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

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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 an 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 a 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 the 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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