strategy is to try to make some small but foundational element of a great truth appear insignificant, then ridicule it and call it into question. If he can get people to doubt or deny the smallest foundational truth, he can eventually destroy the entire superstructure.
That’s why issues like the inerrancy of Scripture are so important. If the Bible is the Word of God, it must be truth unmixed with error. Each detail—including the historical, geographic and scientific ones—must be accurate. If we doubt even one point of Biblical truth, we open the door to denial and unbelief of it all. History verifies the inevitability of this pattern.
Why the Virgin Birth Is Essential
You may be wondering why the virgin birth—of all the miracles in Scripture—is so frequently attacked. After all, if one can believe, say, that Moses parted the Red Sea, what’s the big deal about a virgin birth? It certainly isn’t as spectacular a miracle. And Scripture devotes relatively little space to describing it. Can it really be that important?
Yes. The virgin birth is an underlying assumption in everything the Bible says about Jesus. To throw out the virgin birth is to reject Christ’s deity, the accuracy and authority of Scripture, and a host of other related doctrines central to the Christian faith. No issue is more important to our understanding of who Jesus is than the virgin birth.
If we deny that Jesus is God, we have denied the very essence of Christianity. Everything else the Bible teaches about Christ hinges on the truth we celebrate at Christmas—that Jesus is God in human flesh. If the story of His birth is merely a fabricated or trumped-up legend, then so is the rest of what Scripture tells us about Him. The virgin birth is as crucial as the resurrection in substantiating His deity. It is not an optional truth. Anyone who rejects Christ’s deity rejects Christ absolutely—even if he pretends otherwise
(1 John 4:1-3).
The Sonship of Jesus was the source of controversy on several occasions. John 8 records a run-in with some leading Pharisees. They told Jesus, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God” (John 8:41). “We were not born of fornication” is a not-so-subtle jab at Jesus. They twisted the whole point of His miraculous birth to make Him an illegitimate child.
The fact is, there is a direct parallel between those Pharisees and modern religious leaders who hint that the virgin birth is unimportant or a fable. Their challenges grow out of unbelief in Jesus Christ. They are the expression of sinful, unregenerate hearts.
Contrast their response with that of Peter. Matthew 16:13-17 records this exchange between Jesus and His disciples. Again, His Sonship is the issue.
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.’”
Simon Peter understood that Jesus was more than a human Messiah, more than an anointed prophet, more than a son of David. He was the Son of the living God. Peter knew because God had revealed it to him (Matthew 16:17). Flesh and blood cannot reach that conclusion. Science, philosophy and human religion cannot explain who Jesus is. Their adherents will inevitably conclude that He is a great teacher, a good moral example, or even a great prophet of God. But they all miss the fact that He is the Son of the living God.
Some people see the virgin birth as a nonessential point. It is not. Although the church has not always been careful to guard this precious truth, it is the foundation of everything Christmas stands for.
In fact, no other detail in the Christmas story is more important than the virgin birth. The virgin birth must have happened exactly the way Scripture says. Otherwise, Christmas has no point at all. If Jesus is simply the illegitimate child of Mary’s infidelity, or even if He is the child of Joseph’s natural marital union with Mary, He is not God. If He is not God, His claims are lies. If His claims are lies, His salvation is a hoax. And if His salvation is a hoax, we are all doomed. ©2016 Grace to You
Scripture quotations taken by permission from the New American Standard Bible, ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif.
John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s University and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry.