A high school student recently asked this question:
What’s the point of the virgin birth? It doesn’t really add anything to the story. Everything could have happened as it did. There just doesn’t seem to be a point. And wasn’t the point that Jesus came to earth as a human? So we could have that connection with him. Why did his birth have to be special? Couldn’t God have just picked a random baby?
In what follows we’re going to think about the significance of the virgin birth as part of the gospel story. We will not talk about whether it really happened in history, or how we could know whether it really happened. Instead, we’re just going to focus on how the virgin birth fits into the overall picture of Jesus that the Bible gives us. Christians believe that history itself is a story written by God, so it is important for that story to make some kind of sense, even if we can’t know the ultimate meaning of every detail in this life.
Most people take one of two views about the virgin birth: either it was necessary, or it was pointless. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Was it Necessary?
First, was the virgin birth necessary as part of the salvation story? Some people answer yes, and give various reasons.
a) The virgin birth was necessary for Jesus to be the son of God.
According to this argument, Jesus is the son of God because he had no human father. God provided half of Jesus’ DNA, and Mary provided the other half. That way Jesus is both divine and human. Without the virgin birth, Jesus would not be divine.
Although it sounds neat, unfortunately this argument involves a misunderstanding about how God relates to the world. Let me explain with an example. When you paint a picture with a paintbrush, your action and the action of the paintbrush do not exclude one another. We don’t say “I painted 50% of the picture, and the paintbrush did the other 50%.” Instead, the paintbrush did 100% of the painting (as a secondary cause) and I did 100% of the painting (as a primary cause).
God acts in the world through people. When a person does something as an instrument of God’s will, then it is equally true to say that the person did it 100%, and that God did it 100%. In the same way, Jesus is not 50% human (from Mary) and 50% God (by a miracle). Christians believe that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human. If Jesus had been born from an earthly father, this would not contradict his being the son of God. Therefore, the virgin birth is not necessary in order for Jesus to be God.
b) The virgin birth was necessary in order for Jesus to be sinless.
According to this argument, our sinful nature is given to us by our father and not by our mother. Sin was passed down from Adam, and not Eve. So God needed to break the line of male descendants, but he didn’t need to break the line of female descendants. The virgin birth counts as a fresh start for humanity, where Jesus is born without the original sin passed on from Adam.
This argument has a couple of problems. First, there is no clear evidence from the Bible that sinful nature is passed on only from the father. Secondly, why couldn’t God have caused Jesus to be born sinless even with a sinful father? God took away Isaiah’s sin simply by touching his lips with a burning coal. Why does God have to be limited by certain physical rules when he created the universe in the first place?
c) The virgin birth was necessary in order for Jesus to be the messiah.
According to this argument, it was prophesied that the messiah would be born of a virgin in the Old Testament. Therefore, if Jesus had not been born of a virgin, he would not have been the messiah.
This argument is full of problems. First, it only takes things a stage further back without answering the question. Why does the Old Testament prophesy a virgin birth in the first place? Second, the Old Testament prophecy wasn’t connected with the messiah to begin with. If Jesus hadn’t been born from a virgin, then presumably nobody would have thought of Isaiah 7 as a prophecy about the messiah.
It is rather the other way around. Because Jesus was born of a virgin, the gospel writers remembered the Old Testament passage which mentioned this, and thereby realised that it must be a prophecy about the messiah.
Was it Pointless?
Second, was the virgin birth simply pointless? People who think this usually take two views about it:
a) The virgin birth was pointless so we should stop believing it.
According to this view, we must give up trying to find a point to the virgin birth. Probably it was made up by the gospel writers for some reason we will never know.
The problem with this view is that it makes everything depend on what we can see and understand. It makes us the final judges of truth. But as Christians we do not think that our brains are big enough to make sense of the whole Universe and God as well. There is a big difference between saying “I can’t see the point to this” and saying “There is no point to it.” If we confuse those two things then we are implying that we could never learn anything new.
b) The virgin birth was pointless but we must believe it anyway.
According to this view, we can’t understand why God did certain things but we should just trust that God had a reason. Human ways of thinking can never understand the mind of God. However, because the gospels record the virgin birth, we must believe it as a bare fact.
I think this takes it to the opposite extreme. Of course it is true that our minds are limited and we can’t understand why God does everything he does. But does that mean that we can’t understand anything? Does Christian faith simply make no sense at all? If so, then how do we find out who’s right when Christians disagree about something? I think this view is a bit like “giving up.” As one theologian says, “There is as much despair as faith in this attitude.”
Any Other Option?
Is there a third option between “necessary” and “pointless”? I think so. It is easy for us to think of the whole of life in a scientific, mathematical way. A maths sum is either correct or incorrect. A scientific fact is either true or false. Therefore we can start to think that each of the elements of a story are either necessary or pointless.
But a story is not like a maths sum or a science experiment. As G.K. Chesterton says:
With the adequate brain-power we could finish any scientific discovery, and be certain that we were finishing it right. But not with the most gigantic intellect could we finish the simplest or silliest story, and be certain that we were finishing it right.
In all kind of art, there is no such thing as necessary, but that is a long way from anything being pointless. Every brush stroke of a painting is fitting but not necessary. What if the virgin birth was not scientifically necessary but was still the most fitting, congruent, event? Something that adds to the beauty of the story? It could have been left out and the ending would still be the same, but putting it in makes the story better.
Karl Barth says the virgin birth is not a “proof” of Jesus’ divinity, but a “sign” pointing towards it. When we see a sign pointing towards something, we don’t imagine the sign proves the existence of what it’s pointing to. But the sign does make it more likely that the thing is there.
So how does the virgin birth fit into the story? I want to suggest a few ways.
- First, the Bible often uses miraculous births to point to the significance of someone. Isaac’s birth was miraculous, as his parents were far too old to have children when he was born. Moses’ birth was miraculous, as he was almost killed and then rescued and raised by a different mother. Samuel’s birth was miraculous, as his mother was infertile for many years and then prayed for a son. John the Baptist’s birth was miraculous for the same reason as Isaac’s. For the most significant person in the whole Biblical story, it would make sense for his birth to be the most miraculous. It’s not necessary, but it fits.
- Second, although God could have made Jesus sinless any way he liked, the virgin birth points to Jesus’ sinlessness, also like a sign. Something is real whether there is a sign pointing to it or not, i.e. it doesn’t need the sign in order to be real. But it helps to have a sign. The new covenant in Jesus is both continuous and discontinuous with the old covenant: in a sense everything stayed the same, and we still treasure the Old Testament as God’s word. But in another sense everything changed, and Jesus is a brand new intervention. This double continuity-discontinuity of the new covenant is pointed to by the double continuity-discontinuity in Jesus’ birth. The fact that he had an earthly mother connects him to the human race. But the fact that he had no earthly father represents a “fresh start” without the baggage of sin being passed on.
- Third, the virgin birth highlights the fact that God intervened to bring our salvation – that we didn’t achieve it ourselves. In this case, without God’s miraculous intervention, Jesus wouldn’t have been born at all! This is a helpful reminder that salvation is a gift from God, not something we earn by our own effort.
In these three ways the virgin birth seems to fit well into the story of the Bible, even though that doesn’t make it necessary like a scientific formula. There may be other reasons that I haven’t thought of. Our minds only have a partial understanding of God’s ways, so we can expect that our understanding of the fittingness of elements of the Biblical story is equally partial.
Image taken from Wikipedia.
 If we find out that the virgin birth does have significance for the story, this affects the discussion about whether it happened. But it does so differently for different people. For some, a coherent story makes it more likely that it happened, because it makes sense of how God would act in the world. For other people, the very same thing makes it less likely that it happened, and more likely that someone made it up for the sake of its role in the story.
 Besides, Muslims also believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, but they do not believe that Jesus is God. So clearly the two beliefs are not necessarily linked.
 The Hebrew word “Adam” usually means “humanity” and there is another Hebrew word for “man” (ish).
 Isaiah 6:6-7. For more discussion of how sin is understood in the Bible, see Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil.
 This is why Catholics also believe that Mary was made sinless by God, as Isaiah was in the Old Testament, in order for her to carry Jesus.