Let’s create the most compelling miracle story possible. Here’s one.
I met Jesus yesterday. At first, I didn’t believe who he was, but he turned my lawn furniture from steel into gold. I just got back from a dealer who assayed the furniture, confirmed that it was solid gold, and bought it. Over 200 pounds of gold at $1389 per ounce works out to be close to $4.5 million.
Guess who’s a believer now!
Compare this story against the gospels
Would you buy this miracle story? I’m sure I’ve convinced no one, and yet, as miracle stories go, this one is pretty compelling. It certainly beats the gospel story. Compare the two:
- Taking the claim at face value, the time from event to the first writing was one day, and the original witness documented the event. There was no chance for legendary accretion. Compare this to forty years and more of oral tradition with the gospels.
- The time from original document to our oldest complete copy is zero days. Compare this to almost 300 years for the gospels. That’s a lot of time for copyist hanky-panky. (More on the time gap for New Testament manuscripts here and here.)
- The cultural gulf to cross to understand my miracle claim is nonexistent—it’s written in modern English with a Western viewpoint. Compare this to our Greek copies of the gospels from around 350 CE, through which we must deduce the Jewish/Aramaic facts of the Jesus story from around 30 CE.
- This story claims to be an eyewitness account. The argument for the gospels being eyewitness accounts is very tenuous.
- It refers to Jesus, a well-known and widely accepted deity. Compare this to Christianity, which had to introduce Jesus as a new deity into a Jewish context. Ask a religious Jew today, and they will tell you that, no, Jesus wasn’t the messiah they were waiting for.
Have I convinced anyone in my gold lawn furniture story yet? If not, why is the gospel story more acceptable when I’ve beaten it on every point? It’s almost like evidence is just a smokescreen, and Christians believe for non-evidentiary reasons.
The Christian response
Let’s consider some responses from skeptical Christians. They might point to important elements of the gospel story: what about the terrified disciples who became confident after seeing Jesus, the conversions of former enemies Paul and James, or the empty tomb?
Okay, so you want a longer story? It’s hard to imagine that simply adding details and complications can make a story more believable, but I can give you that. Let’s suppose that the story were gospel-sized and included people who initially disbelieved but became convinced.
You say Jesus doesn’t make appearances like this anymore? Okay, make it some other deity—someone known or unknown. You pick.
You say that these claims are so recent that they demand evidence—photos, a check from the gold dealer, samples of the gold lawn furniture? Okay, then change the story to make the evidence inaccessible. Maybe now we imagine it taking place 200 years ago. It’s hard to imagine how making the story less verifiable makes it more credible, but I’m flexible. It’s just words on (virtual) paper—whatever additional objection you have, reshape the story to resolve the problem.
And yet if you were presented with this carefully sculpted story, you’d still be unconvinced. Why? What besides tradition or presuppositions of the rightness of the Christian position makes that more believable?
Let’s approach this from another angle. Imagine that we’ve uncovered a cache of Chinese documents from 2000 years ago, rather like a Chinese Dead Sea Scrolls discovery. These documents claim miracles similar to those found in the gospels. Here are the remarkable facts of this find.
- These documents appear to be originals, not copies. They seem to date from the period about which they are writing. (That beats the gospels, for which this gap is 300 years.)
- They claim to be writing immediately after the events, and the paleographic evidence supports this claim. (For the gospels, this gap is 40 to 70 years.)
- They claim to be eyewitness accounts. Not only do the gospels not claim to be eyewitness accounts, not only is there evidence against such an idea (Matthew and Luke wouldn’t copy most of Mark, some of it verbatim, if they were eyewitnesses), but the evidence for the eyewitness tradition very weak.
- Four different accounts in our Chinese documents give plausible independent attestation. The four gospels are not independent (the three synoptic gospels rehash similar material).
- There are no internal contradictions between the four accounts, nothing is unclear, and the message is unambiguous. Contrast that with the gospels, which disagree with each other and the rest of the Bible on such fundamental issues as whether or not salvation comes exclusively from faith, how long Jesus remained on earth after the resurrection, whether the resurrected Jesus had a spirit body or not, whether hell exists or not, and others.
Christian response #2Here again, the claims of our imaginary find trounce every equivalent Christian claim. But our Christian skeptic might have plausible responses.
- These Chinese authors were lying, and they actually weren’t eyewitnesses. Maybe they even had an agenda. This is just words on paper, after all. Who knows if they’re true, especially if they’re unbelievable?
- The authors were confused, mistaken, or sloppy in their reporting. We can’t guarantee that an author from prescientific China recorded the facts without bias. Perhaps they were constrained by their worldview and unconsciously shoehorned what they saw to fit what they thought they ought to see.
- We can’t prove that the claims are wrong, but so what? That’s not where the burden lies. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this story simply doesn’t have sufficiently compelling evidence.
- Gee, I dunno. It’s an impressive story, but that’s all it is. This is implausible, unrepeatable evidence that can’t overturn what modern science tells us about how the world works.
This Christian skeptic sounds just like me. These are the same objections that I’d raise. So why not show this kind of skepticism for the Christian account?
The honest Christian must avoid the fallacy of special pleading—having a tough standard of evidence for historical claims from the other guy but a lower one for his own. “But you can’t ask for videos or newspaper accounts of events 2000 years ago” is true but irrelevant. It amounts to “I can’t provide adequate evidence, so you can’t hold that against me.”
Ah, but we do. In fact, we must.
Some Christians will point to Christianity’s popularity as evidence, but surely they can’t be saying that the #1 religion must be true. When the number of Muslims exceeds that of Christians, which is expected to happen at shortly after 2050, will they become a Muslim? Popularity doesn’t prove accuracy.
We need a consistently high bar of evidence for supernatural claims, both for foreign claims as well as those close to our heart.
our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
— 1 Corinthians 15:14
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/23/15.)
Image from Tax Credits, CC license