Why the Virgin Birth Matters: Responding to William Lane Craig's Interview in the New York Times
Permit me to begin by plugging my book 25 Christmas Myths and What the Bible Says, which came out on Christmas Day at Amazon.com. Yes, I'm such an expert marketer, I released a book on Christmas Day instead of well beforehand, which would have been smarter. You can click here to order it in print, or click here to download it to your Kindle. In the book, I address in greater detail some of the things I'm going to respond to here in this blog.
On Saturday a week ago, The New York Times published an interview between Pulitzer prize winner Nicholas Kristof and apologist William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig is a world-renowned theologian, scholar, and an expert debater. He's the founder of the ministry Reasonable Faith, giving a defense of biblical Christianity. The first question asked of Craig was if it's reasonable to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, and other theological questions follow. I present the article in full with Kristof's questions and Craig's answers in bold, and my responses follow.
Kristof: Merry Christmas, Dr. Craig! I must confess that for all my admiration for Jesus, I’m skeptical about some of the narrative we’ve inherited. Are you actually confident that Jesus was born to a virgin?
Craig: Merry Christmas to you, too, Nick! I’m reasonably confident. When I was a non-Christian, I used to struggle with this, too. But then it occurred to me that for a God who could create the entire universe, making a woman pregnant wasn’t that big a deal! Given the existence of a Creator and Designer of the universe (for which we have good evidence), an occasional miracle is child’s play. Historically speaking, the story of Jesus’ virginal conception is independently attested by Matthew and Luke and is utterly unlike anything in pagan mythology or Judaism. So what’s the problem?
Now, that's certainly reasonable. If you can believe Genesis 1 and 2, you have enough reason to believe the rest of the Bible. I love the point Craig made that the virgin birth "is utterly unlike anything in pagan mythology or Judaism," contrary to the claims of those pushing the Horus and Mithras myths. But why should I believe it? What difference does it make if I believe the virgin birth or not? Why believe in God at all? These are some of the questions Craig rarely ever answers, and he doesn't answer them in this interview either.
Kristof: Why can’t we accept that Jesus was an extraordinary moral teacher, without buying into miracles?
Craig: You can, but you do so at the expense of going against the evidence. That Jesus carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms is so widely attested in every stratum of the sources that the consensus among historical Jesus scholars is that Jesus was, indeed, a faith-healer and exorcist. That doesn’t prove these events were genuine miracles, but it does show that Jesus thought of himself as more than a mere moral teacher.
Well, Jesus wasn't a faith healer—there's no such thing. Jesus didn't need faith, and sometimes the people He healed didn't have faith (see John 5:1-9). The miracles that Jesus did attested to whom He is—God incarnate. That was the reason He did miracles—to show that He is the eternal Son who was sent by the eternal Father to redeem His people from their sins.
Jesus is the Word who put on human flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). He came to lay down His life and take it up again, dying on the cross for our sins and rising again from the grave, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life. He was born of a virgin, conceived of the Holy Spirit, and therefore free from the sin of Adam. If Jesus was not virgin born, then He can't be the spotless Lamb of God who takes away our sin. All who are born of Adam by natural generation are born into sin (Romans 5:12). But by being born of a virgin, Jesus was born without sin. He alone lived a sinless life, and He alone can take away our sins. This is why the doctrine of the virgin birth matters.
When a young man asked Jesus, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replied to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone" (Mark 10:17-18). Jesus wasn't saying He wasn't God. He was challenging the young man's motives, as if to say, "Do you understand who I am?" If Jesus was not virgin born, He is not good. If He is not good, He is not God. It doesn't matter if He was "an extraordinary moral teacher."
Kristof: You don’t believe the Genesis account that the world was created in six days, or that Eve was made from Adam’s rib, do you? If the Hebrew Bible’s stories need not be taken literally, why not also accept that the New Testament writers took liberties?
Craig: Because the Gospels are a different type of literature than the primeval history of Genesis 1-11. The eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen described Genesis 1-11 as history clothed in the figurative language of mythology, a genre he dubbed “mytho-history.” By contrast, the consensus among historians is that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography, like the ‘Lives of Greeks and Romans’ written by Plutarch. As such, they aim to provide a historically reliable account.
Here is an example of where Craig's "reasonable faith" is inconsistent. He said at the beginning, "For a God who could create the entire universe, making a woman pregnant wasn’t that big a deal!" So that reasoning can explain the virgin birth, but it can't explain the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, or the Tower of Babel? Notice that he's just deconstructed the very platform he was standing on to defend the virgin birth—I should believe the virgin birth because of Genesis 1-2, but if Genesis 1-2 is mythological, how does it defend the virgin birth?
Craig's "reasonable faith" needs better theology. Facts are important, but if they're not backed by biblical orthodoxy, facts are just pieces of a puzzle laying in a box. What good is having all the facts if you don't know how they fit together? Craig is great at defending the facts (well, unless it's Genesis 1-11), but he doesn't do as great at helping people see the big picture. He's said of his own ministry, "We're not doing theology. We're doing apologetics" (Reasonable Faith Podcast, March 26, 2017).
Jesus said, "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). If you know the Bible, you know the facts. You've got all the pieces of the puzzle. Now what are you going to do with them? You must repent of your sin and worship God.
Kristof: How do you account for the many contradictions within the New Testament? For example, Matthew says Judas hanged himself, while Acts says that he “burst open.” They can’t both be right, so why insist on inerrancy of Scripture?
Craig: I don’t insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, what I insist on is what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity. Harmonizing perceived contradictions in the Bible is a matter of in-house discussion amongst Christians. What really matters are questions like: Does God exist? Are there objective moral values? Was Jesus truly God and truly man? How did his death on a Roman cross serve to overcome our moral wrongdoing and estrangement from God? These are, as one philosopher puts it, the “questions that matter,” not how Judas died.
If inerrency doesn't matter, the Bible doesn't matter. If the Bible doesn't matter, "mere Christianity" is a cuckoo bird chirping in a clock shop. You will ask, "Does God exist?" the rest of your days and never find the way to God, Jesus Christ, according to the Bible. You will ask, "Are there objective moral values?" and not know what they are because you have no objective moral authority outside of yourself that dictates what is true—the Bible.
You won't even bother to ask, "Was Jesus truly God and truly man?" because no one asks such a question unless they've heard what's written in the Bible. You will not care how His death on a Roman cross overcomes our estrangement from God because the answer to that question is only found in the Bible. If the Bible errs, God errs. If God errs, He is not God. But there is no error with God, and His word is true. It meets every challenge and has been proven to be reliable.
That said, Matthew and Acts don't contradict each other concerning the death of Judas. Matthew 27:5 says that Judas returned the silver he was paid for betraying Jesus by "throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple... and he went and hanged himself." Acts 1:18 merely says Judas fell "headlong into a field and his bowels gushed out." Acts is clear that he fell, not that he threw himself over the cliff. He fell because he was already dead. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, Judas hung himself by a rope over a cliff, and then his body fell into a field. It's as simple as that.
Kristof: Over time, people have had faith in Zeus, in Shiva and Krishna, in the Chinese kitchen god, in countless other deities. We’re skeptical of all those faith traditions, so should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality when we encounter miracles in our own tradition?
Craig: I don’t follow. Why should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality just because of weakly evidenced, false claims in other religions? I champion a “reasonable faith” that seeks to provide a comprehensive worldview that takes into account the best evidence of the sciences, history, philosophy, logic and mathematics. Some of the arguments for God’s existence that I’ve defended, such as the arguments from the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the universe, appeal to the best evidence of contemporary science. I get the impression, Nick, that you think science is somehow incompatible with belief in miracles. If so, you need to give an argument for that conclusion. David Hume’s famous argument against miracles is today recognized, in the words of philosopher of science John Earman, as “an abject failure.” No one has been able to do any better.
Again, Craig does great with defending the facts, but how is he helping people come to faith? There must be truth, but there must also be exhortation—repent and believe the truth. The truth is so compelling that it changes your life and you obey what it says. Craig's answers are like he's spilling pieces of a puzzle on a table and grinning over them, but he's not telling you what to do with them or giving you the boxtop so you know how they fit together.
The Bible addresses those other faith traditions Kristof asked about. In Exodus 20:3, the Lord said, "You shall have no other gods before me." In Isaiah 44:6-7, He said, "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me." In 1 Kings 18, Elijah, a prophet of God, challenged the priests of Baal to a duel—whoever's God lights their altar with fire from heaven, He is the true God. Guess who won?
All other gods are false gods made by human hands. They cannot nor have they ever produced the evidence that has been shown to us by the one true God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus is that one true and living God. All of this is attested to by the eyewitness accounts of thousands upon thousands of people who were there when these things were written down for our benefit and instruction.
Peter said, "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts" (2 Peter 1:16, 19).
Kristof: You’re an evangelical Christian, and let me acknowledge that religious people donate more to charity than nonreligious people and also volunteer more. But I’m troubled that evangelical leaders have sometimes seemed to be moralizing blowhards, focused on issues that Jesus never breathed a word about — like gays and abortion — while indifferent to poverty, inequality, bigotry and other topics that were central to Jesus’ teachings.
Craig: Yes, I hear you. I sometimes cringe at the people that the media trot out as spokesmen for Christianity. The media shun intelligent and articulate Christians in favor of inflammatory preachers and televangelists. Just know that the Christian church is involved not only in defending the sanctity of life and marriage but in a whole range of social issues, such as combating poverty, feeding the homeless, medical care, disaster aid, literacy programs, fostering small businesses, promoting women’s rights and drilling wells, especially in the developing world. Honestly, Christians have gotten very bad press.
In Matthew 15:19, Jesus said, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." There's abortion and homosexuality addressed in one verse. (To elaborate further, watch this 90-second video on Jesus and the sanctity of human life, and this video and this video on what Jesus said about homosexuality.)
Central to Jesus' teaching was to, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). Everyone will stand in judgment before the throne of God. Only those who believed in Jesus Christ and did the will of His Father will be saved and enter into eternal life. Those who did not believe and did the works of Satan will be cast into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. You have the facts. Now what are you going to do with them?