David Marshall has objected to my analysis of the term ‘miracle’ and appears to have misunderstood my claim that the alleged resurrection of Jesus would constitute a ‘physically impossible’ event. Before I attempt to deal with any other objections or criticisms from Marshall, I want to clear up the disagreement and/or confusion that exists about these concepts, which I believe are basic and important for further discussion of the main question: Did God raise Jesus from the dead?
Marshall and I appear to have found common ground in the thinking and writing of Gary Habermas about miracles, and about how the alleged resurrection of Jesus would count as a miracle. So, I’m going to review some key points made by Habermas, in part to confirm that Marshall and I really are on the same page.
Others who are interested in this discussion about miracles and the resurrection should feel free to jump in with their own thoughts about these concepts and about Habermas’s points (taken from Chapter 8, of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, 2004).
1. Science and the Resurrection
…while science perhaps cannot measure God’s activity, there is no reason why we cannot consider non-supernatural portions of claims concerning the Resurrection. For example, did Jesus die? Was he seen alive at some later time? The scientist or historian could evaluate the conclusion: ‘Jesus was seen alive after his death’. However, in his capacity as a scientist or historian, he perhaps, could not draw the conclusion: ‘God raised Jesus from the dead,’ since he is unable to detect God’s actions with the tools of his trade. (CROJ, p.135)
I agree with this passage. Notice that Habermas and Licona (hereafter: H&L;) take seriously the question ‘Did Jesus die?’ and they indicate that both history and science have (or at least potentially have) a role to play in answering that question.
I’m also sympathetic with the idea that science is not up to the task of dealing with theological questions, that is to say, with questions about whether God exists, and what God (if he exists) has done or would be likely to do. As H&L; comment just after this passage, philosophy can be used to address the theological aspects of the resurrection claim.
2. Laws of Nature and the Possibility of Resurrection
Through observation and testing, scientific laws are formulated in order to state what normally happens under certain circumstances. These laws have been observed throughout the past. We get similar results most of the time. The historian must employ his or her knowledge of scientific laws as they currently exist in order to determine whether something happened in the past. It may make sense that these laws, which produce consistent results today, produced the same results in the past. By understanding the laws of nature and how living cells work, we know that, when humans die, they stay dead. Their cells do not just regenerate, allowing them to return to life.
Therefore, assuming that the laws of nature are consistent, many skeptics claim that is it irrational to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, since science has proven that resurrections are impossible. But does scientific investigation really show that resurrections are impossible–period? Not at all. First, what science has shown is that a person is not going to rise from the dead by natural causes. (CROJ, p.136)
The line about “similar results most of the time” seems too weak to me. Laws of physics don’t just work ‘most of the time’. The standard is a bit stronger than that. However, I agree with the basic point of this passage, which is that laws of nature do not determine what is logically possible (or logically impossible). The laws of nature tell us what nature can do, what can happen naturally, apart from intervention by God or some other supernatural beings or by human beings who possess supernatural powers (e.g. witches and wizards).
3. God and the Suspension of Natural Laws
If God created the universe, including the natural laws that govern it, what would prohibit such a Being from suspending or temporarily overriding those same laws to perform a miracle? God cannot perform logically impossible acts such as making a married bachelor or a square circle. However, there is nothing logically impossible about God suspending the physical laws he set up, especially if he wished to send a message. (CROJ, p.138)
…the laws of nature would be no match for an omnipotent God who chooses to act by superseding those laws. …Scientific reliance upon natural processes to explain everything does not answer the question of whether all things that happen are controlled only by natural processes. God may have momentously stepped in to do something that nature cannot explain. (CROJ, p.141)
I also agree with these passages. The word ‘God’ is ordinarily taken to imply an omnipotent person, among other things. Omnipotence is constrained only by what is logically possible, not by what is physically or naturally possible, so if some person is omnipotent, then that person can bring about events that require the suspension of a law of nature. Thus, if there is a God, then God is able to bring dead people back to life, because God, being omnipotent, is able to bring about an event that involves a temporary suspension of a law of nature, if God chose to do so. God, if he exists, can do what is physically or naturally impossible. If an omnipotent being is logically possible, then it is logically possible for there to be a temporary suspension of a law of nature.
There are some logical issues with the concept of ‘omnipotence’ but one can specify a definition of omnipotence in such a way as to rule out logical incoherence. That is basically what Swinburne does in his explication of the concept of ‘God’ in his book The Coherence of Theism. So, I’m happy to grant that, on something like Swinburne’s definition of ‘omnipotence’, it is logically possible for some person to be omnipotent. So, I’m happy to grant the assumption that it is logically possible for a person to temporarily suspend a law of nature.
If there is a God, then such a being would have the power to temporarily suspend a law of nature. It follows that if there is a God, then such a being would have the power to suspend one or more laws of nature and bring a dead man back to life, and thus bring about a miracle. So, if Jesus’s alleged resurrection was such that it would have required the suspension of a law of nature, then Jesus’s resurrection was physically impossible, but not logically impossible. God, if God exists, could have brought Jesus back from the dead.
Consider the following claim:
1. The resurrection of Jesus was a miracle.
I take it that this statement implies at least the following two statements:
2. The resurrection of Jesus was brought about by God.
3. The resurrection of Jesus involved the temporary suspension of at least one natural law.
In other contexts, the word ‘miracle’ might be used in a looser way that does not imply or require the suspension of a natural law. But in the case of many alleged NT ‘miracles’, they are especially impressive precisely because they involve the suspension of a law of nature:
- walking on water
- turning water into wine
- rising from the dead
These sorts of events provide the clearest evidence of supernatural power, because such events go beyond the power of nature, and the natural powers of human beings. When such events are called ‘miracles’ the intention is typically to draw attention to this aspect of those events: “Nature and ordinary human beings cannot do X, but Jesus did X, so….”
Finally, I take it that if both (2) and (3) are true, then so is (1).