There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” – Luke 2:8-16
Some people claim, “Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth about the stories about the birth of Jesus,” rather the Resurrection is the lynchpin for the truth of Christianity. But is this true? It has become a favorite pastime for secular-leaning biblical historians to cherry-pick the Scriptures to separate the true pieces from the errors. Critical of biblical inerrancy (the doctrine that claims a lack of errors in the Bible), these scholars submit the Word of God to man’s criticism, dissecting the Scriptures in such a way that leaves them fractured and disjointed. But it’s difficult to know how one can decipher truth from error when one is looking at heavenly things.
The typical method of truth appraisal has to do with an event’s correspondence with reality. Something is true if it corresponds with reality. Something is false if it does not. This is a very simple means of determining truth; however, things can get easily muddled when trying to apply this principle to instances of a divine nature, because heavenly matters—things of a divine nature—typically don’t follow the course of normal human events.
We call heavenly matters, or things of a divine nature, miracles precisely because they are outside the normal course of human events. The cessation of an illness brought about by a doctor’s attention is considered the normal means of restoring health. The cessation of an illness without cause or reason is considered a miracle, precisely because it is unexpected and does not follow the pattern, the norm, or reality as we typically experience it.
So if miracles, or heavenly things, are defined precisely by their lack of adherence with reality as we know it, then how is one to determine truth from error when it comes to heavenly matters or divine things? By their correspondence with reality. What?!?!
The beauty I’ve found in Christianity is its grounding in truth. Such a grounding in truth, however, sometimes requires us to expand our definition of reality beyond what we’ve previously allowed it to encompass. For example, the Scriptures tell us that God is our Father, but the word Father for me does not harbor the kind of pictures that God wants us to associate with the word Father. It is only by expanding my definition of Father beyond my personal experience, by allowing God to define Fatherhood, that I am able to see the true picture God wants me to see. It is only by granting that my picture may not be the whole picture, that I am able to discern the truth from the error. The same is the case when it comes to heavenly things.
The definition of truth lies in its correspondence with reality, but if our picture of reality is scoped so as to prevent the acceptance of things outside the normal course of human events (sometimes called naturalism or materialism), then our picture of reality does not allow for the miraculous. It does not allow for an interaction with the divine, and this is precisely the issue at hand with critics of the birth of Jesus. How can a virgin conceive a son? How can a child be born without the seed of a human father? How can the birth of a child be foretold hundreds of years before the event? How can men know of the birth of a child so far in advance, that they travel from distant lands to arrive just in time to celebrate his arrival? How can we know any of this to be true?
To be sure, these are difficult questions. They fall beyond the scope of normal human events. They defy what we know about reality...but it is precisely due to their miraculous nature that they are so important, because if they are true, then there is something special about this child that we must pay attention to. If they are true, then there is something about this person that is different from all other people in all of history.
So, is there a way to determine whether miraculous events are true? We can take our cue from the shepherds. The shepherds were given a miraculous message: the long-awaited Messiah was finally here! They no longer had to wait, God’s promised Savior had come to Israel. But was this true? How could they know if this long hoped for miracle had finally occurred? How could they know if this divine thing was true? The angels told them how: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12).
While the shepherds couldn’t see that the promise had been fulfilled—and wouldn’t see it for more than 30 years—there were verifiable indicators that could give them what they needed to determine if the message they received was true. They were told where to go—the town of David (Bethlehem). They were told what to look for—a place with a manger (a place where animals were housed). They were told what they would find—a child, but not just any child—a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger. That may sound over-simplified, given most people’s encounters with the nativity story, but think about it from the perspective of one who has never heard the nativity story. They are to go to a town and look in a filthy place where animals live, for a baby that is sleeping in a food trough. While not a mother myself, I can’t imagine taking any newborn baby to a barn and letting it sleep in an animal's feed-bucket. The germs and potential disease make my skin crawl at the thought, so it’s not like this is a normal place to go looking for a baby. These were very specific instructions, that if false were unlikely to be found.
But they didn’t take the angels' word for it, they went to check it out for themselves. Luke goes on to tell us: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (Luke 2:15-16). They didn’t just believe this unbelievable thing; they verified what they could verify. They believed the Messiah had come, because the things they could verify were shown to be true; the verifiable claims of the angels corresponded with reality. This is how we, too, can know the truth of heavenly things.
The Christian message is not simply one of doctrines and detached commands; it is a message intimately entangled with historical events. Each encounter with God is wrapped up with details about real people, in real places, with real details that can be verified. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Look at the details that can be verified and see if they are true. Was Jesus born of a virgin? Look at the details that can be verified and see if they are true. The Bible is full of God’s interaction with many men and women. It includes verifiable details that we can test to judge the reliability of the text as whole, because some of the things God says in His Word are truly unbelievable. But if the verifiable things are true, then these crazy, miraculous, unbelievable things that the Bible claims become a little bit more believable. So, when someone diminishes the truth of the birth of Jesus, point them to the verifiable things. If someone claims the Resurrection is true but we can’t know the birth of Jesus to a virgin is true, then question their scope. Because if Jesus really was raised from the dead, then there is a God who controls all of life—and a God who controls life would have no trouble bringing life through a virgin.
The birth and resurrection of Jesus are inextricably linked through their pointing to God as the source of life. If God cannot bring life through a virgin, then He cannot bring life to a dead man. But if God can bring life to a dead man, then it is not impossible for Him to bring life through a virgin. Both stories tell us that God is the source of life, and just like the shepherds did, we can test the verifiable details to determine the truth of this heavenly message; a message that, if true, is the source of all life, both now and eternally. So it is worth verifying, since our lives depend on it.