Would you believe in God if you had the evidence? Most of us like to think we are reasonable, honest people who, like the late atheist philosopher Anthony Flew, will “go where the evidence leads”. The question then becomes, what kind of evidence would you accept?
I have asked that question many times. While it is often met with a shrug, for those who answer, the most common response is: “If only God would show himself.” Well, here’s the surprise; he has.
This is what Christmas is all about. One of the technical theological terms for the birth of Jesus is ‘the incarnation’. It simply means ‘God come in a human body’. In other words, the great promise of Christmas is that God has come to us. He has revealed himself to us. Jesus is Immanuel — ‘God with us’.
The Bible’s claim is that if you look at Jesus you see God. If you hear Jesus you hear God. And what Jesus does, God does. The Bible says that, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son [Jesus], whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews chapter 1, verses 1–3). It’s an extraordinary claim, but is it true? What is the evidence for it?
Let’s ask some basic questions.
Did Jesus actually exist? There has been a developing myth that Jesus did not even exist. As a historian I find it difficult to take this seriously, but in this post-truth world I find that people believe whatever they want to believe. Even anti-Christian scholar Bart Ehrman declared that Jesus “was a real person and we can know some things about him” and that the evidence for Jesus is “overwhelming”.
The main reason people will not accept the overwhelming evidence for the existence of Jesus is that they just really don’t want him to exist. But let’s assume and accept the overwhelming evidence for the existence of Christ.
Was he born of a virgin? American talk show host Larry King was once asked who he would like to interview if he had his pick from all history. His answer? Jesus Christ. “I would ask him if he was indeed virgin-born, because the answer to that would define history for me,” said King. Surely he is right. If God really did come in human form in a woman’s womb, then the whole of human history is changed.
I have to confess that I have never understood why the virgin birth is seen as such a stumbling block. If human beings can manufacture a situation where a woman can become pregnant without the necessity of sexual intercourse, why should we consider it impossible for an Almighty God to do so?
The trouble is that people start off with the presupposition that such a God does not exist and therefore a non-existent being cannot perform such a miracle. This is circular and irrational thinking. To claim that a virgin birth cannot happen because the being who could make such a thing happen does not exist really says nothing other than about the prejudices of the person making the claim.
I am not stating that merely claiming it did happen makes it true. However, I am stating that by definition it is not self-evidently impossible that an Almighty God could do this one small miracle.
Can we trust the Gospel accounts? There are a lot of myths around this, especially in this age of instant information when it is easy for people to have an opinion and then search the internet for information to confirm that view. It’s called confirmation bias; you filter out the information that does not confirm to your pre-judged bias and only accept that which does.
This is why the myth has developed that ‘There are hundreds of Greek, Egyptian and Roman myths about babies being born on 25 December. Why should we believe yours?’ This myth is rubbish. While there are ‘accounts’ of ‘gods’ giving birth to or creating humans, there is nothing that corresponds with the extraordinary story of the teenage Jewish girl, Mary, giving birth to a child who then went on to perform miracles, teach as no-one has ever taught, die and be raised from the dead.
It’s not just atheist unbelievers such as the late Christopher Hitchens who have argued against the virgin birth; there are many ‘sophisticated’ clergymen who are wedged in a 19th century paradigm of ‘miracles don’t happen’ and do their best to dismiss it as untrue or unimportant. The virgin birth of Christ is one of the key doctrines of Christianity and without it you don’t have Christ. One of the early apostles, Paul, wrote a letter to a church in Greece in which he described Jesus as God’s indescribable gift.
What does it matter whether the virgin birth is true? If you read the Christmas stories in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels you will find out why it is so important. Jesus was announced as the Messiah, the Lord. His name means saviour. He was given this name because he came to save his people from their sins. With the gift of Christ comes forgiveness, new life, eternal life and ultimately the renewal of the whole earth.
I once gave a talk about who Jesus is and the love of God that was shown to us in him. A woman interrupted me and said, “David, I’m not saying that it’s true, but if it is then it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard.” She got it spot on.
If the Christmas/Easter story and everything in between is true, then it is the most extraordinary thing you will ever hear and offers the most incredible opportunity you will ever get. Why not investigate for yourself and find out more about the child in the manger and the man on the cross?
David Robertson is a Reformed Scottish minister, blogger and podcaster.