I posted some informal thoughts on faith in Part I. In Part II, I examine miracles and Christianity and the relative importance of each to the Faith.
Miracles and Central versus Less Central Claims
Obviously, the most important facts about Christianity that might be subject to scientific investigation are centered in the life and ministry of Jesus. Atheists are right that if they could show it unlikely He existed, then Christianity would be false. Fortunately, few serious scholars, religious or secular, take this idea very seriously.8
What did Jesus do? Again, few doubt that Jesus died on a Roman cross. Anti-Christians polemicists in the ancient world believed it and used it against Jesus “the criminal.”9
Has science shown that Jesus is not alive? To do so, critics, ancient or modern, would show the body of Jesus and traditional Christianity would be falsified. Nobody did it in the ancient world when they had a great motive to do so and nobody has done it today.
Critics will often assert “belief in zombie Jesus” is so foreign to what we see happening to dead people by means of science we should not believe it. Science tells humanity what happens to the dead: they decay and stay dead, but the problem is that if the historical records are accurate, Jesus was extraordinary.
People in the ancient world may have been prescientific, but there were plenty of skeptics around. There was even a whole of school of skeptical Greek thought! Jews, as a religious people, were divided in Jesus’ time about whether the dead would ever be raised.
Yet followers of Jesus asserted He had risen and that they had seen Him. Critics of Jesus had no body to show or they would have shown it. HBU Professor Michael Licona has spent a scholarly career showing the strong evidence that the Gospels about Jesus are accurate enough to be trusted and that the body that went into the tomb came out.10
Science cannot prove that miracles happen, but they can show an alleged miracle could have a natural explanation. Some alleged miracles do not have very plausible natural explanations, and if even one miracle plausibly exists, then atheists have a big problem.11
Another “scientific” problem some people worry about deals with “language of appearance” in the historical records about Jesus. Doesn’t the Bible say heaven is up? How could Jesus ascend to the cold and airless regions of space and keep living? I once met a man who said that if Jesus had “escaped” the Earth’s gravity at rocket speed, we should still be able to see Him using telescopes.
I made the obvious response: people talk about the sun rising all the time, though they knew it is not literally rising. It appears to rise and set, so they say it does. I said this to my critic and he made the next sensible point: “We know from modern science that it is only an appearance, but the disciples did not. They thought heaven was in the clouds.”
Whenever people claim to know what ancient people thought, I marvel. Every age contains genius that does not believe what the majority believe and we have little evidence about what Jews in Jesus’ time would have believed about the cosmos. There were many theories abroad, some pre-scientific and some merely fantastic. Isn’t it more sensible to think that the disciples had not scientific idea in mind at all?
C.S. Lewis, in his role of literary critic, frequently attacked the fanciful notion of projecting our categories and categories back on ancient writers.12 If there is one thing we know of New Testament writers, they were not thinking scientifically at all. They were reporting what they saw: Jesus rise and vanish. They might have explained this fact in any number of ways, but the text they left us leaves all of this explanation out.
Thank God.Early Church members started taking language about God too literally: God must have hands, because the Bible talks about the hand of the Lord! The minute they made this error, Church leaders told them they were wrong: the language was figurative, God has no hands. If they made this point anticipating Internet atheism, then Christianity need no further miracle!
Christians knew human language could never capture the experience of the Divine. The best poem ever written, the best movie ever shot, the best sculpture carved from stubborn granite can only be an image of God.
The image may be the best image we can make, that is a decent definition of Orthodoxy, but is an image nonetheless.
We worship God and not the image.
Unless we discount the idea of miracles altogether13, then we must realize that there are is in Christianity a hierarchy of the miraculous. The long history of Israel, and the fact that the records are so sparse, tricks us. The Bible records very few miracles if we take the long history of Israel into account. Miracles tend to be clustered around Big Events: unique in history. If we eliminate the life of Jesus (33 years), the formation of the early Church (40 years?), the creation itself (7 Days?), and the work of Elijah and Elisha, then few miracles are left.
Daniel is often thought of as a miraculous book, but my favorite passage is the last verse of the first chapter: “And Daniel continued unto the first year of King Cyrus.”14 If you imagine Daniel living for seventy some years in the courts of several pagan sovereigns, then you will sense how rare miracles are, even in the life of an apocalyptic prophet. Daniel had visions, he was saved from lions, he was given wisdom: spread out over seventy years that is not much.
We misread the text if we think of miracles as common in Scripture. Miracles are what God does when His secondary actions, through the normal laws of Nature, are not “enough” in a broken world.
Because miracles are the moment when the supernatural breaks into the natural, science can report on them, but never understand them.
This is a problem for much of the rest of Revelation. There are many claims in Scripture about history, but many of these only make sense (or could can be studied) if you accept the central claim: Christ was born, Christ lived, Christ died, Christ risen, Christ coming again.
Some Christians act as if the faith was so fragile that only a Bible without error will do. As a believer, I think the Bible is without error in what it asserts, but know the Bible is primarily a work of theology. I believe, personally, in a global flood in the days of Noah and a talking snake in a garden, but Christians have never made such beliefs dogma.
This is for good reason, not because a science the fathers and mothers of the Church could not have anticipated must be feared, but because the message of the Church does not depend on the literal truth of much of the Bible.
Sin must have entered the world and it must have been caused by humans, but the story could be a story and that message still deeply true. Jesus is the central historic fact of Christianity. If He was not, we should not be.
Noah and his ark? With most Christian who have ever lived, I think those stories true, but less hangs on their historicity. They might be myth, not in the sense of false stories about gods, but in the sense of stories (like fables) that tell deep metaphysical truths.
Like any rational human, Christians have the most faith in what has most evidence (Jesus) and is most central (Jesus) and are have less faith in what is less plain and less central.
Notes for Part II
9 Fragments of the best work by the philosopher Porphyry can be found here: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/porphyry_against_christians_02_fragments.htm
10 See his Resurrection of Jesus IVP Academic, 2010.
11 A good book on modern miracle claims is Miracles by Tim Keller. Bethany, 2012.
12 See his Is Theology Poetry? This the best talk given on the worst question in the history of the English world.
13 If tempted, then read Miracles by Richard Swinburne, my favorite living philosopher. As a general rule, thinking Christians should read everything written by Swinburne.
14 Daniel 1: 21. KJV