On Miracles and Historiography: Can The Supernatural Ever Be The Best Explanation?

Anyone who has engaged in or interacted with any public discourse on the subject of miracles in the New Testament (especially the resurrection) will have encountered this objection: How can an historian infer that a miracle is the best explanation of historical data, given that supernatural phenomena are, by their very nature, extremely improbable? One might grant that the mass hallucination hypothesis as an explanation for the purported postmortem sightings of Jesus is immensely improbable — but surely it has to be less improbable than the proposition that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Thus, it is argued, any hypothesis which purports to explain the pertinent evidence, no matter how improbable, is a better explanation than invocation of the supernatural.

In his book Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them), the agnostic textual critic and notorious critic of Christianity, Bart Ehrman, summarizes the problem (pp. 174-175):

Historians more or less rank past events on the basis of the relative probability that they occurred All that historians can do is show what probably happened in the past.

This is the problem inherent in miracles. Miracles, by our very definition of the term, are virtually impossible events. Some people would say they are literally impossible, as violations of natural law: a person can’t walk on water any more than an iron bar can float on it. Other people would be a bit more accurate and say that there aren’t actually any laws in nature, written down somewhere, that can never be broken; but nature does work in highly predictable ways. That is what makes science possible. We would call a miracle an event that violates the way nature always, or almost always, works so as to make the event virtually, if not actually, impossible. The chances of a miracle occurring are infinitesimal. If that were not the case it would not be a miracle, just something weird that happened. And weird things happen all the time.

By now I hope you can see the unavoidable problem historians have with miracles. Historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, but miracles, by their very nature, are always the least probable explanation for what happened. […]

If historians can only establish what probably happened, and miracles by their definition are the least probable occurrences, then more or less by definition, historians cannot establish that miracles have ever probably happened.

Such reasoning is a modern incarnation of the view espoused by the great Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume in his classic treatment Of Miracles, and other modern critics have adopted a similar stance on miracles and historiography. Is such an objection, however, well founded? Frequently, regrettably, Christian apologists will miss the difference between the assertion of methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, and so will respond in an incomplete way to the challenge — perhaps by identifying the presuppositional nature of the argument. The fact is that the objector is not necessarily denying a priori that supernatural explanations are, in principle, possible. Rather, the objector is rejecting the notion that an historian can use the standard tools of evidential inquiry to establish that a miracle has likely occurred. There are a number of ways in which the Christian can respond to the skeptic on this point.

If we have reason to think God exists, non-natural explanations are on the table.

The first point that must be highlighted is that we do have very strong evidential grounds for asserting that the facts we observe about reality are far better at home in a theistic Universe than in a non-theistic Universe — the evidence for a cosmic beginning to space and time, the evidence for meticulously precise fine-tuning of the laws and constants of physics, the evidence for design in biology, the evidence for the non-material character of consciousness, and so on. In the case of the origin of the Universe, one indeed must invoke a supernatural cause of some kind — since the cause of our space-time-matter continuum must transcend space, time and matter, and this is traditionally what is meant by ‘supernatural’. Here, one cannot limit the scope of one’s inquiry to what exists in the natural realm — since the natural realm is precisely what is to be explained.

With this in mind, non-natural candidate explanations for available data are, at the very least, in principle, on the table. One cannot, therefore, arbitrarily exclude the supernatural from having causal power in the real world. Indeed, the increasing evidence of design in the realm of biology indicates quite strongly that the Universe is not governed by a deistic god who has no participation in worldly affairs, but rather an intervening one who interacts with the world. It is not the claim of the Christian that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. Indeed, that would be an even more implausible hypothesis than the mass hallucination hypothesis. If one’s worldview, however, justifiably allows for supernatural causation, it is not necessarily an improbable event that God intervene to raise Jesus from the dead.

This rejoinder is quite appropriate as far as it goes, but it is incomplete. One may respond by pointing out that, although the supernatural cannot be ruled out a priori, nonetheless there is no way to evaluate the merits of one supernatural explanation over another. Indeed, as the famed Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin pointed out, to “allow a divine foot in the door”, or “appeal to an omnipotent deity” would be to “allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured that miracles may happen”. A being endowed with infinite power, or omnipotence, could be invoked to explain absolutely any set of observations — and thus, the argument goes, it really lacks the explanatory power to explain anything. If supernatural explanations are on the table, could one not invoke another miracle hypothesis — perhaps the Muslim god, Allah, deceived the disciples into thinking that Jesus had risen from the dead — after all, Surah An-Nisa 157 in the Qur’an says that the crucifixion of Jesus “was made to appear so” to the Jews. If Allah could have deceived them about the crucifixion, perhaps he also deceived them about the resurrection. How can we judge one supernatural hypothesis as being superior to another? It is to this that I now turn.

Historiography Cannot Be Divorced From Theology

It is important that Christian apologists not view miracles, such as the resurrection, in isolation from the theological context in which it sits. The strictly historical inquiry into what best explains the facts and evidence before us must be accompanied with an investigation into whether the God to which the aforementioned data points would plausibly have motivation for raising Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is not some isolated event that is completely disconnected from any theological setting. Indeed, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is the culmination of the Jewish Scriptures, and numerous events throughout these Scriptures foreshadow and point towards this coming event. We thus have a prior plausibility that God would raise His Son, Jesus, from the dead in order to vindicate his self-claims to Messiah and Savior of the world. This context cannot be ignored when we investigate the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the hypothesis that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead must be considered, at the very least, a candidate hypothesis that can be investigated and evaluated on its merits, and its causal efficacy to explain the relevant evidence.

Likewise, the hypothesis that Allah deceived Jesus’s followers into believing that he had risen from the dead must be evaluated on its own merits, and indeed it can be rejected. The Qur’an, after all, claims that Jesus’ own disciples were in fact Muslims (see Surah Al-E-Imran 50-52 and Surah Al-Maeda 110-111). Moreover, the Qur’an can be demonstrated to hardly be a valuable source of information when it comes to historiography — for example, it confuses Mary the mother of Jesus with Miriam the sister of Moses who were separated by around 1500 years (see Surah Maryam 28 and Surah At-Tahrim 12). The Qur’an also claims consistency with the Christian Scriptures and that the coming of Muhammad is prophesied by both the Old and New Testaments (see my article here). On both of these counts, however, this is demonstrably not the case. Thus, it is implausible that the god of Islam even exists, let alone that he had plausible motivation for deceiving the disciples of Jesus into believing that Jesus rose from the dead.

Conclusion

In summary, my response to this common objection to Biblical miracles is two-fold. The first is presuppositional in nature — if one’s worldview justifiably allows for the supernatural, such explanations cannot be ruled out a priori. Secondly, the resurrection of Jesus sits within a larger theological context, and one can demonstrate that God had plausible motivations for raising Jesus from the dead. Indeed, it is difficult to justify the assertion that a miracle is highly improbable given (1) God exists and (2) one can demonstrate that God has plausible reasons for performing a miracle. Thus, at the very least, the resurrection hypothesis is a candidate explanation that must be considered to be on the table as not a mere technical possibility, but as a real possibility in the sense of being sufficiently plausible to be a contender in the battle for best explanation.

Indeed, I maintain that no hypothesis possesses the explanatory power to explain the dynamics of Christianity’s origin — the origins of the disciples’ demonstrably sincere belief that Jesus had risen from the dead and their willingness to die as martyrs for their testimony, together with the empty tomb — like the resurrection hypothesis. But a discussion and evaluation of this evidence is beyond the scope of this article.

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10 replies
  1. Stephen B says:

    “With this in mind, non-natural candidate explanations for available data are, at the very least, in principle, on the table”

    Do you agree with the principle in our legal system of excluding supernatural explanations? If not, how would you imagine any court case to proceed if the defence team could simply cite a supernatural alternative to the the accused being the responsible for any event? As you quote Richard Lewontin, there is simply no crime at all that one couldn’t wriggle out of if ‘non-natural’ explanations are on the table.

    “their willingness to die as martyrs for their testimony”

    Which disciples who supposedly saw the risen Christ died SPECIFICALLY for their testimony, and who rejected the chance to save themselves by recanting?

    “Thus, it is implausible that the god of Islam even exists”

    Jews and Muslims have similar explanations for why the Christian God cannot exist. These reasons are rejected by Christians for pretty much the same reasons that Muslims reject the reasons you cite for why Allah cannot exist.

    Reply
    • Davis says:

      Stephen B – The most important point is that there are good reasons to believe that reality is God-based and not many god arguments that naturalism reflects reality. That being the case then the supernatural is expected.

      Supernatural explanations: remember that the miracles in the Bible especially the resurrection of Jesus were prophesized and have a theological basis showing the authority of that person as called by God. That can be discriminated from other supernatural explanations that would have to be taken on a case by case basis and judged on the evidence.

      Martyrs: Paul, Peter & James the brother of Jesus are thought by historians to have died for their belief in Jesus as God. Tradition says that 11 out of the 12 disciples were martyred but that is not substantiated historically.

      “Jews and Muslims have similar explanations for why the Christian God cannot exist. These reasons are rejected by Christians for pretty much the same reasons that Muslims reject the reasons you cite for why Allah cannot exist.”

      Too vague. Please be more specific. Thanks.

      Reply
      • Stephen B says:

        “The most important point is that there are good reasons to believe that reality is God-based and not many god arguments that naturalism reflects reality”

        I’m going to assume you mean ‘not mean good arguments’. I profoundly disagree. I’ve not seen good reasons to believe ‘reality is God-based’. In fact one of the reasons I’ve seen offered is the resurrection of Jesus. It seems I’m being told that the resurrection of Jesus is likely BECAUSE God is likely to exist, and that God is likely to exist because Jesus was resurrected.

        “Martyrs: Paul, Peter & James the brother of Jesus are thought by historians to have died for their belief in Jesus as God.”

        Paul claimed to have had a vision of Jesus when he was called Saul, yes? Are you counting this as being an example of seeing the resurrected Christ? Even he claims he saw no more than bright light and heard a voice. Again, isn’t this more likely to have simply been an epileptic fit? His experience is the symptoms epilepsy suffers encounter.

        That leaves James and Peter. What were they accused of, what sources do we have for their deaths, and would they still have been killed even if they recanted their Christ claims?

        “Too vague. Please be more specific.”

        You really can do your own research on this if you’re genuinely interested. The other Abrahamic religions have their apologetics replying to why Jesus CANNOT have been God, and they have their responses to the Christian apologetics against their faiths.

        Reply
        • Terry L says:

          >> In fact one of the reasons I’ve seen offered is the resurrection of Jesus. It seems I’m being told that the resurrection of Jesus is likely BECAUSE God is likely to exist, and that God is likely to exist because Jesus was resurrected.

          I’ve never offered (or seen another offer) the resurrection of Jesus as evidence of God’s existence. It is offered as evidence that Christianity is true. God’s existence is a supporting point for the truth of the resurrection.

          You correctly note that to argue from the resurrection to God’s existence would be reasoning in a circle; I’ve just never seen this done by anyone other than atheists (usually as a straw-man argument), or very young apologists who are not yet skilled at expressing their thoughts.

          Your experience may vary, of course!

          Reply
  2. Stephen B says:

    “One might grant that the mass hallucination hypothesis as an explanation for the purported postmortem sightings of Jesus is immensely improbable”

    How many sightings do we actually have to account for? In addition to the Disciples, the bible mentions 500, I believe, but is this 500 claims to explain, or just a single claim?

    Reply
  3. T Letoka says:

    Stephen B, the legal aspect argument you raised is no argument in the light that the very reason why we even have courts or any legal system requires an explanation of why man does evil in the first place, that evil would include man being able to do even more evil by attempting to invoke the supernatural in order to negate responsibility and evade prosecution

    Reply
    • Stephen B says:

      Sorry, but I don’t see that you’ve said anything than answers or even addresses my points. Perhaps try rephrasing or expanding.

      Reply
  4. Toby says:

    “In the case of the origin of the Universe, one indeed must invoke a supernatural cause of some kind — since the cause of our space-time-matter continuum must transcend space, time and matter, and this is traditionally what is meant by ‘supernatural’.”

    Not precisely. There’s some sloppiness in using the term ‘supernatural’. It carries a lot of baggage being associated with ghosts and creepy, unexplainable phenomenon. I tend to think they overlook an ‘othernatural’ cause of the universe. Something natural, but beyond the scope of our physics at present. They rule it out in favor of whichever might be their favorite universe creator.

    Reply
    • Terry L says:

      >>Something natural, but beyond the scope of our physics at present.

      How is this not a “science of the gaps” argument? One must work with the best information we have now. Claiming, “well, we don’t know now, but science might find an answer” is only valid when you do not have evidence against the claim. A defendant in a trial can’t say, “Wait a minute, judge! I know there’s a lot of evidence that makes me look guilty, but before you sentence me, you need to hear this evidence that my defense team might find in a year or so!”

      In this case, the subject in question is not something beyond the scope of our physics, it’s something that our physics tells us is impossible!

      If the universe is eternal, then because energy cannot be created, the universe by necessity cannot be a closed system and is receiving energy from an infinite and external, source of energy. That source must necessarily be super-natural (outside the bounds and confines of our universe).

      If the universe is finite and has a beginning, then to posit a beginning from material native to this universe is no beginning at all… you’re simply pushing the starting point backward. That’s why the quantum vacuum theories fail; they argue that the quantum vacuum created the universe, but the quantum vacuum is made up of the stuff of the universe, and therefore by definition did not exist to create the universe. Once again, you’re back to something that transcends and exists outside of time, space, matter, and energy.

      Reply
      • Brandon D says:

        Haven’t heard “science of the gaps” argument. That’s brilliant and they can’t refute that. Maybe that’s why there hasn’t been a reply in close to 2 years. : ) The court case illustration is so money. Thanks. : ) Don’t doubt for one second that has made people think a little more. I will definitely use that.

        Reply

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