Declining fertility rates in the industrialized world are shaking up the future. Not long ago, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed to China’s declining birthrates resulting, in part, from its barbaric population-control measures. He noted that China has now joined the industrialized West in suffering from “a self-reinforcing cycle—in which a less youthful society loses dynamism and growth, which reduces economic support for would-be parents, which reduces birthrates, which reduces growth …”
This birthrate decline has spiritual and not just economic consequences, warns historian Philip Jenkins. In his book Fertility and Faith, Jenkins describes what happens when fertility rates in a society fall behind replacement level. Religious institutions, and belief in religion generally, face steep decline both in numbers and in vigor.
We agree with these concerns. After all, Scripture reveals that children are a blessing from God. We are commanded to welcome children, to train them up in the ways of the Lord, and to conserve the faith for the generations to come (Ps. 71:18). We believe that the family—including the gifts of mothers and fathers and children—is a moral and social good.
That said, we should make sure that our efforts don’t lead us to another kind of fertility crisis—the kind of reproductive Pelagianism that would cause us to think we can outbreed unbelief. To avoid that, we should remember that we believe our Lord Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”
The Gospels include the genealogies of Jesus to demonstrate that he truly is one of us, connected by his nature and his backstory to the human race. He is truly both the Son of God and a son of Adam (Luke 3:38). And yet, amid these intricate family trees, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary of Nazareth that she will conceive and give birth. Her question “How will this be … since I am a virgin?” is answered with the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit (1:34–35).
The Virgin Birth is, in a very real sense, the unveiling of a mystery building throughout the entire canon of Scripture. When humanity rebels against God, they are exiled from the Tree of Life, yet there is a future for them. Eve gives birth and, even after her son Abel is murdered by his brother, she gives birth again. There is hope—hope for the promise of an offspring of woman who could someday crush the Serpent’s head.
And yet, the Bible riddles every one of the genealogies with the implied or stated reality: “And then he died … and then he died … and then he died. …” The multiplication of fallen humanity is pictured as a blessing indeed but no remedy for the ultimate crisis. The human story, left to itself, could never grow its way out of sin and death.
The Virgin Birth represents continuity with that human story but also a disruption of it. What was needed was an intervention, something humanity could not accomplish through the “normal” path to the future. The gospel echoes this miracle in that through it, we are “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13, ESV). In the Virgin Birth, we see our utter lack of confidence in ourselves and our total dependence on the God who gave us a sign—a sign as unlikely as that a virgin should conceive.
This reminder is perhaps especially necessary in a time when demographic decline is exploited as racialized propaganda by blood-and-soil white supremacy in the so-called great replacement theory. Echoing above the tiki torches of the white-nationalist mob in Charlottesville in 2017 was the chant “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” This hateful propaganda inevitably leads to bloodshed, and it starts with a lie about who is defined as “us” in the first place.
Even as the church rightly rejects this virulent racism, there are subtler things that might tempt us to despair. We might fear “replacement,” not in terms of race, nationality, or culture but in terms of the faith, as data show Christianity in sharp decline and projections suggest that “none” will be the majority American religion by midcentury.
The latter trend ought to alarm us but not undo us. These projections are based on birthrates, a perfectly reasonable diagnostic tool, but we should remember that faith in Christ is not passed on genetically. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded the church a generation ago, we must always hear “the stinging rebuke ‘God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham,’ a rebuke in the form of a statement of fact which history has validated again and again.”
We should welcome children and support thriving families. We should seek to share the Good News with our children. But we shouldn’t take their salvations for granted, nor should we stop expecting God to redeem those who are far from having Christian upbringings. We should remember that we are the born again, and that the grace of God is not bound by biology. We believe, after all, in the Holy Spirit who can bring life to the most unexpected places of all.
Russell Moore is editor in chief at CT.
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