Tis the Season to Knock Down Jesus
A Guide to the Techniques of Stealth Skepticism
Tis the season to knock down Jesus. If things run according to pattern, one of the major websites or magazines will run a big Christmas story about the birth of Jesus. I haven’t seen one yet, but there’s still time. And there’s always next year. The subject’s a “perennial,” as we say in the business.
Here’s an example from four years ago, from the lefty English newspaper The Guardian. The writer, a minister, tells us “The story of the virgin birth runs against the grain of Christianity.” Here’s another from a science site that suggests we believe it because we’re wired to believe in miracles.
The Standard Article
And then there’s the standard article. The editors will target the Christian claim that Jesus was born of a virgin mother. The story will be “fair and balanced.” Just a few days ago, for example, the BBC’s history site explained that maybe the virgin birth’s possible, but leaned on “some scholars” to say probably not and don’t get your hopes up, but still, it could have happened. What will the average reader take away from the story? That it didn’t.
These stories never deny the Virgin Birth outright. That would tick off Christians. It won’t affirm it either. That would tick off anti-Christians. Here’s the thing to remember. The editors want both groups to read the story. Clicks mean income. They’ll publish an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other kind of story. The editors don’t want to wage a war on Christmas. They want to get lots of readers, so they come down somewhere in the middle.
But here’s the problem: The story will explain Jesus’s birth in a way that implies it probably isn’t true. Sure, they’ll say, some guy named Jesus was born back then and got famous later. Maybe not in Bethlehem and not in a stable, but born, of course. But born without a father involved? Like he was a god or something? Well that, they’ll say, that’s a problem for a lot of reasons. Like History! And Science! But hey, it might be true! If you believe in miracles, that is. Who knows?
We might call that “stealth skepticism.” Let’s look at one subtle way they make readers doubt the Christmas story.
It Probably Isn’t True, They Say
The article will press the points that we don’t have definite evidence (true), that the gospel stories seem to disagree (true, and please notice that “seem”), and that scholars really disagree with each other about it (very true). They set up the Virgin Birth as a question that’s in play, and fair enough. Christians don’t claim that it’s obviously true the way 2+2=4 is obviously true.
Here’s one of their favorite techniques. It’s the one subtle way I mentioned. The skeptics try to explain away the story by showing how the early Christians might have made it up. They’re “just saying,” but they want you to agree. And here’s one of their favorite ways of doing that. They say that the early Christians might have been tempted to improve the basic Jesus story by inventing the Virgin Birth.
Imagine you run a religion following a guy who’s no longer around. He changed your life and you want him to change everyone else’s. You say he is God. Not a god but the one-and-only God. So where is he? people ask. You say he rose from the dead and then ascended into Heaven.
A few people listen, but most just look at you funny and walk away. They think you’re nuts. And fair enough, really. All you’ve got is a story. Worse, your story has a fishily convenient ending. You can’t prove it. Why should they believe you?
Preaching a New Religion
Someone’s pushing a religion on every street corner. Preaching a new religion is like trying to sell sand in a desert. You also challenge a huge, successful religious establishment. All the other religions fit together. Christianity doesn’t fit at all. It’s weird, alien, strange.
God might do it for precisely the reasons the skeptics claim the Church made it up.
Preaching Christianity is like selling Red Sox jerseys with “Crush the Yankees” on them at Yankee Stadium. You’d be speaking the absolute truth, but people wouldn’t want to hear it.
What would you be tempted to do? Make the story a better story. Add something to make people hit their foreheads and say “Wow!” You might think, “Jesus must have had a special beginning. He was God. I know, he must not have had a human father!” That ramps up the story, all right. The pagans had some stories like that you could adapt.
This theory of how the early Christians came up with the idea of the Virgin Birth makes perfect sense. People do this. Think of two little kids arguing over whose father is cooler. They start out with facts, but neither one can win the argument with the facts. Pretty soon they start exaggerating and then they start making up stuff.
This skeptical argument against the Virgin Birth makes sense. It describes what people do. But here’s the thing the skeptics leave out: Jesus could have been conceived just as St. Luke’s gospel tells us. Just because the Church might have invented the story doesn’t mean it did.
And here’s a great twist: God might do it for precisely the reasons the skeptics claim that Christians made it up. They say the early Christians ramped up the story and made Jesus a superstar because people want that. As I said, fair enough. But suppose God Himself said, “That’s what they’ll want, so that’s what I’ll give them”? He loves and knows His people and provides what we need. He thinks ahead.
The skeptics say, “It can’t be true because it fits so well.” Christians say, “We believe it’s true in part because it fits so well.” Maybe the skeptics explain away something that can be explained more simply: That the earliest Christians didn’t make up the Virgin Birth. They just passed on the true insider story Mary told the Apostles.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Pittsburgh Catholic, for which David Mills writes a biweekly column. This has revised since the original publication on December 23rd, 2017.