It is one of the most basic statements, and assumptions – “I would believe in God if he showed himself”. I wrote this article in a for those of my non-believing friends who ask this question. Let me know what you think!
If only God would show himself.
It is widely assumed by many people today that they would of course believe in God if only they had the evidence. Most people like to think that they are reasonable, honest people who like the late great 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 and often the question is met with a shrug of the shoulders. But for those who answer, the most common response is, if only God would show himself. Well, here is 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”. That just 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 Bibles 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, 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 ch.1 v.1-3). It’s an extraordinary claim. But is it true? What is the evidence for it? Lets ask some basic questions.
Did Jesus actually exist?
In recent years there has been a developing myth promoted by people who are known as mythicists that Jesus did not even exist. As a historian I find it really difficult to take this seriously but in this post-truth world, I find that people believe whatever they want to believe. Even an anti-Christian scholar like Bart Ehrman declares that Jesus “was a real person and we can know some things about him” and that the evidence for Jesus is “overwhelming”. John Dickson, a historian from Sydney, makes the point clearly “Profs Gerd Theisssen and Annette Merz of the University of Heidelberg in Germany – leading critical scholars and by no means advocates of Christian apologetic write ‘the mentions of Jesus in ancient histories allay doubt about their historicity”. Suffice it to say, that the main reason that people will not accept the overwhelming evidence for the existence of Jesus is that they just really do not want him to exist. Lets just assume and accept the overwhelming evidence for the existence of Christ.
Was he born of a virgin?
Larry King was once asked who he would like to interview if he had his pick from all history – his answer? Jesus Christ. ‘What is the one question you would like to ask him? “ “ I would ask him if he was indeed virgin-born, because the answer to that would define history for me”. Surely King was 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 was seen as such a stumbling block. If human beings can manufacture a situation whereby a woman can become pregnant without the necessity of sexual intercourse, why should we consider it impossible for an Almighty God to do so? He does not need IVF or a turkey baster! The trouble is that people start off with the pre-supposition that such a God does not exist and therefore a non-existent being cannot perform such a miracle. This is the ultimate in 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. GK Chesterton points out that whilst Christians believe in miracles because we have evidence for them, atheists refuse to believe because they have a doctrine against them. 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 that get around. Especially in this age of instant information (which is not the same as instant knowledge, instant wisdom or instant understanding) it is far too easy for people to have an opinion and then Google for bits of information that confirm that opinion. 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. Which is why the myth has got round that, as one man put it to me, “there are hundreds of Greek, Egyptian and Roman myths about babies being born on the 25th of December, why should we believe yours?”. This was something he had read on the Internet and it is complete rubbish. Whilst there are ‘accounts’ of ‘gods’ giving birth to or creating humans, there is nothing that corresponds with the extraordinary story of the young 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 like the late great Christopher Hitchens who argued against the Virgin birth, there are many ‘sophisticated’ clergymen who are stuck in a 19th Century paradigm of ‘miracles don’t happen’ and so do their best to dismiss it as untrue or unimportant. Tony Jordan, a scriptwriter for the BBC series Eastenders did an excellent miniseries on the Nativity. He describes his experience in researching this – “I sat with these men of the cloth, these were organised religion. They were all explaining to me about the Nativity and about how it never happened. And they were saying, ‘well of course, Mesopotamia….mumble, mumble – there was always the legend of the virgin birth’ And I’m thinking, ‘What? Hang on a minute! You’re on the wrong side, that doesn’t work.’ So I despair of them” (Tony Jordan – interview in Christianity Magazine March 2012) . Indeed. The ‘evangelical’ liberal, Rob Bell, likened the virgin birth to one brick in a wall of theology. “What do you lose if you lose that one brick?” To which the best reply was that of Mark Driscoll – “nothing, except Jesus”.
The virgin birth of Christ is one of the key doctrines of Christianity and without it you do not have Christ. It’s a bit like the man who goes into the local fish ‘n’ chip shop and announces ‘I’ll have a fish supper, without the fish’! Christianity without the virgin birth of Christ is Christianity without Christ.
Evidence that Demands a Verdict
It all does make sense. So much so that there is an increasing trend amongst those who once thought sceptical atheism was the only way to fly, to turn or return to the fold. AN Wilson was one of the most famous atheists in the United Kingdom. In 1992 he wrote a famous book entitled Jesus: A Life in which he argued the conformist position of the time that the Gospels were just legends. 17 years later one Saturday afternoon, I was doing my usual, lying in the bath, drinking a coffee and reading The Spectator when I had one of those ‘Eureka’ moments. I almost shouted for joy to read an article by the aforementioned Mr Wilson, renouncing his atheism and his return to Christianity.
One of the early disciples, Paul wrote a letter to a church in Greece (in Corinth) in which he described Jesus as God’s indescribable gift. At Christmas when we give and receive gifts perhaps we need to think about this indescribable gift. What does it matter if the virgin birth is true? If you read the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke’s gospel you will find out why it is so important. Jesus was announced as the Messiah, the Lord. His name means the 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 was once speaking in a bookstore talking about who Jesus is and the love of God that was shown to us in him, when a lady stopped me this and said,” David, I’m not saying that’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 you the most incredible opportunity you will ever get. Why not investigate for yourself? Why not try and find out something more about the child in the manger and the man on the cross? Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if you would like a copy my book about Jesus, Magnificent Obsession at firstname.lastname@example.org or just go to your local bookshop or Amazon…