I have already discussed the fact that Origen* responded to a number of “modern” arguments long before our modern times.
For the skeptical arguments I have tried to include links or at least names. Sometimes they may be common enough that I think anyone could just do a Google search to discover the skeptical argument is made to this day. Also, some of the skeptical arguments are put forth by Celsus as coming from Jews attacking converts to Christianity. Several of these arguments will be covered here as well.
Origen’s answers I provide here are, and I must emphasize this, summaries of what he said, not his answer in its entirety. Interested readers should track down the original reference to see what he said. It should also be noted that Contra Celsum is written in a kind of challenge/response format that does not necessitate or entail lengthy discussions. Other thinkers–either modern or historic–provide longer answers than Origen did to pretty much every argument noted here.
Skeptical Argument: Faith is belief without evidence/pretending to know something you don’t know. [See Peter Boghossian]
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I, Chapter 10- All systems of thought require some element of belief without evidence, including skepticism, Platonism, and the like.
Skeptical Argument: Jesus learned how to do tricks in Egypt/Jesus’ birth accounts made up to glorify him
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I, Chapter 28ff- Jesus’ birth account highlights the humility to which he is born rather than serving as a way to embellish or glorify his birth.
Skeptical Argument: Mary was not a virgin but had adultery with or was raped by a Roman soldier (named Panthera as argued by Celsus), as opposed to being a virgin[Suggested by a BBC documentary, among other modern and ancient sources]
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter XXXII Had Christians wanted to make up something about Jesus’ birth, they could have just as easily said that Joseph was Jesus’ legitimate father rather than inviting speculation about rape or adultery
Skeptical Argument: The prophecy alluded to by Matthew in Isaiah does not refer to a virgin birth/Matthew and Luke themselves may not intend the reference to be to a virgin birth [See Bart Ehrman, for example]
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter XXXIV and XXXV- the Hebrew actually does seem to favor the notion of it referring to a virgin, moreover the prophecy doesn’t make sense were it but a young woman having a child, which would not have been remarkable enough to be a sign
Skeptical Argument: The suffering servant prophesies found in Isaiah 53 refers to the nation of Israel rather than Jesus.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LV- the passage in question is full of things which don’t make sense when applied broadly to a whole nation rather than single person. Moreover, the prophecy does not line up with Israel as well as it does to Jesus.
Skeptical Argument: The star of Bethlehem is an unexplained phenomenon made up to lend credence to the importance of Jesus’ birth in the narratives.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LVIII- The Star of Bethlehem was actually a comet and may have been reported by other ancients. See here for a book that has much more on this topic.
Objection: Comets are bad omens and so the Star wouldn’t have been a sign of the birth of the Messiah.
Origen’s Response: Comets are bad omens for those regimes which may be overthrown, but good signs for those whose regime may be rising.
Skeptical Argument: Certain portions of the Gospels show difficulties with Christian beliefs.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXIII- Skeptics like Celsus utilize the Gospels as historical where convenient, then reject whatever parts might answer their objections.
Skeptical Argument: Christianity allows for the worst sorts of people to get off free in the grand scheme of things. The worst people are simply forgiven.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXIII and following- The conversion of wrongdoers is not to be mocked or scorned but rather shows the power of Christianity to convince the wicked to reform.
Skeptical Argument: How could God die?
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXVI- God took on human flesh in the person of the Son.
Skeptical Argument: Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels can be mimicked or repeated by charlatans.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXVIII- Such allegations fail due to the context in which the miracles occur as well as the reasons behind the miracles/wonders.
Skeptical Argument: Jesus uses his voice and eats food–things gods need not do.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXX- Jesus was God clothed in human flesh and used his voice to convince others.
*It is worth noting that Origen was heterodox on a number of topics, including having a deficient view of the Trinity, specifically regarding the Father and the Son. However, Origen also pre-dated much of the debates over orthodox Christian theology. It is beneficial to read Origen to see the range of Christian thought in his own time period, as well as to see what kind of responses were being offered to non-Christians related to key issues.
Faith is Belief without Evidence? Origen Contra Boghossian (and others)– I delve deeper into one of the arguments Origen makes, while noting that it answers one of the modern skeptical attacks on Christianity.
Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for posts on Star Trek, science fiction, fantasy, books, sports, food, and more!
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“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). Matthew 1:28 ESV.
Familiar words to most Christians, aren’t they? Along with His Death and Resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus is among the most celebrated and unifying events in all of Christianity. Nativity scenes can be found in front of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and all sorts of churches of all denominations. The virgin birth is counted as among the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and was important enough to be counted as one of the twelve articles of the Apostolic Creed. For centuries, the account that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin woman, Mary of Nazareth, was undisputed, at least as far as any known challenges can be documented.
But, then, along came the Enlightenment. With it came the idea that science and reason were the test of Scripture and all truth, and not the reverse. Therefore, if Scripture says that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that is not logical nor scientifically provable, then it must be rejected. Thus, the Jefferson “Bible” excludes any reference to the virgin birth as well as Jesus’ miracles, Deity, resurrection, etc. As time went on, through the historical critical method and other destructive methods of using reason not to teach but to judge Scripture, the Enlightenment principle of reason and science over Scripture slowly infiltrated the thinking of many churches. Surveys confirm this infiltration.
1998: A poll of 7,441 Protestant clergy in the U.S. showed a wide variation in belief. The following ministers did not believe in the virgin birth:
2007-DEC: The Barna Group sampled 1,005 adults and found that 75% believed that Jesus was born to a virgin. 53% of the unchurched, and 15% of Agnostics and Atheists believe as well. Even among those who describe themselves as mostly liberal on political and social issues, 60% believe in the virgin birth. (Source for surveys.)
It is a great travesty in the Church today that many clergy find themselves looking at their positions only as a job, and will say what they must to preserve their positions. From the source of the polls previously cited comes this quote:
“…one Hampshire vicar was typical: ‘There was nothing special about his birth or his childhood – it was his adult life that was extraordinary….I have a very traditional bishop and this is one of those topics I do not go public on. I need to keep the job I have got.’
Such hypocrisy and blatant deceit is unworthy of anyone, let alone one who claims to proclaim the Word of God and represent Him to the people. yet such is the state of much of the clergy, as indicated by the above polling figures. No wonder the Church is in such disarray, and seems so powerless in the world today!
If Christianity is only a “nice” way of life that is only about love and compassion, then I suppose the virgin birth is not so essential, But if Christianity is an intimate and personal relationship by faith with the Creator of the Universe, then Who that Creator is makes all the difference. And if being born of a virgin is something He says about himself, even once, in His Book, then it might be best if we believe it. After all, wouldn’t you like to know a bit about, say, the pedigree of a dog or horse that you were to buy, or even more so, wouldn’t you like to know all about a future spouse that you profess to love before marriage? (Please forgive the analogy, which is not meant to cheapen God, spouses, dogs, or horses).
The virgin birth of Christ—and I would say, the historical fact that Jesus was conceived by a miracle like unto creation itself—does not travel alone. It ties intimately into other doctrines-the Holy Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture, and more. “Scripture cannot be broken”, Jesus said in John 10:35. Even so, the most basic teachings of the Christian faith cannot be broken off and accepted like items on a buffet table. They are all one. Accept all of them-or none of them. That is the challenge that the catechumen, the seeker, the growing disciple of Christ is faced with. Finally, you see, the importance of the virgin birth is found, like all things, bound in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
As far as the prophecy quoted by Matthew, namely Isaiah 7:14, much ink has been spilled on this by scholars with more degrees than I have. Some modern Bible translations, notably the NRSV, CEB, TEV and others use “young woman” to translate the Hebrew word almah. Others, such as the NASB, ESV, NKJB, TNIV (=NIV 2011), use the more traditional “virgin.” The LXX also translates the word “virgin.” While the matter is not as simple as some might make it, certainly I would think that the Septuagint scholars would have known Hebrew and Greek well enough to have chosen a different word besides the Greek word for “virgin” if “young woman” would have been indicated. They had no agenda to support a virgin birth or not. The same cannot be said of some modern translators. The sainted Dr. William Beck wrote a study on this subject, available at www.wlsessays.net/.
Human reason helps us put all of these things together systematically from Scripture; but human reason cannot accept and believe them itself. That, too, is a special creative work of the Holy Spirit. What a delight to know that God wants everyone to know Him as He reveals Himself in Scripture. It is through the very words of Scripture that God creates faith. Through those Holy Spirit given and empowered words He keeps one in the faith. As I stand in awe that God chose this supernatural way to join our human race, so I stand in awe that He created faith in my heart, and has kept that faith to this day. All glory and praise to Him forever!
Finally, though, the virgin birth is a matter of faith. For the individual, it is a matter of personal faith whether one accepts what Scripture says about the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus or not. But the virgin birth is also a matter of THE Faith; that is to say, it is an article of Christian doctrine that is beyond dispute. To accept it is to accept a fundamental, essential doctrine of all Christianity. To reject it is to put one outside the bounds of the Christian faith. I pray that this Advent and Christmas season you will join with me, and with all the Christian world, in celebrating the supernatural way that God chose to enter our human race to bear our sin and be our savior.
Rev. Kent Wartick is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Kent, Ohio. He has been preaching for over 26 years in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. He’s my dad, and an inspiration for the faithful.