Miracles-What Do You Expect Me To Believe? (Part 7)

Posted: February 28, 2011 in Historical apologetics, Philosophy

by Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on miracles. Please see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 if you have not read them yet.

The fourth point that Hume makes is that miracle claims in different religions cancel each other out.  The picture could be of two boys telling conflicting stories to the mother about who threw the baseball through the window, and since she cannot decide who is telling the truth, she might discipline them both.  Hume uses a courtroom as an analogy, but I think David Clark offers a more useful counter-example, in that he also uses a courtroom, but with a fuller explanation of what happens when testimony conflicts.

“When courts hear conflicting testimony, lawyers on both sides grill their opponents’ witnesses.  Each side looks for loopholes or inconsistencies in the testimony and for hidden motivations or character flaws in the witnesses.” (In Defense of Miracles, p.200)

Clark goes on to say that “rarely, if ever, is there a perfectly balanced evidential standoff between two well-documented miracle claims.”(In Defense of Miracles, p.201).  So what criteria might we have for evaluating different miracle claims?  David Clark gives some helpful characteristics to determine what is false without also throwing out genuine miracle claims.  Well, since we defined a miracle partly as an act of a supernatural personal Being, a religious system without such a Being has no framework for a miracle to take place.  Though Buddhism and Hinduism have factions within them that would give place for the supernatural, there is theoretically no place for miracle claims within their understanding of reality (In Defense of Miracles, p.202-203).  However, Christianity certainly has God as this Being and has the conceptual framework necessary for miracles to be justified.

In addition, many religious founders discouraged marvels. Gautama Buddha thought it hindered enlightenment.  Mohammed was open to supernatural action, but he was just not the one to deliver it.  Though he acknowledged that other prophets did signs, including Moses, he said that he would not.  Miracles attributed to him come long after his death (In Defense of Miracles, p.202-203).  In addition to Jesus doing many wonders, He encouraged His disciples that they would do greater things (John 14:12).

Some miracles can be accounted for naturalistically due to desire for the surprising, magicians attracting attention to themselves, religions borrowing from contemporary religions, and apologists manufacturing evidence for their perspectives.  The human desire, however, does not negate all miracle claims, but only bids us to be careful in evaluating the evidence.  As far as the trickery of magicians may go, it does not disprove any given account of miracles, but just puts us on guard against imposters.  Similarities may suggest that one miracle story is adapted from another, but that does not automatically make the earlier account doubtful.  In addition, alleged similarities may not be as close as they might seem at first glance.  For example, some would argue that stories of dying and rising gods are abundant in the ancient Near East, thus implying that the resurrection of Jesus is nothing more than an adaptation of these ancient myths.  What they are not telling you, though, is that aside from being able to loosely use the same words to describe surrounding myths with the death and resurrection of Jesus, this seems to be where the similarities stop.  I have quoted N.T. Wright above regarding the fact that cults from all over did not believe that actual human beings would come back to life, but I feel it is relevant to continue his thought on the same page.

“Sometimes, as in Egypt, the myths and rituals included funerary practices: the aspiration of the dead was to become united with Osiris.  But the new life they might thereby experience was not a return to the life of the present world.  Nobody actually expected the mummies to get up, walk about and resume normal living; nobody in that world would have wanted such a thing, either.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.80-81)

Before quoting the same passage, Craig Blomberg observes that “no actual bodily resurrections to life on this earth after fully fledged death are ever narrated…None of the ancient myths and stories of dying and rising gods refers to real human individuals known to have lived among the very people narrating the stories within their living memory.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p.138-139).  Jesus’ resurrection stands alone among the claims of the ancient religions, but even if we were to think of a parallel that seems more in line with Jesus’ miracles, we should not to be too quick to assume who borrowed from whom.  Examining the life of a Hellenistic holy man, Apollonius, reveals that he allegedly raised a girl from the dead (In Defense of Miracles, p.207).  The story is found in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius and sounds like Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son in Luke 7:11-17, but Apollonius lived later than Jesus and the biography by Philostratus quite naturally came even later still, so if there is any dependency at all, it would be the miracle story of Apollonius being dependent on the miracle story of Jesus.  Furthermore, the biographer himself expresses doubts about whether the girl was really dead, which is again, not surprising for the ancient world.

“Now whether he detected some spark of life in her, which those who were nursing her had not noticed -for it is said that although it was raining at the time, a vapor went up from her face- or whether her life was really extinct, and he restored it by the warmth of his touch, is a mysterious problem which neither I myself nor those who were present could decide.” (Life of Apollonius, 4.45)

As for explaining the origin of miracle stories according to apologetic purposes, there may be good reason to think this is the case of there being reasons to doubt the miracle on other grounds, but by itself, it does not say that a miracle has not occurred.  For if a miracle has occurred, why would an apologist not use it as evidence?  These four lines of argument for naturalistic explanations for how miracles might arise do not by themselves undercut positive evidence for miracles.  They only say that some miracle claims have these characteristics, but that assertion is just as compatible with there being no genuine miracle claims and all of them being unhistorical as it is with some genuine miracles having occurred and many others being unhistorical (In Defense of Miracles, p.205-209).  In the case of Jesus’ miracles, though humans do have a desire for the miraculous, not all want to see certain people doing miracles.  Paul, persecutor of the church, did not want to believe that Jesus was truly a miracle worker from God nor that He had risen from the dead.  As far as magic is concerned, Jesus was accused of being a sorcerer, as noted above, but the character of the miracles attributed to Jesus is not simple tricks or consistent with magicians of the time (In Defense of Miracles, p.207), and resurrection is unparalleled in the ancient world outside of Judaism, as N.T. Wright makes clear many times over.  However, even in Judaism, there was no belief that anyone, even the Messiah, would rise from the dead in advance of the general resurrection at the end of the age (Resurrection of the Son of God).  There are some superficial similarities between Jesus and other ancient accounts, but in addition to the accounts of Jesus being quite distinct, they were also earlier in their written form (In Defense of Miracles, p.207).  Considering apologetic value, the central claim of the disciples of Jesus was that He was crucified, a shameful death, and that He was resurrected.  Neither of these things would help their case in main line Judaism if there was not any reason to believe it to be fully true, for as noted above, Jews did not think the Messiah would die, let alone rise from the dead before everyone else and before the end of the age.  Nor would it have been any help in the pagan world, if not accompanied by the power of God as described in Acts.  As N.T. Wright again points out, “Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.35).  In other words, if you asked a pagan, before Christianity came through, if dead people rise again bodily, they would say no and think you were crazy for asking such a thing.  It did not happen in their thought and many did not want it to happen, so the fact that Christianity could prevail in this environment seems to me to be beyond explanation, except by the fact that it was actually true and confirmed by God.

Even further, other miracle claims are many times written hundreds of years after the event they describe.  This allows much time for legendary development.  As we saw above in the case of Buddha, he himself did not endorse miracles, but claims still came later about miracles wrought by him.  Also above is noted that Mohammed said he would not give any miracles, but later, miracle stories emerged.  However, with Jesus miracles, we have attestation within a generation of Jesus Himself.  If Jesus was crucified around the age of 33 that means that many of His contemporaries were alive to confirm or disconfirm the claims to His miracles.  The number of those hostile to Jesus would suggest that if they could write off the Gospel accounts, they would have, but their attempts at explanation are weak and lack the forcefulness to be expected if the opponents were confident.  The claim that the disciples stole the body of Jesus only confirms that the tomb was empty and the disciples’ willingness to suffer for their beliefs strongly suggests that they were not lying.

Finally, with the Gospels, there is corroborating evidence.  Many customs, people and places in ancient Palestine are mentioned that are consistent with other ancient documents and archaeological finds.  Compared with the Book of Mormon, for example, Joseph Smith tells of the Nephite civilization in North America, according to golden plates he found, translated through using two miraculous stones.  The only documentation comes from Joseph Smith and no archaeological evidence supports the existence of the Nephites, much less the events of the story recounted (In Defense of Miracles, p.211-12).  An example from the Gospels is John’s description of healing a man in John 5.  He mentions the time (5:1), the place and what it is near, as well as how many colonnades or groups of columns, there were (5:2), and how long this man who was healed had been an invalid (5:5).  From archaeology, it has been confirmed that this pool has five colonnades, and not that this proves the miracle, but it lends credibility and historicity to the eyewitness nature of the account.  So all this to say that lumping all miracle accounts together as equally untrustworthy is an overgeneralization.  We cannot verify every miracle by historical research, but by establishing the validity of what we can examine, it should give credibility to other accounts claiming to be wrought by the same God.

Summary

Hume’s argument against miracles begs the question in making up his mind that miracles have never had sufficient evidence to establish their veracity.  He also proves too much, in that his criteria, applied to other widely accepted, though unusual, events would result in rejecting these rare instances as unhistorical, which no serious historian would be prepared to do.  On the contrary, if a person believes in the existence of a God who brought the entire universe into being out of nothing, no miracle within that system created by God is any greater than the initial creation. This is a miracle attested to in both science and religion, though disagreeing on the cause, or whether there even is one.  However, it is the naturalist who must defend being coming from non-being and life coming from non-life, if he expects anyone to believe that miracles are impossible and there is nothing more than the universe in reality.  However, if this God really does exist, it is not a violation of His creation to intervene as He wills.  A miracle does not undermine the law, but by the law we recognize the miracle, and itself being a temporary exception, miracle does not replace natural law.  Finally, if miracles are possible then it is worth considering whether any have actually taken place or not.  There is other evidence for miracles that I have not included, but I believe that what I have presented will serve to prevent anyone from quoting a one-liner from Hume and thinking that the matter is settled in favour of miracles not happening.  John 4:48 says, “So Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.”  I hope that through this article I have removed at least some of the hindrances to belief in light of miracles.

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