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Disputing Miracles vs Disputing History (I)

Disputing Miracles vs Disputing History (I) June 25, 2021

I’m sorry, but I can’t remember who posted this comment but it is worth dwelling on; if I remember correctly, it was in response to me picking apart biblical narratives for their historical inaccuracies and problems, as well as their naturalistic impossibilities:

John, why dispute these facts and not go right for the miracles?

Because, if miracles are possible, if it’s possible to extract water from a stone and part the sea, then it’s possible that Moses’ mother had a magical pitch pit in her back yard or that she extracted pitch from a rock, right?

This is indeed a problem with trying to assess the likelihood of some supposed supernatural (biblical) event. No there aren’t enough water molecules in the world, yes the Earth’s crust would have imploded, yes all the sea life would have died from the influx of fresh water, no the animals couldn’t have got to the Middle East (and, yes, this WAS clearly myth), but since I believe in a supernatural OmniGod, why not?

So, yes, if you believe in this sky fairy that can do anything in conception within the constraints of logic, then hey ho.

But there are several things to consider:

  1. Even given supernaturalism, are such event actually happening the most probable explanation for the data (i.e., the biblical claims or stories)?
  2. Even supernatural events in God interacting with the world will leave their mark and will be, in some sense, testable.

Supernaturalism vs Naturalism

I will deal with the first point today. Let me give you an excerpt from my book The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK(p.44-50):

…even the Catholic Church start out with the inductive conclusion that any new claim for a miracle at Lourdes is likely to be false. The Church then applies very charitable metrics for evidential value to conclude that only a minority of them are true. What this reality suggests, in looking at claims against supposed miracles, is that the initial probability of a miracle claim is still very low indeed, even if we are the very charitable Catholic Church.

As Stephen T. Davis, Christian philosopher and apologist (and miracles believer), concludes: “naturalistic explanations of phenomena ought to be preferred by rational people in the vast majority of cases”.[1] Irrespective of whether you are a naturalist or supernaturalist (however you define those most slippery of terms), miracle claims have a very low probability of being true and require a high level of evidence to support them.

Preacher-turned-atheist Dan Barker recognised these problems concerning the Resurrection in his excellent chapter “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” in his book Godless:[2]

When examining artifacts from the past, historians assume that nature worked back then as it does today; otherwise, anything goes. American patriot Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, asked: “Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of the miracle tells a lie.@

If we relate this back to Bayes’ Theorem, then we might look at the Background Knowledge part of the formula. This is where the naturalist atheist will diverge, before we even get started, from the supernaturalist theist.

David Hume wrote: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”[3]

The naturalist will conclude (i.e., not presuppose), based on pragmatism and inductive observation, that there is no recourse to supernaturalism:

  • We can’t assess eyewitness accounts (there are none).
  • We have never experienced a god becoming a man.
  • We have never experienced any living organism dying and being resurrected.
  • We have no evidence of a heaven.
  • And so forth.

Therefore, in order for all of these Easter story claims to be true, we have to throw out everything we know about how the world works. Which is fine, if the evidence warrants this decision (it doesn’t, by the way).

Now, the theist has different axioms but the problem is that they are circular.

The theist already believes in a world (background knowledge) where resurrections and general supernaturalism are possible (and perhaps even expected – though the question is where they derive this from). With this background knowledge, the probabilities of the resurrection claims are massively adjusted upwards. They already believe in a world where there is a god, God, and where this god has been in human form, Jesus.

But these are the very claims we are trying to evaluate. The existence of God as Jesus and resurrections are what we are analysing in the formula, so you can’t presuppose the truth of the Resurrection by already having the Resurrection or resurrections in your background knowledge.

On the other hand, the theist will accuse the naturalist of already counting out such possibilities of resurrection. Craig Blomberg, in Resurrection: Faith or Fact?, in which he wrangles with the late skeptic Carl Stecher over the Easter story, does exactly this:[1]

How then do we adjudicate among the remaining options? At this point the issue of preunderstanding, presuppositions, or worldviews looms large. If one is an antisupernaturalist (or, more simply, just a naturalist), then one excludes the possibility of an actual bodily resurrection at the outset. No amount of dialogue, discussion, or debate can change that. Dead men don’t rise. Everyone today knows this. Therefore, however, we explain the rise of Christian faith, a literal physical resurrection is excluded a priori. We can debate the relative merits of the alternatives, but the historic Christian belief simply can’t be the correct one…. Hume also claims that no one has sufficient reason for believing in something that has no analogy in their personal experience or an experience of anyone they know. Already in the eighteenth century, however, it was pointed out that by this logic, no person living in the tropics should ever believe in the ice.

Today, the presupposition of antisupernaturalism is often phrased a little differently. Nothing may be admitted as genuinely existing, or as having occurred, unless it can be demonstrated empirically or logically. But the truth of this presupposition is merely asserted; it is never demonstrated either empirically or logically! Indeed, by its very nature it cannot be true. So the argument is solipsistic, that is, it forms a viciously circular form of reasoning and therefore has no force. Only slightly different is the claim that unless something can be proven scientifically, there are no rational grounds for believing it. But again, this affirmation itself cannot be proven scientifically. We are reminded that science is not omnipotent and cannot be the final arbiter of reality.

However, this approach is not as sound as one might think since it would also support a belief in unicorns or anything that one can think and assert as being true; such a claim would obviously be nonsense and may even be an attempt to prove a negative. Proving that unicorns do not exist in the universe is to expect us to look under every rock and inspect every atomic conglomeration in the universe. Even then, we would be victim to claims of making mistakes and missing things.

We should not be able to just assert every divine claim (read in any ancient text) or any idea as being true without recourse to other arguments and evidence. This is a question not of proof but of probability.

The naturalist has inductive reasoning, observations over time and geography, that resurrections do not happen. A Christian usually applies this same reasoning to every other situation…outside of Christianity. However, the naturalist can also apply a methodological naturalism to underpin such metaphysical naturalism. By this, I mean that scientists always assume naturalism when doing any observational work since to posit that a ghost or God could have done something does not help any scientific experiment; these statements are untestable. This methodology has worked very well for science. Look where it has got us.

As such, the naturalist can use these tools and rationally expand methodology to conclude metaphysically, that, in all likelihood, supernaturalism is false. But one would really hope that this metaphysical conclusion isn’t merely an assertion and it is at least based on inductive evidence and probability.

My favourite quote on this topic is as follows:[2]

The cause of lightning was once thought to be God’s wrath, but turned out to be the unintelligent outcome of mindless natural forces. We once thought an intelligent being must have arranged and maintained the amazingly ordered motions of the solar system, but now we know it’s all the inevitable outcome of mindless natural forces. Disease was once thought to be the mischief of supernatural demons, but now we know that tiny, unintelligent organisms are the cause, which reproduce and infect us according to mindless natural forces. In case after case, without exception, the trend has been to find that purely natural causes underlie any phenomena. Not once has the cause of anything turned out to really be God’s wrath or intelligent meddling, or demonic mischief, or anything supernatural at all. The collective weight of these observations is enormous: supernaturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always lost; naturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always won. A horse that runs a million races and never loses is about to run yet another race with a horse that has lost every single one of the million races it has run. Which horse should we bet on? The answer is obvious.

Skeptic author Jeffrey Jay Lowder explains further:[3]

If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for naturalism and against theism.

The theist simply does not have this luxury because it all looks very circular:

  • I believe in a world where resurrection is possible.
  • Because I believe in a world in which Jesus was resurrected.
  • Because I have analysed the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and found them to be a plausible account of the data.
  • Because (1) I believe in a world where resurrection is possible.

And so the circle goes on, in perpetuity.

Read this again and truly take on board what I am saying here because this is absolutely fundamental to highlighting the foundational issues to the Christian worldview.

The skeptic or naturalist does not dismiss the claims of resurrection in the Easter story out of hand. To the contrary, they assess the evidence put forward in light of what we know about the world and the standard of evidence of the Gospel accounts. Indeed, Stecher replies to Blomberg’s arguments about presuppositions in this way:[4]

I am certainly willing to consider the evidence for the resurrection, just as I call upon Craig to consider the evidence from natural explanations and the problems with the evidence for the resurrection as a fact of history. Both of us, certainly, have presuppositions, but the hope is for both of us to make the strongest possible cases for and against resurrection as history (given the limitations of the format and the voluminous arguments on both sides), then to clarify where and why we differ, and to discover, if possible, where we are in agreement. My position is not that Jesus’ resurrection did not happen, but that the evidence is scant and deeply flawed, contradictory in almost every possible way, and therefore insufficient to establish Jesus’ resurrection as a fact of history. Furthermore, I argue, there are many plausible natural explanations to explain why some of Jesus’s disciples might have come to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

And that is pretty much my approach and conclusion in this book.

In a sense, this book should present strong enough argument for a supernaturalist who believes in resurrection, for whatever reason, to assess the historical analysis of the Easter story claims and logically conclude: “Although I believe in resurrection being possible, I do not believe that the claims of the Easter story have historical veracity because they fail on grounds of probability irrespective of my supernaturalist beliefs.”

Hope springs eternal. Though, of course, the supernaturalist would then be invalidated in any adherence to Christianity on account of having no evidential foundation to their belief.

Another point to add is that faking histories at the time was so common as to be seen as something of a crisis of the time. Such behaviour was…

…attested in the very source Craig [Blomberg] himself cites: Lucian of Samosata’s How to Write History (similarly, in Plutarch’s On the Malice of Herodotus). And modern historians note many episodes contained even in otherwise proper histories of the day, are fictions (as documented by Michael Grant in Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation – just for a start, but examples are endless, and extend all the way from Tacitus to Josephus). So we cannot rescue the fabulous and unverified tales of encountering a risen Jesus in the Gospels as fact by appealing to the claim “no one did that back then.”[5]

Given this observation, then our probabilities should likely be lowered that the Gospel claims are a true representation of what happened in history (and we are going to look further at Gospel issues in the next chapter), especially when we also have numerous examples of pagan divine figures dying and rising (Bacchus, Romulus, Osiris, Zalmoxis) and we (Christians and non-Christians together) don’t believe them.

As Dan Barker astutely points out:[6]

“Why have you ruled out the supernatural?” is a question believers sometimes ask. I answer that I have not ruled it out: I have simply given it the low probability it deserves along with the other possibilities. I might equally ask them, “Why have you ruled out the natural?”

Unfortunately, I think we have a scenario whereby biblical scholars spend inordinate amounts of time in their protective bubbles discussing the minutiae of form and source criticism, theology and symbolism, that they don’t see the wood for the trees. The whole notion of a resurrected Jesus becomes so normalised and plausible when immersed in the topic so deeply. They need to step out of their own reality to assess the data from as objective a position as they can.

In doing so, however, they must be prepared (and I say this knowing that, at the time of writing, biblical scholar Gary Habermas is some 5,000 pages into his magnum opus on the subject) to realise that all of the theology and symbology, textual analysis and subsequent meaning, come tumbling down like a house of cards.

When you remove the keystone, the bridge collapses.

[1] Davis (1993), p. 13.

[2] Barker (2008), p. 278-79.

[3] Hume (1902), p. 115-16.

And then…

[1] Stecher & Blomberg (2019), p. 234-35.

[2] Carrier (2006b).

[3] Lowder (2012).

[4] Stecher & Blomberg (2019), p. 155-56.

[5] Carrier in Stecher & Blomberg (2019) p. 211.

[6] Barker (2008), p. 281.


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