Review of In Defense of Miracles

Richard Carrier

1. Summary Review of In Defense of Miracles (1999, 2005)

In 1997, InterVaristy Press published In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (1997), edited by Gary Habermas and R. Douglas Geivett. This is a well-composed defense of miracles which makes arguments that need to be addressed. It is not really a defense of miracles as such, but makes a cumulative case for Christianity, centering on the resurrection and incarnation of Christ, drawing on fourteen different authors and responding to two critics. R. Douglas Geivett, Gary Habermas, Richard Purtill, Norman Geisler, Francis Beckwith, Winfried Corduan, Ronald Nash, J.P. Moreland, W. David Beck, Stephen Davis, David Clark, Robert Newman, John Feinberg, and William Lane Craig, all line up against David Hume and Antony Flew.

However, apart from the usual plethora of faulty arguments typical of all Christian apologetics, this work suffers from two major faults: first, with the exception of the long-dead Hume, who could not benefit from the advances in historical method or the many discoveries of the past two centuries, none of the contributors are historians. Considering how crucial historical method is to the issue, the complete absence of contributions by experienced historians leaves much to be criticized. As a result, the Christians fail to adequately account for the historical context within which ancient Christian literature was written, and show little understanding of proper historical method. Related to this is a lack of serious contact with scientific literature relating to hallucination, delusion, psychosomatic illness and recovery, and other relevant aspects of human psychology.

Second, at no point are actual miracle-accounts from the modern and middle ages ever addressed in any detail. Since this is what I expected the book to include, I was disappointed to find it lacking. I was unable to see how they would apply their methods to miracles that they are not required to believe in order to justify their faith. Can there be any unbiased applications of their own thinking? Although one chapter deals with miracles in other religions, this is cursory and largely avoids the issue of which Christian miracles we are entitled to doubt. An analysis of medieval and modern miracle accounts is needed to prove that their methods can be consistent with their own common sense. After all, if there are well-attested miracles that justify Catholicism, for example, then these authors ought to convert. But this kind of question was avoided like the plague.

A third, but less significant, fault is that the one modern skeptic allowed to have his say (Antony Flew) clearly composed his contribution prior to seeing any of the others, and consequently his chapter wastes a lot of space arguing points which the other contributors already concede. This makes his essay hardly worth including, although he makes a few essential points about epistemology and historical method which did need to be added to Hume’s rather outdated argument. Normally, I would not expect them to even include Hume and Flew, but if they are going to go to this length, they really ought to give Flew a better chance to say something useful. Moreover, what I would really expect here is a contribution by a skeptical historian. Although Flew has some skill and experience as an historian, his expertise lies in the biography of Hume, not in ancient history. This book would have been much more interesting had they included a chapter by a skeptic of the ancient Christian miracle accounts who was actually an expert in the relevant history.

Nevertheless, the book contains a virtual treasure of bibliographical notes. Although this device is used by the authors to cite each other’s works ad nausium, even this makes the book a valuable reference, for believers and doubters. It is also well written and nicely organized (although I was disappointed to find that it lacks an index). This is the very best that contemporary Christian apologetics can offer on this subject and it martials the works and arguments of all the leading Christian scholars today. Although the book includes two articles by skeptics, there is no skeptical rebuttal of any kind, and the content is almost entirely pro-Christian. It should not be mistaken for anything more than a Christian apologetic work, but we cannot fault it for this, because it does not claim to be anything else.

For a more detailed summary of the virtues and faults of this book, see What’s Good and Bad, and for even more in-depth discussion, see my treatment of particular chapters categorized under the Philosophical Problem and the Historical Problem, in this review’s Table of Contents. Note that all sections of this review were originally written in 1999 and then updated in 2005.

OTHER REVIEWS: I also looked for reviews in print, but these are mainly laudatory, excessively brief, and are all Christian-oriented. For example, The Expository Times (109.6, p. 188: March, 1998) and The Stone Campbell Journal (1.1: April, 1998). But most recently Evan Fales wrote a critical review, “Successful Defense? A Review of In Defense of Miracles,” for Philosophia Christi (3.1, pp. 7-35: 2001), and responses from the authors follow that. If anyone is aware of other reviews that contain any substantial discussion, please let me know of them. There are, of course, several summaries available on the web, which are all found at Christian websites, but most are little more than promo material (e.g. see the Calvin Web, First Things, and the InterVarsity Press promo page).

2. What’s Good and Bad in In Defense of Miracles (1999, 2005)

Many of the chapters in the book In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (1997) make arguments that need to be addressed, or at least acknowledged. For instance, Richard Purtill‘s essay on “Defining Miracles” (61-72) makes a much-needed point. All too often the theist’s position is straw-manned by setting forth a definition of miracle that many theists do not really hold, and then arguing for the impossibility or difficulty of that definition. This can no longer be done in response to this book or any miracle claims made by the many authors involved, many of whom still engage in public debates.

These authors have made it their first point to define what they mean by a miracle, and it is not what many critics will expect. In Purtill’s words, “a miracle is an event brought about by the power of God that is a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history” (72). Though this definition creates certain problems for recognizing a miracle, it should be clear that this is not something that is logically impossible, nor is it something that is unable to be a subject of scientific investigation, two claims usually made by critics.

However, in the process of escaping these two criticisms, the theists have run right into the camp of the empiricists and are forced to defend themselves on another front: how can anyone recognize a miracle even if they see one? Winfried Corduan‘s chapter aims to address this (99-112), but it is so feeble it’s astonishing to me that his essay wasn’t dumped altogether. He shows no signs of having read Purtill’s chapter, and thus does not address problems specific to Purtill’s definition of a miracle. Moreover, his argument, even as stated, is too weak: he only aims to show that it is “possible” that miracles could be recognized. He never attempts to show exactly how we are to recognize them. Certainly, it may be possible to travel faster than light, too, but how exactly would one propose to do that? Corduan thus fails to make any useful point, and his is a major weak link in the book’s deliberately “cumulative” argument. I devote a separate chapter to Corduan’s Failure.

On the other hand, Geisler’s chapter successfully refutes part of Hume’s “argument against miracles,” which he says is largely responsible for the modern mindset against the miraculous. Geisler rightly notes that Hume’s argument was actually against belief in miracles, not against their possibility, but he does miss one nuance of Hume’s argument: Hume only addresses miracle stories, and never even touches upon the question of direct observation. On that question Hume is silent. But Hume’s argument is still too strong for one important reason: two hundred years have passed in which our understanding of the universe, and our ability to examine it, has magnified a thousand times, thus making possible what Hume in his own time thought impossible. Antony Flew explains how Hume was perfectly justified to hold the position he did at that time, by analogy with a similar case involving Herodotus (51-2). Moreover, so long as the state of the evidence remains as it is, we are still justified in sharing the same conclusion as Hume, even though we can now say it may yet be possible to change this conclusion, if new evidence were to arise, something Hume, unaware of the future, did not concede. This is what Geisler’s contribution establishes.

In short, Geisler adequately flushes out the fallacy in the claim that since miracles are unrepeatable but natural laws repeatable, therefore evidence of the latter will always outweigh the former. This is not sound as a logical principle, since it is possible for miraculous events to be common enough that, even should each one be unique, the preponderance of cases would stand as repeatable evidence that miracles, in general, do occur. Likewise, history is filled with the unrepeatable. We shall never be able to repeat Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but nevertheless we believe we can prove it happened. Although Flew and Hume argue that this sort of claim is believable because we know such an event to be possible, given the natural laws as we know them, this is not the whole story. For example, there was a long time when we could not adequately account for precisely how the pyramids were built, yet we still regarded the evidence that it had in fact been done by human hands as compelling enough to believe it.

The question is thus not just one of mere repeatability, but a combined issue of feasibility and evidence: we disbelieve what we currently regard as unfeasible, and what we lack sufficient evidence to believe in the first place. And since God may yet be proved to exist, it follows that God’s action in history, in the form of miracles, would in that case become feasible. Repeatability would come into the picture only when it came time to prove that God can work miracles (by Purtill’s Definition). Then all we would need is repeatable proof of his general ability, not the repetition of any specific event–just as all we need to believe that Shakespeare could write Othello is a general proof that men can write plays. Of course, although this makes belief in miracles logically possible, the current state of things might not make such a belief reasonable. But other authors were left to address that issue.

Another essay that was important to read, and yet very typical of contemporary apologetics, is Ronald Nash‘s chapter on how a worldview is a crucial consideration in any argument about what is possible or impossible or what we can expect (115-131). The upshot is that when the world is seen from a Christian point of view, it is not unreasonable to expect miracles to be possible and recognizable, even if it is justifiably unreasonable from a skeptic’s point of view. Of course, the problem here is that the worldview in question must first be justifiable. If it is unreasonable to adopt a Christian point of view, then there is no point in arguing about what is reasonable from that point of view, because it will not be reasonable to expect that point of view to correlate with reality. Nash does not succeed in making this essential case.

Of course, Nash argues that “naturalism” (a particular kind of atheism) is unreasonable (I address this attack in a separate chapter on Nash’s Argument), but he does not even attempt a case for the reasonableness of Christian theism. This creates a disconnect between his introduction, where he argues that Christian theism makes miracles plausible, and his conclusion, where he claims that naturalism (which makes miracles implausible) is unreasonable. We are left to wonder, even if naturalism is unreasonable, has he made the case that believing in miracles is reasonable? It might be, if Christian theism were reasonable, but he does not argue that. Of course, the rest of the book is somewhat structured to make that case, but primarily through the argument from miracles, and that cannot even get off the ground if you do not first establish that it is reasonable to believe in miracles in the first place. In other words, Christian theism must be reasonable without appealing to miracles before you can use it as a justification for believing in them. Otherwise, all you have is a circular argument, which is not an argument at all, but a mere assertion. This is not to say that you must show Christian theism to be reasonable before you can be justified believing in miracles, but you cannot use “Christian theism” as the basis for that justification unless you have first justified Christian theism.

A better point is made by J.P. Moreland in his essay on theistic science (132-148), although he drops the ball by leaving most of his argument in other sources which he does not quote, wasting space here to weakly argue for libertarian freewill. Though he uses this approach in a novel way, it is only of doctrinal relevance, since libertarian freewill is not required for miracles to exist or to be studied scientifically (I discuss his argument further in a separate chapter on Moreland’s ‘Christian Science’). Here I will discuss the underlying, key point–the purpose of this chapter in the book’s editorial strategy: miracles can be a subject of scientific investigation. In principle, I agree. But he does not make a good case. There is also something sly about his argument: he chooses the weakest case for the reasonableness of Christian theism, rather than what would amount to the best case if Christian theism were actually true.

For example, Moreland argues that a “god-of-the-gaps” approach is not unscientific, which is a difficult position to defend, although it can be true under certain conditions. But “theistic science” would be better defended the same way all sciences are: by showing the actual positive contributions of that science. For instance, if we could study the attributes of God the same way we can study those of human beings, such as by asking Him to do things and observing His capabilities, and observing His personality as reflected in His choices, moral as well as casual, and so forth, then it would make perfect sense to include theism as a branch of science, since its claims could then be tested experimentally, and that is one key feature of sound science–one of the differences between science on the one hand, and philosophy and theology on the other. It is also the one thing that would actually improve our knowledge about God and the universe. This would also follow for other features of Christian theism, for example the claim that certain people can heal others by the grace of God.

But Moreland can’t make this case, because it would betray the fact that there is no way such a science could ever take off, for God does not make himself available to be tested. Neither do faith healers for that matter. There is, to put it bluntly, nothing to study. This makes his case for theistic science look as ridiculous as it really is. No wonder he avoids it. Instead, he argues for his theistic science by only talking about null hypotheses (though he does not use that term, this is in fact what he is talking about), as if that were sufficient to make an investigation a science. After all, a science consisting of nothing but null hypotheses would never make any progress. It is true that it can be a valid scientific endeavor to experimentally refute a claim, but a science which did nothing but refute, which never experimentally tested a positive theory, would not be a very useful science.

Most importantly, however, Moreland seems to assume that debunking naturalist theories is the same thing as proving theism. But his “theistic science” will never really touch on the idea of a god, and so it can hardly be called “theistic.” It would only be able to show that one particular natural explanation for something was untrue. But there will always be another one around the corner, and his theistic scientists would be like hamsters treading a wheel. A real “theistic science” would actually seek to experimentally prove that a god exists, and as Beck defines God, that would be a feasible scientific endeavor. But that cannot be done by merely debunking alternatives–for there will always be a new alternative. And since science has repeatedly failed to experimentally prove that Beck’s god exists, the concept of a “theistic science” is ludicrous–even more ludicrous than the idea of a “psychic science” (and for a critique of how an exclusive focus of null-hypotheses has doomed parapsychology, see Dr. Susan Blackmore’s autobiography In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, 1996). I am left wondering whether Moreland knows this, and thus is being devious by avoiding the issue, or if he has somehow missed this essential point.

After Moreland, some contributions were obviously necessary to make their cumulative case for miracles, but are not really worth reading. For example, W. David Beck‘s essay on “God’s Existence” (149-162) is a rather poor summary of tired arguments for the existence of god that we have all seen refuted before. The one useful feature of his essay is that he actually defines “God.” Moreover, his definition may surprise you: “God is a being powerful enough to produce events in space/time” and thus doesn’t have to be omnipotent, “God is an intelligence with a capacity to frame the convergence of events in space/time” and thus doesn’t have to be omniscient, and “God is a personality with the moral concern to act in history” and thus doesn’t have to be omnibenevolent (149). Of course, most Christians believe God is all these things and more, and the book itself does not make a consistent case, since Stephen Davis gives a different definition of God later on (163). But Beck at least sets himself a task that is much less ridiculous. Even so, he fails to make a case, and in a separate chapter I address Beck’s Failed Attempt.

Perhaps the most useless essay included is that of Stephen Davis, who argues the seemingly inane point that a god acting in history is plausible (163-177). In particular, is it possible for God to be “immaterial” and yet still affect matter and energy? Does the idea of god being “timeless” still allow for discrete actions in time? Does it make sense for a divine genius to keep tinkering with a universe that he should have been smart enough to make tinker-free in the beginning? Does it make sense to even believe in a miracle-working God? These sound like impressive questions to tackle, butDavis only addresses them in the most cursory and predictable fashion. The only answerDavis gives to each of them is “it’s possible” and yet that hardly needs to be argued. This, then, is not an argument for belief, but a defense against alternative theologies, like Deism, which deny that a God acting in history is logically possible, and against atheists who like to bombard theists with boring, nitpicking arguments.

Davis’ contribution is essentially like that of John Feinberg (226-246), who desperately defends the notion of the trinity (and the dual-nature of Christ as God and man) by arguing vigorously that it is logically possible. Both authors acknowledge that being possible is nowhere near the same thing as being true, yet they say nothing about why we should believe that their solutions to these problems have anything to do with the truth. Consequently, both these essays are of very little value–unless you are one of those who think the answer to any of those questions is an unqualified “its impossible.” Since I am not one of those, I will not discuss these chapters further.

All the remaining chapters deal in one respect or another with history or historical method, and so they will be discussed in more detail in separate chapters. One thing they all have in common is historical incompetence. It is often supposed that all historians do is read and write, and since anyone can do that, anyone can do history. This mistaken idea has captured virtually every Christian apologist, and these authors are no exception. Beckwith, Geivett, Clark, Newman, and Craig and Habermas each make at least one, if not several, mistakes of fact or method which no competent historian would likely make, much less get away with.

For there is a lot more to doing history than just reading and writing. I have not spent eight years of my life just learning how to read. Although I have devoted many of those years to learning how to read in four different languages (in addition to my own), something essential for any real historian, especially a historian of antiquity, the great bulk of my time, and my professors’ attention, has been spent upon two tasks which take years to perfect and are essential for history to be done competently:

  • First, it is necessary to become so immersed in a time and culture that its features become familiar, and connections and comparisons readily made, and importing modern assumptions into ancient contexts easily avoided
  • Second, it is necessary to master all the means and methods of error and deception in every form of historical evidence, from material evidence to inscriptions to literature, by constantly exposing yourself to these materials and studying the common features of obvious, and not-so-obvious, lies and mistakes.

The skill of the historian rests not only in his ability to recognize what he is looking at and to understand what it would have looked like, what it would have meant, to the people of the time and place being studied, and what it signifies to us about them and what they wrote, but it rests also in his ability to avoid being duped. As we will see, none of the authors in this book possess any appreciable skill as an historian.

Finally, Geivett and Habermas compose the book’s introduction, which, among other things, surveys the modern history of historical thinking in basically a single page (15-6). But they forget to provide a similar summary of ancient historical thinking. Since the central focus of the book is on miracles recorded in antiquity, not to address how historical thinking in that period would affect the transmission and reception of stories is a serious fault. It is, however, indicative of how apologetics gets done: Christians think only within the box of their own time, culture and literature. Rarely do they read widely in the non-Christian literature of ancient times, much less tackle in any depth the critical issues of ancient history. Instead, they often import modern assumptions when examining ancient claims. This, too, will become clear in my more detailed analysis of their treatment of historical issues in this book.

3. The Philosophical Problem

a.The Problem with Miracles and the Shaky Groundwork of Corduan and Purtill (1999, 2005)

Defining “Miracle”

Purtill defines a miracle as “an event brought about by the power of God that is a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history” (72). The primary problem with his definition is that it makes recognizing an actual miracle as a miracle almost impossible. As an empirical hypothesis, using Purtill’s definition, the statement “x is a miracle” requires that we establish, with empirical evidence, a causal connection between the event x and this God, which in turn requires that we establish, with empirical evidence, that this God exists. That is a tough task. Moreover, we must establish, again with empirical evidence, that God caused x for a specific purpose, which in turn requires us to be able to examine and demonstrate the intentions of God in that specific case. That can sometimes be done without interviewing the agent–we can infer intent from the nature and context of an action, and we often engage in such reasoning in law courts, but it often isn’t easy. Finally, we must be able to establish that x could not have happened in “the ordinary course of nature.” In other words, we must show that God is a necessary, not just a sufficient, cause of x. So Purtill has set the bar almost too high for anyone, in the present world as we know it, to ever recognize a miracle. Even if a miracle happened right in front of us, we would almost never be able to establish that it was a miracle, and this difficulty only becomes exponentially greater when the miracle happened to someone else a long time ago.


As an example, according to Purtill, the resurrection of Lazarus was a miracle, because “it was Lazarus’s nature to die in the circumstances of his illness” and so “his resurrection was, in the strict sense, supernatural, going beyond what was natural for him” (63). On the other hand, “if…we find that some apparently wonderful event can be accounted for by some power less than the power of God” then it is not a miracle (64). He gives no example here, yet he should give us a contrafactual about Lazarus to show us he is seriously considering the problems with his definition. We are left to wonder just what evidence or argument would suffice to convince him that the resurrection of Lazarus could be accounted for by some power less than that of God. Certainly we can account for Lazarus’s resurrection as a result of natural causes, and are only prevented from proving this by our inability to access any evidence, lacking a time machine or any records, such as those of a doctor overseeing the care and burial of Lazarus.

But Purtill is equally unable to show that Lazarus’s resurrection went “beyond” what was natural for him. He does not know what illness Lazarus had or whether he was really clinically dead, and so he does not what was natural for Lazarus, and almost certainly never will. Yet both he and I know there could be a plausible natural explanation for the report we have, for history and science afford us ample evidence that this sort of thing can happen. Do we have anywhere near as much evidence that there is a god who can explain it? We do not. And even if we had better proof that God exists, then we could only offer God as a possible explanation for Lazarus’s revival. Of course, at present I honestly can’t even do that, having no reason at all to believe there is such a god. Yet even if I had that proof, I would still only have God as a possible explanation, not a necessary one. In other words, even if I believed God exists, I would still not have enough evidence at hand to say that God raised Lazarus from the dead even if he did. That is because it is not enough to show that God could be a sufficient cause of this event. We must prove that God is a necessary cause, which, given the present state of the evidence, we can never do. This is a serious problem for Purtill. Later in the book Winfried Corduan attempts but fails to solve it.

Are there Any Recognizable Miracles?

However, I must make one thing clear: Purtill’s definition at least allows that it may be possible, in some circumstance, to prove–even scientifically–that a miracle has occurred. But the circumstances required would be so unusual that this is of little use to Christians, since the resurrection of Jesus, for instance, does not meet these vital circumstances and thus cannot be shown to be a miracle by Purtill’s definition. We simply have no evidence that will allow us to demonstrate that God is a necessary cause of the reported resurrection of Jesus. But since I expect it of Purtill, I will offer my own contrafactual to show that I am serious about my position:

I can imagine my pet fish suddenly speaking to me, telling me that God gave it the power to tell me that He loves me. As a rational person, my first hypotheses would be either that I am being tricked by someone, or that I am suffering from hallucinations–either from a brain disorder or chemical influence. Indeed, I would be running through my memory to recall if I drank anything that someone might have dropped a tab of acid in. I would then test all those hypotheses. Can others hear the fish talk? Can the fish tell me anything that I could not have learned any other way–like the name and location of a lost child? Is the sound unmistakably coming from the fish–even when I move it, and change its bowl? Can others confirm all of this? Can doctors confirm that I have no drugs in my system and no obvious brain disorder? Under these conditions, I believe I would have enough proof to call this a miracle under Purtill’s definition (this example is borrowed from my article “A Fish Did Not Write This Essay”).

Now, someone might say that even this is not enough, because this phenomenon could still conceivably be caused by demons or aliens or psychics or something equally bizarre (or an even more elaborate natural explanation, such as an extraordinarily sophisticated delusion). In other words, I still would not have enough to be certain that God was a necessary cause of the fish’s ability to talk, but given what the fish is saying and what I am learning from it, and all the other details, I would have enough evidence to reasonably believe that it is God doing it, and for the requisite purpose (since the effect–the things said by the fish–allows us to infer this, even if we happen to be wrong). In such a case I would indeed convert at least to the teachings of my fish, so long as, upon interrogation, the fish’s wisdom proved to be morally good and the fish could adequately prove all its assertions–and did not expect me to believe what it could not prove (since it is immoral to demand blind obedience), and so long as this theory is not refuted in the future. But all this evidence is totally lacking in every other miracle account in history. Thus, although Purtill’s definition at least makes it possible for the “argument from miracles” to convert me to theism, I know of no real case which meets these requirements. This is, in fact, a major reason why I am an atheist.

This means that Purtill’s chapter fails to support the rest of the book’s argument. None of the following chapters presents sufficient proof that God has ever been a necessary cause of any event in history. Most of the chapters do a good job of showing that God can be a sufficient cause of certain events, but that fails to show the existence of any miracle by Purtill’s definition, and this renders the book as little more than a philosophical exercise, with no useful application to reality. Of course, if a God really existed, we would see miracles all the time, and then Purtill’s definition would be immensely useful–it might even become a scientific principle. The fact that it is not useful, because there happen to be no miracles that can be identified, makes a good case for atheism, or at least for the lack of miracle-working in the behavior of any god, neither of which is a conclusion that these authors want us to reach.

Corduan to the Rescue…or Not

Nevertheless, the editors tried to salvage this disaster by recruiting Winfried Corduan to clean up the mess. His attempt is an embarrassment. Consider what he claims to have established by the end of his essay: “the recognition of a miracle is initially the prerogative of believers” who can sway unbelievers only by arguing for “prima facie presumptions” that only “sometimes favor” the hypothesis that God has acted in history (111). Think about that. Believers can realize things we unbelievers can’t. Why? Because they follow certain unproven assumptions (that is what a “prima facie presumption” is) that might support the belief that God did something. I’m not joking. This is Corduan’s argument: in a nut shell, miracles can only be recognized if we first assume, among other things, that God exists and acts in history! This is as vacuous as arguments get. It fails to show that any event in history actually can be recognized as a miracle, at least by Purtill’s definition, and thus the entire book fails to show that any miracle has ever occurred. All Corduan can tell us is that miracles can only be identified by believers, and not because they know anything we don’t, and not because they have some special sense or source of data that we lack, but simply because they assume their worldview is true, a worldview which comes ready-supplied with officially-identified miraculous events, like the resurrection of Jesus. “Miracles exist because miracles exist.” Tautology galore!

Defining Natural and Supernatural

How Corduan talks himself into this ridiculous circle is worth examining, because many skeptics stumble over the same block. His chapter begins by outlining the usual objections to recognizing a miracle, all of which boil down to what I call “the naturalist fallacy,” which he gives in various forms, citing various naturalists who often parrot this mistaken argument: “if new observations conflict with present theories, the scientist needs to revise his or her theories, not blame the event on something supernatural” (100), or in other words “a scientist may never consider the possibility of a natural cause to have been eliminated” (101) and thus can never consider a supernatural theory. This is a fallacy, which is believed valid only because people do not define the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural,” and do not recognize that it is only valid as a rule of thumb, not as a logical principle (as I will explain in the end). Corduan sees it is fallacious, but fails to correctly identify why, and that is where he slips. For when this distinction is carefully made, it becomes apparent that the “naturalist fallacy” is not always true because it can pointlessly eliminate possible theories. Eliminating theories is a valid enterprise, but you must have a reason for it, and there is no reason which will allow a blanket elimination of some category of theories called “supernatural” if this category is entirely arbitrary. And is there any objective way to distinguish the natural from the supernatural?

Consider psi, the undefined power which would explain ESP and telekinesis, among other things. We would all readily call that supernatural. But why? If there was a lawful, regular feature of the universe which allowed ESP and telekinesis to exist, then wouldn’t psi be natural, not supernatural? What makes something supernatural anyway? We can levitate and move an entire train with magnetism, and transmit thoughts by radio, two powers that the ancients of Paul’s day would certainly have called supernatural. Even God could be entirely natural, for if he existed he would be a regular feature of the universe, every bit as much as you or I. The attempt to draw a line between God and nature will always be somewhat arbitrary. “Nature is created” the theists will say, “God is not.” But does that mean if we discovered the universe was not created, we would have to conclude that nature does not exist? That would be a silly thing to say. Nature is what exists: we look at the world, learn how it works, discover its inhabitants and rules, and call that nature. Consequently, God, miracles, psionics, angels, ghosts, flying saucers, would all be a part of nature if they existed.

Even if we ignored this simple observation, and chose to draw lines at whim between natural and supernatural things, this would never give us the right to absolutely exclude one of those categories from all possibility of investigation. The only category of theories that can legitimately be excluded from investigation is the category of all untestable theories. If we can test a theory, then it cannot be excluded from investigation. But it will not suffice to make “supernatural” and “untestable” into equivalent categories, since human convention is already set against such an equivalence. Why this is so is important, and I will address that in the end.

For example, the theory that Julius Caesar shaved every day of his life is untestable, but it is hardly supernatural by anyone’s use of the word. Likewise, it is impossible to test the theory that there are other universes that are a lot like this one but that will never influence this universe in any way. Yet this is not a supernatural theory, either–it is in fact a scientific theory called the “multiverse hypothesis.” Thus, it should be clear that the “naturalist fallacy” is indeed a fallacy. Consequently, a scientist can consider miracle theories if he wants to, so long as the theory of miracles is testable, as Purtill’s definition allows. Miracles are only closed to scientific investigation when they are untestable–and if they are untestable, then even the theist is forced to admit that he cannot know if any such theory is true, any more than he knows whether, for example, it is true that Julius Caesar shaved every day of his life.

From the Naturalist Fallacy to the Theist Fallacy

This is where Corduan goes wrong: in order to escape the “naturalist fallacy” he rightly enters the point of view of “someone who is open to the supernatural” in order to see if it is possible “to recognize a miracle” (102). But he steps immediately not into an open mind, but into a theist’s mind: he only considers the point of view of a “believer” who specifically and only accepts that some “miracles” may have happened. But that still excludes every other “supernatural” theory, such as psi. So Corduan moves from a naturalist fallacy into a theist fallacy, and thus has made no progress. If he had genuinely stepped into an open mind, he would no doubt have realized that miracles cannot be recognized as miracles because there are so many competing theories that cannot be eliminated, such as psi, or demons, or aliens, or the features of Buddhist and Hindu worldviews which also allow the incredible to happen. At the very least, he would have been forced to deal with this problem, and might have escaped the vicious circle that his chapter ends up circumscribing.

Post Hoc Reasoning

But instead, Corduan offers fallacies as if they justified the “believer” in his belief in particular miracles. In other words, he address the problem of recognition by proposing that adopting a fallacious inference allows us to distinguish miracles from coincidences. Consider his first example of how a believer can “recognize” a miracle: he tells a story whereby a man loses a job application and prays to god to help him, and by an incredible stream of natural events the application ends up at its destination anyway. This example is textbook in the way it shows how superstitious thinking arises from shallow analysis: Corduan argues that the man is justified in regarding it as a miracle because it is what he prayed for. This is called a post hoc fallacy, and it is a primary cause of superstition, as Stuart Vyse demonstrates at length in Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition (1997), especially in chapter 3, which begins with the following true case:

Bjorn Borg, five-time Wimbleton champion, was playing in the French Open while his grandfather listened by radio as he was fishing. His grandfather “spat in the water and at just that instant Bjorn won a point.” Believing it was no coincidence, “he continued to spit throughout the match, going home with a sore throat. Borg won in four sets” (59-60). Bjorn’s grandfather falsely reasoned that because spitting was followed by his son’s success, he was entitled to believe that spitting was responsible for it, and thus continued spitting, and his son’s continued victories only reinforced his belief. This is post hoc reasoning, which is short for post hoc ergo propter hoc, “after this, therefore because of this,” the assumption that a sequence of events entails causation. Humans are actually inherently designed to make this mistake, because our brain is built to “see” causes by the only data available: sequence. Moreover, Vyse surveys scientific studies showing that post hoc superstitions are more likely to persist when they are set-up by a prior belief in their truth, and even more so when reinforced by social approval–the very conditions which cause Corduan’s “man” to think his prayer was answered by God (i.e. religious socialization and prior commitment to the efficacy of prayer).

Corduan’s example is an excellent example of this post hoc reasoning. Consider: the man’s job application was already ready to be mailed–it was addressed and stamped–when it was lost. Thus, the odds of it arriving at its destination were from the outset fairly good–it could have been found by anyone at any stage on its journey and been placed in the mail. This compares with the fact that Bjorn was a champion–the odds of his winning a set were already fairly good (though not too good, since he was playing another champion at the time). Likewise, how often do we think Corduan’s hypothetical man prays for God’s help? Almost certainly, he does so on a regular basis, just as Bjorn’s grandfather’s spitting in the water while fishing was probably not an unusual event. Thus the prior odds of a prayer coinciding with any coincidence in the hypothetical man’s life are also very good. This means that the odds of a match between a prayed-for-result and a coincidental outcome are going to be good enough that at least one match can be expected in a man’s lifetime, if not several, even though these matches will be entirely accidental. Appealing to a “prior assumption” that God answers prayers is exactly like Bjorn’s grandfather appealing to a “prior assumption” that spitting can influence a distant tennis match: it is not a justification, but an error. Yet Corduan thinks otherwise, and he implies that R. F. Holland and Norman Geisler also think so, too (105).

The Regrown Hand

Corduan’s second example of how a believer can “recognize” a miracle goes like this: “a believer might claim that a miracle has occurred if her hand had been severed in an accident, she prayed, and a new hand ‘grew back’ instantaneously” (105). First of all, note that he chooses a good example–an example better than any other healing miracle in the Bible. The actual miracles reported in the New Testament are not this clear-cut. Unlike the regrowing of a severed limb, never once reported of Jesus, the actual healings attributed to Christ can easily be explained as psychosomatic. It is no accident that these hypothetical examples that Corduan uses to make an argument are always better than any real examples. For example, he posits a holy man whom skeptics would have a hard time denying was a miracle-worker, since he “heals people of various diseases, including some that are irreversibly degenerative” (109) [emphasis added]. But this last phrase entails the existence of evidence not available in any of the cases of healing reported in the Bible. How curious that even he thinks we need stronger evidence than that found in the gospels before we can really believe in miracles. Now, reports of regrown limbs appear in the middle ages, and it is also interesting that these authors never mention any of these medieval accounts. I suspect that since these are not essential to their evangelical mission of conversion, these miracles can “safely” be dismissed as delusions, exaggerations, mistakes, or pious frauds, even though they stand on the very same quality of evidence.

But let us move back to the original problem: in this regrown-hand example he has moved from one closed mind to another, and thus fails to see that the evidence is not sufficient to recognize this as a miracle. The woman can just as easily conclude that she psychically healed her hand herself, the prayer merely focusing her desire to heal, or being a coincidence (since she no doubt always prays when hurt), or that reality can be changed by changing one’s perception if the desire is strong enough (and a prayer would likely coincide with a powerful desire), or that demons answered her prayer, or that she has a genetic mutation which gives her an extraordinary healing ability, and so on. Before she can conclude that the cause really was God, she must eliminate other plausible explanations like these, in order to establish God as a necessary cause. Certainly, the theory that her body healed her hand by the same means as every other human, which we normally call the “natural explanation,” can be ruled out here, but Corduan is mistaken in thinking that this allows one to immediately adopt God as the best explanation. There is more to proving a theory than merely eliminating one competitor. You must have positive evidence for it.

Are Believers Skilled Miracle-Recognizers?

Corduan moves from these examples by trying to argue that “believers do not have a definite recognition formula at their disposal” (106) yet “it is quite possible that believers are more expert when it comes to recognizing miracles” because their worldview prepares them for it (107). His analogies are telling:

  • Identifying the symptoms of diabetes: he says a doctor will recognize this more readily than a layman, thus his expertise is to be trusted.
  • Recognizing the aurora borealis: a says a meteorologist will recognize this more readily than a layman, thus his expertise is to be trusted.
  • Seeing that a certain syllogism is invalid: he says a logician will recognize this more readily than a layman, thus his expertise is to be trusted.

But these are all false analogies. The doctor, meteorologist, and especially the logician, actually have criteria. Not only that, but they can explain those criteria to a layman. On the other hand, when the doctor depends on skill and intuition in an uncertain case, it does not follow that he has recognized diabetes. He only intuits that the given symptoms may signify diabetes, and consequently he will order tests to check his hypothesis. Being honest, he would say “I suspect diabetes in this case.” He would not say, “You have diabetes,” unless the criteria were met so clearly that even a layman would agree with the conclusion, once the evidence was pointed out and explained. In the same fashion, if a light in the sky was so vague that only an expert meteorologist might suspect it was an aurora, it is still quite likely that he could be mistaken, and he would admit as much, unless he really could exclude other explanations to the satisfaction of a layman. And in the case of a logician, there is absolutely no tolerance for intuition in his enterprise. He would actually have to prove a syllogism invalid before he could say it was, and that proof would be just as visible to a layman once identified. Experts cannot simply claim they are right because they are experts. Being an expert only means that you know how to test and prove a claim, it does not excuse you from doing the testing and proving.[1] Thus, we should expect the same from theists. Instead, Corduan argues that a theist’s “expertise” is alone sufficient to justify belief in a miracle–sans any kind of explicable tests or proof. We hardly need point out what is wrong with that thesis.

Prima Facie Presumptions vs. The Lessons of History

The next step Corduan engages is to identify the necessary “prima facie presumption” that a believer needs in order to identify miracles. The presumption is this: it is a miracle if “as-yet-to-be-discovered scientific laws” must be resorted to as an explanation, since this “appeals to something we do not have while we do have something else, namely a cogent supernatural explanation” (109). But this rationale does not work. By this reasoning we would never have made any scientific progress. In the 1st century we had no idea what caused lightning, but we had a cogent supernatural explanation in divine or demonic agency, ranging from the anger of Zeus to the combats of evil spirits in the clouds. Is Corduan saying that pagans successfully recognized lightning as a miracle? That can’t be, because we now know it was not a miracle. As this shows, his method clearly fails, for it justifies every superstitious explanation, so long as it is “cogent.” On the other hand, scientists of the 1st century proposed that lightning was caused by friction between colliding clouds, by analogy with colliding flint stones. It should not be lost on us that this explanation is actually closer to the truth. It only lacks the “as-yet-to-be-discovered scientific laws” of electricity, laws which a man like Corduan would have said were too bizarre and implausible even to investigate, and sufficiently so that he would be justified in attributing lightning to Zeus instead.

This is where Corduan’s underlying assumption is exploded: he assumes that a Christian’s worldview better prepares him to recognize miracles, but never shows that a Christian’s worldview is likely to correspond to reality. Yet he must do this first before he can appeal to that worldview as a justification for any belief about reality, including the existence and nature of miracles. On the other hand, ancient scientists had found that what we call “natural” explanations kept working: contrary to “cogent supernatural explanations,” the stars and planets actually followed predictable laws that had nothing to do with human events, tested drugs cured the sick more often than spells, agriculture flourished under scientific care but floundered under prayers and magic. Then they found that atomic and other “naturalistic” explanations for all phenomena had a much wider explanatory power than divine theories, predicting more things, more successfully. Thus, they correctly guessed that they were on to something, and stopped accepting “supernatural” explanations because they constantly failed, and instead they pursued “natural” theories. Thus, they got very close to the truth, articulating explanations for sound, light, evolution, weather phenomena, poison, disease, and certainly getting far closer than any theologian ever came.

Unfortunately, this brilliant discovery was thwarted by the rise of Christianity, which put science on hold for 1000 years, relying instead on Corduan’s “cogent supernatural explanations.” It was not until the Renaissance, when pagan science was rediscovered, that the bias in favor of what we now call the “natural” was taken up again, and lo and behold, every century since has seen unprecedented progress. Here is the lesson: we have come to call this bias “natural” precisely because it has so often and so successfully corresponded with success. In other words, we developed a bias for what worked, having proven over a thousand years what didn’t work, and then divided these two into the “natural” and the “supernatural.” There is thus some merit to the naturalist fallacy (discussed above): it is indeed valid as a rule of thumb, which is more likely to produce success, even though it is not valid as an absolute law. Its utility as a rule of thumb is entirely dependent on the fact that all reliable evidence of any kind supports the rule, and so far offers no support for breaking it. So uniform and massive is this body of evidence that it has even led moderns into assuming that the “supernatural” was so useless that it could never be true, hence the naturalist fallacy. This is why the naturalist worldview is a more reasonable model of reality than Christian theism, and why Corduan cannot appeal to the latter to support the existence and identification of miracles.

Lack of Evidence is the Final Straw

In order to overcome the overwhelming evidence against him, Corduan must present good positive evidence for the theory that any particular event is a miracle, otherwise it is never going to be reasonable. It is simply an undeniable fact that, given two options with equal evidence–a plausible natural explanation (“he has an as-yet-unexplained immunity to asp poison”) and a supernatural alternative (“God rewards his faith with an immunity to asp poison”)–we are simply smarter to bet on the former. The natural type of theory is like a horse from a trainer whose numerous horses have run a million races and none of them has ever lost. What idiot would bet against one of his horses in the next race? Corduan’s argument is this: since all the races aren’t finished, and we have not seen this specific horse run yet, we are not entitled to believe that this horse will win. That is hardly a sound argument, given the evidence of the past. Sure, it is possible the horse will lose, but is it reasonable to expect it? Even still, scientific thinkers wisely follow Corduan’s advice, but they reserve judgment until we actually watch the horse run, and don’t even stop there, but wait until we’ve seen it in a dozen races before trusting its infallibility, and even then we allow that it might yet fail. That is science. Corduan’s alternative is to never let the horse run a race, and on the “evidence” that it has not won a race, pronounce it lame.

In the end, Corduan has utterly failed to explain how theists are to distinguish a miracle from something else, and thus it stands, as far as I can see, that this can never be done, except in the most unusual of circumstances, which have never been met in any real case.[2] This destroys the entire mission of the book. Corduan says it all with the following posit: “when the evidence for the occurrence of an event is beyond reasonable doubt and there is no other plausible explanation available” then we just might have a miracle. Of course, think of what this would have done for the ancient explanation of lightning, and you will see the flaw in his reasoning: “not having a proven explanation” is not the same as having a falsified one, nor the same as having evidence for any alternative. He wants us to think that “lack of an explanation” is actually proof of an explanation. It does not work that way. But in the end even this is moot, because we must ask: has there ever been a case where there is no other plausible explanation available? I cannot think of any, and Corduan has presented none–even his hypothetical examples fail this test.[3] He has thus failed to show us how to recognize a miracle, even if miracles do in fact happen.


[1] I think I know what Corduan was thinking. There is one sense in which pure expertise can create knowledge without criteria: acting on learned reflexes, e.g. riding a bike, carving a statue from stone, distinguishing variations in color or sound, etc. These things differ from identifying miracles in that although I can ride a bike without knowing the criteria for every correct action, the statement “when I trust my intuition, I can ride a bike” is itself a criteria-based empirical hypothesis: you don’t need to know how to ride a bike to know from observation whether I can. The knowledge involved in riding a bike is noncognitive and thus differs categorically from propositional knowledge (like “I can ride a bike”). A statement like “this is a miracle” is propositional, not noncognitive, and therefore requires criteria. In fact, these criteria are entailed automatically by the meaning of the sentence itself.
Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958) gives a good account of noncognitive knowledge, although I think his views must be tempered in light of A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic, 2nd ed. (1946), which explains why verbal sentences automatically entail criteria for their own verification or falsification. I discuss my own epistemology as it relates to such issues in Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005).
Even our ability to make distinctions in sensory data or patterns is not without describable criteria: someone can learn to identify middle-C without knowing what length of string or surface (and hence what audio-frequency) would confirm their judgment, but this is “trained intuition,” where the brain is trained to automatically employ certain criteria. This is not the absence of criteria, for the statement “this sound is middle-C” must still have verifiable truth conditions which would allow anyone to confirm it, otherwise it would have no meaning as a statement. As with all definitions, the criterion in this case is whether the judgment conforms to human convention (what English-speakers have chosen to call “middle-C”), but even without such a convention, the criterion would be sensory distinctiveness from all non-middle-C sounds. Since miracles involve theories of causation, not just mere sensory distinctions, much less mere coherence to arbitrary human naming conventions, expertise cannot be a substitute for criteria in their case.
Finally, intuitive expertise must be learned from repeated cases of success, i.e. actual training. Thus, for intuitive expertise to aid in recognizing miracles, we would have to have extensive experience observing genuine miracles that we could confirm as such independently. After all, we could not identify them with intuitive experience we don’t yet have, and so without criteria we could not know whether we were learning to identify actual miracles or something else.

[2] See Richard Packham’s The Man With No Heart for a good example of a hypothetical “well-attested” miracle. On how numerous problems arise when we start combing the actual historical record for “good examples,” see my discussion of Beckwith’s Chapter.

[3] Although it should be noted: the argument that there are no plausible explanations for certain events (except the explanation of “miracle”) is attempted by Craig and Habermas, and Geivett and Newman.


b. Nash on Naturalism vs. Christian Theism (1999, 2005)

Claiming Victory After Only One Battle

Ronald Nash’s basic argument is that naturalism, which excludes miracles, is unreasonable, but Christian theism, which includes miracles, isn’t. The chapter begins by explaining why worldviews are an important consideration, and then describes Christian theism. This is useful, because he lays out in a short summary all the basic beliefs that Christians of his ilk hold to, and shows how they are all interrelated, and this is valuable information for those of us who want to understand where people like him are really coming from. But he never defends this worldview. He only explains it. Thus, he fails to show that Christian theism is reasonable (since merely being coherent is not enough), undermining the basic purpose of his essay in the context of this book.

All his arguments are devoted to proving naturalism unreasonable. He chooses this target because naturalism “creates the greatest problems for belief in miracles” (116). But myopia has set in here. The fact that naturalism is the most common opposing view that he has had to deal with, since he lives in the Western, English-speaking world, does make it important to address. But what about Taoism and Buddhism? These worldviews, especially the more careful philosophical versions, are coherent and attractive. Although they allow “miracles” in some sense, they do not allow miracles in the sense defined by Purtill, and thus these worldviews create serious challenges to Christian theism–as does Deism, which cannot be excluded simply because it has gone out of fashion. It is a mistake to suppose that by eliminating naturalism, Christian theism becomes the most attractive or plausible alternative.[1]

Nash does recognize these other views in passing, but simply dismisses them (as well as Islam) since they are not popular in Western countries and are not encountered “frequently” enough by Christians in Europe and the U.S.But so what? The majority of the people on Earth live elsewhere. And certainly there are Christian missionaries in Chinawho have a rough time of it–yet Nash gives them no assistance. The underlying assumption here is that unpopularity in his own corner of the planet equates to universal unreasonableness, but that is hardly a valid assumption. Moreover, Nash only attacks “physicalism,” excluding all other kinds of naturalism, simply because today “physicalists control the agenda” (293). But since he must show that Christian theism is reasonable, it is not enough to attack only one live view, no matter how popular it is in his own neighborhood, since the other views may yet be more reasonable than Christian theism. He is in a sense accepting a “truth by vote” fallacy: most English speakers who reject Christian theism adopt physicalism, therefore physicalism is the best alternative. But that does not follow.[2]

Shouldn’t Nash at Least Read What Naturalists Write?

There is another fault in Nash’s approach: he never once quotes a naturalist. Whenever demonstrating some view held by naturalists, he usually quotes a Christian critic. In one case he goes outside Christian literature to quote a twenty-year-old introductory college textbook. A sensible scholar would not do this, because of the risk of building a straw man. Moreover, this makes us wonder how Nash knows what he is talking about, since he shows us no signs of having read any naturalist literature. Hence we can hardly trust that he has made a competent effort to actually refute any naturalist worldview, much less all of them.

For example, Nash quotes C.S. Lewis arguing that naturalism excludes spontaneity (120). But many physicalists hold to a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics, which makes acausal “spontaneity” a genuine possibility. Naturally, Lewis predates the growth of Quantum Mechanical worldviews in philosophical discourse, which really only got going in the 60’s and have become rather popular only in the past two decades. Thus, by not reading up on current literature, Nash’s ideas of what naturalism entails are out of date. Although I am not a QM realist myself (I am suspending judgment until scientists know more), no discussion of naturalism can be current without addressing that issue, among many others that Nash ignores.

Nash also inserts his foot in his mouth when he says “it is interesting that there is [in naturalism] an insistence on explanation for all individual entities,” but a “denial of both the necessity and the possibility of explaining the whole system in terms of something else” (122). Strange. Doesn’t Nash realize that Christian theism does exactly the same thing? After all, theists “deny…both the necessity and the possibility of explaining” God’s existence. So what’s the difference? And when we apply Occham’s razor, we find that between the two worldviews, naturalism explains all the same phenomena as Christian theism, but with fewer theoretical assumptions. Since that is the only standard for choosing between competing theories in the absence of any other deciding evidence between them, naturalism should appear the most rational choice.

Nash also shows a significant lack of knowledge of physics, which leads me to question whether he knows enough to really understand physicalism. For instance, he says that to physicalists “antecedent causes must either be matter or be reducible to matter,” apparently forgetting the fact that light (comprised of photons) is not matter, yet can transmit a chain of causation all the same, and if naturalists accept that (as they all do), then they can in principle accept any number of other matterless causal agencies. Such a shallow grasp of what naturalist’s actually believe, or can accept as possible, permeates Nash’s critique.

The Argument from Reason

Finally, the launching point of Nash’s direct critique is a brief defense, drawing mainly from C.S. Lewis, of the “Argument from Reason.”[3] The argument basically says that logic (human reason) cannot exist or be known without God. All such arguments stem from a complete ignorance of the scientific literature on the evolution of logical and mathematical thinking in living systems, which explains, with ample proof, how and why we think like we do, and why we are able to correct ourselves when our brain makes a mistake. Indeed, I have never seen any proponent of any form of the Argument from Reason ever cite, mention, address, or even show an awareness of this literature.[4] Nash is no exception. He thinks that a fifty-year-old Christian apologist (C.S. Lewis) can be used to the complete exclusion of all scientific literature on the subject since. It is so very typical of apologists to act as if antiquated Christian rhetoric can be substituted for solid, current, scientific research, on what is clearly a scientific question. Instead, Nash inserts long quotes of the barely-comprehensible quasi-Platonic ramblings of C.S. Lewis, ending with the conclusion that “the process of reasoning requires something that exceeds the bounds of nature, namely, the laws of logical inference” (127). But that’s not true. The principles of logical inference don’t require anything beyond the bounds of nature.

Logic is Language, Plain and Simple

Nash seems unaware of the importance of the synthetic-analytic distinction. Logic is analytical, and all analytical statements are artificial. What we call “logic” or the “rules of reason” are actually nothing more than language. If a language exists, then by definition logic exists, because without logic you can communicate nothing. It follows, then, that if you are communicating something, logic exists, for it must be inherent in the very rules which allow the communication to occur.

It works like this: the only way I can communicate to you that “my cat is white” is if you and I both agree to certain arbitrary rules, called a ‘code’, which we invent and decide to follow. This allows me to know that you will know what the sounds “my” and “cat” and “is” and “white” will stand for. They are “code words” for our experiences. I point to a white wall and you and I agree that we will call what we both see there “white,” and so on. It takes a bit more effort than that, but learning a language reduces to essentially this. Then, when I shout “white” to you, you will remember our agreement about what that would be a code for, and I will have communicated something to you. We invent these rules for this very purpose. If you and I refused to decide on any rules, or did not obey the rules we decided on, we would be unable to communicate.

All logic arises from these manmade rules. Consider the universal, fundamental principle of non-contradiction: something cannot both be and not be. For example, my cat cannot be both all white and all black. Why not? Suppose I were to tell you “my cat is all white and all black.” You would look up these words and follow the rules in our mutual codebook, but you would not be able to make this statement correspond to anything in your experience. The rules would not be able to match this code with any agreed-upon meaning. Consequently, I have communicated nothing to you. This is because “black” means, among other things, not white, as we have agreed.

Since this is all manmade you might think that all we have to do is assign a meaning to this statement, and it will then be able to communicate something. But what meaning will we assign? There’s the rub. Can we assign it a meaning that will be consistent with all our other rules? No, we cannot–because we decided beforehand that we would use the word “black” to refer to certain non-white things. Thus, the only way to create a meaning that will obey our own rules is to change the rules, and hence the meaning, of the words that conflict, but then they won’t conflict. In other words, the law of non-contradiction is simply a natural feature of any consistent set of rules. Indeed, this is a tautology: What is a consistent set of rules? A set of rules that never produces a contradiction.

So then you might think we can escape this by “deciding” not to have a consistent set of rules. But we have already seen that we cannot communicate anything with an inconsistent set of rules–because we have to follow the rules in order to communicate, and we can’t “follow” inconsistent rules. Thus, we are stuck. Either we have contradictions, but no language, or we rule out contradictions and communicate. This is a simple fact that we observe about the universe. Now, you might say that perhaps there are things that can exist but cannot be communicated. But if they can be experienced, then they can be given a code name, and can thus be communicated to anyone who has experienced the same thing and knows the code word for it.

Perhaps you might propose instead that it is possible to have a universe where a contradiction could communicate something, where it could actually describe something that we can experience or imagine. But since we all see that we do not live in such a universe, since we cannot even imagine it, it doesn’t matter if it is possible. More sophisticated versions of either TAG or the argument from reason claim that this inability to experience or imagine a contradiction may simply be a limitation in our construction, or an error in our brain or senses. But if something can affect us in any way, it follows that we can experience it, and thus imagine it, by reference to that effect. If something existed that could never, even in principle, affect us in any way, its existence would be of no consequence to us. More importantly, no kind of sensation could ever experience that thing, because to sense something is, by definition, to be affected by it in some way. Thus it follows that even a god could not make us capable of sensing something that can never affect us. All he could do is make it affect us. Thus, the argument that we are missing some feature of reality is moot–so long as any part of reality can affect us, we can experience it.

If we should discover the ability to imagine and communicate contradictions, we would simply change the way we thought about things, just as we did when the axioms of non-Euclidean geometry were discovered. There is thus nothing that needs to be accounted for here. Logic is explained by what we observe, and it arises automatically the moment we try to create a set of rules for describing those observations. And since reason amounts to nothing more than communicating with ourselves, reason can only exist when we actually communicate something, even if only to ourselves, and such communication is only possible if we construct and use a logic.

There is something more fundamental than that, however: all language begins with discrimination between things that are the same and things that are not, and so if language exists, it follows that the universe has things that are the same and things that are not, which is the very reality that “non-contradiction” refers to. This is even more obvious in the case of inductive inference, where the entire structure of inferential arguments is justified solely and entirely by prior experience: by recalling the reliability of all prior inductive reasoning, we conclude that it works. After all, no one believes that inductive inferences are guaranteed to always work–by definition, they only suggest, they do not “prove” in the same sense deductive inferences do. But either way, why are we justified in trusting inferences? Because they work. Period. Experience completely explains logic, and completely justifies it–as well as it can ever be justified. So why must we look for some other “ground” for reason?[5]

Must an Accidental Sensory Organ be Untrustworthy?

The landing point for Nash’s critique of naturalism is another standard but lame arrow in apologetic quivers, which I shall call “the purposeless sensory organ” fallacy. Again he basically quotes another writer at length, and never addresses, or even shows any awareness of, any scientific sources. The argument, in the words of Richard Taylor (the only unaffiliated philosopher Nash ever cites, but still not a naturalist), is this:

It would be irrational for one to say both that his sensory and cognitive faculties had a natural, nonpurposeful origin and also that they reveal some truth with respect to something other than themselves, something that is not merely inferred from them….we cannot say that they are, entirely by themselves, reliable guides to any truth whatever… (129)

There are several problems with this strange argument. First, Nash gives no reason why this would be irrational except a false analogy, and thus he fails to show that this is actually irrational. In particular, his “example” is a set of stones arranged to convey a verbal message: it would be irrational to regard the message to be both accidental and true, since an accidentally arranged message would only be true by blind luck. But would it be irrational to regard the presence of a pile of stones at the base of a cliff as signifying a danger of landslides? The analogy breaks down here. The pile of rocks signifies a landslide risk not because of any design–we don’t infer the risk on the assumption that someone arranged those stones to convey to us, by a prearranged code, a landslide risk. Rather, we infer the risk from the prior observation that landslides result, without any intelligent design, in sufficiently unique patterns of debris, and thus we know that wherever those patterns happen to turn up again, we can suspect that there have been landslides there, and so there may be a risk of further landslides.

Since this proves that it can be rational to infer a “message” from an accidental arrangement of things, Nash cannot say it is irrational for us to do this in the case of our sensory organs, unless he can show that our sensory organs must be like the “words” analogy rather than the “landslide debris” analogy, which he does not do. And I do not believe he can. Remember what I said about language: it is an agreement between you and me that certain things will be codes for certain other things. But what is an agreement? You decide to keep using this to mean that, and I decide to do the same. So the regularity of nature is equivalent to an agreement: nature “decides” to keep using this to mean that (by having one regularly follow the other), and we decide to adopt the same rule. And that is what an inference is. All that is needed is regularity.

Second, Nash mischaracterizes the truth about sensory organs and how we know things from them. For instance, he confuses reliability with authenticity. Even if our eyes did not give us authentic information about color (in fact, I do not believe they do), they nevertheless reliably inform us of distinctions in color, and we can accurately infer things about the world based solely on that. Likewise, the fact is that all of our senses do in fact reveal the truth about things merely by inferring data from themselves. For instance, what we call colors are only inventions of our brain. They are coded patterns which are created to represent the fact that our eye-cells are sending signals to our brain. We infer from the patterns presented by this “invented representation” certain things about the world, like the fact that our eye is being hit by photons which are most likely bouncing off our bathroom door. We do not infer this because we were pre-designed to know what photons bouncing off our bathroom door would look like. We know it only because we have seen the same effect every time we looked at our bathroom door in the past–in fact, this repeated experience is what we give the name “bathroom door,” and everything we believe about a “door” is based on all our past sensations of just such a sort. So it is not even necessary to know about cells or photons in order to trust our eyes. Our senses are only reliable because of two simple facts: first, the universe just happens to follow certain consistent behavior patterns, and second, our eyes just happen to follow certain consistent behavior patterns. And all that is needed for things to follow consistent behavior patterns is the existence of consistent behavior patterns. Once you have that, the reliability of sensory organs can be accounted for, and there is no need to appeal to an intelligent engineer.

Perhaps Nash means to argue that the existence of consistent behavior patterns in the universe requires an intelligent engineer, but that is the teleological argument, and he does not seem to be defending that here. If he can accept that naturalism can account for consistent behavior patterns (and it certainly can–there is no need for anything “transcendent” for consistent behavior to exist), then Nash must accept the fact that naturalism can account for the trustworthiness of human reason and of sensory organs. Since theists expect us to accept that God is both necessary and immutable–so that he could not “not exist” and could not be any different than he is–without a shred of proof or a single rationale, we are perfectly entitled to expect them to pay us the same courtesy, since we claim far less than this: we don’t require that the universe necessarily exist or be immutable, although we think it could be. Rather, we can accept that the universe may have had other possible forms, and might have had a less than 100% chance of existing at all. We can even accept the possibility that the universe is not perfectly regular or consistent. We are thus being far more open minded than the Christian theist, and our worldview has much more room to move than theirs.[6]

The Argument from Reason is Self-Refuting

A final problem with Nash’s approach is that it is a double-edged sword. If we must assume that God exists before we are justified in trusting reason and our senses, then how do we know God isn’t a Cartesian Demon? All our reason and senses could be deliberately designed to lead us to believe in any lie, just because God wanted it that way. Even the theist’s conviction that God is good (and therefore that God would not trick us like that) is suspect, because a Cartesian Demon would fool the theist into thinking that very thing. The entire Argument-from-Reason approach is actually identical to the argument developed in Descartes’ Meditations, which in turn comes from Augustine’s reformulation of what was actually the central argument in Plato’s justification for belief in the Timeless Forms. The circularity of this argument (“we know the truth because God lets us, and we only know this because God lets us know the truth”) has long been known, yet proponents show no signs of any prior experience with this and other challenges in the philosophical literature, which spans the whole of human literary history in the West.

Therefore, Nash’s attempt to “refute” naturalism (much less establish Christian theism as the more reasonable worldview) is a complete failure, making this another weak link in their book’s overall argument.


[1] Nash could have accomplished his task at least if he had made a better positive case. For instance, since Islam, Judaism, and Christianity entail certain common beliefs (e.g. a single omnibenevolent, miracle-working God), one can refute all three by refuting one of their common beliefs. Thus, naturalists, by making a strong case for the lack of the supernatural and the absence of divine values in the working of the universe, effectively refute almost every competing theory, since all nonnaturalist competitors posit some view that contradicts these conclusions. In like fashion, proving the reasonableness of certain beliefs, like a physical, objective reality unconnected with human expectation or desire, is itself a refutation of all worldviews that deny this, like Buddhism. Thus, had Nash made a more positive case for Christian theism, he could have escaped the fallacy of assuming naturalism is the only reasonable competitor, simply by refuting all contrary worldviews in the very process of proving his own.

[2] Many naturalists would dispute the assumption that physicalism “rules the agenda.” Nevertheless, I myself am a physicalist, and I defend my worldview at considerable length in Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005). See also Naturalism as a Worldview.

[3] A far superior version of this argument has been articulated by Victor Reppert, which I discuss and refute in Richard Carrier, Reppert’s Argument from Reason (2004). This argument is similar to, but not identical with, the Transcendental Argument for God (or TAG). Even so, Nash appears to imagine his Argument from Reason in terms that correspond to TAG. For example, he writes that naturalists are “compelled to abandon one of the cardinal presuppositions of metaphysical naturalism and to conclude that their cognitive faculties were formed as a result of the activity of some purposeful, intelligent agent” (130). As far as I see, this entails the presupposition that there are no atheists, since if I am “compelled” to recognize the existence of God before I can use reason or trust my senses, then I must presuppose the existence of God to use reason and trust my senses, and therefore if I use reason and trust my senses I cannot really be an atheist (or if I am an atheist, I am contradicting myself).

[4] As just a few examples of the kinds of works Nash could have consulted: William Calvin, How Brains Think (1996); Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure (1996); Hugo Strauch, How Nature Taught Man to Know, Imagine, and Reason (1995); Valerie Walkerdine, The Mastery of Reason: Cognitive Development and the Production of Rationality (1990); etc. And more recent works include: Robert DeMoss, Brain Waves Through Time (1999); Manfred Spitzer, The Mind within the Net (2000); Lesley Rogers, Minds of Their Own (1998); etc.

[5] Although Nash does not bring it up, a common approach is to argue that abstract objects (like “yellowness” or the rules of logic) cannot be explained by naturalists. But abstractions are, like all words, merely names for shared patterns in the things we identify with our senses (including our internal senses, such as emotions). For instance, “yellowness” is the code-word for the pattern we identify as a yellow color, such that “yellowness exists” simply means that there can be patterns in our visual sensation which we call “yellow.” Likewise, “the rules of logic” are merely what we call the identifiable patterns in our sensory experience of using the code-book of a common language to match up code-sentences with catalogued experiences in our memory. The “abstraction” is itself a code-rule, and refers to a property–which is a pattern of sensory data–shared by numerous things (like yellowness–or roundness, as in my discussion of the role of “organization” in my review of Moreland).

[6] I discuss the ontology of logic (and the natural reliability of reason) in further detail in Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005) and in even more extensive detail in Richard Carrier, Reppert’s Argument from Reason (2004). In the former, however, I also discuss the cosmological and teleological arguments and some of the viable explanations naturalists have for order in the cosmos.

c. Moreland’s “Christian Science” (1999, 2005)

Christian Science, Moreland Style

Moreland correctly identifies the fact that many scientists and atheists erroneously hold that miracles are beyond science because they are not natural, not repeatable, and not governed by law. And I agree with him. For instance, crimes are not exactly repeatable, yet criminal forensics is regarded as a science. It is true that forensics, as with archaeology and history, does solve unique cases by applying general principles proven by repeated testing, but there is no reason why the same thing could not, at least in principle, be done in the case of miracles. Likewise, it is not certain that people obey scientific ‘laws’, yet psychology and sociology are sciences, thus science is not restricted only to studying lawlike features of nature. And whether you consider history a science or not, it still explores issues that can be proven or refuted, just like scientific discoveries can. Although history gets at the truth with great uncertainty and difficulty, it would be silly to say that the crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar is “beyond science” and thus could not be proved true or false in any degree, simply because it is unrepeatable. Then there is that tricky term ‘natural’. What does that mean? Scientists study what can be observed, and everything they observe they typically consider a part of nature. But since miracles could be observed, too, miracles cannot be excluded a priori from scientific or historical study. I have dealt with these issues at greater length in The Problem with Miracles and Nash on Naturalism.

Seeing this, Moreland endeavors to establish just how “miracles” (or all the various claims of theism) could be scientifically investigated. But as I explain in my Survey of this book’s contents, Moreland only defines this “Christian Science” in terms of null-hypotheses known as “God-of-the-gaps” arguments. He does not even mention any possible positive contributions of this science, in terms of testable hypotheses. Thus, his idea of a “Christian Science” would never get to anything Christian, because it would be forever tied up with refuting competing theories–since, contrary to the oft-quoted Sherlock Holmes, there is never a point where all possibilities have been eliminated. This same tactic has been described as the central fault in parapsychology (see Dr. Susan Blackmore’s autobiography In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, 1996).

Nevertheless, he slugs onward. Moreland calls his project “theistic science,” whose defining principles are that “there is a personal, transcendent agent–God–who has…acted…in ‘natural’ history,” that “commitment” to this theory “has a proper place in the practice of science,” and this ‘proper place’ is the finding of “gaps in the natural world…that are essential features of immediate, primary divine agency properly understood” (132-3). First of all, I do not quite understand how “transcendency” is supposed to be operationally defined for use in scientific research, or how we are supposed to scientifically establish a “proper understanding” of divine agency, much less the “essential” features of it. Even if these problems could somehow be solved, the fact is that Moreland does not solve them here.

But the primary problem with his project is this: there is no way that the refutation of all known theories can establish a positive theory. He thinks that he can avoid this problem by defining his positive theory in such a way that it is equivalent to an “absence” of alternative theories. But this is not what he has done. His positive theory is twofold: there is, first, a thinking person possessing the undefined property of “transcendence,” and, second, the demonstrable action of this person as the sole and necessary cause of the phenomenon to be explained. It should be clear that neither “an unexplained phenomenon” nor “an unexplainable phenomenon” is the same thing as a person, much less a person possessing any particular properties or acting in any particular way.

To “prove” Moreland’s positive theory we would need certain positive evidence. Consider this case: I am levitated against my will out of my room and carried through a poor neighborhood, then whisked off through space to another planet where I am set down before a stone that glows. I lift the stone and find ten pounds of gold, and am then zoomed back to Earth with the gold. Once I had eliminated all alternative explanations, I would then consult the positive evidence that remained: my journey had an apparent purpose, with moral overtones, and must have been intelligently planned with an understanding of things like the value of gold and how it might alleviate the suffering of the poor. It also involved vast knowledge and ability. But would this prove the existence of God? Not quite. One crucial piece of evidence is missing: I have no proof that my tour guide was “transcendant” (it could have been a finite or even a natural creature), nor that he created the world, or was the same Being responsible for anything else in history. Now, all of these things could perhaps be established sufficiently enough to believe them, given enough unfalsified, reliable evidence from other, similar cases, which can be added to this one, and which fit together, and which fit with the rest of what I know about the universe. It would be even easier if God spoke openly and candidly and we could interview and test him.

But this is not what Moreland proposes. If we had actual positive evidence like this, then there would not be any atheists. But there are atheists precisely because this evidence is lacking. The concept of God as a benevolent, compassionate being does not fit with what I know about the universe: the unalleviated, useless suffering in the world’s history (and in its very design), the lack of clear leadership and direction by God resulting in religious division and warfare, his refusal to have an honest conversation when asked, the apparent deception entailed by the evidence of increasing fossil complexity over time (if we assume special creation, rather than guided evolution, was the actual truth), and so on.

Of course, Moreland omits “benevolent and compassionate” from his definition of God here. But even his preliminary concept does not fit with what I know about the universe: there are no clear linguistic messages in the design of the universe, nor any clear, linguistic communications of an intelligent nature with me which match those made with others throughout all times and cultures; the universe never seems to act with any value-laden purpose (I have only seen such actions from humans), and it is not designed with any values in mind (life thrives by survival of the fittest, not survival of the kindest, and resources are limited, environments are harsh, etc.); and there is a great deal of imperfection in the design of humans and their world that has no good explanation if it was engineered that way.

There are also no other queernesses in the universe suggesting the existence of Moreland’s agent. I expect churches or righteous men to be protected by mysterious energy fields, or bibles to be inexplicably indestructible or even printed in the stars, or for there to be successful “faith healing” wings in hospitals, and things of that nature. Thus, there is a lot more to Moreland’s project than he thinks. God is nowhere to be found when it comes time to test his abilities or interview him, nor are any of the expected odd things (like faith healing) operational when closely examined, and when I add this to the contradictions and difficulties mentioned above, I doubt there will ever be a theistic science. But I do recognize it as feasible–if there were a God, I’m sure it would be a respected branch of science, since then it would have something to study.

Perhaps Moreland does meet all these difficulties somewhere else. In this book he says he has done so in numerous other books and articles cited in a footnote, and therefore all he tries to do here is defend one particular notion of “divine agency” in terms of the supposed physics of “libertarian” free will. I think this is a cop out. Since the problems I outline above are absolutely central to the case that his chapter must make in order for this book’s editorial strategy to succeed, it is not acceptable to claim victory elsewhere and then skip the subject altogether. Since this book claims, even in its title, to be a “comprehensive case for God’s action in history,” Moreland’s failure to make his own case comprehensive is a serious flaw. I have not read any of the other works he cites[1] but I have learned that he brings up the issue of positive evidence at least in Bauman’s Man and Creation (1993), although every example he offers there appears to be false given the known data (which is exactly what this book’s “miracle claims” amount to). Nevertheless, he fails to mention such examples here (unless you count the following), and I am only reviewing this work.

The Physics of Libertarian Free Will

Moreland’s entire chapter is essentially an argument for a “libertarian” concept of free will, despite the fact that Feinberg defends the opposite view (“compatibilism”) in the same book (cf. pp. 242-3). It is not even a complete argument, as Moreland says himself after laying out his theory: he has “not had the space to defend libertarian agency” but rather claims only to have shown that miracles are not “in principle outside the bounds of science” by showing that physicalism and compatibilism are not necessarily true (148). This turns out to be a rather weak argument.

The objective here is to show that libertarian freewill entails something as far as physics is concerned: namely, an absolute gap in a chain of causation. His point is that since libertarian freewill must be true, and since this entails the existence of actual gaps in the function of physical laws, therefore scientists should accept gaps as a feature of physics, and use these proven gaps as evidence of agent causation.[2] Of course, a gap would not always entail causation, but he argues that agency would always be the “best” explanation. His argument is that when we act, there are physical states of our brain and body and world which progress in sequence, but at some point there will be a “causal gap” such that “the description of the brain…just prior to acting will not be sufficient to entail or causally account for…the agent’s” action (144). I will discuss the logical problems with this later. For now, I will continue to describe his scientific theory. First of all, if he thinks scientists will ever be able to map human brain-states so well that they can ever demonstrate a causal gap, he is being absurdly optimistic. But most troubling is the fact that he does not even try to lay out how scientists are supposed to do this.

For instance, he thinks his idea violates the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy), and this is “what it means for an agent…[to be] capable of genuine creativity and novelty,” although at the same time he argues that it might not violate the First Law, if we assume the Law only applies to “causally closed physical systems” which would exclude humans, because they have free will. But none of this is science. Until he actually establishes experimental proof of either view, he is merely engaging in the armchair speculation of a philosopher. Personally, I agree that we may yet find something that violates the First Law, but until we actually find such a thing, we are not allowed to assume it can exist in any theory we propose, until that theory describes an experiment that will possibly prove the violation. Moreland proposes no such experiment.

My discussion of The Problem with Miracles is also important here, because central even to Moreland’s null-hypothesis approach is the proof of a gap in causation, but in no actual miracle account do we have enough evidence to prove there was such a gap. He simply assumes that when we can’t prove any causal explanation, we have “proof” of a causal gap. But that does not quite follow: it would be one thing to show that all known causal explanations fail, but it is quite another matter when we are merely unable to test those explanations. For example, we cannot go back to the supposed time of the Flood and use all available physical instruments and observations to check whether there is a causal explanation. But this does not permit Moreland to declare that such a mission would fail. Until it is undertaken and actually does fail, we cannot conclude that there was a causal gap involved.

So all he has to support his “causal gap” theory of miracles like the Flood is an argument from ignorance, which is hardly scientific–it is, instead, fallacious reasoning. In this respect I think Moreland actually makes the case for miracles worse, not better. If we stick with Purtill’s definition, it will be hard enough to prove that a miracle has occurred, but now Moreland is telling us to add yet another requirement: an even harder test for a “causal gap.” Thus, even if we could demonstrate a miracle in Purtill’s sense, we would still have to reject it if we were unable to prove a causal gap. So how is Moreland helping his own cause? He really gets nowhere here. The rest of this chapter will address his attacks on reductionism and compatibilism, even though they are actually divorced from any useful connection with the rest of the book.


Moreland begins his argument for Libertarian Freewill by explaining reductionism, the view that everything, including human decisions, can be reduced to the interaction of causal systems (133-5). In short, to have a “mind” in the reductionist view, all you need is the right aggregate of parts. You do not need to add anything, for the sum of the parts and their interaction is sufficient to create and explain a mind. As Moreland says, “a complete account” of raising a hand to vote “could be given in terms of…brain states and so forth” and this explanation could “exclude the psychological level, since they would be what they are with or without the…higher psychological level and would contain no reference to mental entities.” Indeed, it could be given in terms of the interaction of packets of energy in the form of atoms and photons and other particles. Moreland does not refute this view, though he vaguely suggests that it entails a possible dilemma.

But Moreland’s analysis here has one thing missing: organization. Would it really be possible to give a complete account of any system without referring to the overall organization of that system? Not really. But isn’t that very pattern of organization synonymous with the higher level of explanation, in this case the psychological level? In other words, a brain is not just an interacting system of atoms and electrons and other things. It is a particular pattern of interaction. And we use the word “mind” to refer to that particular pattern. The pattern is itself just as crucial to the behavior of the system as its components, for the system would exhibit a totally different behavior if it were not for its particular pattern of organization.

Here is a simple example: compare a gold ring with a gold cube. Both can be made of exactly the same gold atoms (the ring later crushed into a cube, or fashioned from a cube), but only one of them has the property of hollowness and can be placed on a human finger, and only one possesses the property of roundness and will roll down a slope like a wheel. These properties arise entirely from the pattern of organization of the gold atoms: the way in which the atoms are arranged relative to each other. Thus, we can describe a gold ring without using the word ‘ring’, by laying out a mathematical explanation of the relative positions of the atoms. But this description would be synonymous with ‘ring’ and the ability of this arrangement to roll down a slope is more easily explained by saying it is ’round’, which is synonymous with a certain patterned arrangement of atoms. If the gold was not in a round shape, it would not roll down a slope like a wheel. Thus the organization is an indispensable part of the description of any physical system, and this includes the human mind.

The bottom line, however, is that reductionism is not an assumption, but a discovery. We believe it is true because so far it has consistently proven true, and because it explains so much so well. Moreland presents no scientific evidence to throw it into doubt, nor even any logical arguments against it, although I know he would have had he been given the space. In fact, though Moreland does not pursue his argument against reductionism any further, it appears as if his essay was cut for space (there is an odd break in the flow of his argument on page 135). Once again, a book that claims to be “comprehensive,” is not.

Libertarian Freewill

Now Moreland moves into a discussion of compatibilist freewill and contrasts it with “libertarian” freewill, which he defines as follows: “given a choice…nothing determines which choice is made” (137). He does not seem to notice the illogical nature of this position. Nothing determines a choice? Not even reasons? Not even values or knowledge? This is an impossible position to defend. Notice how he explains his odd view: “When agents will A, they could have also willed B without anything else being different inside or outside of their being” (137-8). So if I absolutely do not want to raise my hand, according to Moreland, I might raise it anyway. If I am certain that there is a wall in front of me, I might try to walk through it anyway. If I have no reason to jump out of my window right now, I might do it anyway. What kind of theory is this? It makes absolutely no sense. It would render human behavior inexplicable, random, and bizarre. Indeed, we would live a nightmare, where at any moment we might jump out of a window or put our hands in a fire for absolutely no reason at all.[3]

Moreland tries to have it both ways by saying that desires and such “influence” but do not cause our actions. Yet he never explains just what the difference is supposed to be. My knowledge that a wall stands before me doesn’t cause me to choose to change the direction of my walk? My desire to live doesn’t cause me to refrain from leaping out of windows? It seems to me that 100% of the time, when I know there is a wall, I will stop or turn, or when I want to live I will not leap out of my window. If knowledge of a wall will be followed 100% of the time by my stopping or turning, if my desire to live will be followed 100% of the time by my not jumping out of a passing window, isn’t that equivalent to causation? I do not see how it can be anything else. Moreland fails to even acknowledge this problem, much less address it. Indeed, he seems totally ignorant of it. Consider his example:

“Suppose some person,” Moreland asks, “freely performed some act…say raising an arm in order to vote” (138). He says that this person “exerted [his] power as a first mover (an initiator of change) to bring about” the motion to vote. But what about the request to vote in the first place? Actually being in a circumstance that calls for a vote is itself a necessary condition for raising a hand to vote. Now, this does not mean that the circumstances will be a sufficient cause of the action, but Moreland does not make this distinction. Instead, he includes in his theory the premise that this person “brought about [the choice] for the sake of some [specific] reason,” but that entails another necessary cause–the reason–which will at least correspond to a brain state, and a chain of causation can be followed as we examine the path of all the calculations and knowledge which are in turn necessary causes of that reason.

What Moreland must contend is that despite the necessity of all these causes, the sum of them all (having a reason and a sufficient desire, as well as the requisite knowledge and the necessary circumstances) will still not be sufficient to cause an action, and that something “else” is required, which is neither a reason nor a desire nor knowledge of any kind nor anything about the surrounding circumstances. It is hard to see what this “something” can be. If I have a desire to actually shoot someone, a desire that is sufficient to override all other desires which urge me against it (a necessary cause of any willful choice to shoot), why would I not shoot? If Moreland appeals to moral shame or guilt or fear, then he is appealing to a desire. But that is a cause, and that cannot be his necessary “something.” Likewise, if he appeals to my character, knowledge of God or moral laws, to reasons not to shoot, or any such thing, then he is still appealing to causes. So what is left that could “cause” me not to shoot? He is saying, in effect, that there is some acausal power in me that can cause me not to shoot for no reason whatever. But this contradicts his premise that an agent always acts “for the sake of some [specific] reason.” For if I have no reason at all not to shoot, how can it be that I might choose not to shoot for some specific reason? This is a contradiction, and thus his concept of free will is self-refuting.

Consequences of Moreland’s View

Moreland might respond that we always have a reason to do and not to do something, and which reason we follow is caused purely by “something” in us, but not by these reasons or anything else like desires or knowledge or circumstances. But this does not rescue responsibility. Rather, it destroys it. Imagine two parallel universes, identical in every detail, and imagine a man in each universe, identical in their character and knowledge and desires and everything else, standing in totally identical circumstances. Now imagine that one of these men chooses to kill his wife, but the other man chooses not to. What could possibly explain this? Since the two situations and the two men are identical in every respect, there can be no cause whatsoever for either man’s choice. This is what Moreland says is the case.

But this has an unacceptable consequence: their desires, their knowledge, their moral character, nothing at all can be blamed for having caused their choice. Moreland even agrees: “no description of our desires, beliefs, character, or other aspects of our makeup and no description of the universe prior to and at the moment of our choice…is sufficient to entail that we did it” (138-9). But this means that we could not even say that the first man was evil and the second good, since doing so assumes that the first man’s badness caused him to kill, while the good man’s goodness caused him to refrain. But these men are identical, so one cannot be evil and the other good. Moreland might say he is evil or good after the deed, but that means we could not say he did what he did because he was a good or a bad man. In fact, we could not say at all why he acted. What quality in either man that is uniquely a part of “him” can be blamed for causing his particular choice? There is none.

Now imagine that this man is you, and in one universe you kill your wife, in the other you do not. What would you think of yourself then? You would know that nothing causes your actions–not your character, nor your environment, nor the surrounding circumstances, nor your knowledge, not even your love of your wife. Nothing. Your choice to kill or refrain is purely a result of happenstance. Imagine how you would feel, having learned that it is nothing but the result of unpredictable randomness whether you kill your wife or not at this very moment. Imagine that you refrain from killing, but could run the universe back a million times, and watch yourself again each time, and saw that sometimes you killed and sometimes you didn’t, even though each time all the circumstances, including your thoughts, desires, character, everything, are the same. There would be no rhyme or reason to why you did one or the other–it would be a mere shake of the dice. Wouldn’t you instead want the result every single time to be the same? But if the same circumstances are followed by the same choice 100% of the time, that is causation. Indeed, we know we are good only by seeing whether our goodness causes us to do good deeds, and so we should expect deterministic causation in our own choices. After all, the only alternative to 100% causation is randomness, and why would we feel good about our choices if they were actually random, and not caused by any of our inner qualities?

This is the crux: “I” am defined by my knowledge, character, values, and desires. If something causes me to act which is not one of these things, then “I” did not cause that action. Moreland wants “me” to be defined by something other than these things, but if you were to take them all away, there would be no me, so his approach is absurd. Would anyone conclude that I was at fault for something that I did not cause? The key word here is “I” and what it means. Moreland defines it as some unexplainable, unidentifiable thing that excludes all my memories, desires, virtues, values, traits, even my reasoning. This is a rather illogical conception of human identity.

Compatibilism: the Only Sensible Notion of Freewill

Moreland tries to defend this illogical notion, against compatibilism, by laying out “four areas central to an adequate theory of free will” (138). In fact, what he offers are four things central to a moral theory of responsibility: we must have the ability to act, we must be in control of our action, we must have a reason to act, and we must be the cause of the act. Of course, even if moral responsibility were shown to be illusory, this would not be scientific proof of libertarian freewill. Nevertheless, Moreland fails to make a case against compatibilism, and thus it remains the most sensible justification for our notion of moral responsibility. His four arguments are discussed below:

The Ability Condition

Compatibilism holds that “freedom is willing to act on your strongest preference” (138). Better put, freedom means getting to do what you want. It even means getting to want what you want, but even this entails that at some point there will be some desire or other that you did not choose, since in order to choose the desire that you want, you must first “want” it–and if you begin with no desires at all, you will never make any choice of any kind. Thus, it follows, according to compatibilism, that any organism that chooses in accord with its desires must begin with one or more desires that it did not choose. We call this, in our case, “human nature,” which we did not choose, but was given to us by the accidents of physics and history (or even, given Moreland’s worldview, by the designs of God).

In contrast, Moreland’s “libertarianism” holds that “a free act is one in which the agent is the ultimate originating source of the act.” At first glance, this is the same thing: compatibilists also hold that freedom entails being the source of the action. The person’s character, desire, knowledge, etc., must all be necessary causes of the act. This requires that the “person” be involved in the chain of causation (in the sense of thinking, contemplating, desiring, knowing, etc.). These factors, plus the circumstances, are together the full sufficient cause of any free act. Instead, Moreland requires that a person be an “ultimate” originating source, not just the source. But there is a problem here: never in all of history has anyone ever sought to confirm this before assigning responsibility. In other words, we have no problem calling people responsible all the time, but do we ever bother to check if there was a physical gap in the chain of causation, that the person was an “ultimate” origin and not just an origin? No, we do not. Thus, Moreland’s notion of freedom, as it relates to responsibility, does not correspond to actual human practice. But if Moreland’s ideas have nothing to do with what people actually mean, then why should we care about his ideas?

The Control Condition

The compatibilist view of control is that “an agent is in control of an act [if] the act is caused…by the agent’s own character, beliefs, desires and values,” etc. (140). To defend the libertarian rejection of this explanation, Moreland appeals to Aquinas for the notion that “only first movers are the sources of action” since everything else “merely receive[s] motion passively and pass[es] it on.” But this entails a special use of the word “source” that is not employed in normal discourse. We say the source of an earthquake is a particular rock fracture at a particular location which slipped at a particular time. We never say the source of the earthquake was the Big Bang.

Likewise, in human discourse we distinguish between active and passive transmission of energy in a different way than Moreland does here. For we think in terms of whether the agent took action in accord with a desire to transmit motion: if the transmission of motion requires the participation of the agent’s personality or character or reason, etc., then we call that an active participation. But if the motion does not require participation (if the body is pushed, despite efforts to resist), then the agent has not actively participated, so we say the agent was not in control of his own motion. Consider a thermostat: even though the thermostat is caused to change by the temperature in the room, and in turn causes that temperature to change, we do not say that the air in the room controls the temperature in the room. Instead, we say that the thermostat is in control, because it is a necessary factor in determining the temperature in the room, without which the room’s air could be any temperature that other factors determine it to be. This is the distinction we actually make in real life. Again, Moreland is arguing for ideas that do not correspond to the way people actually think in the relevant contexts. So his contention that we do not have “real” control under compatibilism amounts to special pleading.

The Rationality Condition

Here Moreland talks in a circle. He wants to show that compatibilism entails that we do not act for reasons (intentions) but that we only act because of chains of causation, using the Aristotelian distinction between efficient causes (a ball colliding with another ball) and final, or teleological causes (a ball is collided into another in order that the second ball will land in the corner pocket). But the fact is that reductionism entails that these two kinds of causes are necessarily equivalent in the case of an agent: whenever there is a final cause, if reductionism is true, then there is also an efficient cause (of course, it is not the other way around).

Moreland says, for example, “a reason for acting turns out to be a certain type of state in the agent, a belief-desire state, that is the real efficient cause of the action” (141). His argument is that this excludes the possibility of final causes. But since a belief-desire state is an intention, and an intention is a final cause, it follows that final causes can exist under compatibilism. He often does this, stating tautologies as if they were distinctions. For instance: under compatibilism “persons as substances do not act; rather, states within persons cause later states to occur.” But these are the same thing: the state within me (the sum of my being) is my substance, and since my substance is in turn the cause of my choices, it follows that persons as substances do in fact act under compatibilism. Indeed, so feeble is Moreland’s position here that he concludes with the vague statement that “libertarians reject [this view] and see a different role for beliefs and desires in free acts” yet he never explains what that difference is. I seriously doubt he can validly show any real difference.

The Cause Condition

Here Moreland shows how unaware he really is of the importance of organization in reductionist explanations of causation. According to a compatibilist, Moreland says, “if we say that a desire to vote caused Jones to raise an arm, we are wrong” since the truth is that “a desiring to vote caused a raising of the arm inside Jones” (142). But Moreland is skipping something here. “Jones” is a synonym for a particular collection of character features, values, desires, beliefs, and memories, all of which are necessarily involved in the chain of causation from the initial call for a vote up to the rise of the desire to vote one way or another. Thus, although you could play a word game and say that a desire did not cause Jones to act, by arguing that Jones in fact caused the desire which in turn caused the act, this gets you nowhere if your object is to show that Jones was not the cause of the act, since he must be either the cause of the desire or the direct cause of the act, and either way he is the cause of the act.

Moreland again repeats tautologies as if they were distinctions: “it is the self that acts, not a state in the self.” He never explains how these must be, or even can be, different. Even on his view, there must be some “state” in the special acausal “soul” stuff that Moreland is trying to identify as the “ultimate” cause of action, which in turn causes or constitutes the choice, thus the “self” always equals a “state in the self.” They are always one and the same thing. He thinks this invalid distinction explains the difference between acts and “mere happenings.” But that difference is already adequately explained by what we humans actually look for, which is not an undefined, unobservable, “self-stuff,” but which is instead a visible, demonstrable connection between the act and an agent. This is what is done in courts of law: “means, motive, and opportunity” is a catchphrase for all the evidence which can lead a jury reasonably to believe that the event (a crime) is causally connected to an agent–and not just the agent’s body, but the agent in his entirety: his mind, character, desires, beliefs, and intentions (i.e. “motive”). Since this is all we ever look for, it follows that this is all we actually mean when we say it was an “action” and not a “mere happening.” Moreland’s view is thus disconnected from the reality of human discourse, and that renders it irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.


Moreland’s chapter is a waste. The purpose of the chapter is to show that miracles can be an object of scientific study, but Moreland spends too much time defending one illogical point of view in order to support the general thesis. I actually agree that miracles can be a proper object of scientific study in principle. But Moreland has not even made that case here. Instead, he has tried to argue for something that is only of doctrinal interest to one specific conception of God, and which therefore is ill-suited to any general argument for the scientific study of miracles. Perhaps Moreland has been misled by his opponents? He claims thatAntony Flew “and others” claim there is a “dilemma between the theistic requirement of strong laws of nature…and the admission of real exceptions to those laws (miracles)” (142). But if Moreland thinks the answer to this charge lies in the illogical concept of libertarian agency, he is fooling himself. For there is in fact no logical dilemma for the theist who holds that there are strong laws of nature because God maintains them consistently, and also that God can choose to not maintain them on certain specific occasions. These are perfectly compatible views, and would be even if reductionism and compatibilism were true, since these would only describe the order that God maintains, which he could cease maintaining at will.

Also, if we suppose God to be made of some unique substance, which is neither matter nor energy but which can influence both, then it would follow that reductionism would not apply to God (unless his “substance” could in turn to be reduced into component parts arranged in a pattern of behavior). But there is nothing wrong with that, because we have yet to observe a god, and thus could not say whether his behavior must be reducible to anything else. On the other hand, compatibilism must be true even for God, since if God acts for no reasons at all, choosing despite his greatest desires and beliefs, even despite his inherent nature (such as his inherent goodness), we would have a God who could do anything, even the most heinous evil, at any moment, and for no reason at all. But if we are to attribute God’s choices to his knowledge and moral nature, we must adopt a compatibilist view of God’s freewill.

Even so, this does not make miracles impossible, nor does it make them incapable of study, just as it doesn’t in the case of human choices. But Moreland does not present or address any of this, nor does he present any practical advice, or any useful discussion at all, of just how scientists would go about scientifically confirming an event as a miracle. And this means his chapter accomplishes nothing of relevance to the rest of the book.


[1] Except chapter 7 of Scaling the Secular City (1987), which does not make any better case than he does here. But I have not read: The Creation Hypothesis (1994), chs. 1 and 2; Christianity and the Nature of Science (1989); or his contribution in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith vol. 46 (March, 1994), pp. 2-12; or in Bauman’s Man and Creation (1993), pp. 105-39.

[2] There is a fundamental flaw in Moreland’s reasoning that I did not detect when I first wrote this: he assumes that “libertarian, agent acts (human or divine) result in gaps in the causal fabric of the natural world” (p. 133), but this does not necessarily follow. It is possible that the so-called spontaneous libertarian acts of agents will create the appearance of a continuity of causation and thus leave no causal gaps at all. The following example explains just one way this could happen.
For instance, suppose an “Agent” is an immaterial Soul, which must act through manipulating a material body, and suppose the material body must obey the laws of conservation. In such a case, the Soul could only affect the body by “borrowing” energy and then reinserting it where desired, so as to bring about the desired causal effect. Moreover, to preserve conservation, this event would have to be instantaneous, leaving no point of missing energy, and it could not, for example, change the direction of any borrowed motion without borrowing still more energy to compensate for the energy required to change the direction of motion. In the end, when a scientist “observed” this system, every change in the system would be entirely accounted for by the seemingly deterministic interaction of units of energy.
The fact that a soul had intervened in such a system would not be observable, unless the scientist’s ability to observe extended perfectly even to the smallest energy scale, and the scientist’s knowledge of physical laws was perfect and complete. But neither is likely ever to be the case: observations of events at the smallest scale are impossible, because they cannot be made without interfering in that event, and any behaviors that could be observed, which seemed counter to the expectations of known physical laws, would not appear as a causal gap (since all energy would be conserved), but as the manifestation of an as-yet unknown physical law.
In actual fact, the actions of a Soul in such a system would most likely appear exactly like the known physical laws of quantum indeterminacy. For unique actions would not allow the statistical discovery of any deviation from otherwise-expected randomness. In other words, the fact that the Soul’s actions were slightly violating or toying with the normal “quantum” probabilities involved would never be observable because no action of the Soul would ever be repeatable–every choice is based on unique circumstances and thus is itself a unique event. Thus, even if Moreland were right about the mechanism of agency, his planned scientific program could fail to detect it. This would create even greater problems for his proposed scientific investigation of miracles than I already point out in my conclusion above.

[3] This section on free will and the previous discussion of reductionism have both been substantially expanded and improved upon in my book: Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005). In the present review, I also discuss the issue of free will a bit more in my critique of Beck.

d. Beck’s Argument for God (1999, 2005)

Here I will point out the errors in Becks’ argument for God. Because they are typical of those used by Christians everywhere, sophisticated or not, I think this survey will be of use on its own, although Beck is so bad at this that he is clearly not the best champion for theism. At any rate, the failure of Beck’s particular case here essentially destroys the entire project of In Defense of Miracles. But for those who want a much more comprehensive discussion of the question of whether God or Naturalism can provide the best explanation of the universe and its physics and contents, see Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005), where I also engage an extensive demonstration of the natural foundations of moral facts.

First the Old “There Must Have Been a First Cause” Argument

By proving a limitation of the human imagination (in this case, our inability to imagine an actual infinite series), he claims to have proven a limitation on reality. But there is no necessary connection between what humans can do and what nature can do, so this argument fails to prove the necessity of a first cause. It is even more absurd coming from Christians who all, at one time or another, claim some feature of God to be mysteriously incomprehensible, and thus have no problem accepting that something they cannot imagine can nevertheless exist, despite having no evidence or compelling inferences to justify their belief.

As is typical of all apologists, Beck forgets that he is supposed to prove the necessity of a first cause, or else provide physical evidence for one. Instead, he only shows that a first cause is possible and more easily imagined than an eternity, which hardly needs to be argued. Never having experienced an eternity, it is only natural that we should have a hard time imagining it. That tells us more about ourselves than the universe. He must provide a logical reason or empirical evidence, yet he can offer neither. He even refutes himself with the elegant and entirely true statement: “Not everything that can be conceived should be believed” (154). In other words, just because we can imagine a first cause, this is no reason to believe there was one. And he offers no good reasons to believe there was one.

The weakest step he makes, however, is when he claims that this is actually an argument for the existence of God. But there is no reason that a first cause must be equivalent to a god, at least not by his definition. Consider the kind of argument he uses to make such a connection: a first cause is nondependent, and Romans 1:20 mentions the eternal “God-ness” (he does not give the Greek, which is theotês, “divinity, godhead”), which “conveys the idea of nondependence,” so therefore the first cause “we may indeed call ‘God'” (151-3). But why does he think “God-ness” conveys nondependence? Athena possessed theotês yet she was not ‘nondependent’. And certainly just because God could be a first cause, it does not follow that God is a first cause. So as usual, theists pretend that they don’t need empirical evidence for empirical claims. Moreover, Beck trips over his first argument here. If an actual infinity can’t exist, then even God must have had a first cause, which would beg for an explanation–yet another god? Is it gods all the way down? But if Beck’s sudden reversal is correct, and God can be eternal but uncaused, then Beck’s argument that an actual infinite series is impossible would have to be false, since, for example, an omniscient God’s thoughts would then be an actual infinite series. It seems either way you look his case is doomed.

Theists can’t have it both ways, even though they always want to. Since a universe can be eternal just as easily as a god can, and since the nature of the universe can be a first cause just as easily as a god can, the First Cause argument is vacuous. Since Christians find it easier to imagine a god as an explanation, they conclude that therefore it is more reasonable. They forget the fact that obviously they will find it easier to imagine a God as an explanation: they’ve spent far more time imagining it! They have primed themselves to accept their own conclusion as more natural, a delusion so common that scientists have developed the concept of blind and double-blind experimentation, and other methods, in order to prevent it from tainting the results of research. This is why we cannot trust arguments based on what we find “easier” to “imagine,” especially when talking about things in which our brains have no experience (such as the origin of a universe).

Second the Old “It’s Too Complex to Have Happened by Chance” Argument

Things that seem designed are designed. That’s the teleological inference. The most fundamental flaw with the teleological inference is that it is unfalsifiable and thus could not be refuted even if it were wrong. This means that it is a useless axiom, because it cannot advance our knowledge of the universe. After all, if we cannot know when it is false, then we cannot know when it is true. The argument goes like this: in our experience, we have seen design come only from intelligent action, therefore it is reasonable to infer that all design comes from intelligent action. This is not a necessary deduction, but it would be a reasonable inference–if the premises were true. The problem is that this inference assumes its own truth by using the word “only.” How do we know that we have seen design only as a result of intelligent action? We don’t. All of nature may be proof of unintelligent design, and scientists have found a great deal of evidence to support the belief that unintelligent design exists in abundance. For example, no intelligence is required to make an amorphous substance crystallize in an orderly fashion–it does so automatically. Maybe the nature of the substance (the “physical laws” which govern it) were designed, but that is both undemonstrable and irrelevant. Even if God created the laws of crystallization, it does not follow that god intelligently creates every crystal.

The point is that if there are certain rules, then there will always be complex outcomes–in other words, there will always be design. Consequently, the existence of complex outcomes only proves, at best, the existence of rules, which describe consistent patterns of behavior and their interaction. It does not prove the existence of a creator. And since this is true for substances, it is equally true for the rules themselves. There simply does not have to be a first intelligent cause. Just as a god can have a complex nature (such as his own intelligence and moral character) without intelligent design, so can a universe and its physics.

So God is not a necessary explanation, which leaves empirical demonstration as their only avenue. But theists can offer no empirical evidence against the possibility that the rules of the universe had an unintelligent cause, nor can they offer any empirical evidence proving an intelligent cause. Once again, their entire argument is derived solely from what is “easier” for them to “imagine,” and thus they prime themselves to ignore every answer but their own. This is an invalid method. How or why the universe has the rules it has is an empirical question that can only be answered through empirical observation–it cannot be answered with logical reasoning, nor with wishful thinking.

The second problem with teleological arguments is scientific and statistical illiteracy. Beck gives us some classic examples, which are typical of all other similar arguments made in many other books. He first declares that “we can calculate the probability of an event’s occurrence…to indicate whether [phenomena] might occur as a result of the normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics” (156). Then he gives as examples (citing Hugh Ross) the “mass density of the universe…polarity of the water molecule…[and the] oxygen quantity in [the Earth’s] atmosphere” (157). But we do not even know what the “normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics” would produce in any of these cases, so he is essentially telling us that we can do something (calculate their probability) which in fact we cannot do. If he understood more about astrophysics he would know this, but such scientific illiteracy typifies apologetic works.

Consider the odds that a stationary body of water on Earth will normally flow downhill rather than uphill. The odds are not 50/50. The laws of physics dictate the odds to be 100%, and we know this. Now what are the odds of the universe having a certain mass density? To figure that, we need to know what physical laws determined that density. But we do not know that. For all we know, the odds of the universe having that density, just like the odds of water on Earth flowing downhill, might have been 100%. What Beck is giving us here is an argument from ignorance: since we do not know what densities were possible, we are allowed to “assume” that it could have been anything at all, and that every option is equally likely. But we are not allowed to assume either. We don’t even know if any other density is possible, much less how likely those other possibilities might be.

This gross incompetence becomes greater still when we examine the other two examples. The polarity of water is necessarily decided by the laws of physics–in particular, the attributes of oxygen and hydrogen, which are decided in turn by the four forces in the context of quantum mechanics. So the actual odds of water having that polarity, given the “normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics” is 100%. Thus, Beck cannot argue that this polarity is improbable. He could, perhaps, go deeper and try to argue that the exact attributes of the four forces are improbable, but how can he or anyone know that? We do not know what caused the forces to be what they are, if any particular physical laws govern them, or what other possible attributes there were or what the odds were of any of those alternatives. This is the same problem noted above. It is, in other words, an argument from ignorance, and that is simply a fallacy.

Now consider his third example. He claims that if the oxygen level were greater or less, life would not be possible. But this is demonstrably false. Not only is there life that breathes neither oxygen nor carbon dioxide (anaerobic bacteria in deep sea volcanic vents), but life began when there was virtually no oxygen at all. Geological studies prove that there was very little oxygen when life began in the Precambrian (at which time no life on earth breathed oxygen). Then as a result of pollution from carbon dioxide breathers, oxygen levels rose to at least 30% above present levels (during the Jurassic period), and then fell again (and are still falling). Thus, life on earth has flourished through all kinds of fluctuations in the supply of oxygen. In fact, humans can survive in oxygen levels as low as 60%, and as high as 140%, of the current average at sea level (according to the current NASA Life Sciences Data Book and the 1977 Princeton study, Space Settlements). If Beck knew anything about geology and biohistory, he would see that he is merely putting his foot in his mouth when he uses this invalid example.

The same scientific illiteracy plagues attempts to show that the cosmological constants “had” to be exactly as they are for some kind of intelligent life to develop–in every case, such assumptions about the consequences of variations in the constants are unsupported by any facts or reasoning, and require that the constants are independent of each other, which is unlikely–change one, and you will no doubt change them all. We also do not know if this is the only kind of universe capable of bearing life. Along the same lines, Beck cites Hoyle’s odds against the formation of DNA (157), blissfully ignorant of the fact that Hoyle’s calculation, like all others in the same vein, is entirely bogus (see my critique of all such DNA-based Odds against Life Calculations).

The Oxygen Level example also betrays the third problem with all teleological arguments: the anthropic fallacy. Most life on earth does not even breathe oxygen. Yet Beck assumes that the level of oxygen is essential for the development of life. Why does he assume this? Because he breathes oxygen. If we had evolved as an intelligent carbon dioxide breathing jellyfish-like creature, Beck would think that the level of carbon dioxide was essential to life on earth, and believe (mistakenly) that any increase or decrease in that level would make life impossible. But the fact is that life uses what it has, and adapts to where it is. The hypothetical jellyfish people would have evolved to live within just such a carbon dioxide level, and that is why the two would seem so well-matched: the fish have developed to match the levels on their planet, not the other way around. The same is true for us: we have adapted to the oxygen level we have. If the levels were different, we would be different. And if the levels yet change, the only people who will survive will be those who can handle the new level, and then their children will propagate this ability and man will change to be perfectly suited to the new level, and so on. So this, and other things like it, can never be used to show that life is improbable. Rather, these things prove only one thing: that life is adaptable to many different circumstances. This is exactly the opposite of what theists want us to think.

I discuss more errors of this kind in various cosmological arguments elsewhere. See Richard Carrier, Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism (2000) and The Fine Tuning Argument (2001).

Third the old “Objective Moral Values Require a Divine Source” Argument

Here Beck simply regurgitates his own version of the argument of C.S. Lewis. The first premise is “morality is an objective feature of our universe” (160). Beck supports this premise with only one observation: “it is simply impossible…for the larger context of social discourse to occur without making statements about what is right or wrong or without assuming that they are true or false.” But as happens in all such arguments, he refutes himself by actually using subjective facts to support his belief that these statements are rooted in objective facts. But if the connecting premise, which takes us logically from “we believe moral statements are true” to “moral statements refer to objective facts,” is a subjective fact, then the argument falls–instead, the argument proves the exact opposite: that moral statements refer to subjective facts.

Beck’s self-defeating statement is this: “That Adolf Hitler…[was] not really morally wrong, that we cannot judge a society truly guilty if it practices genocide…are such repugnant proposals that we find it impossible to believe that they could be true.” Notice what he is saying: these statements cannot be true because they are repugnant. His argument depends entirely on our subjective reaction to these statements. If we did not find them repugnant, then he would not have an argument, would he? Imagine if he had said this: “That eating ice cream was not really morally wrong is such a repugnant proposal that we find it impossible to believe that it could be true.” Would he then have proof that we believe eating ice cream is objectively wrong? No–because we do not regard this proposal as repugnant. Thus, his argument actually requires a subjective foundation for morality (in this case, a feeling of “repugnance”), and he cannot use this to prove an objective foundation for morality.

He tries to shore up his position by dismissing two criticisms, that “moral judgments” are just “emotive outbursts or conditioned patterns of behavior,” with this wonderful proof: “it is doubtful that reasonable people really believe it” (161). So now, if I really believe this, he doubts that I am reasonable! This is a covert ad hominem attack on his opponents, and a fallacious “appeal to the crowd.” It is all the more telling, because when he presents his “proof” that reasonable people do not believe this, he actually states what amounts to a subjectivist definition of morality: “That the brutal slaughter of children is revolting, horrifying and antisocial but not immoral or wrong is nonsense.” Of course it is nonsense! It just so happens that being “revolting, horrifying and antisocial” is for Beck the same thing as being “immoral or wrong.” Beck would benefit from Ayer’s observation: “a proposition whose validity we are resolved to maintain in the face of any experience is not a hypothesis at all, but a definition” (Language, Truth, and Logic, 1946, p. 95). So if it is nonsense, if it is impossible, to regard a “revolting, horrifying and antisocial” act as moral, if no possible observation could ever make this true, then it follows that this is the definition of morality.

And as can be seen, this is a subjective definition: to be immoral, according to Beck, something must be “revolting, horrifying and antisocial.” It is not entirely subjective, since to be “antisocial” is an objective, not a subjective fact. But this is still not dependent on God, and the other two terms are subjective. That is then what it means to Beck’s imagined audience when they call something immoral. This is especially clear when we observe that the converse is true: could Beck and his gang ever regard something that was “pleasing, admirable, and compassionate” as immoral? Certainly not! Hence this proves that Beck’s morals are rooted in subjective human sentiments: since eating ice cream, for example, is not “revolting, horrifying and antisocial” it follows that he does not regard it as immoral, and never would so regard it even if God himself told him otherwise–unless God could convince Beck that eating ice cream really was, somehow, “revolting, horrifying and antisocial.”

So much for Beck’s first premise. His second premise then becomes moot: “naturalistic ‘explanations’ of the objectivity of morality are inadequate.” Well, since even Beck has failed to present evidence of a truly objective moral standard, it should hardly matter that we cannot account for it. Indeed, even theists cannot really account for it, since they cannot explain why we should define “moral” as “what aligns with God’s nature or commands” instead of what is “pleasing, admirable, and compassionate.” They simply assume that this will be accepted. But we must actually have a reason to adopt this as a moral standard. And if the “morality” defined by a god’s nature or commands contradicts our natural sentiments, if it classifies pleasing, admirable, and compassionate acts as immoral and “revolting, horrifying and antisocial” acts as moral, what possible reason would we have to adopt such a standard, a standard which would itself be revolting to us?

Furthermore, if it “just so happens” that God’s standard is the same as our own subjective sentiments, then we don’t need God anymore–our sentiments will tell us what is moral. More sophisticated authors would try to claim (though Beck fails to make this point himself) that our sentiments are meaningless unless God designed them, but that does not solve their problem. For God could have designed us with the opposite sentiments (he could have possessed the opposite sentiments himself), and, by the theist’s own reasoning, once-revolting acts, like genocide, would then be moral. And since theists cannot justify why God’s nature is what it is, since it has no cause, and was not designed in any way but just “is,” by unexplained accident, it follows that this theistic explanation for “objective moral value” leaves us with a moral system that is nothing more than an unexplained accident. At least in an atheist’s worldview, morality is an explainable accident, so atheism actually has an edge over the theist in this department.

Beck perpetuates a lot of other nonsense about nontheistic moral theories, and once again his own language condemns his arguments to the trash bin, but even more important, it is what he omits that renders his argument useless in modern philosophical circles. For example, he claims that “any form of naturalistic evolution denies human freedom,” showing his ignorance of those who use quantum mechanics to explain human freedom within an evolutionary context. Then he concludes that such theories “must deny responsibility,” showing his ignorance of the fact that most philosophers today persuasively defend compatibilism, which proves that responsibility is compatible with determinism. Humorously, one of this book’s own authors, John Feinberg, actually defends compatibilism in order to support the incarnation of Christ (242), once again exposing inconsistencies in the editorial design of the book. Moreland also ignored Feinberg to support Beck’s view of freewill, but I discussed that in my Review of Moreland’s Chapter.

Beck continues, “hence it cannot be that my actions have any value” even though he makes no argument for how value “cannot” exist in this view. It is self-evident that value necessarily exists the moment there is any mind that values anything. Human actions–indeed, all things–obtain their value from us. Indeed, they do so even within the theist’s own worldview: the theist claims that value comes from God, but the theist himself must first value God’s opinion or nature before he can use that argument, and in doing this he proves that value ultimately comes from humans, not from God. And if he posits that God put this standard in us, all he has shown is that values come from the unexplained accident of God’s nature, which God himself did not create, and thus even then the basis of value could not be caused by any intelligent plan.

Then Beck amplifies his attack on determinism: only those who have “freedom” can have “the requisite insight to make moral choice possible and to actually decide on moral values or actions for themselves.” But what does freedom have to do with insight? If I am determined in advance to have insight, I have it just as well as a free man. In fact, a free man has no advantages over me: we both need the same reasoning faculties, the same rules of logic, the same time and resolve to reflect, the same knowledge of the same facts, all brought to us by the same means. If exactly the same input will produce exactly the same insight in both the free and the determined man, then “lack of insight” in men’s choices can never be used to impugn determinism.

Likewise, Beck says freedom is needed to make choice possible, and to allow us to decide for ourselves, but he does not demonstrate this. I do not see how being determined to choose makes choice impossible. Choice still exists. The machine that is doing the choosing is still ourselves, and its input is the same, and its output the same, as it would be for any supposedly “free” man. So how exactly are these things impossible? I still make decisions, and my decisions are still based on who I am and what I know, just as they would be if I were “free” (whatever that means–antideterminists have a very hard time explaining that one). So here, he simply regurgitates half-baked criticisms of determinism, and presents no argument (I discuss compatibilism more in my review of Moreland).

Beck then tries to dismiss the social construction theory of morality, using two feeble points. First, he says “we often think it plausible to make…judgments about…other societies” and so it cannot be that “values derive from our society.” But when we criticize others, we are often appealing to the same values possessed by all people, everywhere. Most if not all moral disagreements between people and societies are based on different beliefs about the facts, not on any true differences in core values. National Socialism, for instance, derived its anti-Semitic morals from the false belief that Jews were not human, were devoid of compassion, and had engaged in conspiratorial crimes against humanity. So Beck is mistakenly assuming that there can actually be a society that does not share the same fundamental values as we do, even though he cannot demonstrate that this is humanly possible, much less a reality. If such a society did exist, it would be so absolutely alien to us that we would hardly be able to communicate with it, and whether we could “condemn” them from within their own system would be the least of our concerns.

Second, he says that “only persons can be the source of values, yet no finite…person is in a position to determine” values for others, so “there must be some ‘ultimate’ person” who does this, which would be God. But consider the fact that only persons can be the source of the meaning of the words in the English language, and yet no finite person determines the meaning of those words–but neither is God telling us what to put in dictionaries. Rather, the meaning of words arises from social convention, without the intelligent design of any one individual. The same cause exists for human moral systems. But even more importantly, the values upon which moral systems are based are not “made up” by anyone, even society, and then “given” to us: they are learned, and developed out of our nature–they are a part of us, intimately born from our experiences and biological nature. What makes people happy, and grants them security and health, is inherent in us, and universal. It does not come by dictation from any person or group.

In short, it is patently ridiculous to look for an “ultimate” person to tell us what will make us happy. We already know that on our own! And since pain, happiness, consciousness, knowledge, empathy and reflection are universal among all human beings, the values which these engender or entail are likewise universal. It would be absurd to claim that we need a God to tell us how to be happy, or even to tell us that we want to be happy! We all want to be happy, by our very nature, and the means to be happy will be pretty much the same for everyone, and can be learned without needing a God. Maybe a God, being so wise and knowledgeable, could at least help by pointing things out that we need to know, but I don’t see any god doing this for us, and such a god would still not be necessary.

Even theists are in the same boat as the rest of us, trying to figure out on our own the key to happiness, by reference to their own needs, desires, experiences, and innate qualities. Thus, Beck’s “moral argument” for the existence of God is his weakest yet. Here it has been enough to show the inadequacy of Becks’ moral argument for God, but to learn more about what I really think about the origin, nature, and justification of moral values, you can read my essays Does the Christian Theism Advocated by J.P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason to be Moral than Secular Humanism? (1998) and What an Atheist Ought to Stand For (1999), and then, for the most comprehensive discussion, my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005).

Has Beck Made a Case?

From all of this Beck has the temerity to conclude that “we are…entitled to assurance that God exists…[and] can act intelligently and with moral concern within human history” (162). Considering how crucial this conclusion is to the entire book’s cumulative case for miracles, it is the weakest and most vulnerable link in the chain. For if there is no good reason to think there is a god (and whatever good reasons there might be, Beck has presented none of them), then there is no reason to believe that any amazing event is a miracle from god. For without a prior, positive reason to prefer a divine explanation, a natural explanation must be resorted to–for then no matter how improbable, so long as it is reasonably possible, a natural explanation will always remain the most plausible explanation, since it is the only kind of explanation we have proven successful on other occasions.

I would be willing to cut Beck some slack, on the grounds that he didn’t have enough room to argue what he needed, if it were not for the fact that his argument is so absolutely crucial to the whole point of the book that if his argument could not have been made sound in the space he was given, he should have been given more. Instead, all he even attempts to offer as proof is negative evidence: an actual infinity or a natural first cause is “less” conceivable than a First Cause God, there are natural phenomena that have “not” been explained, and the prospect that morals are subjective is “not” a desirable discovery. He presents absolutely no positive evidence in favor of the existence of God. But how curious an approach this is. If I wanted to set out to prove that Bigfoot was a lost species of ape hiding in the woods, but all I had to argue the point were the same notions–that the idea of the “good evidence being faked” was “less” conceivable to me than the idea of Bigfoot actually causing the evidence, that we have “not” searched every inch of the woods, and that the prospect of Bigfoot’s nonexistence was “not” a desirable discovery–would Beck be convinced? He would not, and so he has no right to expect us to be convinced when he uses essentially the same arguments for God.

4. The Historical Problem

a. Beckwith on Historiography

The Project

Beckwith’s chapter has one objective: to answer the question “can history be inspected for the occurrence of miracles?” (87) Of cour

se, this question must follow the prior question of whether any miracle can ever be recognized at all (see The Problem with Miracles), since the answer to that will also define key limitations faced by historians. But when Beckwith turns to the more specific question of what historians think and can do, he suffers from a serious lack of acquaintance with actual historians or their methods. Consider, for example, when he says that “a number of scholars…persuasively argue that one can detect through the investigation of history various aspects of the supernatural agency of an alleged miraculous event” (88) he does not cite even a single historian. Instead, his footnote lists seven Christian apologists, five of whom are contributors to this book–and who are definitely not historians. Indeed, isn’t it a forgone conclusion that Christian apologists would believe this? And if they are the only ones who believe it, one is left to wonder why. Is it because their “persuasive arguments” are ignored by all historians, or because their arguments aren’t persuasive? Considering how fallacy-riddled Corduan’s argument is in this book, it does not look good for the apologist.

Taking the Times into Account: Learning from Gibbon

Thus, it is worthwhile to examine what actual historians conclude about this subject. Hume was an historian, but these authors only address his logical arguments. His numerous historical objections (which are evidential, not philosophical) are all but brushed aside. Anyone who has not read them will find his arguments in full at the beginning of this book. Hume was an expert on British history, not ancient, but one of the most famous historians of ancient times was Edward Gibbon, a contemporary of Hume, and he has much to say on the subject of miracles, and it is worth quoting him at great length. Reflecting on the frequent “fraud and sophistry in the defense of revelation” found in antiquity,[1] Gibbon issues a withering rhetorical question:

But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, demons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages ofGreeceandRometurned aside from the awful spectacle, and pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world.

Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect.[2] Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration;[3] but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar. (Gibbon, vol. 1, ch. 15, p. 512)

Then, in a later chapter, Gibbon revisits the issue:

The satisfactory experience, that the relics of saints were more valuable than gold or precious stones, stimulated the clergy to multiply the treasures of the church. Without much regard for truth or probability, they invented names for skeletons, and actions for names….they added myriads of imaginary heroes, who had never existed, except in the fancy of crafty or credulous legendaries…a superstitious practice, which tended to increase the temptations of fraud, and credulity, insensibly extinguished the light of history, and of reason, in the Christian world.

But the progress of superstition would have been much less rapid and victorious, if the faith of the people had not been assisted by the seasonable aid of visions and miracles, to ascertain the authenticity and virtue of the most suspicious relics. In the reign of the younger Theodosius, Lucian, a presbyter ofJerusalem…[dug up the remains of the martyr Stephen]…and when the…remains of Stephen [were] shewn to the light, the earth trembled, and an odour, such as that of paradise, was smelt, which instantly cured the various diseases of seventythree of the assistants. The…relics of the first martyr were transported, in solemn procession, to a church constructed in their honour onMountSion; and the minute particles of those relics, a drop of blood, or the scrapings of a bone, were acknowledged, in almost every province of the Roman world, to possess a divine and miraculous virtue.

The grave and learned Augustin, whose understanding scarcely admits the excuse of credulity, has attested [in The City of God] the innumerable prodigies which were performed in Africa, by the relics of St. Stephen…[indeed, he] enumerates…seventy miracles, of which three were resurrections from the dead, in the space of two years, and within the limits of his own diocese. If we enlarge our view to all the dioceses, and all the saints, of the Christian world, it will not be easy to calculate the fables, and the errors, which issued from this inexhaustible source. But we may surely be allowed to observe, that a miracle, in that age of superstition and credulity, lost its name and its merit, since it could scarcely be considered as a deviation from the ordinary, and established, laws of nature. (Gibbon, vol. 2, ch. 28, pp. 92-93)

It should be clear that Gibbon is not issuing a philosophical argument, but stating a simple case demonstrated by historical evidence: we observe so much fraud and credulity in those days, it would be irrational to believe anything that smelled of the same character. Moreover, there were so many miracles all over the Roman Empire in those times that they became as common as natural events. What, then, can explain their sudden disappearance in the past few centuries? Observing the first fact, Gibbon, like all sound historians, sees in it an ideal explanation of the second fact: fraud and credulity were far more common, or far more successful, then than they are now. Isn’t that a very reasonable conclusion? For more evidence supporting this very point, you can read Hume’s many examples, as well as another essay of mine on this subject, “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire” (1997).

The Standard Historical Problems: the Rain Miracle

What about current historians? Consider the astonishing “rain miracle” which rescued the army of Marcus Aurelius in 172 A.D., complete with the enemy army being zapped to death by lightning balls hurtling from a clear sky, while the “good guys” were at the same time rescued from a desperate thirst when clouds gathered and sent down a torrential rain, despite a long period of summer drought. Everyone claimed responsibility, from advocates of the god Jupiter, to proponents of Neoplatonic magic-working, to, of course, Christians. It even appears on the column of Marcus Aurelius, where some rain god is seen sweeping across the battlefield, toppling the enemy while filling the Roman soldiers’ shields with life-giving water (a clear depiction of lightning striking the enemy appears in a different but related scene, which has been badly damaged by weathering).

Giovanni Becati, Colonna Di Marco Aurelio (1957)

Garth Fowden skillfully reviews how these stories changed over time, and how the Christian version won not because it was true, but simply because its proponents won the ensuing propaganda war, a lesson that is instructive in itself.[4] The successful use of propaganda by Christians, especially in the exploitation of miracle stories, is also demonstrated by Thomas Matthews in his excellent book The Clash of the Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (1993), and analyzed by Rodney Stark in his recent book The Rise of Christianity (1997). Stories were told, and images carved, in order to sell the faith. Truth is an easy casualty in this process.

But there are other lessons here. About eight years later, the Christian apologist Apollinarius began to recount the Christian version as if its truth were a certainty,[5] even though there are demonstrable factual errors in his account, including one hallmark of rumor-built legend: the claim that the Roman legion called “Fulminata” (“Thundering”) was so-named because of this very event, to honor the all-Christian unit for having gained the aid of their god. Of course, the very notion that an entire legion, whose men had to worship Jupiter Optimus Maximus, could be composed entirely of Christians under an intolerant Emperor,[6] and at so early a date, is absurd. But one other thing is certain: the legion named “Fulminata” had already been so-named since the time of Augustus over a century before. This proves that lies could spread, and be believed, very quickly–even in the very same generation. This should not surprise us. There were no newspapers, and what few records of any kind that existed were off limits to the masses, who had neither the social savvy nor the requisite literacy to access them, even if they had the desire to. And we see that lies can win out: Eusebius, writing in the early 300’s, believes Apollinarius’ story is true, and includes it in his definitive world chronicle [7].

Tertullian, writing only 25 years after the actual event, also thought the Christians were credited,[8] even though it is dubious that there even could have been Christians in the army at that time, whereas Marcus Aurelius himself dedicated a statue in honor of the event to Jupiter Lightning-maker,[9] and issued coinage celebrating “the emperor’s religion,” with the aid of Egyptian magic (see below), hardly a tip of the hat to Christians. On the other hand, pagans had their own wild stories, believed with equal gusto. Cassius Dio, writing about half a century later (about the same time that passed between the death of Christ and the writing of the first gospels), tells us that an Egyptian sorcerer named Harnouphis had summoned Hermes (the equivalent of Thoth) and, using this divine aid, saved the day.[10] This story has material evidence in its support: an inscription attests to such a man traveling with the army at the time, and coins after the battle honor the “Religion of the Emperor” in connection with Hermes (Mercury) standing in an Egyptian temple.

Fowden’s conclusion is instructive:

The historian who approaches the rain miracle must suppress any concern he may feel for what actually happened on that unknown battlefield, and seek his rewards instead in comparison of the different versions, in the hope of reading between the lines something of the period’s ideological tensions.[11]

This is the historical reality. So little is known, and the sources we have are so biased and flawed, that it would be ludicrous to set our belief too firmly on any version of events, much less on whether a genuine miracle occurred that day. Fowden, a real historian, knows full well the ubiquity of propaganda, falsehood, rumor, error, credulity, and agenda which plagued all sources of the time, especially in the sphere of religion.[12] We can learn far more about the politics and mindset of the people who wrote and believed such accounts, than we can about the events themselves, which are shrouded in uncertainty and obscurity and ultimately inaccessible to us. This is why miracle accounts from antiquity cannot be proved miraculous–for we can barely be sure they even happened, and we have no chance at all of ruling out natural explanations. We simply don’t have the necessary evidence.

This point is further made by Michael Sage, who also examines the falsehood about the “Thundering Legion” noting that “These types of errors fit easily, however, into a schema of proof common to apologists in the period.”[13] He cites as examples Justin’s false claim that an inscription proved that Simon Magus was venerated in Rome, or Tertullian’s credulous citation of the bogus Acts of Pilate or the forged letters of the emperor Tiberius (in which he supposedly claimed that he supported Christianity and made a speech about it in the Senate). Though Sage does not mention it, one of my favorites is a letter written by Jesus, cited in its entirety by Eusebius, who does not doubt its authenticity (Ecclesiastical History 1.13). Thus, the “error” about the Legio Fulminata “fits comfortably into the preoccupations and methods of his period.” In other words, the ancients lied so much, or got it wrong so often, that we can hardly ever trust anything they say without additional reasons, and Christians were demonstrably no exception–indeed, given their obvious desire to always be right, to justify their suffering and sacrifice, to win converts at all costs, and to persuade persecutors of the validity of their faith, Christian sources are even less trustworthy still.

Understanding Cultural Background is Essential

Another contemporary expert on ancient history and religion, Robin Lane Fox, writes the following informative paragraph:

Here, too, we touch on patterns of psychology which our own modern case histories may not do much to illuminate: in antiquity, unlike our own age, “appearances” were part of an accepted culture pattern which was passed down in myth and the experiences of the past, in art, ritual and the bewitching poetry of Homer…In the ancient world, as in our own, the evidence suggests that people were most likely to see something when under pressure or at risk, though there is also a visionary current in their moments of peace with the natural world.[14]

He cites many examples, as well as other experts who write at even greater length on this subject.[15] He adds, referring to all kinds of visions and healings and other miracles, Pagan and Christian, “convinced disbelievers were very few, and it is worth comparing the belief in faeries which flourished in Northern Europe until only recently.”[16] In fact, visions were so common that the Epicureans had to devise elaborate theories of hallucination in order to dismiss them, ultimately showing no doubt in their ubiquity (Lucretius The Nature of Things 4.724-48). This analogy is instructive, since “while Marx and Darwin wrote, faeries lived for many more who never read such books,” emphasizing the fact that the vast majority of people did not read any of the skeptical books written in antiquity and had no real acquaintance with science or natural explanations of wonderful phenomena.

One grand example is the eclipse, where the masses show no awareness of the correct explanation, but respond instead with horrible fear at the dire omen, even clanging pots to scare away the monsters eating the sky, or to confuse the spells of the wizards and witches who were working their awful magic.[17] Does this sound like the kind of people, or the kind of age, whose records of the incredible can ever be trusted? Unlike today, in ancient times there was almost no critical examination of amazing claims, and even those who deigned to criticize a story almost never had the education, knowledge, or tools to be effective, or were so distant in time or place that they had little chance of getting the goods. The exceptions are so rare that they prove the rule.

This is all the more so because the Christian miracles were no different than any that went before. The carrying of holy relics into battle for their miraculous aid, or making pilgrimages to them in order to be healed, had been done since the days of the Spartans (Herodotus 1.68, 5.75; Pliny, Natural History 7.2.20). Miraculous healings were a regular feature of temples of Serapis in Egypt and of Asclepius in Greek and Roman towns, and attended many other statues and altars (see my essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire” and also [18]) and were the mainstay of sorcerers who were always near at hand, their services for hire–they even specialized in the dispelling of demons (Lucian, Lover of Lies 9-17; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 8.44-9). Turning water into wine was a typical pious trick (Pausanias 6.26.1-2). Resurrection was not unprecedented (Lucian, Lover of Lies 26′ Pliny, Natural History 26.8.17, 7.52) and the magical multiplication of food from a single item was also a claim made by magicians (Pliny, Natural History 26.9).

How, then, are we to put any greater faith in Christian reports of exactly the same things? Given this survey, the Christian stories become very suspicious: why did Jesus turn water into wine, multiply loaves, heal ailments with no obvious lesions, dispel demons, and resurrect people from the dead? Why these miracles instead of other, original deeds? The turning of water into wine is especially curious, since there is no moral or scriptural justification for it. The similarity of these claims with those made of pagan sorcerers strongly suggests either that Jesus was using the same tricks as they, or that later followers wanted to attribute to Jesus what was commonly expected of all divine men. This is the best explanation for the uncanny similarity, for surely a real divine man would want to do things that were unique and unprecedented, not repeat what were already widespread magic tricks.

You Must Learn the Lessons of History

Above is the lesson that history teaches us. The skepticism of historians like Hume, Gibbon, Fox, Sage, or Fowden is not based on any a priori positivist rejection of miracles like Beckwith thinks. Rather, it is based on years of experience with the sources, and a thorough understanding of the time and culture in question–which, despite the many human similarities, was undeniably different in important respects from today. Apologists, never examining these issues in any depth, remain oblivious to the compelling case made by the evidence, and assume that they can defend only Christian miracles by arguing in a vacuum, as if only their sources mattered, and as if these sources could be examined on their own, regardless of their cultural, historical, and literary contexts. This focus on the now, and the corresponding neglect of the past, is commonplace in modern apologetics. For instance, Beckwith rightly destroys the notion of absolute historical relativism among modern historians, but fails to see that it is the features of relativism and other questions of method in ancient writers that poses the greatest problem for the Christian apologetic mission. Yet he does not write a single word about ancient historiography.

How Does a Real Historian Work?

Beckwith offers an example at one point of what he thinks is proper historical method. From this example, it would seem that he has little acquaintance with the unreliability of journalism, much less with historical sources. I will use this example to illustrate how a historian actually approaches evidence of the unusual.

Beckwith cites a case in which fifteen people all had different and unique reasons for being late to a church choir rehearsal, and because of this none were killed in an explosion that went off shortly after they were supposed to have arrived. From this he concludes that “opponents of miracles claim that we should reject the reliable testimony and circumstantial evidence that has substantiated the event described in this anecdote, even though it would seem perfectly reasonable to believe” it (92). Here he is betraying his uncritical acceptance of incredible accounts, assuming that a display of his credulity will be sufficient to make his case for how historians should do their job.

To begin with, anecdotal evidence is always regarded as less reliable by all historians, because they are intimately familiar with how anecdotal evidence gets made and transmitted, and inevitably distorted, even when there is a kernel of truth. This is even more so when we know that the story is old, and has passed through several different formulations, and its present incarnation is not coming from a very reliable source. Beckwith’s example is a perfect case of all of these factors: he cites Readers Digest, a source which is far from a hallmark of critical acumen or journalistic vigor, and the storyteller in that source was in turn citing an unnamed issue of Life magazine, for he only says it was “once reported” there, never mentioning when or in what context, except to say that the event happened on March 1, 1950, thirty-seven years before the version Beckwith is citing. We cannot know if this author had that issue of Life magazine, or whether he, too, was relying on some other intervening source. Thus, on the face of it, this is not a reliable account, especially considering its sensational nature.

The account would become more reliable if, after more investigation, we could corroborate some of the details. Does the city that is named actually exist? Can we confirm the explosion or anything else in local or other newspaper sources? Can we find the original Life story and confirm that he has gotten it right? If all of these methods were open to us, and proved the reliability of our second-hand account, then it would be reasonable to believe it.[19] But notice that Beckwith never mentions such an investigation. He is ready to believe it right away. How is that a “historical method”? Clearly he has little notion of what historians actually do. He is mistaking a question of whether a story is plausible (as this story certainly is) with the more important question of whether it is to be believed. Mere plausibility does not suffice to convince a historian of a story’s truth, unless the story is so typical or mundane that there is no reason at all to doubt it.

Beckwith’s second example shows more problems in his thinking: “according to opponents of miracles, if Mark is dealt…a royal flush, none of us would be justified in accepting as true the testimony of several reliable witnesses” (93). First of all, if you are going to discuss “historical method” you must identify what a “reliable witness” is. Without knowing what he means by “reliable” it is impossible to say whether his proposition is true. Maybe historians would have grounds to believe it, maybe not. His example does not give us enough information. This again betrays an ignorance of what historians do. In reality, we need to assess whether the witnesses are biased, what they actually said they saw, whether they can be corroborated and in what details, whether they can be shown to actually have been there, or that they actually know what a royal flush is–in short, we want to look for any details we can find that can test the reliability of the account, either by bolstering or undermining the basic story. This is the same method of verification and falsification employed by scientists. That is what it means to do history.

A second problem with this example is that it is not sufficiently incredible to be compared with a miracle. We know that royal flushes are dealt, and may have seen one dealt ourselves. Moreover, we can calculate that such things must have happened, since so many hands of poker have been dealt in human history. So there is nothing here that can be compared with a miracle, since we do not know whether a “miracle” can happen, much less what the odds of it are. And as I note in my own lengthy essay on the resurrection of Jesus (see Adding Things Up as well as the General Case for Insufficiency), if an event has a natural explanation that is as probable as a royal flush, or even more probable than that, then it would not be improbable enough to justify using “miracle” as an explanation, precisely because royal flushes are relatively common and entirely natural, so even something as unusual as that does not justify appealing to miraculous causes.

Beckwith’s third example displays a similar mistake: a woman is faced by five reliable witnesses who claim to have seen her commit a murder, and her lawyer presents hundreds of witnesses who claim that they have never seen her murder anyone before. Beckwith is arguing against the premise that “no evidence is sufficient for…believing…a highly improbable event,” which is a silly proposition anyway, since there is always a point at which the improbability of an event will be overtaken by the number of genuine opportunities for the event to occur, as in the case of a royal flush. Thus, no historian holds to this premise. But notice what Beckwith also does here: he assumes that, according to this premise, the hundreds of character witnesses render the murder improbable. But in actual fact, these hundreds of witnesses have no weight whatever as to whether the act itself occurred, since they were not there when it happened. Beckwith tries to use this example as a case where a lot of evidence of something not happening (murder by a particular person) would, adopting the straw man’s premise, trump the evidence of fewer eyewitnesses. But this is a false analogy when applied to miracles, because we already know, from many prior cases, that people can murder after living an otherwise innocuous life, and so evidence of “living an otherwise innocuous life” has little bearing on the probability of any person committing murder. But we do not know of any good cases of miracles happening (see my analysis of Purtill and Corduan). Thus, the abundant evidence that miracles are never seen to occur under trustworthy conditions remains as relevant as always, and is to be compared with the fact that we have never seen a winged snake, nor any evidence of such, so we are fully justified in inferring from this that Herodotus’s record of such a creature is not to be believed.

The Use of Natural Explanations

Historians appeal to natural explanations because they know that such explanations have always worked before, in every case that could be thoroughly tested. I repeat: they have always worked in every other case that could be thoroughly tested. This is no small point, and it stands as very compelling evidence in favor of natural explanations. And the case is secured when there are other good reasons that support a particular natural explanation. The healing miracles of the New Testament are an excellent case in point. Edward Shorter is an historian of medicine in the modern age, and in his book From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era (1992) he describes a problem faced by any historian of psychosomatic illness:

With the exception of those in the last chapter, the patients described in this book are all dead. Is it certain that their symptoms were not caused by an organic disease? Retrospectively, it is not. There is only the presumption of psychogenesis, based on (a) the history of the illness, such as paralysis after seeing a frog in the road, and (b) the response to what was essentially placebo therapy, such as hydrotherapy or administration of a laxative. These two circumstances give certain symptom patterns a flavor of psychogenesis. (p. 4)

Thus, if there are signs in the accounts of an illness that fit with the psychogenetic explanation, then it is a reasonable conclusion, even if it might be wrong on occasion. Shorter’s objective was to illuminate the history of this phenomenon and thus he aimed to eliminate as many doubtful cases as possible. But what if a historian suspected that psychosomatic illness may be responsible for some of those doubtful cases, too? If he had some reason to believe that the illness was not organic–if it looked just like a psychosomatic illness, and responded to placebo treatment–then it would be acceptable to explain the illness as psychosomatic. It would not only be plausible, but it would have ample support in countless similar cases, and thus would be a perfectly reasonable explanation. Moreover, if we hypothesize that “miracle healing” was a placebo treatment–based on the observations that (a) any expectation of a treatment’s effectiveness can cause healing (the placebo effect has, after all, been scientifically proven), and that (b) miracle healing was commonplace in antiquity and was by no means restricted to Christian healers–then we are justified in concluding that miraculous healing in antiquity (Christian and Pagan) was not miraculous if all the best cases could have been, by their description, psychosomatic. And David Clark, Beckwith’s fellow contributor to this book, in fact concedes essentially this point on page 210.

Consider some analogies. Pliny describes an Italian tribe whose members “walk over a charred pile of logs without being scorched” and for this miraculous feat were exempted from all taxation and military service (Natural History 7.2.19). The modern historian is fully justified in regarding this as unmiraculous, based on the contemporary proof that fire-walking has a natural explanation–anyone can do it, so long as they walk quickly, since the coals or logs do not conduct heat fast enough to burn human skin after only a short period of contact. Since what Pliny describes certainly sounds like fire-walking, and since we know fire-walking can have a natural explanation, there is no need nor rationale for proposing that this was a genuine miracle. Pliny also reports that a certain explorer saw in India “a forest tribe that had no speech but a horrible scream, hairy bodies, sharp grey eyes, and the teeth of a dog” (Natural History 7.2.24). Are we to suppose that some other race of men is meant? Or aren’t we justified in recognizing this as a baboon, a creature which lives in “tribes,” is known to have inhabitedIndia, has dog-like teeth, screeches, is hairy, dwells in forests, and looks somewhat like a man? Although baboons were known to the ancients (one species was even deified by the Egyptians), Pliny is merely reporting someone else’s account. It is natural to expect that his source was not as educated as Pliny (since most men were not), and that Pliny was not clever enough to see the mistake (since he shows similar gullibility in many other places). Thus, it is more than reasonable to take this as an account of baboons, and not proof of a freak race of men. A similar line of reasoning allows us to dismiss the pagan water-into-wine event described by Pausanias as a magic trick (6.26.1-2), since we know from modern magicians that this is a relatively simple one to pull off–and indeed, its simplicity accounts for its repeated appearance in antiquity.

In the case of psychosomatic illness, the apologetic trend of thinking only in the now, and disregarding historical change, is again a major handicap. In his research, Shorter discovered two important facts which perhaps only a historian is apt to notice and appreciate. First, the symptoms of psychosomatic illness change with the culture. As Shorter discovered, what a culture regards as “legitimate evidence of organic disease” will change, and a person’s subconscious will strive to present such symptoms, since it wants to be taken seriously and not ridiculed. Consequently, a culture may perceive certain symptoms as indicative of a serious disease, which to us are clearly too bizarre to be a common illness. In other words, it is the popular perception of what is a real disease that determines psychosomatic symptoms.

For instance, Shorter observes that psychosomatic paralysis, once extremely common, has fallen out of favor in this century. Our emphasis on “individual dynamism” leads us to perceive unexplained paralysis and “sudden coma” as “inappropriate” and thus illegitimate signs of disease (p. x). I think even more important to this change is the technological advances we have made, which make it much harder for psychosomatic illnesses to go undetected, and thus to avoid being found out our subconscious minds strive to present symptoms which are expected to be hard to pin down, such as stress disorders, chronic fatigue, pains, and other things which are known to have real causes that are difficult even for our modern technology to identify. The point is that things like psychogenic paralysis were once very common, even though it seems so unusual today, which can lead a myopic thinker to dismiss psychogenetic explanations based on incorrect assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

Second, Shorter explains why he studied psychosomatic illness only in the modern era: “traditional doctors did almost nothing by way of clinical examination or investigation, and accordingly were far less capable of differentiating somatogenic from psychogenic illness” than even the doctors of the 17th century (p. 13). In other words, psychosomatic illness was far more likely to be regarded, and thus described, as a genuine illness in antiquity. This is an important fact to consider when examining the sources. For Shorter, it means that he cannot isolate possible cases of psychogenesis for his study. For the rest of us, it means we cannot isolate possible cases of genuine disease from the psychogenetic, which should be of major concern to an apologist.

Now let’s consider the “symptoms” of those whom Jesus or Paul healed, when symptoms are described at all: In Galilee”those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed” came to Jesus “and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24). This list is exactly the same list of symptoms Shorter found most likely to be psychosomatic. Indeed, he finds in the 17th through the 20th centuries that cases fell into one of four categories of psychogenesis (which he surveys briefly on pp. 5-9):

  • “Pseudoepilepsy,” often with the additional symptoms of “screaming, cursing, and attempting to bite those nearby,” which certainly sounds like being demon possessed, and given a culture that actively molded perceptions of what a demon-possessed victim was supposed to act like, a victim of psychosomatic illness would be able to play the part quite well.
  • “Paralysis,” which could include partial or total paralysis, coma, “crippled limbs” (i.e. limbs permanently seized and contracted or contorted), or loss of one of the senses, e.g. blindness, deafness, or even anasthesias, a condition in which all sensation of physical pain is lost, which would have results identical to the symptoms of the modern illness called leprosy. Another form of psychosomatic illness is the condition of being mute, which almost never has a real cause and is thus a good sign of psychogenesis.
  • “Pain,” which can be present anywhere or everywhere, or even move about, and for which it is notoriously difficult to prove a genuine cause.
  • “Autonomic nervous” disorders, which involve unconscious control of the digestive system (Shorter says that bowel disorders were very common in the 18th and 19th centuries), but can also involve other autonomic systems, from our heartbeat to the immune system. In fact, if affected by depression, as we all know, our immune system can actually cause real disease to flourish, or present symptoms like fever or pimples that have no real disease-based origin. By removing the depression, with the subsequent strengthened immune response, coupled with high expectation and, in turn, better habits of diet and hygiene, one can defeat the real illness or subvert the symptoms. This is relevant to many cases of ancient “leprosy,” a term which was not limited to the modern ailment, but included all cases of scaly, scabby, or rough skin–symptoms which are likely to accompany a depressed immune system or a depressed person who is not taking care of himself. A rise in spirits can lead to healing or better care. This is of great interest because of the unusual multitude of lepers that appear in the gospels, indicating that this was seen by that culture as a legitimate illness, making it a certain target for the subconscious to mimic.

All those healed by Jesus show classic psychosomatic symptoms: severe “pain,” “pseudoepilepsy” (the “demon-possessed” and some of those having seizures), and “paralysis” (which would also include some of those suffering seizures, since permanently seized limbs would be placed in this category). Not only do the illnesses cured fit psychosomatic conditions, but we have reason to believe that Jesus was a placebo, since faith in his ability was necessary for successful healing, e.g. “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Mt. 13:58, Mk. 6:5), while Jesus often healed with statements that primed patients for a placebo response: e.g. “daughter, your faith has healed you” (Mk. 5:34), “don’t be afraid, just believe” (Mk. 5:36), “everything is possible for him who believes” (Mk. 9:23). It follows that, given what little we know, we are sufficiently justified in regarding these healings as unmiraculous.

Consider the evidence: none of the illnesses cured possessed any clearly organic ailments, e.g. no severed limbs, no bloody wounds, no visible sores, etc. The closest the accounts come is: Jesus heals the severed ear of a man who came to arrest him (Lk. 22:51), but in all the other accounts Jesus does not heal the ear (Mt. 26:51, Mk. 14:47; and the most detailed account, Jn. 18:10), which any historian regards as sufficient grounds to reject a story as an embellishment; “a man with leprosy” who was “cleaned” by Jesus (Mt. 8:2-3, Mk. 1:40, Lk. 5:12; cf. also the ten lepers 17:12ff.), but as I’ve already noted “leprosy” tells us little about what the actual symptoms were, and the use of the terminology of “cleaning” fits with a psychosomatic skin ailment; “a woman subject to bleeding for twelve years” (Mt. 9:20, Mk. 5:25, Lk. 8:43), although a symptom like this which persists for so long yet does not kill the patient is suspiciously like a psychosomatic condition (the term can also be used to refer to hemorrhoids or a chronic period, both of which can have a psychogenic origin), and we have no record of whether the bleeding was genuine beforehand, or whether it continued again later, or even whether it was an organic ailment that healed naturally, responding to placebo treatment. Similar problems stand for the “man blind from birth” (Jn. 9:1) since we have no way of knowing whether that is a true description of his symptom–indeed, it seems we have the account from the blind man and his family (9:20), and since he was making a living as a beggar (9:8), they might all be inclined to exaggerate or invent his condition. Moreover, the Jews who investigate (9:13ff.) never even touch upon issues of evidence or diagnosis, but are just as superstitious as the believers (9:34), so we know there was no useful critical examination of the claim.

Even despite these cases, all the other “illnesses” healed fall solidly within the camp of psychogenesis: a “paralyzed” servant “in terrible pain” (Mt. 8:6; note how these symptoms are thought to entail that he was “about to die,” Lk. 7:2), a “fever” (Mt. 8:14, Mk. 1:30, Lk. 4:39; for another case, cf. Jn. 4:52), “demon-possessed men” (Mt. 8:28, Mk. 1:23-26, 1:32, 5:2-10, Lk. 4:33, 4:41, 8:27ff., ), “a paralytic” (Mt. 9:2, Mk. 2:3, Lk. 5:18), a girl in a coma (“sleeping” Mt. 9:24, Mk. 5:39, Lk. 8:52), “blind men” (Mt. 9:27, 20:30, Mk. 8:22-5, 10:46ff., Lk. 18:35ff.), a man who was “demon possessed and could not talk” (Mt. 9:32), another whose symptoms are all classically pseudoepileptic (Mk. 9:17-8, Lk. 9:39), a boy who “has seizures and is suffering greatly” (Mt. 17:15), “a man who was deaf and could hardly talk” (Mk. 7:32), a man “whose right hand was shriveled” (which is a perfect description of a psychogenically “seized” limb, Lk. 6:6), and a woman who was “bent over and could not straighten up” (Lk. 13:11). Jesus even goes to a regular “placebo” healing center (a magic “pool”) where “the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed” go to be healed, and there he cured an “invalid” (Jn. 5:1ff.).

There were also “dead men” brought to life (Lk. 7:15; and Lazarus, Jn. 11:44), but we are not told how they died or what condition they were in and thus cannot count on the diagnosis of death. It was fairly easy to be mistaken for dead (Shorter describes psychosomatic cases of apparent death, pp. 130-4; and see How Do We Know He was Dead? from my article on the Resurrection of Jesus), and the scene described in Luke 7:15 is actually identical to various stories told about famous doctors to justify their renowned skill (Pliny Natural History 7.124, Apuleius Metamorphoses 2.28, 3.24, 10.12 and Florida 19). In the case of Lazarus, the witnesses anticipate a rotting smell (Jn. 11:39), but there is no evidence that such a smell was confirmed after the tomb was unsealed. Thus, we can reasonably conclude that these accounts have plausible natural explanations. We would only be able to prove it if we had a time machine, but that does not prevent us from adopting what amounts to a ready and reasonable explanation (see also my discussion of the Lazarus Example As Used by Corduan). Certainly, there is insufficient evidence here to justify calling these events “miracles.” And this shows how scientific and historical analysis, not philosophical arguments, can lead someone to conclude that natural explanations are better than supernatural ones.

Yet this is merely one line of thought. Many other issues must be explored, such as post hoc reasoning (see my review of Corduan), a common means by which faith healers and psychics today gain renown: people often naturally recover from illness, or symptoms naturally go into remission, and when this corresponds in any way with some special event, like a visit from a faith healer or a psychic, the events are associated as if they were causal. Indeed, by standing out from the norm, such events tend to be recalled more frequently and with greater awe than the more abundant but ordinary events. In addition, memory is unreliable and hunts for patterns, so people can later relate events as being nearer to each other in time than they actually were, or revise their sequence–hence even if the recovery preceded the visit, a person may be so impressed by events that they recall it differently. There is a lot of literature on human memory and fallacies of reason, which is available to be considered and taken to heart, but apologists rarely even approach their project with such scholarly discipline. Then there are issues of hallucination, as well as matters of cultural influences, where the propensity for visions, “demon possession” and pseudoparalysis are just three examples among many. For more on hallucination and memory, see my review of Habermas; for more on post hoc reasoning, see my review of Corduan.

When is the Evidence Enough?

It is true that the reliability of many witnesses could conceivably change this conclusion, but I don’t think Beckwith understands the magnitude of what would be required. Consider the case of Cold Fusion, which to this day its “discoverers” swear they actually observed. No other witnesses can reproduce the effect, thus we are all correct to disbelieve it, even though it may be true and may yet be confirmed. And this is not to say that repeatability of a specific event is needed–it would suffice, in the case of miracles, that miracles in general be repeatable, even if no one miracle is ever repeated in specific detail. Consider also the construction of the pyramids: even though for a long time we could not reproduce any method that would work, we knew that such megalithic structures could be, and had been, repeatedly built by men. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between evidence for the particular (i.e. what actually happened) and evidence for the general (what can happen). Beckwith does not make this distinction and thus misses its importance.

Moreover, Beckwith fails to apply his own standards to the Christian miracles (like the Resurrection), or else he fails to see why he can’t do so, since the evidence is far too sparse. Consider the remarks by Gaskin, a Humean scholar whom Beckwith quotes: “there is an uncomfortable sense that by means of [the historical argument against miracles] one may well justify disbelieving reports of things which did in fact happen” (94). Why is this an objection to historical skepticism? Of course there are true things that we will be forced to disbelieve due to a lack of evidence. It may be true that Julius Caesar shaved every day of his adult life, but am I justified in “believing” that he did? There simply comes a point where we cannot know the truth and must disbelieve in something even though we are not certain it is false. Our disbelief is justified by the lack of sufficient reason to believe. Certainly Beckwith applies this principle every day of his life. If he didn’t, he would be forced to believe a lot of queer things, not to mention a great multitude of falsehoods. Indeed, he would have more false beliefs than true ones. This is because of all the things that cannot be shown to be true or even likely, most of them will be false (see my essay on Proving a Negative for more on this reasoning). We know this, again, from prior experience with all the cases which we have been able to explore in greater depth–and historians are especially well-accustomed to finding things false upon close examination, so much so that we have every right to be skeptical of all those cases which we cannot examine more closely.

The example that Gaskin offers of what makes him uneasy about this principle is our disbelief in his own “report of seeing water turned into wine” given that his “report had also been vouched by numerous other good and impartial witnesses” (94). But again the actual factors of interest to a historian are missing here: why are any of these witnesses to be regarded as “good” and “reliable”? For example, how can these witnesses know they did not just see a magic trick? If I cannot answer that question, then I cannot know if water was actually turned into wine even if I believe the report of these witnesses. This is how a historian thinks. Why doesn’t Beckwith realize that? I suspect it is because he has very little acquaintance with doing history. And that’s not even a typical example. In the case of early Christian miracles, we already face grave problems attempting to establish that any of the surviving records come from “witnesses” at all, much less witnesses reliable enough to trust. How does Beckwith intend to overcome that problem?

Hence we end up back where I left us in my examination of Corduan’s argument: there is no miracle in all of antiquity for which we have a “good” and “reliable” witness. For the common apologetic comparison with Caesar crossing the Rubicon, see my review of Geivett. Thus, even when we correctly solve Gaskin’s concern, we will still have to face the fact that we do not have such evidence in the case of the ancient Christian miracles. Even if they genuinely happened, we have insufficient evidence to justify believing that they did. The same goes for Beckwith’s next example of a miracle (a modern-day resurrection) that we would most likely be justified in believing (95), since this example is too good to make his point. Indeed, it is far better than any actual miracle account, and thus it works in showing how miracles “could” be believable, but utterly fails to show us that we ought to believe in any miracles that have actually been reported. In short, when it comes to evidence, Beckwith makes the same mistake as Purtill and Corduan.



Where Lies the Burden of Proof?

Beckwith concludes his chapter with this astonishing claim: the historian who disbelieves all miracle accounts “assumes without proof that miracles are not occurring in the present” (97). In other words, they “must show that there are no present miracles and not merely assume” it. This is unsound reasoning. The burden of proof always lays with the positive. It is not my job to prove that Cold Fusion is not happening today. Rather, it is the claimant’s job to prove that it is, and if he cannot produce that proof, that fact in itself is sufficient reason to disbelieve the claim.

This is where this book really fails the reader. For this is an absolutely crucial point. It is so essential for their argument to show that miracles happen now (since that is a major requirement for believing they are possible) that it is shameful to claim such evidence exists and then not present one jot of it. Yet that is just what Beckwith does: he cites in a footnote a book by Geisler which purportedly presents this evidence. But why didn’t Beckwith present it here? I must confess I am bewildered–is the evidence too poor for him to present and still maintain his dignity? I expected these authors to address the history of miracle accounts throughout the middle ages and the rise of modernity and into the present day, because this is so crucial to their stated mission. But they avoid this issue as much as possible–stopping only to address miracle accounts in competing religions (on which, see my discussion of Clark’s Chapter).

In the end, all that Beckwith has accomplished is to show that it is possible in principle for miracles to be a proper subject of historical study, which is all his chapter was apparently designed to do. He claims that other chapters will present the evidence that is “sufficient to warrant a belief that miracles have occurred” (96). But he has failed to show the correct conditions under which it would be proper. And therefore we find here yet another fatally weak link in the chain of this book’s cumulative argument.


[1] This and following quotations from Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wr. btw. 1776 and 1788, Womersley edition, 1994 (vol. 1, ch. 15, p. 511). Regarding the “darkness” that Gibbon refers to, see my article Thallus: An Analysis (1999).

[2] Seneca Natural Questions 1.1.15, 6.1, 7.17; Pliny Natural History 1.2.

[3] Natural History 2.30.

[4] Garth Fowden, “Pagan Versions of the Rain Miracle of AD 172,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 36 (1987), pp. 83-95. See also [12].

[5] Quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.5.1-4.

[6] Despite the fact that some Christians later believed Aurelius to be a “good” emperor, his reign saw the martyrdom’s of Polycarp, Justin, and a multitude of others at Lugdunum (Lyons), and two lengthy apologetic letters begging the Emperor to treat Christians with more respect (“Christianity,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., p.327). Other evidence that he was harsh on Christians is presented in T.D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians,” Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968) pp. 39-40.

[7] Eusebius, Chronicon 1.206-7, 2.619-21.

[8] Tertullian, Apologeticus 5.6, Ad Scapulam 4.

[9] Michael Sage, “Marcus Aurelius and ‘Zeus Kasios’ at Carnuntum,” Ancient Society 18 (1987) pp. 151-72. I provide a more complete bibliography on this subject in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005), pp. 230-31.

[10] Cassius Dio 71.8.10 (in the epitome of book 72).

[11] op. cit. p. 86.

[12] cf. Michael Grant’s exposition on the nature of historical unreliability even in the most reliable sources, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995).

[13] Michael Sage, “Eusebius and the Rain Miracle: Some Observations,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 36 (1987), p. 111.

[14] Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987), pp. 117-18.

[15] e.g. E.R. Dodds, Greeks and the Irrational (1951).

[16] op. cit., pp. 119-20.

[17] Richard Carrier, “Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire,” PDF of Master’s Thesis,ColumbiaUniversity (1998).

[18] For more see: Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook (1999); David Frankfurter Religion in Roman Egypt (1998), pp. 46-52; Robert M. Grant, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (1952); Harold Remus, Pagan-Christian Conflict over Miracle in the Second Century (1983).

[19] I conducted the required investigation. The story actually comes to us through three layers of sources: the 1987 Reader’s Digest version is condensed from an article in Games magazine from November, 1983, which in turn cited a 1982 reprint of Warren Weaver’s 1963 textbook on probability called Lady Luck. It is only in that book that the full citation of the original article is given (Life magazine, March 27, 1950, pp. 19-23). The original article, entitled “Why the Choir was Late,” was by a freelance photographer, George Edeal, who also provided photos of the church before and after the explosion, and of thirteen of the fifteen people involved.
The details as quoted by Beckwith are correct (and the city does exist), but we would not have known that had I not checked the sources–so had none of those sources survived, we would remain in the dark about the reliability of the story. But I also discovered that there is one crucial piece of information that got lost in the shuffle: it was unusually cold that day. This was in fact the cause of the explosion (the minister turned on the furnace, a pipe cracked, and the resulting gas leak filled the church, which was then ignited by the furnace), as well as the cause of the absence of 6 of those involved (two cars could not start and one lady’s daughter would not get out of bed–all likely because of the cold). Of the remaining 9, three were late for a single reason (a stained dress), and the other three couples each had their own reason (one couple was listening to a radio program that they did not want to miss, etc.). In fact, there were only five separate causes of the mass lateness, not fifteen (nor ten, as Weaver states). Weaver estimated that a reason to be late occurred once in every four meetings, making this a 1 in 1000 event. For comparison, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 500,000, and yet about 500 people are struck each year in the U.S. alone.
The local newspaper (The Beatrice Daily Sun) never answered my requests for further details from their archives, so I was unable to check Edeal’s account for accuracy. But on my behalf, Nebraska local Les Lane generously looked up the original press coverage of the explosion in the Sun and forwarded to me copies of the original article: “Big Blast Wrecks Church,” Beatrice Daily Sun, Thursday Evening, 2 March 1950 (front page). This provides more details that lessen the miracle even further, exposing elements of legendary embellishment in later versions: the explosion occured five minutes before anyone was due to arrive (thus, being late was not in fact what saved everyone, but simply not showing up early); it reports the Reverend said only twelve people, not fifteen, were due to arrive that evening; the only one who was expected early, besides the Reverend and his wife, was the pianist, who fell asleep but woke and started toward the church just when it exploded–and since she lived only a block away, she still would have arrived early; and the ultimate precipitating cause of the explosion (turning on the heater) took place at 5pm, hours before the blast. Finally, March 1st was a Wednesday, and choir practice was set for 7:30pm. I imagine evening on a Nebraksa workday was not exactly ripe for attendance.

b. Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole (1999, 2005)

Going Too Far

Douglas Geivett’s basic conclusion that it is possible to use miracles as evidence for the existence of God is formally correct (as is his reversed version of the argument, which I address in my conclusion below). I have acknowledged and expanded on this in my review of Corduan and Purtill. But it simply does not work when given the actual evidence that we have. Geivett tries to defeat this problem with an unusual rhetorical tactic: constant repetition of ridiculous exaggerations. Since I will be addressing the actual evidence in my reviews of Newman and of Craig and Habermas, and have already covered the relevant historiographical issues in my review of Beckwith, and since I already agree with Geivett that the argument from miracles is at least logically sound, I will use this space here to exhibit his strange penchant for hyperbole. For there is no better sign of a man’s desperate situation than a resort to a blatant overstating of his own case.

The Argument from Miracles

First, I will describe where Geivett is basically correct. Given that an event is accepted as having no explanation in natural causes, he describes the logical dilemma that arises: either there is no cause at all, or the cause is nonnatural (i.e. “supernatural”). The problem of defining “natural” is something I address in my review of Nash, but the dilemma here is linguistically correct, whatever the definition of “natural” may be. Of course, if it means what many scientists actually use the term to mean (i.e. anything that can be observed is a part of this universe and hence “natural”), then the dilemma collapses into a single option (the absence of any cause). But what Geivett has in mind is what would be better stated as follows: Given that an event is accepted as having no unintentional cause, either there is no cause at all, or the cause is intentional. This would divide all events that “merely” follow the laws of physics from all events which proceed from an intentional agent, namely humans and, in his argument, God.

In other words, if it becomes reasonable to believe that a certain event (e.g. the resurrection account) has no explanation in terms of unintentional causes, then we must believe that the event was not caused at all (that it just happened out of the blue), or that it was caused deliberately (either by human or divine methods)–unless of course we reserve all judgment entirely. Since regarding an event as complex as this as totally “uncaused” requires believing something about the universe that we are least justified in believing (having never seen such a random occurrence), we are most justified in believing in an intentional cause. This is where the argument must go from here: given that the event is accepted as having no explanation in human causes, either there is an alien cause, or there is a divine cause. If we subsume all possible alternatives to God under “alien” (such as demons, or other gods, or people with superhuman powers, etc.), then this dilemma is as linguistically valid as the first. If there is no evidence of any particular “alien” origin (as there is not in the case of the resurrection), but some evidence of a divine origin (as there is in the case of the resurrection, however weak), then it is reasonable to believe the event was of divine origin.

So far so good. But notice the two catches: first, the evidence must be such as to lead us to reasonably accept that a particular event has no explanation in either unintentional or human causes. This is essential for the actual success of the “argument from miracles.” In other words, to use the argument from miracles so as to convince someone to believe in God, it is necessary to demonstrate that there can be no other explanation. As long as there are plausible explanations in the laws of biology and physics or in human design, which cannot be eliminated, the argument from miracles cannot succeed. It is not enough that “natural” explanations be improbable, because improbable things happen all the time. Rather, it is necessary that there be positive evidence against these natural explanations sufficient to compel us to reject them as impossible in the specific case at hand.

Now, this is the argument as Geivett presents it, and it can be summed up simply as follows: if an event is such that only a god could have caused it, then the event is evidence for the existence of a god. The trick is in establishing the “only” part (which equates to a similar difficulty in Purtill’s Definition). But there is an even better argument: if we saw God regularly acting today, it would automatically be reasonable to believe that he has acted before. This argument is even more difficult to launch, however, since it requires what isn’t the case: namely, that God be acting regularly today. And this brings up an important defeater to Geivett’s approach: why isn’t God more visible and active today? One can speculate at whim, but no one will be able to offer any proof to support one speculation over another. And insofar as the most reasonable answer is that there is no god to act in the first place (since there is a collection of evidencing reasons to support that theory, as even theists must acknowledge–for example, see my book Sense and Goodness without God 2005), the attempt to appeal to the divine is undermined even if there is a good evidential case for a miracle, since the second dilemma (alien or divine) will no longer be so easy to resolve–unless the divinity theory can be so revised as to explain all the other facts about the universe which seem to contradict it, and these revisions have some evidential support other than the sole fact that they rescue the theory. But as it is, no real case ever gets that far.

In the process of all this, Geivett makes an argument that is not only correct, but absolutely precious, and should be paraphrased in every relevant debate: “Failure to eliminate the possibility of a naturalistic explanation does not entail that a naturalistic explanation currently exists or is close at hand” (184). Substitute “theistic” for “naturalistic” in this sentence and you will have something that atheists have been trying to drill into the heads of theists for centuries. He is quite right, and naturalists should take heed, to avoid committing the “naturalist fallacy” which I address in my review of Corduan. But theists should take heed, too: concocting an unfalsifiable definition of God does not make belief in God rational. It is perfectly reasonable to disbelieve in the existence of a God that you cannot prove doesn’t exist, so long as you have no other good reason to believe it (see my article Proving a Negative for more on this point).

Slow Down, Pal!

But when it comes time to apply this argument to reality, Geivett goes overboard. For instance, in defending the possibility that it would be reasonable to accept that there is no unintentional or human cause for an event, he brings up Quine’s notion of a “recalcitrant” experience which is “one that stubbornly resists explanation within the framework of a given paradigm or web of beliefs” (182). All well and good. But then he doesn’t show even a hint of sarcasm or qualification when he calls the resurrection of Jesus “a recalcitrant experience of the highest order,” so “bodacious” that “if [it] doesn’t count as a violation of presumed natural law, then nothing does” (183). This is an astonishingly absurd statement. Certainly even he can think of something that is more obviously a violation of natural law than a mere resurrection, which is accomplished on a regular basis today using CPR and electric defibrillators, and which is also known to happen naturally, however rarely (see How Do We Know He was Dead? from my article on the Resurrection of Jesus). And something cannot be a recalcitrant experience of the “highest” order when I can think of a dozen experiences that would be even more recalcitrant still (and that’s just off the top of my head), and when Geivett’s colleagues and I myself have described just such events (from my talking “fish” example to Corduan’s “regrown hand” and modern “holy man” examples–see my review of Corduan and Purtill). Hence, Geivett is far overselling the resurrection here, and that reflects badly on either his objectivity or his honesty. He sounds more like a preacher or a sophist than a scholar.

This is no isolated slip. Nor is it trivial, for his “evidence” for this magnificent recalcitrance is cleverly couched in a false dilemma which excludes a crucial state of affairs. Geivett says that “given a choice between treating the…resurrection as an anomaly that will eventually be explained by science and repudiating the historicity” of the account, “today’s naturalist will generally opt for the latter” and “this is presumably because of the recalcitrant character of the event” (183). It is curious that he would think such a dilemma valid, when I know of no naturalist today who actually thinks it likely that the resurrection “will eventually be explained by science,” simply because there is no good prospect that we will invent the needed time machine to investigate the matter “scientifically” in the first place. Rather, most naturalists think there are already good, plausible, natural explanations which are consistent with their total worldview, and that if we could go back in time to test them, we would find one of them correct.

Moreover, naturalists, such as myself, who favor the “unhistorical features” explanation as a more likely account of the record as we have it, base this on the obvious fact that historical error or deception, or both, is already so very likely, having such a vast amount of repeated examples to prove its frequency, that there is hardly any need to resort to other explanations, even though there are many for the taking (see my article on the Probability of Survival vs. Miracle and my two chapters, “The Plausibility of Theft” and “The Burial of Jesus,” in the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave). This is all the more so because we actually have positive evidence of error or fabrication in the accounts themselves and in the history of the church, which we can use to build hypotheses from, whereas we are unable test any natural explanations of the event itself, either to prove or refute them, since all physical evidence is lost, and what little we do know comes to us from late, biased, and uncritical sources. Geivett is thus not only vastly overplaying the recalcitrant nature of the resurrection, but he is using his own hyperbole as if it were “proof” that naturalists actually believe the account to be recalcitrant. Does Geivett understand skeptics so poorly? Or is he simply eager to invent a straw man?

Julius Caesar Crossed the Rubicon,
But Was Jesus Resurrected from the Dead?

Geivett tries to press this tactic further with the assertion that “if one takes the historian’s own criteria for assessing the historicity of ancient events, the resurrection passes muster as a historically well-attested event of the ancient world” (185). Of course, as is typical of Christian apologetics, he never cites a single historian or explains what these “criteria” are, or who actually uses them and why (I give a good accounting of what historical method really looks like in my review of Beckwith). He then issues a comparison, in the voice of a mock critic, asserting that the resurrection of Jesus is as historically evidenced as Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C. But let’s examine that claim:

  • First of all, we have Caesar’s own word on the subject. Indeed, The Civil War has been a Latin classic for two thousand years. On the other hand, not only do we not have anything written by Jesus, but we don’t even have anything written by anyone who actually knew him–unless we accept the questionable authenticity of some of the non-Pauline epistles, but they don’t describe the resurrection and thus present no direct evidence of that event anyway.
  • Second, we have many of Caesar’s enemies, includingCicero, reporting the event, whereas we have no hostile or even neutral records of the resurrection until long after the Christian’s own claims had been written down and widely spread across the whole Empire.
  • Third, we have coins and inscriptions produced in the very same years of the Republican Civil War, and shortly after, which serve to corroborate the event. But we have absolutely no physical evidence of any kind in the case of the resurrection.
  • Fourth, we have the story of the Rubicon crossing from several historians of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age: Tacitus, Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, and Plutarch. Moreover, these scholars have at least some measure of proven reliability, since a great many of their reports on other matters have been confirmed in material evidence and in other sources. In addition, they all quote and name many different sources, showing a wide reading of the witnesses and documents, and they show a regular desire to critically examine claims for which there is any dispute. If that wasn’t enough, all of them cite or quote sources which were written by witnesses, hostile and friendly, of the Rubicon crossing and its repercussions. Compare this with the resurrection: we have not even a single prominent historian mentioning the event, and of those few people who do bother to mention it, none of them show any wide reading, never cite any other sources, show no sign of a skilled or critical examination of conflicting claims, have no other literature or scholarship to their credit (which could in turn be tested for accuracy by comparison with other evidence), and have an overtly declared bias towards persuasion and conversion.
  • Fifth, the history of Romecould not have proceeded as it did had Caesar not physically moved an army intoItaly. Even if Caesar could have somehow cultivated the mere belief that he had done this, he could not have capturedRome or conscripted Italian men against Pompey’s forces inGreece. On the other hand, all that is needed to explain the rise of Christianity is a belief that the resurrection happened. There is nothing that an actual resurrection would have caused that could not have been caused by a mere belief in that resurrection. Thus, an actual resurrection is not necessary to explain all subsequent history, unlike Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.

It should be clear that we have a huge number of reasons to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, all of which are lacking in the case of the resurrection. In fact, when we compare all five points, we see that in four of the five evidences of an event’s historicity, the resurrection has no evidence at all, and for the one kind of evidence it does have, it has not the best, but the very worst kind of evidence–a handful of biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, second-hand witnesses.

Indeed, you really have to look hard to find another event that is in a worse condition than this as far as evidence goes. And this is the case even before we consider the relative probability of the event. In other words, I have not even mentioned the fact that an “actual” resurrection–in light of the incredible paucity of evidence that any miracle has ever really happened–is very, very improbable. It is so improbable, in fact, that even a very unlikely natural explanation would still be more probable, as I explain in Adding Things Up. For more on the relevant issues of historical method in general, see my review of Beckwith. But I discuss the Resurrection issue at great length in my collection on Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story, especially the Main Argument thereof, where I improve and expand on the Rubicon comparison, as again in my book Sense and Goodness without God.

If a Lie is Big Enough, Suckers will Believe It

Even though this is the real status of the evidence, Geivett pretends that the exact opposite is the case, and continues with a stream of hyperbolic assertions that are so blatantly false even the Pope would be ashamed to repeat them. For instance, in Geivett’s world, “it is unlikely that…the resurrection would otherwise enjoy such historical authentication according to the highest standards of historical inquiry” [emphasis added] “if the tomb was not in fact empty and Jesus was not observed alive again” (186). Geivett calls this a “modest” suggestion! How on earth can he claim that the New Testament, or any of the post-biblical literary evidence, meets the “highest standards” of historical inquiry? Am I to believe that he thinks the unnamed author of the Gospel of Matthew is to be ranked with Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus? That having no physical or contemporary evidence of any kind is somehow the epitome of “historical authentication”? Does he smell what he’s shoveling?

Just in case you think he just slipped once into a bit of an exaggerative mood, he does not let up: there are “numerous observations” of the “relatively innocent facts” of the empty tomb and the post mortem appearances of Jesus, making them “supremely well attested historically” (186). Indeed, he even dares to say that “there is no compelling reason to dispute their historicity.” Yet we have no eyewitnesses, no mention of an empty tomb or physical appearances in any of the epistles–the earliest literature–and of the four gospels that were chosen as orthodox, two of them unmistakably copied from the first, and the fourth is the last of them all to appear.

Maybe Geivett does not understand the difference between numerous sources and what those sources (and only those sources) claim to have been numerous observers, although no historian would make such a mistake. But that is not all that is wrong here: remember that skeptics do not regard natural explanations as implausible. Even if we were to accept, on such feeble evidence (as we sometimes may, for less incredible things), that there may have been an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances, this would still not demonstrate a miracle, since these are indeed “relatively innocent facts” which do not necessarily follow an actual death, for if the appearances are genuine, we have no real proof that Jesus died. Moreover, these things still have a natural explanation even if he did die: for there are several reasons that his tomb might end up or be mistaken as empty, no matter how odd they may be, and there are good reasons to believe that the earliest appearance traditions could have been of a spiritual, not a physical nature (for example, see my collection on Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story and my contributions to The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave).

Geivett even makes the absurd claim that the empty tomb and physical appearances are “as well attested historically as the crucifixion itself” (187). Does he really think that the crucifixion is not more widely attested than the resurrection? After all, the crucifixion story is repeated in at least one early-second-century non-Christian source (Tacitus), whereas no details of the resurrection get such a publication, and although both the crucifixion and the resurrection appear in the pre-gospel epistles, none of those letters ever refers to an empty tomb, and none of them make any clear reference to physical post-mortem appearances (this I will discuss at greater length in my review of Craig). Thus, even Geivett must concede that the crucifixion is at least somewhat better attested than the empty tomb and the post mortem appearances.

Geivett also thinks that a miracle “may be the best explanation for first-century belief in the resurrection.” But if we regard as “best” that explanation which is most consistent with what we are all (believer and unbeliever) certain to be true about the universe and the period and place in question, then credulity and fanaticism is clearly the “best” explanation for that belief (see my review of Beckwith). Geivett is correct, however, in noting that a proper theory must say more than merely “they were mistaken” or some such dismissal, but he never cites or addresses or even mentions the existence of any of the developed theories which have been set out by various historians (such as Hermann Reimarus, Ernest Renan, David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Maurice Goguel, A.E. Harvey, H.C. Kee, W.H.C. Frend, and W.S. Kissinger, just to name a few). Thus, his argument gives the appearance that no such theories exist.

The Top-Down Approach

Geivett concludes with what is definitely a correct argument: that if we had sufficient reason to believe that a God exists who is capable of working miracles, then “miracle” would become a more accessible explanation for unusual events, especially if said events could be shown to have some definite connection with God. But this is of little use when there are insufficient reasons to believe there is a God, for on this approach miracles cannot be appealed to as evidence. Rather, miracles only serve to identify the ways and purposes of the actions of a God already accepted as real. This of course explains why believers are quick to attribute anything orthodox and Christian as genuinely miraculous (while disparaging all other miracles as false), but it does little to justify their belief in God in the first place. But the idea is that once you believe in God, miracles become the stamps of approval of God, confirming which revelations or deeds He advocates (hence one can, Geivett suggests, argue from miracles that a theist of any other creed ought to be a Christian in particular).

But a new and decisive problem arises even with this argument: why the heck would a superbeing only communicate his revelations by using historically isolated miracles? Can’t he just talk, like any normal sentient being? Or at least establish a permanent miracle which continually confirms his approval? For instance, if Catholic churches were mysteriously impregnable to all forms of harm, that would be a useful proof of God’s approval for that creed. So why would a God, who is capable of this, ask us to trust (let’s imagine) that a single, miraculous resistance to one harmful event by a single Catholic church centuries ago is just as good? Likewise, if all true Bibles, and all faithful translations, were indestructible–unharmed by fire or water or pencil or ink–or instantly reconstructed whenever injured or destroyed or soiled or marked, that would be a useful proof that it contained God’s word. So why would a God, who is capable of this, ask us to trust in his approval of a compendium that we can’t even get straight–owing to thousands of variant readings and hundreds of translations, each carrying a different nuance of meaning, and whose books’ canonicity is questioned and debated even among Christians–all on the weight of certain isolated, ancient, and questionable events? Geivett must think his God the most dimwitted divinity in all the pantheons ever envisioned by man, or at least the most impotent. His is a God who chooses the most feeble and ambiguous means of reassuring us of what he wants. One wonders why it would ever be advisable to follow such a deity. I couldn’t trust the sanity of such an engineer, much less his ability to save me.

A second, and related problem arises: if it really is so reasonable to accept miracles as proof of divine approval, doesn’t that mean that fraud will be far more rampant in the case of miracles than in any other event? In other words, since it is accepted that miracles confer approval, anyone who wants their ideas to be adopted will naturally want to demonstrate divine approval by inventing miracles, either physically or in persuasive rhetoric. This presents an awful problem for the theist: how is a fraud to be distinguished from a genuine miracle? If in most cases it cannot be distinguished, owing to lack of evidence, yet we know fraud must inevitably be most common in the case of miracles, it follows that identifying genuine miracles will be even more difficult than might otherwise be the case, and even more difficult than identifying genuine historical events of any other kind. In other words, Geivett’s argument actually provides a strong reason for treating miracles with greater skepticism than other historical events.

c. Clark’s Survey of Other Religions (1999, 2005)

The Problem of Competing Claims

David Clark aims to tackle a particular problem defined by Hume: as Clark puts it: “If Christian televangelists and New Age cultists both appeal to miracles in support of their religions, do these conflicting claims cancel each other out?” (199). Clark’s description of the problem is well-put and informative, and the structure of his chapter rests upon sound philosophical distinctions, with some budding ideas on how stories get invented and believed, among other things. With a very brief survey of miracle traditions in non-Christian religions, Clarkattempts to show that Christian miracles have better evidence and philosophical support than any others. But problems mainly arise, once again, when it comes time to play the role of historian, especially in his inept treatment of ancient pagan miracle-working. It is also disturbing to see a modern scholar who really thinks demons exist and that demonic magic is real.[1] But in the end, when every thread of evidence is carefully analyzed, there really is little difference between Christian and non-Christian miracle beliefs.

Clark’s chapter centers on a triad of questions about all non-Christian religions with miracle traditions: is the religion “really open to the supernatural?” Are there effective “naturalistic arguments” that explain the miracle claims of that religion as spurious? And are any of the miracle claims “historically well authenticated?” (202) He can remove all contenders if he can dismiss all their miracle claims in one of these three ways. Of course, when turned against Christianity, he thinks the answers to these same questions will vindicate his faith instead. But this is where his brevity, which is forced upon him by the format of this book, hurts his case: although he begins the chapter with an analogy with New Age religions, he never brings them up again–nor any of the issues of psionics, e.g. psychometry, telekinesis, clairvoyance, spiritualism, etc., all of which have droves of proponents and believers even today (as does astrology, crystal healing, etc.). Instead, Clarkonly discusses Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, and hardly touches upon any other creeds, such as the all-important pagan competitors to Christianity in antiquity (the marvels of Asclepius being the most prominent and well-attested), examples of which I present in my essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire.” I also discuss the historical ramifications of such traditions in my review of Beckwith.

Rigging the Game

The first issue is whether competing religions really are open to the supernatural. Clark’s idea is that if miracles have no logical place in a religion’s worldview, or the founders or early proponents of that religion “depreciate” miracle claims, then “we have a prima facie reason to expect a naturalistic explanation” for all the miracles believed by followers of that creed. But the presence of reasonable skeptics in the origin of a religious system has nothing whatsoever to do with whether miracles observed by believers are genuine. Indeed, it does not even entail that the skeptics themselves disbelieved all miracles. In fact, a display of suitable skepticism would actually increase the believability of an author reporting miracles, since it would argue against credulity as a cause of their belief. On the other hand, even if a system of religious beliefs is inconsistent, it does not follow that historical events in that religion’s history are natural, for the followers may be responding to genuine phenomena, but drawing the wrong conclusions.Clark acknowledges both points (204), yet, inexplicably, he still thinks he is making a useful argument. But this approach really has no place at all in any investigation of miracle claims. It will always come down to actual evidence in the end, regardless of these two factors. This section of Clark’s argument is thus a red herring, and amounts to little more than a chance “to pick on” opposing faiths.

Clarkalso pulls a dirty trick here. Watch closely: “since miracle is partly defined as an act of a supernatural personal being(s)…any religion that lacks the idea of such a being(s)…has no conceptual place for a miracle” and in that case “one could hardly defend the belief structure of such a religion” by appeal to miracles (202). Does he really think that Christians get to define “miracle” in such a way that competing religious marvels can be excluded from all consideration? That is nothing more than linguistic legerdemain. For it does not matter that the Buddha’s ability to teleport came from his understanding of the natural order. If he actually teleported, that would still be proof of the truth of his religious system, and that is the problemClark must address. He cannot dismiss this by simply defining such proofs as “natural” and then conclude that Christianity wins the contest.

The fact is that within the Buddhist point of view miracles stem from the realization that all reality is illusion, powered by our desires, which allows someone who achieves true enlightenment to play with the laws of the universe, since it is all in his mind anyway (more correctly, it is all in “the mind” since Buddhism holds that our perception of a multitude of individual minds is also an illusion). If this were true–if achieving this state of understanding were possible, and it did in fact result in the ability to play with the laws of the universe (such as by teleporting)–then this would be a very serious challenge to the truth of Christianity. Indeed, it would even be possible to explain Christian miracles as products of an accidental manipulation of reality by ordinary people whose notion of reality is their reality.

This is just one example of how Clarkcannot dodge the bullet so easily as he pretends, for every religious tradition containing marvels holds those marvels to be, in some fashion, proof of that system’s correct understanding of reality. It does not matter whether they conceive of those marvels in the same way that Christianity does. Indeed, Clarkmisses the obvious fact that this is exactly why scientism is the most widely believed worldview–for in the game of “marvels that prove the validity of the system” science squashes all creeds like a bug. One need only observe airplanes, surgical lasers, moonwalks, radios, lightbulbs, and other wonders, from cloud-seeding to vaccines and supercrops, to see that in “the marvels game” no religion holds a candle to science. But observe that Christians in turn explain these marvels in terms of their own world view, just as Buddhists and every other religion can do the same with Christian marvels–with all the same attendant problems.

For instance, if humans, via science, can create a lasting cure for disease with vaccinations and careful management of water and sewage, why couldn’t God do anything comparable when he walked the Earth? Why was this revelation absent, even though it is perhaps among the most important and compassionate revelations in all of history? However Christians weasel out that problem, a similar circumlocution will exist for every other creed as well. This is because, as A.J. Ayer observed, “so long as we take suitable steps to keep our system of hypotheses free from self-contradiction, we may adopt any explanation of our observations that we choose” since “any particular instance in which a cherished hypothesis appears to be refuted can always be explained away.”[2]

The point is that it is futile to try and show that your enemy’s view is wrong simply because it is inconsistent, for if he is determined to preserve his belief at all costs, then he can adjust his system to explain away any challenge to it. This then becomes a game, where each side tries to arrange the pieces of the puzzle so that they all fit. The problem is that this game has no winner–there is no “one way” in which they all fit, especially since we are required to invent numerous missing pieces. If we are to decide that this game can be won, some other conditions of victory must be established. As it happens, I think science has hit upon the right conditions: that system which fits all those observations that are the most certain, and does so with the fewest additional elements.[3] But one will quickly see how Christianity loses, along with all other supernaturalist religions, if we play by those rules, because their evidence is not up to snuff. It can otherwise never win unless it cheats, by setting up the rules in its own favor. But then how is that a real victory? You can’t really be a winner unless you win by rules that all parties agree to, and I think the only rules that all reasonable people can equally agree to are those which actually make science the winner. Christians would do better not even playing this game.

The Infamous Double Standard

When it comes time to talk about actual evidence that throws miracle traditions into doubt, Clark is a bit of a hypocrite. For instance, he uses statements like “even Muslim scholars acknowledge that the vast majority” of miracle claims in Islam “are inauthentic” (204), as if the exact same statement wasn’t just as true of his own creed, unless he wishes to affirm that the vast majority of miracle claims in Catholic hagiography and Gnostic and heretical Christian literature are actually authentic. But of course no one in this entire book even dared to touch, much less mention, the problem that this vast collection of claims poses for Christian miracle beliefs (as I explained in Part 1 of this review).

Another example: Clarksays that “outside of the hadith, there are no reported sightings of the moon dividing, even though many ancient peoples carefully watched the sky” (204). This, of course, is just like the previous statement, since he has the equally vexing problem of the eclipse at the death of Christ, which went equally unnoticed by the very same “ancient peoples carefully watching the sky” (see my essay on Thallus and my discussion of Beckwith). I wonder ifClark even bothered to research this claim. I have read of split moon observations in records from various ages, in Pliny and Plutarch, and in modern records as well, where it is usually interpreted as UFO phenomena. To my understanding it is an optical illusion. I did not bother to go back and research the issue myself since I consider it moot, but my recollection of such records demonstrates to me that Clark did not do this research, either. That is not a good sign, if we are to regard his contribution as a carefully-researched scholarly argument. He should not make assertions that he has not checked for accuracy.

Another example is so carefully constructed I wonder if he has fooled himself, or deliberately engineered his argument. It begins with setting forth “four major sorts of hypotheses to explain the rise of spurious miracle stories” (205), one of which being the possibility of fraud. But he only describes the fraud theory in this manner: “magicians concoct miracle stories or perform marvelous acts in order to attract attention to themselves.” This is a curious generalization, because it excludes what amounts to a very important alternative: the pious fraud. The possibility of employing wonders to draw attention to and build faith in the correctness of a particular moral belief is simply too tempting for many to pass up, especially when it is a real option–as it is in any age or place where skepticism and scientific knowledge are almost universally lacking. ButClarknever mentions this possibility.

Instead, Clarkargues that the attribution of fraud “does not fit the case of Jesus” because he “neither catered to his audience nor lusted for the attention of crowds” (206), citing John 6:60-71 as an example. But this does not eliminate the possibility of pious frauds. It is also rather weak to argue that we can dismiss fraud in the case of Jesus by referring to the propaganda of his own faction–for naturally the authors would want to avoid charges of “catering,” and would want to discredit that charge by constructing just such a story as we see in John 6, a good example of counter-propaganda. Such stories were useful in explaining why people disbelieved or left the movement: they are “unable to accept the truth” and therefore unworthy. Clark also cites the case of Simon Magus, unaware of the fact that it seems his treatment by Christian authors is a deliberate rhetorical attack on a competitor and thus among the most untrustworthy ad hominem arguments in the entire New Testament. This is another sign of poor historical acumen–a good historian learns to identify likely features of propoganda. A real historian would not be so gullible asClark.

Moreover, Jesus himself could have been playing the crowd like a fiddle, telling witnesses to keep things quiet, knowing all along that they would talk anyway. This would allow him to deny the charge of “catering,” while getting to cater all the same. Indeed, if Jesus really did do this stuff, I have no doubt that he did it not to seek glory for himself, but to seek approval for his teachings, which I’m sure he did believe were superior. Finally, it is a little disingenuous to cite propoganda supporting a hypothesis that Jesus did not “cater to his audience” or lust “for the attention of crowds” when this actually undermines the whole purpose of miracles in the first place. If these wonders were not intended to gather crowds to hear the Gospel, and to convince those crowds of the Gospel’s truth, what were they for? As long as it is within human nature to effect a fraud in order to gather an audience and convince them to adopt some belief, it will remain plausible that Jesus succumbed to just such a temptation. ButClarkhas carefully avoided this issue, by framing the fraud question in a peculiar way, and then citing biased evidence to exclude Jesus from the possibility of fraud. That’s simply dirty pool.

Other Weak Arguments

Some of Clark’s analyses are very odd. For instance, he argues that “despite superficial similarities” between Jesus and other holy men of antiquity, “Jesus is quite distinct from all these” (207). But that is a vacuous point–for many other holy men were equally unique, including Apollonius of Tyana, one of those whom Clark mentions, who also “corrected the teachings of his contemporaries” (there are many others: see my essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire“). This uniqueness does not allow us to conclude that the similarities were not mapped onto these men after the fact, based on the expectations of later believers (who all expected certain things of holy men), or that these holy men did not adopt similar methods for this same reason, or for the simpler reason that the most common set of tricks was the easiest, or the only, set of wonders that could be pulled off by mere mortals on a regular basis.

Clarkalso throws out a claim, without argument, that all these holy men are only described in post-Christian sources and thus could not have influenced the Christian narratives. But he forgets to mention Elijah and Elisha and Moses and other miracle-working holy men described in the Old Testament. Moreover, even though “holy man” literature begins to rise in popularity in the same centuries, it does not follow that they were not all influenced by a common written or oral tradition that preceded them, and this is confirmed in cases where similar patterns appear in sources which could not have been influenced by Christian themes and thus prove a common cultural background, such as Pliny’s account of the doctor Asclepiades resurrecting a dead man, and Herodotus’ account of the resurrected Zalmoxis, and the description in Josephus of the ancient tradition of exorcism and divine healing practiced by Jewish holy men since the time of Solomon.[4] We also have things like Plutarch’s mention of Romeo-and-Juliet-style returns from the dead as a popular theme in 1st-century theatre.[5] Moreover, Christian literature only appears to be the oldest because the Church won the power to suppress much of the competition’s literature (or simply not copy it, which guaranteed its extinction). If we had a fuller library of ancient works, we would have, for instance, 1st-century accounts of Apollonius by his own apostles. Philostratus, whose biography of Apollonius is the only one to survive (with the vitriolic critique of the 4th-century Christian historian Eusebius attached), cites several such sources, none of which survive.[6] Ultimately, contrary to Clark’s assertion, records of pre-Christian holy men do survive in several pre-Christian sources.[7]


Hit and Run

Clarkfinishes his chapter with a bunch of hit-and-run assertions. He declares that the Gospels were “composed within a generation” of the life of Jesus “by people who claimed to see the events” (211) even though virtually no qualified scholar believes either is true.[8] Clark does not present any evidence, nor does he address the contrary opinions of mainstream historians–all he does is cite in a footnote one author “supporting an early date.” He claims that the Gospels are “consistent without being identical” yet they are not always consistent,[9] and even if not identical, the first three Gospels are certainly so similar that copying is assured. But Clark does not say a word about the Synoptic Problem.[10]

Clark also says the Gospels “have many characteristics of eyewitness accounts” yet I doubt Clarkhas actually examined any ancient eyewitness accounts–indeed, I doubt he could even name one outside of Christian literature. Instead of basing this conclusion on a comparison with other eyewitness accounts, he bases it instead on the sole fact that Jesus is depicted as having human fears (Matthew 27:46) which the authors were “unlikely” to report if they wanted to support the claim that he was the Messiah. But this argument doesn’t even make sense from within the Christian point of view: it was key to their rhetoric that Christ was not only God’s son, but was a man “just like us,” so there would have been a reason to invent such humanizing features. But it is also typical of all reports of famous men in antiquity to include correct information and then surround it with embellishments. For example, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander the Great contains a lot of correct information, but his account of the Battle of Granicus is clearly a romantic fiction when compared with the more plausible account given by Diodorus.

Not Telling the Whole Story

Then Clark asserts that the Gospels “faithfully reflect the cultural conditions of first-century Palestineand correctly identify many people and places of that era” as if that information were not available to the authors unless Jesus performed miracles! Needless to say, this is a rather moot point–the authors could have all that information even if Jesus did not exist. By analogy, just because Plutarch gets the same things right in his biography of Alexander, it does not follow that all his information is correct. In fact, the more fantastic the information, the less likely it is to be true, and so it is with all literature–to expect the Gospels to be different amounts to special pleading. ButClark’s assertion is not entirely correct to begin with.

For example, the depiction of Pontius Pilate as a timid quasi-sympathizer bears no resemblance at all to the actual man, who was brutal and cruel and had no qualms about silencing unruly crowds by charging cohorts of club-wielding soldiers at them. One need only read the account of his term of office in Josephus to see there is something wrong with the Gospel account of the same man. To fill the gaps in their ignorance, the Gospel authors even invented conversations to which there could not have been any witness available to them, such as Matthew’s account of priviledged conversations between the priests and Pilate, and then secret ones between the priests and their guards that no Christian could have known about (Matthew 27:62-65, 28:11-15). This material actually eliminates the possibility that the Gospels are entirely eye-witness accounts.

Clarkgoes so far as to conclude that “among ancient documents, the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life are uniquely reliable” (211). I address such absurd hyperbolic statements in my review of Geivett’s Chapter. It is quite silly to suppose that the Gospels are “more reliable” than, say, the history of Thucydides, orCicero’s letters. Indeed, by using the word “documents”Clark is being even more absurd still–for this entails that the Gospels are more reliable than inscriptions and papyrus letters and records, which is a really stupid thing to say. I must suppose thatClark did not mean this, which tells me that he did not give this sentence much thought, and was content to say what was more impressive than true.

Another typical claim that Clarkrepeats is the assertion that “foes” could have refuted the miracle claims–a statement only one who is ignorant of the realities of ancient history could possibly make, much less believe. As he puts it, “Jesus’ opponents could have made a stronger claim, denying that he performed apparent miracles. Yet practically, they could not deny the events” (211-2). Clark, of course, believes in demons and magic, so I guess he thinks that Athenagoras was describing reality when, in his Legatio pro Christianis (26), he does not deny the contemporary healing powers of the statues of pagan divine men such as Neryllinus, Proteus and Alexander of Abonuteichos, but merely ascribes their powers to demons. Likewise, Eusebius does not challenge the truth of the miracles of Apollonius, but merely ascribes them to demonic magic. It is extremely rare to find any Christian actually challenging the truth of pagan miracle claims–it was much more common to attribute them to demons, as is the case in the treatment of the powers of Simon Magus in all post-biblical Christian literature. This is further proof that people in antiquity were gullible and superstitious. For it sooner occurred to them that miracles were the real effects of demons and gods than that miracles were fake or mythical.

Because of the abundant evidence of pagan miracles, which comes from sources just as reliable as any early Christian claim, Clark’s argument backfires: the evidence he offers for the truth of the miracles of Jesus, when examined in the light of their total context, actually undermines the truth of those miracles.[11] It is also undermined by the fact that the miracles of Jesus occurred in a region that was universally regarded as backward by Greek and Roman scholars, and was soon ravaged by a massive war. Thus, the ability of any hostile witnesses even to be alive once Christianity started to grow to any significant size, much less to have the means to check their claims and get them published widely enough to be noticed, is slim–even supposing they cared. This is further compounded by the Christian lust for destroying hostile literature. We only know of the critiques of Celsus and Porphyry and Hierocles and Julian, for instance, because some Christian rebuttals to them survive–the books themselves were destroyed. This makes appeals to “missing critical literature” a rather shameless argument on the part of Christians likeClark.


Clark’s entire chapter was supposed to show that the existence of competing miracle claims does not undermine the truth of Christian miracle claims. But the ubiquity of miracle claims in numerous religious traditions proves that witnesses and sources are not reliable. If people are willing, by the billions, to believe in miracles that are poorly supported by evidence, this presents an insurmountable problem for Christianity, whose “believers” at all stages of the creed’s history were just as human as those of other creeds. AndClarkhas not succeeded in surmounting this obstacle. It remains that Christian testimony is no more reliable than any other. Consequently, Christian miracle claims are no more reliable than any other.


[1] Clark asserts that “from a Christian viewpoint, it is best to interpret demonic acts as supernormal but natural events, since demons are part of the natural order that God created” (201) and “magical events caused by demonic spirits are possible” (210). He explains “the rope trick of India” as being an illusion “apparently create[d]” by a “hypnotic Hindustani patter,” and says that other “yogic powers are apparently real,” since “by mastering certain higher laws of nature” yogis can “perform supernormal acts” (209-10). Clarkis apparently unaware of the literature debunking the legends and tricks of modern Indian “godmen.” Just for starters, you can examine the resources provided by The Indian Skeptic and the Science and Rationalists Association of India.

[2] A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (1946) p. 95.

[3] I explain this fact in my discussions of science and method in my book Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005), esp. § II.3 (pp. 49-62) and § IV.1 (pp. 209-52).

[4] Pliny, Natural History 7.124; Herodotus, Histories 4.94-6; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 8.44-9.

[5] Plutarch De Sollertia Animalium (Moralia 973e-974a). See discussion in the Main Argument, and attached footnotes, of my collection on Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006).

[6] Eusebius refers to them himself, in his Treatise Against the Life of Apollonius § 3.

[7] See E.R. Dodds, Greeks and the Irrational (1951), as well as the sources on ancient sorcerers and magic that I list in endnote 5 of “The Plausibility of Theft” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (2005): p. 365. In addition to the examples given in those sources, there is the Wizard of Apamea described by Diodorus Siculus (34/35.2.1-26), and of course numerous biblical wonder workers, like Moses and Elijah, the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) and the Pharaoh’s Magi (Exodus 7:11-8:7), and contemporaries of Jesus, like Simon Magus and Elymus the Sorcerer (Acts 13), who clearly represented a tradition that was in place and respected before the example of Jesus arose.

[8] See Eberhard Nestle’s Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (1901); Bruce Metzger’s Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (1977); and for the most up-to-date work, Edward Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents (1999). See also [10].

[9] Dan Barker’s challenge to all Christian scholars to produce a consistent account of the arrest, passion, and resurrection without discarding a single verse in all the accounts available–see Losing Faith in Faith (1992), pp. 178-9–has never been successfully answered, because it cannot be met without revealing several irreconcilable contradictions, e.g. Luke 23:26 and John 19:17. Also, Matthew and Luke present irreconcilably different dates for the birth of Jesus, as I demonstrate in my article The Date of the Nativity in Luke (2000). These are just two examples. The number of contradictions of either kind is legion (see the Secular Web libraries on Biblical Errancy and Biblical Criticism).

[10] Peter Head, Christology and the Synoptic Problem: An Argument for Markan Priority (1997); and Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (1997).

[11] See my review of Beckwith’s Chapter for more on the historical context–and for even more detail, see my discussion of legendary development in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (2005): pp. 165-82. Otherwise, the best treatments of these matters are Harold Remus, Pagan-Christian Conflict Over Miracle in the Second Century (1983), whom Clark cites but apparently has not read carefully, and Robert Grant, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (1952).

d. Newman on Prophecy as Miracle (1999, 2005)

When is Prophecy Miraculous?

Robert Newman contributes a chapter on Old Testament prophecy, with the general idea that certain predictions found there are so uncanny that they are in themselves miracles. He begins by outlining the usual criticisms of this idea and then presents four criteria that establish a prophecy as miraculous (215): there must be good evidence that…

  • (1) “the text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment”
  • (2) “the prophecy was made well in advance of the event predicted”
  • (3) “the event actually came true”
  • (4) “the event predicted could not have been staged by anyone but God”
  • (5) and the “evidence is enhanced” if “the event itself is so unusual that the apparent fulfillment cannot be plausibly explained as a good guess”

This is a structurally sound approach, and would nearly work if any prophecy actually met all these conditions. But despite his attempt to argue the contrary, none do. And to be thorough, there is something Newman misses here which would also have to be eliminated: if a prophet was likely to say some particular thing for cultural or traditional reasons, then any “hits” (outcomes that match what was said) cannot be distinguished from accidents. This is not addressed by his “good guess” axiom, because this is not a guess, but an accidental correspondence. For example, if I was liable to say over and over again that a bird will land on my head, because it was a chant I inherited from my father, and then a bird landed on my head, it cannot be said that I predicted this. It cannot even be said that I guessed it. My reason for issuing this prediction had an entirely separate cause, and because it is always repeated, its success can have nothing to do with my prescience. We see this phenomenon in Judaic prophetic tradition, when the doom of the Jews or their enemies (the “punishment” of God) is constantly proclaimed for cultural reasons (it is a threat aimed at encouraging piety and morality, etc.), and thus when it comes true it cannot, by itself, be counted as a prediction.

Another concern is retrofitting: if a prediction is suitably vague, then any future event which can be made to fit the prediction can then be claimed as a success. This is a common trick well known to those who investigate psychics. Newman escapes this with his first axiom, but he does not properly apply his own method, and falls victim to the retrofitting bug himself. In effect, if any event that will fulfill the prediction is likely to happen anyway, then it cannot be called a miraculous prediction–even if it was neither staged nor a guess. For example, if I said that Zimbabwewould suffer under an evil ruler who would start a war with a great nation, that would never become a miraculous prediction, since that might happen anyway. Since I have not specified a time, even if Zimbabwe’s history meets with such an event in the next two or three thousand years I can claim I predicted it–but given thousands of years, who would be surprised? And even if the event were to happen tomorrow my prediction would not be miraculous, since I allowed that it might happen any time, meaning that my prediction was deliberately loose enough that I could claim any such event at any time as a success. We will see how all these problems return to haunt Newman as he proposes three examples of miraculous prophecy: Hosea 3:4-5, four “twin cities” prophecies (Tyre and Sidon, Babylon and Nineveh, Memphis and Thebes, and Ekron and Ashkelon), and two messianic prophecies (Isaiah 40-56 and the “seventy sevens” of Daniel 9:24-6).[1] Also key to Newman’s failure is his astonishing incompetence as an historian, as we will eventually see.[2]


Hosea 3:4-5 predicts thatIsraelwill live “many days” without a king, prince, sacrifices, sacred stones, ephod, or idols. As Newman says, “it is astonishing that this brief description accurately portrays the condition of the Jewish people for nearly two thousand years, from the time of Jesus until the present” (216). But is it astonishing? The first thing that should be clear is that it is too vague–it does not “clearly” envision the event, because it does not say how many “days” Israel would suffer this way, and since these sorts of doom-and-wrath predictions for Israel are the bread and butter of the prophets, not only are we able to retrofit any fulfillment of this prediction, but the prediction was also guaranteed to be made even if it never came true (it is like the bird landing on my head example above).

Newman thinks all the details make it a “clear” envisionment, but he needs to brush up on his analytic logic: since any conquest of Isreal would entail the loss of kings, princes, sacrifices, sacred stones, ephods, and idols, these details do not add anything to what amounts to nothing more than a prediction that “Israel will be conquered and oppressed for many days” which is as vague as any prediction can get–not to mention almost certain to frequently happen, given the belligerent nature of the Israelite nation, and its small size and fertile and strategic location at a major nexus of two major ocean trade routes, between several superpowers. This prediction thus fails to be miraculous.

Newman shows three other classic signs of the retrofitting fallacy: first, Jewish holy men had been on a campaign against idolatry for ages–thus the claim that idols would vanish is hardly any more a prediction than a plan. Second, Newman dismisses the age of Maccabean Kings with the argument that “these puppet kings lacked the full regal splendor to which Israelhad been accustomed in Hosea’s day” (216). But where is that in the prediction? The prediction only says “without kings,” so Newman is taking liberties of interpretation–but that allows any excuse for a missing king to be a success. Newman just happens to find “lack of splendour” as an excuse to make this event equivalent to a missing king, but we could find any other metaphor that suited the facts and thus retrofit almost any outcome to the prediction. With this methodology, it would be amazing if this prediction did not succeed in describing something. Third, Newman thinks the prediction is only fulfilled if Israel never gets these things back, but again Hosea does not say that–even if Israel had been without these things only for a month (“many days”), that would count as a success, and this means that almost any event at any time in the future could be claimed a success. This does not establish the prediction as a marvel.

If Hosea had said that in twenty-five centuries the Israelites would have communities in a land across a great sea that lies past the mouth of the Mediterranean, that they would build a weapon that flies through the air and lays waste to entire kingdoms, and that the people of Britain would help them reclaim their Holy Land against a people who pray to only one God, that would have been miraculous. But we do not get predictions anywhere near that good or precise (and this hypothetical example isn’t even all that good or precise itself).

The Twin Cities

Newman borrows from John Bloom four “twin cities” prophecies, concerning Tyre and Sidon, Babylon and Nineveh, Memphis and Thebes, and Ekron and Ashkelon (218).[3] The approach aims at countering the argument that “nearly every city will be destroyed eventually” with the reasoning that “if we could interchange the names of the two cities without affecting their fulfillment” then no miracle would exist, but “if a real difference results, then this is concrete evidence of fulfilled prediction.” He uses the analogy of an experimental control group. Too bad he did not think this through, because a control must have all things the same except the variable to be tested–otherwise, differences of outcome could be the result of some other difference that has nothing to do with the tested variable. In other words, prophecies about different cities will always be different from each other because all cities will have different locations, politics, history, and topography, and so predictions about them can be expected to differ even before we examine those predictions for their accuracy. Thus, the control group analogy fails here.

Indeed, this method is entirely unsound. Compare it with pundit predictions of the actions of political candidates: by Newman’s (or Bloom’s) reasoning, if we could interchange the names of two candidates (say, a Republican and a Democrat contender for office) without affecting the fulfillment of predictions made about them, then no miracle would exist, but if a real difference results, then this is concrete evidence of fulfilled prediction. But wait–is that true? Won’t predictions about a Republican often be different than those about a Democrat? Newman thinks these differences will validate the predictions made about them, when in fact the differences have nothing to do with the accuracy of the predictions, but have to do with immediately obvious differences in the candidates being second-guessed. Worse, the cities he pairs are not always naturally paired in the text, and this allows the tactic of data-mining, i.e. only choosing examples that fit your expectations. Thus, Newman is supposed to stick to the original five-point plan he started with, and show that the predictions were clearly envisioned, made well in advance, actually came true, could not have been staged, and cannot be a good guess (and cannot be an inevitable accident, nor retrofitted). If he cannot meet those requirements, then this city-pairing plan will not save him.

Tyre and Sidon

An improved version of the following discussion of Newman’s treatment of the Tyre prophecy can be found in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005), § IV.1.2.7, pp. 247-52.

Ezekiel issues the most vague of predictions about Sidon(28:22-3) which could never be counted as miraculous. That a city should be sacked and its people slaughtered in antiquity is already a highly likely event, and that a prophet should declare such a doom upon a city is likewise commonplace, so that the one is certain to follow the other by chance alone. On the other hand, Ezekiel 26:3-14 predicts that Tyrewill be attacked by many nations, its walls torn down and its rubble cleared away, and it will be a bare rock. Then “out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets” and will never be rebuilt. The passage specifically predicts that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (26:7) will do this, and his army will throw the stones, timber and rubble into the sea–and there can be no mistake here, since Ezekiel says he will break into the city, not someone else: every verb from 26:7 to 11 is in the 3rd person singular, and the use of the 3rd person plural in 26:12 clearly refers to the troops–the “horsemen” (parash) and “charioteers” (rekeb), i.e. the “men entering the city”–in verses 10 and 11 which Nebuchadnezzar leads into the city. They are the first available plural antecedent of the verb in 26:12, and the whole passage is clearly about this invasion.[4] Note as well that 26:10 includes chariots in the invading force–but Alexander (whom Newman claims fulfilled the prophecy) did not use chariots. They ceased to be used by Greeks and Macedonians after the 6th century B.C.

Ezekiel was a captive of Nebuchadnezzar since the sack ofJerusalemin 597 B.C. and this explains the prediction: he is issuing propaganda favoring his captor, no doubt to get on his good side, and Ezekiel could easily have intelligence about the king’s plans since he would see the preparations. While Ezekiel died sometime after 571 B.C. (the year of his last prophecy, cf. 40:1) and his book was edited shortly after that, the Tyrian prophecy was made, so Ezekiel claims, in 586 B.C. (26:1). As it happens, Nebuchadnezzar began the siege ofTyrea year later.Tyrecame to terms with him in 573 and he did not sack the city after all–forcing Ezekiel to retract his prediction (29:18) and instead predict a victory againstEgyptafter Nebuchadnezzar turned against that country. So what do we have here? We have a man who sees the world’s most powerful army besieging a city and then predicts it will be taken and destroyed–hardly something he could not guess would happen. Yet even his guess failed, and so did the prediction! A failed prediction can hardly be a miracle.

What is Newman thinking? He obviously has never picked up a history book. He claims that Nebuchadnezzar “took” the city in 573 B.C., but we have no evidence of that. As far as we know, the city submitted to Babylonian rule without being sacked. Indeed, since it was a trade powerhouse with two outstanding naval ports, a conqueror would be a fool to destroy it (even Alexander’s successors rebuilt it for that purpose). So Nebuchadnezzar surely got a sweet deal. Then Newman says that the inhabitants resettled inland during the siege, forcing Nebuchadnezzar to “settle for very little plunder” (219)–evidently his explanation for Ezekiel’s retraction, although Newman never mentions this. Not only is this false (there had been a mainland suburb since before 800 B.C., and it was not called Tyre but Ushu), it is absurd: people are supposed to defeat Nebuchadnezzar by leaving an island city, with a huge wall, to resettle, with no fortifications, on the mainland, in open ground and with no port, while the Babylonian army apparently twiddles their thumbs? Newman is clearly the worst historian I’ve ever seen. Never mind that he has absolutely no basis for this claim–it is already extraordinarily absurd!

Newman goes on to claim that Alexander the Great’s use of the mainland city’s rubble to cross the strait fulfills the prophecy, but as I’ve already noted Ezekiel leaves no doubt that he means Nebuchadnezzar’s men will do this, not some other guy centuries later.[5] This is a classic case of retrofitting–indeed, it is worse than that, since the prophecy as stated actually forbids attributing this event to anyone else but Nebuchadnezzar. We might as well call the Israeli rocket attack on the ruins in the war of 1981 as a “fulfillment.” Newman then says the mainland site was “scraped clean” by Alexander and has “never been restored” while “parts of the former island are used even today for spreading fishnets.” This is all irrelevant. First, Ezekiel specifically says the nets and scraping will happen not on the mainland but “in the midst of the sea” (26:5, vs. 26:6, 8). Indeed, the mainland site was Ushu, not Tyre. The mainland site Ezekiel always refers to as among the “daughters” of Tyre, never as Tyre itself. And that is to be expected. Ushu was neither rich nor powerful, since it had no ports–unlike Tyre, which had two ports situated to allow annual sorties, making it one of the most powerful military and trade cities in the world at that time. It would be silly to make elaborate claims about the fall of “mighty” Ushu. Second, fishnets have no doubt always been stretched over bare rocks in every city with a fishing industry since the invention of the net, and they were no doubt stretched across the rocks ofTyre long before Ezekiel was even born. Finally, the city ofTyre was rebuilt immediately after Alexander’s attack, and remained a powerhouse of trade for the next two thousand years. Was it ever a “bare rock”? I doubt it–and we have no evidence that it was.

What we see here is that Newman is so entirely wrong it is astonishing that his colleagues even let this inept chapter remain in the book. Was Tyreever destroyed? No. It prospered under the successors of Alexander and under Roman rule and then under Islamic rule. The ruins, abandoned (but not destroyed, contrary to Ezekiel’s predictions) in the Middle Ages, were badly damaged during Arab-Israeli Warfare in 1982, but the core of the city still had a population in 1991 of 70,000 (almost twice the population in Alexander’s day), and the ruined sections are actually threatened by thriving urban growth. It is still there today, and it is still a major Lebanese financial center.

As the picture above shows, Newman is full of it. This hardly looks like a “bare rock” to me, and the populated section of the city can be seen in the background, dispelling any notion that only a small fishing village remains. The 1999 Encyclopedia Britannica paints the true picture: “Excavations of the ruins have uncovered remains of the Greco-Roman, Crusader, Arab, and Byzantine civilizations, but most of the remains of the Phoenician period lie beneath the present town.” Not only that, but among these ruins is one of the largest Roman hippodromes ever discovered–built in the 2nd century A.D., it seated 20,000. In other words, the city thrived under all these periods, and only became abandoned after the Arab conquest. Yet the majority of the original city is still heavily populated. So Ezekiel got it way wrong. Indeed, Ezekiel actually went on to predict thatTyre would be covered by the sea (26:19), and would never be found (26:21), two more incredibly false predictions. There is definitely no miracle here!

Babylon and Nineveh

Since the doom of a city is a highly likely event, I will not count any claims of predicted ruin (at some undisclosed future time) as miraculous–we know that claims of doom were always made, and sometimes turned out to be false, as in the case of Tyre. On the other hand, Newman calls attention to predicted details like “no rock will be taken” from Babylon (Jeremaiah 51:26). As proof of fulfillment, he tells us that today Babylon is quarried for brick, not stone. What he does not tell us is that Babylon was never quarried for stone, because there is no stone there. All the rock used in construction atBabylon was taken from distant mountains, and the vast majority of buildings, especially on the periphery, were made of brick, making this a much more available and portable commodity for modern looters. It is not very surprising that Jeremaiah’s exaggerated threats of doom should happen to correspond to facts known even in his own time. Moreover, the date is wrong, for Jeremaiah predicts that Babylon will be desolated in the conquest by the Medes (51:11), as does Isaiah (13:17), but Babylon remained mighty even through the conquest of Alexander the Great centuries later, and only began to decline in the reign of Seleucus Nicator in 312 B.C. He and later kings could no longer afford to maintain the expensive irrigation system needed for the city’s water supply, so the population was deliberately transferred in 275 to thenew city ofSeleucia on theTigris.Babylon was never destroyed by war, even though Jeremaiah and Isaiah (13:3-8) both said it would be. This therefore cannot count as a miraculous prediction. It is shoddy guessing at best.

Newman then recounts a prophecy ofNineveh’s demise made by Zephaniah, but Zephaniah wrote in the reign of King Josiah ofJudah(1:1), who ruled from 640 to 609 B.C., andNinevehwas destroyed in 612. Although some of Zephaniah refers to events in Josiah’s reign before 623 B.C., we have no way of knowing that Zephaniah did not add the “prediction” ofNineveh’s demise after the fact. He could also have predicted it as an intelligent guess when, after the death of Ashurbanipal in 627,Assyriawas quickly attacked from all sides by a coalition of hostile nations. There is thus no miracle here. Newman tries to play up details like the prediction that sheep would graze over Nineveh (but not Babylon), even though it would have been obvious, even to the prophets of the time, that Babylon, entirely dependent upon an artificial irrigation-based economy, would never be suitable for grazing once desolate, whereas Nineveh lies right on the highlands of the Tigris along a major grazing circuit. There is nothing amazing, then, about this prediction–it follows automatically from any assumption of ruin.

Newman tries desperately to make a mountain out of this molehill, saying that Babylon has never been restored, whereas Nineveh “is now in the suburbs of the city of Mosul” (220), but this is moot, since Zephaniah did not predict that Nineveh would be populated again, so this does not count as a prediction (indeed, it is closer to a miss, since Zephaniah gives the impression that the desolation will be permanent). It is also wrong, forMosulis on the other side of theTigris. No part of ancientNinevehis populated today. Although there are signs of Seleucid and Greek habitation, and of a rise to momentary prosperity under Arab control in the 13th century, the site ceased to be inhabited after the 16th century, and this accounts for the remarkable condition of the entire city after extensive excavation. It is presently a government archaeological preserve, so occupation is illegal–one of the few worthwhile things Saddam Hussein did for scholars.

Memphis and Thebes

All Newman cites forMemphisis a prediction that the idols and images would be destroyed inMemphis(Ezekiel 30:13), and that “the hordes ofThebes” will be “cut off” (30:14-15). How he thinks either of these constitutes a “clear envisioning” of the events being predicted is beyond me. Certainly, there is no prediction here aboutThebes–this is a generic, vague declaration of doom. In the case of Memphis, he claims that the 10th century Islamic relocation of the population from Memphis to Cairo is a fulfillment of the first prediction, and “as a result the pagan idols of Memphis were recycled to become building materials” and “only a handful of statues have been found on or near the modern site” (220), although he also tries to assert the opposite (221), that Memphis is a “suburb” of Cairo (when in fact it is not populated at all, and Cairo is 25 miles away).

First of all, Newman has to reach over a thousand years into the future to find a fulfillment, yet Ezekiel is clear on the date–the prediction was for Nebuchadnazzar (30:10-11)–so this is disallowed. Moreover, Ezekiel predicts that the Nilecanals will become dry (30:12), which never happened. Worse, his prophecy about Memphis includes the prediction that Egypt will “no longer” have a prince, a word which Newman earlier asserts was equivalent to “any ruler or government official” (216),[6] so this is a definite failure, too–Egypt has never been without officials. It didn’t even lack pharaohs until the Roman conquest, five centuries after Ezekiel.

Worst of all, when Newman claims that “only a handful of statues have been found on or near the modern site” of Memphis, he is flat wrong: the Memphis suburbs are the location of the greatest pyramid ranges, those of Gizeh and Saqqarah, to name the best-known, and numerous temples and palaces have been excavated right in the city center, including the great temple of Ptah, the palace of Merneptah, and a small temple of Ramses II. There are droves of statues there, not a “handful” as Newman claims, clearly refuting any chance this had of being a fulfilled prediction.

Ekron and Ashkelon

Zephaniah again predicted that Ekron “will be uprooted” and inAshkelon”none will be left” but “shepherds and sheep pens” and the latter city will belong to Jews (2:4-7). Of course, this prophecy begins, even as quoted by Newman, by asserting that “Gazawill be abandoned” butGazahas been continuously inhabited for 3000 years, a clear and palpable failure for this prediction. In the case of Ekron, this is a vague, generic prediction of doom, and thus not a prediction at all, especially since it was never “uprooted” but merely abandoned, and then only in the Middle Ages, over a thousand years after the prediction, an easy case of retrofitting. In the case of Ashkelon, that city actually lies insideIsrael, so there can be nothing miraculous about predicting that Jews would occupy the site. Zephaniah is, again, not describing a prediction, but a plan.

Moreover, Newman’s claim that its port was ruined by debris cast into it by Crusaders, and that it then became a grazing area, does not fit the fact that it is today a wealthy resort town with a huge textile industry, and remains a major Israeli oil port, as oil from the Red Sea is pumped to Ashkelon and then shipped West across the Mediterranean. Whether it was ever a grazing area is beyond me. I can find no sources that state this, but I do know that Herod the Great lavished the city with buildings, and this does not fit the idea of a pastoral economy. Newman’s other claim (that Crusaders deliberately ruined the port) is also probably false, for they actually used the port until the Muslim Saladin sacked the city, which marked the beginning of its desertion in 1191. Newman, of course, cites no sources, but the Biblical Archaeology Review reports that the debris scattered in the Ashkelon bay was dumped into the sea when the modern marina was constructed.[7] This leaves little room for Newman’s claim that it became a grazing area after the port was destroyed by the debris.

This concludes Newman’s pathetic foray into miraculous prophecies involving pairs of cities. It should be quite clear by now that he has not presented a single prophecy that qualifies as miraculous, even by his own standards.

Salvation to the World

Isaiah 40-56 is the first messianic passage that Newman thinks is “miraculous.” The only thing he points to as amazing is the prediction that the anointed will become “a light to the Gentiles” (42:6 and 49:6) and bring “salvation to the ends of the earth” (49:7). But this is merely a longed-for dream: not only will Israelbe redeemed, she will become the center of glory. It is a wish for the exact opposite of the present reality. This is already likely for a prophet to declare, even without any concern for whether it was certain to come true. It simply says that Israel will redeem herself and, instead of being despised by all nations (49:7), she will become a model of justice for all other nations to emulate, and all roads will lead to Israel and people of all nations will go there (49:11-12). To “reinterpret” this so loosely as to make it apply to Christianity is to allow any metaphorical reinterpretation, so this is retrofitting once again.

Moreover, it is precisely this kind of Jewish ideal that Jesus sought to encourage, and he or his disciples reinterpreted this concept of salvation into the Christian meaning. Christianity is thus a human creation inspired by just such passages. In other words, that Christianity should be at all like what this passage longs for is actually inspired and therefore caused by this passage, and causation is not prediction. This is like predicting that there will be world peace, and then people inspired by your prediction fight for world peace and declare you a prophet when they succeed. But it actually does not follow in such a case that you had a divine premonition–it only shows that you had a plan. So this passage in Isaiah cannot be regarded as a miracle–it is too vague, it is too much like what a prophet would say no matter what (because it is a universal human hope, just as everyone says they want world peace), and it is too causally related to Christianity to be regarded as a prediction rather than a cause.

On the other hand, Newman also thinks Isaiah 49:7 means that the savior would be abhorred by Israel, such that this would be fulfilled in the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the messiah, but that is taking a lot of liberty with the text. The whole chapter tells of the nation of Israel being despised now but in the future will be looked up to and bowed down to–there is nothing here about a permanent rejection of the messiah, but rather a prediction that the messiah will at first be despised but then will be bowed to, which would allow any peasant reformer to “retrofit” the passage to support his own program.

The key passage here says, “The Lord, the one redeeming Israeland the Holy One, says to him whom man despises and nation abhors, to a servant of rulers, ‘Kings will see and arise, princes will worship, because the LORD is faithful and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose you.” The language here is so vague that it does not even entail that Israelwill abhor the holy one. Just as “man” is used in the collective singular, it follows that “nation” is probably a collective singular, in order to preserve poetic symmetry, in which case it means “nations” in general, not Israel in particular. That would make this a passage spoken to the despised Israelites (not to the messiah), promising that they will be bowed to some day. On the other hand, even if “nation” means Israel, the passage is clearly going from the past tense (“despised”) to the future tense (“Kings will see and arise”), and thus definitely does not predict a lasting Jewish rejection of the messiah, but the reverse: the inevitable acceptance of the messiah by Israel. Thus, this prophecy does not “clearly envision” the event supposedly being predicted, so it fails to meet Newman’s own criteria for a miraculous prediction.

Seventy Sevens

Last but not least is the ever-popular seventy-sevens prophecy in Daniel (9:24-27).[8] This did indeed spawn “savior fever” in Palestine, and Josephus records the numerous “messiahs” who rose up, claiming to be this predicted savior of the world (see my essay Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire for some of the examples), and in fact he partly blames the Jewish War on messianic hopes of victory caused by this very prophecy.[9] Josephus eventually became a privileged member of Vespasian’s entourage precisely when the imperium of Rome was fortuitously up for grabs, and he is no doubt responsible for the notion that this prophecy predicted Vespasian’s ascension to king of the world (as it was conceived at the time), a fitting thing to claim of someone who has a real chance of winning and who can then bestow favors on those who supported him. There is one obvious conclusion to be had here: since there were so many people using this prophecy to justify attempts at claiming and “becoming” the messiah, the fact that one of them should succeed is no longer surprising enough to be regarded as miraculous. In other words, this is another case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which caused the rise of Christianity rather than “predicting” it. This makes it a poor candidate for a miracle.

Nevertheless, Newman trudges on with his own view, although he admits it is open to numerous interpretations (224). What is clear is that Daniel predicts that the anointed will be “cut off” 69 “sevens” after the decree to rebuild Jerusalemis issued. Newman reasonably concludes that this “69” starts from the decree to build the walls of Jerusalem, which occurred in the 20th year of Artaxerxes, or 445 B.C. (Nehemiah 2:1-9), and that it measures the “seven-year sabbatical cycle for land use” so that 7×69 produces 483 years, bringing the prediction to an exact year of 38 A.D. For an unexplained reason, Newman thinks it is a hit if it falls anywhere within the 69th “seven” and thus any ‘cut-off anointed-one’ between 31 and 38 A.D. counts as a fulfillment (actually, he says 28 and 35 A.D., but he must have made an error in his arithmetic, for I cannot see how he gets that result). But the prophecy very specifically says that the anointed will be cut off after the 69 “sevens” have passed, not before, so Newman’s attempt to salvage the prediction fails to fit what the prophet actually said. According to Newman’s own interpretation, Jesus would have to have been crucified in or after 38 A.D. in order to fulfill the prediction, but since Pontius Pilate was deposed in 36 A.D., Jesus could not have been crucified by Pilate in 38. So Newman fails to show us a miraculous prophecy even here.[10]

In fact, this is the end of his chapter–so he has failed to show us any miraculous prophecies whatsoever. “Next!”


[1] Another problem peculiar to this book, which I won’t need to mention in the main text, is that Purtill has established that something is only a miracle if we can show that God was a necessary cause of the event (see my discussion of Purtill’s Chapter). But since amazing predictions could be the result of some sort of human psychic power, one must prove somehow that God is a better explanation. This is something Clark should have done (see my discussion of Clark’s Chapter), since psychic premonitions and healing and other powers are a validating component of New Age religion, a major competitor to Christianity in America–indeed, the competitor, with more adherents and influence than naturalism or any other religion. For example, see the polemic of James Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (2003).

[2] Newman cites absolutely no sources for any of his historical claims. It is a testament to the shoddiness of his research that all of the facts that I cite here and below (unless otherwise stated) are taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica and thus constitute general knowledge available to anyone. Newman failed even to examine these resources. As long as he refuses to argue for a different conclusion than is established by the mainstream facts available in a current academic encyclopedia, I see no obligation to look any further than this myself.

[3] “Truth via Prophecy,” Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question ed. John Montgomery (1991), pp. 173-92. This is similar to material in Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1972), pp. 267-319, for which see The Jury is In: Chapter 11–Prophecy Fulfilled in History. Also, see the Secular Web collection of essays on Prophecy.

[4] Some apologists ignorant of Hebrew think, incorrectly, that these words refer to horses and chariots only–in fact, they often mean the men riding them (i.e. the meanings are interchangeable), as can be ascertained by anyone with a Hebrew dictionary or a Strong’s concordance.

[5] Josh McDowell (op. cit.) and others explain this as fulfilling Ezekiel’s prediction that “many nations” will come against Tyre. Never mind that this is too vague to count as a “clear envisioning” of the event being predicted–it is already explained by the Babylonian attack. For Nebuchadnezzar is described by Ezekiel as a “king of kings,” with good reason: he is leading “many nations” against Tyre(the armies of the defeated Assyrians and his allies the Medes, among others). Indeed, Ezekiel had already observed the Egyptian siege of Tyreno more than three years earlier (Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, 3rd ed., 1992, p. 379). But the language is not even that precise, since rab gowy can mean “many nations” or “many people” or “great swarms.” Either way, the context is clear: they are the many under the command of Nebuchadnezzar.
As further proof, observe the logical format of this passage: 26:1-2, introduction of the prophecy; 26:3-6, summary of what will happen; 26:7-14, elaboration and details. Note how the third section draws on the second: compare vv. 3 “many nations” or “great swarms” and 7 “king of kings” and “great army”; vv. 6 “your daughters slain” and vv. 8 “slay your daughters”; vv. 4 there will be a siege resulting in a bare rock, vv. 8-14 description of a siege resulting in a bare rock; vv. 5 “nets will be spread” and 14 “spreading of nets”; vv. 5 “spoil for nations” and 12 “they will despoil.” Clearly, the logical connection at 26:7 is transferring thought from the summary to the specific proof of the siege of Nebuchadnezzar. How, then, does it make sense to suddenly drop out of this logical sequence at verse 12 and attribute the rest to some other event that Ezekiel does not bother to specify? Why specify Nebuchadnezzar’s role, begin an elaboration of that role, but give no hint that the subject has changed at verse 12? This makes no sense. It cannot be what Ezekiel intended, unless he was a very poor author. If he had wanted to say this, he would have used a logical transition phrase, at the very least, to signify a change of scene, or even named the second attacker (which, if he were truly foretelling the future, he should have been able to do).

[6] The two words are different, but have nearly identical meanings. In Hosea, it is sar or “one who keeps or is in charge, an overseer” and in Ezekiel it is nasi or “one lifted up, a leader,” and both are as generic as can possibly be.

[7] “Just Dive In: Underwater Parks to Feature Antiquities,” Biblical Archaeology Review 25.4 (1999), p. 16.

[8] Daniel is a forgery, which undermines any pretense it could have to being an honest book of prophecy. It claims to have been written by a man who lived in the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century B.C., but was in fact written under Antiochus IV Epiphanes between 175 and 163 B.C. This is especially clear because it gets historical facts wrong that could not have been gotten wrong if it was written when, and by whom, it claimed to be written. For instance, Daniel dates the fall of Jerusalemto the 1st or 2nd year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (1:1-6, 2:1), but in fact he did not capture the city (and King Jehoiakim) until 597 B.C., in the 8th year of his reign. Daniel claims that Belshazzar was king, and was the son of Nebuchadrezzar (5:2, 10, 11, 22, etc.), but he was actually the son of Nabonidus (though he may have been the grandson of Nebuchadrezzar, through his mother) and was never actually king, only regent. Daniel says that Darius is the son of Xerxes and a Mede (9:1), but he was actually a Persian (Persians come from some distance south of Babylon, Medes from some distance north), and was the son of Hystaspes, and the father of Xerxes (not the other way around). Daniel also says that Darius succeeded Belshazzar (5:30) and was followed by Cyrus (8:1 vs. 10:1), when in fact Darius followed Cyrus, as well as Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, whom Daniel completely fails to mention. On the other hand, Daniel accurately “predicts” many events in the reign of Antiochus up until 11:39, at which point he gets everything wrong, suggesting that the book was completed around this time [for more, see Revealing Daniel by Curt van den Heuvel].

[9] The main reason the Jews made war on Rome, he says, “was an ambiguous prophecy found in their sacred writings, announcing that at that time someone from their country would become ruler of the world,” Josephus, Jewish War 6.312-16. This same prophecy is alluded to by Suetonius in Life of Vespasian 4 (“an ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judaea at this time would come the rulers of the world”) and Tacitus in Histories 5.13 (“in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire” and “these mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth”). The prophecy’s interpretation as anticipating Christ’s death in 30 A.D. is attested by Julius Africanus, a Christian chronologer who laid it out two centuries later (§ 18.2, preserved by George Syncellus). Clearly, everyone was retrofitting this prophecy to fit whichever “ruler” they wanted, and so there can be nothing miraculous in Jesus being one of them.

[10] The more usual interpretation is that of Julius Africanus, a Christian chronologer who laid it out in the early 220’s A.D., quoted here (from section 18.2 of the works of Africanus as preserved by George Syncellus):

From Artaxerxes 70 weeks are reckoned up to the time of Christ, according to the numeration of the Jews. For from Nehemiah, who was sent…in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (445 B.C.)…to the 16th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (30 A.D.), there are given 475 years, which make 490 Hebrew years, since they measure the years by the lunar month…the annual period according to the sun consisting of 365 and 1/4 days, while the lunar period of 12 months has 11 and 1/4 days less. For which reason the Greeks and the Jews insert three intercalary months every eight years. For 8 times 11 and 1/4 days make 3 months [of 30 days]. The 475 years, therefore, contain 59 periods of 8 years and three months over: thus, the three intercalary months for every 8 years being added, we get 15 years [i.e. 14 years and 9 months], and these together with the 475 years make 70 weeks.

This entails a predicted date of the crucifixion of 30 A.D. But there is a problem here. Daniel says the anointed is cut off after 69 weeks, not 70. But 69 weeks of Jewish years would be 483 instead of 490, or roughly 468 solar years, for a date of 23 A.D., which is now too early–for Pontius Pilate was not inJudaeauntil 26 A.D., so 23 cannot be the date of the crucifixion of Christ. Thus, the seventy weeks prophecy fails to be a prediction of the death of Christ even according to Africanus.

e. Craig’s Empty Tomb & Habermas on Visions (1999, 2005)

The Resurrection of Jesus

Two chapters are devoted to the resurrection of Jesus. First, Craig argues that Jesus was miraculously resurrected and that we can know this from an analysis of the sources. In particular, he argues that “miracle” is the best explanation for the combined facts of an “empty tomb” and the rise of the Christian belief in a resurrection. Second, Habermas argues that “after his death Jesus appeared alive to his followers” (262) and this constitutes proof of a miracle. I will only address particular analytical and methodological problems in these chapters, since I have already dealt exhaustively with the evidence in another collection of articles, Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006), and in more precise detail in three chapters I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005). I will occasionally refer and link to specific sections of the former as I go. Such links are identified by the abbreviation “WIDBRS” in brackets. Some of Craig’s arguments involve things I have already discussed in my reviews of the other chapters of this book (see Table of Contents), so I will not repeat them here.

To get things going, there is a humorous detail in Craig’s essay which will forever come back to haunt him: Craig approves of the principle that “too many scholars think it sufficient to show that the evidence can be interpreted in accordance with their hypothesis rather than that their interpretation is required by the evidence” (255). If only Craig followed his own advice! Indeed, this principle undermines Craig far more than anyone else, for if we can show a genuinely possible natural explanation, then, even if it is not a necessary explanation, Craig still cannot establish that a miracle occurred even if one did (see my review of Purtill and Corduan). For if “miracle” is not a “required” explanation of any given report, then belief in Christianity is not warranted on the grounds of such a report. Even so, Craig is overreacting to historical theories: rarely is only one theory “required” by the evidence. In reality, there are any number of viable theories for almost any event, and the one with the greatest evidential support generally wins the day–but it is rare that a winning theory for any historical event is certain enough to bet your life on, a lesson Christians really need to learn.

Would Jesus Have Been Buried in a Tomb?

I will begin by agreeing with Craig that, if Jesus was crucified in Judaeain the first century, then we have at least some reason to believe Jesus was buried in a tomb, and not tossed into a pit or left to rot. Although it is indeed possible that the entire tomb story is an invention (and I have argued elsewhere that in fact it is), there is no obvious dogmatic or rhetorical reason to invent this fact, nor any evidence directly to the contrary, and tomb burial was the usual method in Palestine at the time, even for condemned criminals, as I explain in my article Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day (2002).

Even so, the evidence of a tomb burial is not as good as Craig makes it out to be. For example, he cannot use Acts (13:29-30) to support the Gospels, because Acts was written by the author of the Gospel of Luke, who in turn could have been depending on Mark for this information. Craig is also wrong that 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 confirms the tomb story, since it neither mentions a tomb nor any surrounding details like the involvement of Joseph of Arimathea. It doesn’t challenge the story, either. It’s simply too vague. The entire reference consists of a single word, etaphê, which is the past tense of thaptein which simply means to bury, in either a tomb or a grave. One must also realize that even if we can show that Jesus was buried in a tomb, we still cannot be sure it was a known tomb, much less that of the possibly-fictional Joseph, or that the burial occured as quickly after death as the Gospels claim, etc.

Likewise, Craig’s argument that Mark’s omission of the name of the high priest (14:53-4, 14:60-3) implies that the tomb story was written while Caiaphas was still holding that office (hence before 37 A.D.) is not really as secure as he would like. Mark is uniquely short and brief and lacking in historical details of all kinds. That Mark is not specific thus does not entail that the author wrote when Caiaphas was still the high priest–it may merely be another example of this characteristic brevity and lack of detail. In fact, Mark might have omitted the name because he did not know it, which would actually suggest a late date for the story, not an early one. The later Gospels show historical details that could have been added after historical research, or by more knowledgeable authors (as lists of priests, for example, would have been publicly inscribed or accessible in records or histories).

Ultimately, I believe if there was a historical Jesus he would have ended up in someone’s tomb eventually, regardless of what anyone knew, but Craig is far overstating the case when he says that we have “extremely early, multiple attestation” of his burial in a tomb. We essentially have only one source from half a century later: the Gospel of Mark, which was used, directly or indirectly, by all the other relevant authors, and which very likely invented both the tomb and burial story, as I argue in The Empty Tomb (2005), pp. 155-97, while a similar point is made in my review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2000).

There Is a Possible Anachronism

There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “theSecondTemple period…ended with the Roman destruction ofJerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).

Why is this significant? Three of the four Gospels repeatedly and consistently use the word “roll” to describe the moving of the tomb’s blocking stone (“rolled to” proskylisas, Matthew 27:60; “rolled away” apekylisen, Matthew 28:2; “rolled to” prosekylisen, Mark 15:46; “roll away” apokylisei Mark 16:3; “rolled away” apokekylistai Mark 16:4; “rolled away” apokekylismenon Luke 24:2). The verb in every case here is a form of kyliein, which always means to roll: kyliein is the root of kylindros, i.e. cylinder, in antiquity a “rolling stone” or even a child’s marble. For example, the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9:20 “rolls around” on the ground (ekylieto, middle form meaning “roll oneself,” hence “wallow”). These are the only uses of any form of this verb in the New Testament.

Kloner argues that the verb could just mean “moved” and not rolled but he presents no examples of such a use for this verb, and I have not been able to find any myself, in or outside the Bible, and such a meaning is not presented in any lexicon. His argument is based solely on the fact that it “couldn’t” have meant rolled because the stone couldn’t have been round in the 30’s C.E. But he misses the more persuasive point: if the verb can only mean round, then the Gospel authors were not thinking of a tomb in the 30’s C.E. but of one in the later part of the century. If the tomb description is flawed, this would also put Mark as being written after 70 C.E., and it would support the distinct possibility that the entire tomb story is a fiction.

Even so, there is nothing decisive about this. There could still be a core truth about a tomb burial, with the details being added out of the imaginations of the authors or their sources, as often happened when even reliable historians described scenes in such vivid detail. There was a kind of acceptable license when painting scenes this way, provided the historian did not contradict any known facts or propose the implausible. So the fact that the story was told in terms familiar to the writers, though historically inaccurate, would not entail that the story did not originally involve sliding a square stone instead. But the incongruity would still lend some support to an overall case against the authenticity of the story, since Glenn Miller’s claim to the contrary is not well founded.[1]

Was There an Empty Tomb?

Regardless of what we conclude about the tomb burial, I doubt the empty tomb was an early Christian belief. It finds no mention, directly or indirectly, in any of the epistles, and there is some good evidence that Paul did not believe in the resurrection of a buried corpse, but resurrection into an entirely new body.[WIDBRS] Craig asserts that it is “clear” that Paul believed in a physical resurrection of a corpse, but the only evidence he offers entails just the opposite conclusion (252). And when he tries to argue the point further, none of his evidence really convinces (253): the phrase “died…was buried…was raised” (apethanen…etaphê…egêgertai) can just as easily be a metaphor as an indication of an actual physical raising; the “concept of the resurrection itself” does not entail any more a physical than a spiritual idea (I demonstrate this extensively in The Empty Tomb, pp. 105-54); Paul’s “Pharisaic background” is irrelevant, since he is, intellectually, no longer a Pharisee when he converts to Christianity, and a conversion entails fundamental changes of beliefs; the expression “on the third day” likewise has no necessary connection with a physical resurrection, since it was believed to be required by scripture and by Jesus’ own promises;[2] the phrase “from the dead” (Romans 4:24) does not entail a physical return from the dead, for ek nekrôn literally means “out from among the dead people” and a spiritual resurrection would entail this just as a physical one would; and Paul’s “belief in the personal return of Christ” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17) includes the idea that we will all be sucked up into the sky to live with God, which could be a spiritual existence just as well as a physical one, and the rest of the passage is certainly compatible with such an idea.

An even worse argument is the claim that a verbal parallel between Paul (1 Corinthians 15:4) and Mark (16:6) confirms that Paul was “familiar with the empty-tomb tradition.” But how does that follow? Mark is adopting Paul’s language, and thus Mark may have added any new ideology to the simpler core belief of Paul. This therefore tells us nothing about what Paul believed. It is also silly to suppose that Paul read Mark or any gospel, considering that he never mentions them, much less quotes them, and he himself was converted by direct revelation on the Damascus road, and further indoctrinated by conversations with Peter and others years later, and not by any writings, much less any Apostle Mark (who probably did not write the book anyway). In the end, Craig is again far overstating his case when he says “it seems nearly certain, then, that Paul believed in the empty tomb” (253).

Since there would in fact be a rhetorical reason to invent the story of the empty tomb after Christian beliefs changed to a physical concept of resurrection, we have here a reason to doubt the empty tomb story. After all, it is not implausible that the Christian beliefs could change from a spiritual to a physical conception.[WIDBRS] However, a belief in a spiritual resurrection would not necessarily exclude an empty tomb, an important point to consider when examining Craig’s argument above for Paul’s belief in an empty tomb.[WIDBRS] But the fact that the empty tomb only appears in late writings (the gospels, Mark being the first and written in the 60’s at the earliest), and the fact that Christianity was unpopular in Jerusalem and only succeeded in distant locations, also fits the theory that the empty tomb only comes up after the death of Paul, since at such a late date and at such a distance, checking the tomb was not an option. It is certainly peculiar that it would not be mentioned before. The story may have been a symbolic creation of the author of Mark (as noted above). All this throws enough doubt on the story to reject a miraculous explanation, for as long as a reasonable doubt remains, it follows that we cannot establish God as a necessary cause of the account by appealing to an empty tomb. God remains only a possible explanation, and that is insufficient for identifying a miracle by Purtill’s definition (see my discussion of Purtill’s Chapter).

Natural Explanations for an Empty Tomb

I also think there are several plausible natural explanations for an empty tomb.[WIDBRS 1 & WIDBRS 2] Craig thinks “that most alternative explanations for the empty tomb are simply incredible” (259) but I wonder how he figures that. They may be unusual, but they are certainly not beyond belief–a great many unusual things have actually happened in history. Moreover, whereas Craig claims that there are no “plausible historical explanations” which “fit the facts without bruising them” he is on quite a rhetorical high horse. All of the explanations that I provide in the book The Empty Tomb fit and do not bruise any ‘facts’ any more than Craig’s theory does. Indeed, Craig claims that “medical knowledge of the pathology of crucifixion makes the apparent death theory intrinsically improbable,” yet it is not so improbable that it could not have happened. I’ve estimated the odds to be better than 1 in 7000, and things that improbable happen all the time.[WIDBRS] Likewise, Craig says that “the disciples’ evident sincerity and willingness to be martyred for their faith is quite improbable on the assumption of the conspiracy theory,” but this is not necessarily true, either.[WIDBRS]

Finally, “grave clothes” being left in a tomb is not evidence against random theft (260), since necromancers want body parts, not clothes. Nor is this evidence against planned theft, since the clothes would be deliberately left behind. Moreover, the very mention of grave clothes is a natural embellishment to such a narrative and thus cannot be trusted as historical. In just the same way, any historian’s description of a historical scene will include plausible details that actually have no source except the historian’s imagination. For example, when battles were described in antiquity, vivid details might be given of sword blows and conversations, which the author invents–not to lie, but to paint an engaging yet plausible scene. We have to be wary of such license even in religious literature, for embellishments are especially common when one or two generations of oral tradition have intervened between the events and their written record, and when scenes are being described in vivid detail, rather than as bare historical facts.

Ultimately, Craig does not make an adequate case here for an empty tomb really being found, nor does he make an adequate case for such a find necessarily requiring a miracle. We simply have too little information, and only from sources whose reliability or sincerity, even their connection to the supposed events, are all too uncertain. Even if there was an empty tomb, we cannot be certain of it, nor can we be certain what caused it. We just don’t know.

The Mighty Circular Argument

After Craig, Habermas strains to show that 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 “meets all the demands of historical reliability” (264) and thus demonstrates that miraculous appearances really happened. But as we have seen with the other chapters, he is grossly incompetent when it comes to historical method, and his entire chapter essentially elaborates a monstrous circular argument, using dependent sources as if they were independent, and creating the appearance of abundant “corroboration” when in fact very little really exists. He then concludes with a surprisingly feeble effort at refuting the theory of hallucination. He also spends some ink attacking the idea that Jesus was indeed resurrected spiritually, and that some related psychic phenomenon explains his appearance to the disciples–something I won’t bother defending. He also dismisses the possibility of an actual survival without much argument (packing what objections he has into an endnote), but his complaints I address elsewhere.[WIDBRS] Although I do agree that this is the least likely possibility, I do not believe it is impossible, and with the meagre evidence that we have, it cannot really be ruled out–at least not with sufficient force to establish God as a necessary cause of his reported survival.

Stretching Two Sources into Nine

Habermas presents four Pauline and five non-Pauline examples of corroboration for the historicity of the physical appearances (see his table on p. 266), which really only amounts two sources, not nine. The first point is that Paul claims to have gotten the Gospel from eye-witnesses (Peter and James), although I’ve noted above that Paul shows no clear signs that what he received was a belief in a physical resurrection, so this hardly establishes such a claim. But Habermas also omits to mention the fact that Paul was converted by direct revelation three years before he even spoke to anyone among the supposed witnesses (Galatians 1:11-12, 1:16-18). This does not increase the reliability of his report, but undermines it. Historians always look for a critical mind as a crucial element in a reliable witness–Tacitus and Polybius and Thucydides are trusted in part because they demonstrate a critical mindset, and thus we can be assured that they are less likely to have been duped or led by prior expectations than other witnesses. No New Testament author displays any such mindset. And here we have a man who is convinced by a powerful emotional experience well before he even receives the formulaic gospel. Moreover, if we can explain Paul’s experience naturally,[WIDBRS] then we might do the same with the others, like Peter and James.

Ultimately, I believe it is credible that the credo of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 was developed before Paul, but my concern is whether this actually improves its historical verity. In fact, it does not. It bothers me that Paul, a second-hand witness, is our first and only nonanonymous source that can be securely dated before 90 A.D. That we have no writings of Peter (apart from the questionable epistles in his name), or Joseph of Arimathea, or Caiaphas, or even of Jesus for that matter, throws grave doubts on whether we can really reconstruct what happened, or sift out what are actually the unique interpretations or changes or additions of Paul, whose interpretation would inevitably color all later literature, including the Gospels and Acts. Of course it is quite possible that Paul made up a lot of what he says–all of his known congregations are outside Palestine, so he could have gotten away with almost anything.[3].

Habermas’ second point is that Paul saw Jesus himself. But this is precisely the problem: he saw Jesus in what was unmistakably a vision (Galatians 1:11-12, 1 Corinthians 15:8, Acts 9:1-9, 22:1-11, 26:9-19), so this has a ready and plausible explanation in ordinary religious experience, making this a psychological rather than a divine phenomenon. For we have abundant evidence that powerful and convincing visions occur among deeply religious people, validating every religion on earth, from Santeria to worship of Asclepius, from Buddhism to New Age spiritualism. And we know that visions were a cultural force in antiquity, more common and accepted then than today (see my review of Beckwith and my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 182-88). There are also historical contradictions in the accounts of his vision that leave us uncertain what actually happened, or whether we are being told the truth at all.[WIDBRS]

The third point begins to show us Habermas’ flawed methods in full relief: seventeen years after Paul began preaching the gospel, Peter, James, and John expressly told him that his gospel was accurate (Galatians 2:1-10). But we only have this report from Paul himself (it does no good to cite Acts 15:1-35, which was written well after Paul’s letters and may well have had Paul as its source), in a letter whose obvious rhetorical aim is to prove he has authority, written to a community that is a thousand miles from Jerusalem (Galatia was in the middle of modern-day Turkey). For instance, the letter begins with a peculiar emphasis on the fact that he is sent by god and not men (1:1, 1:10), he is trying to bring doubters back into the flock (1:6) and thus has a strong motivation to exaggerate or invent or at least color the truth in his favor, he is worried about people changing his system into something new (1:7), he curses twice (another peculiar emphasis) those who interpret things differently than him (1:8-9), and he goes out of his way to swear he is not lying (1:20). Anyone knows that this is often a red flag for deceit, but it at least proves he was worried that people are questioning his authority.

This is not evidence we can count on without reservation. But there is something more interesting here: to prevent doubt, he does not reiterate all the physical proofs, like the resurrection or empty tomb, but rather emphasizes his authority. This shows that belief was more encouraged by assertions of authority than by evidence. This also undermines the historical certainty of the beliefs in question. And the fourth point Habermas makes does not improve things, for Paul is the only one who reports that he was preaching the same message as the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15:11-15), so we can’t know if that’s true, since we do not have any genuine works from any of the other apostles. Even if we buy the improbable claim that some of the non-Pauline epistles were written by the actual Apostles, these still say little that allows us to determine the exact nature of their conception of the gospel. Thus, Habermas is essentially saying “Paul is telling the truth because he said so,” which is an assertion, not an argument.

Habermas commits the same error when he attempts to offer four of his five “non-Pauline” corroborations, which in fact all come from the exact same source (Acts). But you cannot use one source as if it were four independent sources! And Acts does not even count as one independent source, because it is not independent: at best it has Paul as its principle source, and is written not only long after Paul’s epistles, but even well after the first Gospel (Mark), possibly even after the Gospel of Matthew, and was written by the author of the Gospel of Luke. Habermas also claims that the repeated “Kerygmatic Creeds” in Acts are independent because they show indications of a Semitic, maybe even Aramaic background (268). But it does not matter if there are feasible theories of Semitic or Aramaic origin, since throughout the first century a common convert to Christianity was the Diaspora Jew (Paul, for example). Thus, Semitic or Aramaic origins tell us nothing about how early the creed is, nor that the creed is independent of Paul, nor what portions of it may be pre- or post- Pauline. Moreover, even if the Greek text “could” have originated in an Aramaic original, the fact is that we have no Aramaic sources of any kind to corroborate this, and that is most peculiar. Why should all the earliest Christian literature appear only in Greek?

Last but not least, it is useless to point to Acts as evidence of ‘appearances to groups’ (268) when Paul had already made such a claim decades earlier. This is thus not a corroborating account, but a secondary development from the primary source of Paul’s letters and post-Pauline oral history. There is greater trouble when we realize that the earliest versions of Mark lack the appearances, since 16:9ff. was tacked onto the end of Mark at a later date, probably in the 2nd century after the other three gospels were united with Mark in a concordance by Tatian in 160 A.D., although the text actually does not appear until the 3rd century, and then only in Coptic, while Greek texts are first found in the 4th century, around the time when Jerome composed his Latin Vulgate. Since Mark is the earliest Gospel, it is most curious that the appearances should be omitted from the earliest versions.

The fifth “non-Pauline” corroboration offered is what Habermas calls “literary evidence” from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Of course, if the whole Christian creed is based solely on a vague, subjective literary analysis of one text, this is not something to be proud of. Indeed, consider what this “evidence” (266) consists of:

  • “technical terms delivered and receivedHabermas gives no explanation of why this should increase the reliability of Paul’s letter. The term “delivered” (paredôka, from paradidômi: 15:3) is an extremely common Greek word, and is not even remotely technical. It means “give over” or “hand over” and was used frequently to mean deliver, betray, entrust, pass on, commend, risk, or permit, and is the most common word used to mean “pass on information.” And since Paul uses it to refer to a direct revelation from God (1 Cor. 11:23), we cannot assume it implies some sort of witness tradition passed on to him, rather than something he learned in a vision. Likewise, the term “received” (parelabete, from paralambanein: 15:1; also found in 15:3 as parelabon) is also a common word that would be natural for Paul to use in such a context–it means to learn or accept or take on. Again, Paul uses this very word to refer to direct revelations from God (Gal. 1:12). Hence we cannot assume it implies some sort of witness tradition passed on to him, rather than something he learned in a vision. So why would Paul’s use of these words make his account more reliable?
  • “parallelism and stylized account”Again, Habermas gives no explanation of why this would make a claim more reliable. Grammatical techniques like style and parallel structure were what every student of Greek was taught to use. Thus, that Paul should use them only shows us that he was formally educated in the standard Greek literacy of his day. It does not improve the reliability of what he says.
  • “proper names Cephas and James”I’m not sure why this matters, either. I have no doubt that Paul knew James and Peter. That does not tell us how reliable these men are, or even what they taught. All this does show is that Paul is familiar with the Aramaic word for “rock” (Peter is the Greek version), but why should that be surprising? As a high-ranking, well-educated Jew (a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Philippians 3:5) from a bilingual city (Tarsus, populated by Syrians, who knew Greek but mainly spoke Aramaic), Paul certainly spoke Aramaic, even had an Aramaic name (Saul), and no doubt addressed Peter as Cephas on many occasions. If we believe Acts, then we know for a fact not only that Paul spoke Aramaic, but that he received his Damascus revelation in Aramaic (Acts 26:14). This, then, can explain the entire Aramaic origin of the credo: it comes from Paul’s vision. So this gives no support at all to the “physical” resurrection and appearances of Jesus.
  • “non-Pauline terms” Habermas gives no examples, nor any arguments. I have no idea which words are supposed to be “non-Pauline” or how we are supposed to establish them as non-Pauline when we have only a dozen or so epistles to draw from. Seneca wrote over a hundred letters, and he still uses some words on occasion only once throughout, thus even if we could find words here nowhere else used by Paul, that would not tell us that they were non-Pauline.
  • “triple ‘and that’ (hoti) clauses”To be exact, he means kai hoti, not just hoti. This is not a new element, but is actually a repeat of the second “evidence” (parallelism and stylistic composition), and is thus equally useless. Indeed, the repetition of connectives was a standard rhetorical device used for emphasis, and thus proves only that Paul intended to emphasize these doctrines. It tells us nothing about whether those doctrines are true or even where they came from.
  • “two references to scripture being fulfilled”This is only evidence that the credo was believed to be scripturally anticipated. But this is obvious already. So there is nothing in this that supports the reliability of the credo or that proves any particular origin (except a Jewish religious background, which is not disputed). Since Paul was a Jew and clearly conceived of the Christian creed as a reform of Judaism, we would already expect him to cite scripture in support of his beliefs or teachings. Indeed, for all we know, scripture was the actual source of those beliefs and teachings.
  • “possibly Aramaic original text (‘Cephas’, etc.)”This amounts to the same thing I discussed above about Peter’s name. Habermas presents no other examples of Aramaic words or influences, and even if he did it would not prove an early date since Paul and many Christians after him no doubt spoke Aramaic. Indeed, in Paul’s case, Aramaic is probably his native tongue, and thus we should expect him to slip into his native language on various occasions, and Habermas has not endeavored to show that there are more Aramaicisms in this section than elsewhere in Paul’s letters. But even demonstrating that would show us little, since it is almost certain that Paul would imagine his God speaking to him, and delivering the Gospel to him (as in the Damascus road vision), in Aramaic, not Greek (and Acts 26:14 reports that very thing). Likewise, many of the early Christians whom Paul persecuted, and from whom he would may have heard the Gospel, may not have even spoken Greek. So this again gives no support to the physicality of the appearances or of the resurrection.[4]

As you can see, this amounts to no historical evidence of any kind. Habermas asserts that “we need to judge the texts by the same criteria as those used in ancient historiography” (269). But Habermas never explains what those criteria are, and it seems that he thinks that all historians do is read and analyze literary content. He has tried to use dependent sources as independent, and tried to treat one document as if it were several, something no real historian would do. He has also not examined the actual historical problems–such as the absence of an appearance narrative in the earliest versions of Mark, or the fact that 1st century Christian converts were Jews who spoke Aramaic and may not have even spoken Greek–and thus he has exerted no historical effort in this chapter at all. All he has done is use literary analysis to discover what certain texts (Acts, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians) are saying, and what their cultural background may be. He has done nothing to show that what they say has historical support or verity. Instead, he merely cites a few historians, selectively chosen, as if we were obliged to agree with them even though we cannot check their arguments.

It’s not that Habermas could not have demonstrated some historical verity for many elements of these texts–he simply has not done so in the informed, researched manner that an actual historian would. For some of what this actually entails, see my review of Beckwith, though I discuss historical method in far more detail in my book, Sense and Goodness without God (2005), § II.3.5 (p. 57) and § IV.1.2 (pp. 227-52).


Moreover, none of the evidence Habermas cites from Paul confirms any notion that Jesus was seen in any other way than in subjective visions. And yet, tn personal correspondence to me, Steven Carr pointed out another human reality which Habermas seems to ignore:

Ask 500 Catholics after Mass if they have received the real body and blood of Jesus and they will say yes. Are they hallucinating? No. Does this mean a non-Catholic would have seen the real body and blood of Jesus during Mass? No. What people say they have seen is conditioned by what they want to say they have seen. Talk of ‘hallucinations’ is beside the point.

In other words, it is not even necessary for people who claim to have seen something to have actually seen it–it only matters that they believe it, or have any other reason to assert it. And human belief (or loyalty to a doctrine) can be secured in any number of ways, such as suggestion, indoctrination, desire, trust in authority, persuasion, even loyalty to a connected ideal, such as belief that the new creed will be a necessary good for the Jews or for all mankind. Indeed, it is possible that religious leaders like Paul and Peter would invent visions specifically for the purpose of gaining authority for their doctrines, which they could believe to be worthy enough on their own that anything should be used to persuade others to adopt them. Moreover, since belief in having encountered Jesus was (and still is) said to secure eternal life in heaven, anyone who had a strong enough desire to believe they will live forever in paradise would in turn have a strong enough motive to convince themselves that they have seen Jesus, or to voice the doctrine in the hopes that verbal assent to it might be enough to ensure God’s favor.

Nevertheless, I think it more probable that Peter and James, and certainly Paul, maybe several others, saw something that inspired their faith. I do recognize the possibility that the whole story could be an invention of Paul and others, but even in that remarkable case the behavior of Paul would make more sense if he had some kind of convincing vision (which by all accounts was not of a physical Jesus), and likewise for all other scenarios of invention.[5] I think it most likely that others had these visions earlier than Paul, and that Paul’s letters give more or less a correct version of his own experiences (such as his persecution of the early believers), albeit with all the usual rhetorical deviations that are found and expected of all autobiographical material written in antiquity. But since the only nonanonymous, first-person record of a visitation by Jesus is that of Paul, we have no historically solid ground for supposing that the earlier experiences were any different. Certainly, an experience like that of Paul would obviously not be any less convincing than a physical appearance, since we certainly see how convinced Paul was (and there are many other cases of obviously nonphysical visions being used to justify doctrinal beliefs, cf. Acts 16 and 2 Corinthians 12).

Habermas asks whether “hallucinations (or other subjective phenomena) adequately explain the facts” (271). He begins by citing some old sources on hallucination (his most recent source is a private letter to himself written in 1977 by a “clinical psychologist”) to the effect that “hallucinations are private events” and thus cannot explain how Jesus appeared to groups of people. Of course, that Jesus appeared to groups of people is the least well-attested fact in the tradition, and is a likely thing to invent for its rhetorical power–these two facts combined make the accounts suspect. Even Paul’s claim that “500” unnamed people saw Jesus at one time is curious–are we to suppose he interviewed 500 people? Indeed, is it even feasible that everyone in a gathering of 500 would be able to confirm that some person they saw was actually Jesus?

But Habermas’ source (at least the one he quotes) is not telling the truth. Although this correspondent claims that it is not possible for one person to induce hallucinations in another, it has long been known that hypnosis can in fact induce hallucinations by suggestion.[6] The power of suggestion, and the influence of a similarity in socialization and cultural expectation and background, can also contribute to groups sharing, or believing they are sharing, the same experience. Dr. Louis Jolyon West, editor of Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience, and Theory (1975)–which Habermas lists as a reference in an endnote–writes in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

If some external object is present but inadequately recognized, an incorrect perceptual engram [i.e. a stored perceptual expectation] may be activated to be experienced as an illusion; in the absence of an external stimulus, such an engram is perceived as a hallucination. This may account for the specificity of collective visions (i.e., those shared by more than one person). Among lifeboat survivors at sea, for example, several people who share similar expectancies (mental sets) may see a nonexistent ship projected against the blank screen of empty sea and sky. Such an experience may persist in some of the people even after a logical belief in its impossibility has been communicated to all.

Sarbin and Juhasz contribute a chapter to West’s anthology entitled “The Social Context of Hallucinations” where this idea is partially explored. The general consensus in psychology appears to be that the circumstantial as well as cultural or social expectations and experiential background of a group, if held in common, can lead their brains to produce similar delusions. Although this phenomenon is difficult to study, it seems that collective visions are indeed possible under the right conditions.

If this is possible in any circumstance which ancient witnesses may have found themselves in, it follows that it would have been possible to create a common hallucination–each being entirely subjective, but sharing enough features among them that all those involved think they have seen the same thing. People are also known to alter their memories as a result of social influence and suggestion, especially under the anchoring guidance of a charismatic leader or the social pressure of a group, so that even different experiences could be remembered later (even very soon after the event) as having been the same, and this can be expected to happen in situations where there is a known authoritative suggestive influence, as would be created by a group of fellow believers and by figures such as Peter.[7]

Habermas addresses only one book which presents evidence of mass delusions, and yet his critique only appears in a lengthy endnote and is not very sound (317).[8] His first objection is that since most such delusions are religious in nature, they are probably real visions of the divine and not hallucinations at all. That requires argument, and he presents none–he merely says that assuming they aren’t real is “begging the question” but so is assuming that they are real. He ought to spend much more time discussing this, and addressing all the leading literature, but he does not. Instead, he tells us virtually nothing about this one book that he claims to have read, or what evidence it presents.

He also claims that whereas the evidence shows these hallucinations only occur after “expectation” and “emotional excitement,” the appearances of Jesus do not fit this pattern. But it seems that they do, since the Gospels claim that Jesus repeatedly predicted and thus created the expectation of his resurrection. Moreover, every group experience for which we have any kind of details begins with one or two individuals seeing something and then creating the expectation in others, who then “exuberantly gathered for the explicit purpose of seeing something” (see my analysis of the Gospel accounts below). It is, of course, difficult to rely on any specific details of these stories because they contain elements of drama which may or may not come from sources other than the author’s imagination, but we have so little reliable information about any of the mass experiences we simply cannot rule out the possibility that expectation and excitement did not play a factor, and if we cannot rule that out, then we cannot establish a miracle as a necessary explanation. One thing I will add: the argument that hallucinations would not inspire radical transformations of character is absurd, since the very nature of hallucinations is such that you rarely know you are hallucinating. Because of its nature, a hallucinated experience will easily be believed real, and will thus have exactly the same effect as a real experience.

As far as individual hallucinations, there are reasons for believing that hallucination may have been a factor in the formation of the Christian beliefs. Peter Slade and Richard Bentall, in Sensory Deception: A Scientific Analysis of Hallucination (1988), survey the evidence for hallucination, and examining several studies in 1894, 1948, 1968, and 1983, found hallucination to be rather commonplace (pp. 69-71)–between 7% and 14% of those surveyed who did not exhibit any mental illness reported having experienced hallucinations, and this sample naturally did not record those who had hallucinations but did not know it. Of these identified experiences, over 8% were multi-sensory hallucinations, and 5% involved entire conversations. Surveying this and much more evidence, the authors conclude that “many more people at least have the capability to hallucinate than a strictly medical model implies should be the case” (p. 76).

Moreover, social and cultural factors can increase the frequency and acceptance of hallucinations. Of 488 societies surveyed, 62% accepted some form of hallucinated experiences as real (such as being visited by the dead, or talking to animals or trees), and the majority of these accepted experiences were not induced by drugs (p. 77). In a particularly interesting case, one study found that 40% of Hawaiian natives have reported veridical encounters and conversations with dead people, usually after violation of a tribal taboo (p. 78). This study was inspired by a few clinical cases of such hauntings, which the therapists could not cure, and in seeking a cure they investigated the cultural influences behind the experiences. After their findings, they resolved to “cure” the problem by leading the victims to engage in culturally-established atonements, which were “expected” to end the visits, and they did. Habermas would have this stand as proof that the Hawaiian native religion was genuine, but clearly he cannot have that–for if Christianity is true, then violating Hawaiian tribal taboos could hardly cause the dead to rise and chastise people. After all, why would God arrange or allow for such a vindication of their non-Christian beliefs?

The survey demonstrated another important point: visual hallucinations are rare in Western cultures, but not in many others (especially developing countries). Moreover, “the folk theory of visions and voices adopted by a culture may be important in determining whether a hallucination is viewed as veridical or as evidence of insanity” (p. 80). As a historical example, “medieval writings on insanity make few references to hallucination and instead take overt evidence of disturbed behavior (e.g. babbling, wandering aimlessly, thrashing, biting) as diagnostic of madness” and yet many medieval reports of visions which were regarded as real match modern visions reported by those with a psychotic disorder (p. 80). As the authors conclude, “we must seek the causes of hallucination, at least in part, in the social and historical environment of the hallucinator” (p. 81). When we look at the cultural situation in antiquity, we see exactly the same circumstances: hallucinations are rarely mentioned as evidence of insanity, but visions of the deceased and of gods and all sorts of other things are accepted as real (see my review of Beckwith and my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 182-88, for more on the cultural status of visions in antiquity). Thus, Habermas, as a Westerner with little acquaintance with ancient culture, finds hallucinations hard to swallow–but this is only his own cultural bias leading him to the wrong conclusion. In ancient times, hallucinations were readily believed as real, and were, as in the case of the Hawaiians, far more common and culturally distinct from hallucinations in our society today.

The authors also found that “hallucinations involving bereavement” are common–and, for example, visits by the dead to the bereaved are culturally accepted as genuine in Hopi Indian culture (p. 86-8). Finally, they found evidence that hallucination plays a role in reducing anxiety, and this anxiety-relieving property in turn has a reinforcing effect on the believability and frequency of hallucination (p. 108). These two factors fit the situation of the disciples after the crucifixion incredibly well. They were primed for hallucination by their bereavement, their anxiety-filled circumstances (cf. John 20:19), their cultural predisposition to see and believe things that confirmed their deepest expectations in religious terms, and the opportunities for social influence and suggestion (as one or two individuals prepare the rest for the possibility that Jesus is risen–see below). The only better circumstances for hallucination than these are drugs, hypnosis, fatigue, hypnagogia, or sensory deprivation.

There is also the consideration of benevolent mental disorders. Claridge McCreery, in “A Study of Hallucination in Normal Subjects” (Personality and Individual Differences 2.5; November, 1996: pp. 739-747) found that there is a kind of ‘happy schizotype’ who is “a relatively well-adjusted person who is functional despite, and in some cases even because of, his or her anomalous perceptual experiences.” This brings together the concepts of hallucination as an anxiety-reducing benefit and of the socio-cultural acceptance and guidance of hallucination, and explains two other features of antiquity: why there were almost no reported cases of psychosis in antiquity (and why hallucination was not regarded as an index of insanity), and why miracles were so frequently reported in that period (not just Christian, but pagan as well). It is entirely possible that cultural support lead schizophrenics into comfortable situations where their visions were channeled into “appropriate” religious contexts.

Thus, psychotics could live entirely normal lives, even benefit from their condition by the relief of anxiety, and by social acceptance, all the while experiencing amazing things on a frequent basis. These people could then be principally responsible for the origin of miracle reports, which are then believed out of credulity, or in reaction to the sincerity of the witnesses, who would not doubt the reality of their visions, by the general populace. We would expect these “happy schizotypes” to find their most accepted place in religious spheres, and they would naturally gravitate into the entourage of miracle-workers. This would in turn explain why so many disciples have hallucinatory experiences, since there would be a higher-than-normal proportion of schizoid personalities in any wonder-working religious group. Evidence of possible past mental aberration, such as in the case of Mary who was previously possessed by demons, only confirms this further–although possession does not correspond to psychosis, Mary also is reported to have seen angels and other odd things.

In fact, the historian must explain where these “schizoids” are, since this particular class of person does not appear anywhere in the literature–in contrast, only actual schizophrenics are referred to (and regarded as insane, since they are so broken from reality that they are impaired by their visions). Even modern churches must recognize schizoidal personalities in their congregations, and other excessively religious people which evoke concern or referrals to psychiatric care, yet we find nowhere in ancient Christian literature any description of or reaction to such personalities in their midst (the demon-possessed are all so-described for their aberrant physical and verbal behaviors, not for hallucinations). The fact is that they must have been there, and this means the only explanation for their absence in the literature is that they were accepted as sane and devoted members, and may even have been given respect as particularly godly and inspired–just the sort of people who would end up in the circle of the first disciples. Habermas has not dealt with these facts at all.

Looking at the Gospel Details

Both Habermas and Craig claim that the Gospels are “lacking in typical mythical tendencies” (Habermas, 268) and “theological motifs that a late legend might be expected to incorporate are wholly lacking” (Craig, 254). But that is far from true. Matthew’s record contains many details that are fantastical and fail to be corroborated anywhere else: the earthquake and the guards at the tomb (28:2-4), the masses of living dead after the crucifixion (27:52-3), secret conversations among non-Christians (27:62-5, 28:11-5), and Herod’s killing of the babies (2:16).[9] Moreover, the constant use of scriptural references, such as in John especially, is in itself a theological motif.

Instead, the earliest account, in Mark (Paul records none of these events, not even vaguely), contradicts Matthew: there are three women, not two, and they go to anoint the body, not just “to look at the grave” (Mark 16:1 v. Matt. 28:1), and Matthew adds these fantastic details: an angel who looks like lightning descends from heaven and rolls away the stone, all right before their eyes, and an earthquake makes guards immobile with terror (28:2-4)–guards nowhere mentioned in Mark–whereas in Mark the tomb is already open when the women arrive, and there is no angel, but a man wearing white, who is sitting in the tomb–he does not descend from heaven–and this man creates the expectation in the women that Jesus will appear (Mark 16:4-7). There is nothing supernatural here. Given this version alone, it is easy to see how any later visions of Jesus have been set up with emotional expectation, even by naming the place where the visions are to be expected (16:7). And Matthew has clearly added legendary, theological motifs–angels from heaven, terrified guards, etc.–and this leaves us to wonder what else he has added or changed. Matthew clearly cannot be regarded as a reliable historical source for the first appearances of Jesus.

Examine, in turn, the added ending on Mark: in this account, Jesus first appears to one person, who has a history of psychological problems (16:9), and she then creates the expectation in others that Jesus is alive and will appear to them. John also reports that only one woman visits the tomb (20:1), and omits most of the other fantastic details, placing the two angels at a different point in time (20:12-13), but once again only one woman is there to see this vision. In his version, Mary finds only an empty tomb and runs to tell Peter that the tomb is empty, then he runs in an excited state to see for himself (20:4), and when he sees, it is he who deduces that Jesus was raised (20:8-9), an obvious origin for the creation of an expectation of appearances–and Peter’s authoritative role in the group would carry a lot of influence. Likewise, Mary later sees a vision of angels when by herself, and then mistakes a gardener for Jesus (20:14-18), easily a natural psychological event. The Thomas episode follows, but this is a story that appears nowhere else and has obvious rhetorical motivation, for it is there to counter skeptical arguments, and also other Christian groups who are preaching a spiritual resurrection–John is the last gospel to be written, and thus is most prone to adding details like this.

Then there is Luke’s account (24:1-10), which contradicts the other two: it follows Mark’s less-fantastic version, but records that there are two men, not one, in “dazzling apparel” (rather than simply wearing white). Of course, this shows the legendary embellishments growing, and Matthew simply takes this license a step further. But what is important is that these men create the expectation in the women, who in turn inspire the others to expect an appearance–Peter again runs to see, demonstrating emotional expectation (24:12). Then the appearance on the road (24:13ff.) shows obvious signs of delusion: it is not Jesus they see until much later when they “realize” the stranger is him (24:31). Then, he appears just when the expectation is being created again (24:36). There are other details here, although it is almost certain that Luke is adding embellishments (as we’ve seen by comparing Luke to Mark). There could easily be a true core story of mass delusion behind this tale.[WIDBRS]


Habermas says that of all the evidence that Jesus physically appeared after death, “particularly impressive” is the “literary evidence for the resurrection creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. and the creedal confessions from Acts” (275). This is telling, because these are in fact the worst evidences in his entire chapter. Is this the best he can do? Since nothing he has presented is sufficient to establish God as a necessary cause of the events in question, he has simply failed to establish that anything miraculous was involved. Certainly, there may have been miracles here, but we are unable to recognize them. Plausible natural explanations remain to account for all of the data. Arguments about improbability are moot, since improbable things happen–so being improbable does not make something implausible. With this, the last chapter, the fact remains that this book has presented no evidence sufficient to warrant belief in any miracle, and this essentially means the book is a failure.


[1] In his rebuttal to this chapter, Is the Tomb Story Flawed because the Term ‘Rolled’ is Used?, Glenn Miller adduces some evidence that the word can be used to describe rolling nonround things, which is worth examining, but there are fatal flaws in his case. He circularly assumes his own conclusion by constantly importing unproven assumptions regarding the shape of the things he refers to. For example, he inexplicably imagines a barleycake as not being round, yet square loaves or cakes were certainly not the norm in antiquity. I am also assuming, perhaps wrongly (you be the judge), that the tomb of Jesus was not a vast monument on a royal scale, yet those were the only sort of tombs bearing round stones before 70 A.D. Likewise, I am not aware of any transport techniques like beds of logs ever being used in Judaea for moving tomb doorstones, and any such elaborate mechanism would not have been at all likely in the case of Jesus.

[2] See Richard Carrier, Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day (2002).

[3] Romans, of course, was written to a congregation in Rome; Corinthians to Corinth (in southern Greece); Galatians to Galatia, and Colossians to Colossae (both in middle Asia Minor); Ephesians to Ephesus (on the Western coast of Asia Minor); Philippians to Philippi (in Macedonia, well north of Greece); Thessalonians to Thessaly (in middle Greece); Timothy is in Ephesus and travelling to Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3), and Paul only talks to him about congregations in Rome, Greece, or Asia Minor (2 Timothy 1:15-18, 4:10-13); Titus is in Crete (1:5) while Paul is in Nicopolis (3:12) which is north of Corinth; Hebrews does not name any recipients (though Clement’s first letter to Corinth mentions it many times, suggesting that Rome or Corinth was its audience), and only notes Paul’s location in Italy (13:24); all the other letters mention only congregations in all these same places and regions, none in Palestine (cf. Romans 15:26, 16:1ff.; 1 Corinthians 16; etc.). Paul mentions disciples inJerusalemin Galatians, but that’s all; beyond that, he mentions “donations for the poor among the saints inJerusalem” which he delivers (Romans 15:25-6), but this does not indicate a congregation. The point is that none of his letters are written to anyone inPalestine, and never even allude to any such congregation except when Paul is trying to prove his authority in Galatians. Hence what Paul taught might not have resembled what Peter and James were actually preaching.

[4] Craig does not mention it in this chapter, but he has his own version of the bogus “Aramaic is old” fallacy that others have pointed out to me. In his book Reasonable Faith (p. 275), Craig writes:

As E.L. Bode explains, if the empty tomb story were a late legend, it would almost certainly have been formulated in terms of the accepted and widespread third day motif. The fact that Mark uses “on the first day of the week” confirms that his tradition is very old, even antedating the third day reckoning. This fact is confirmed by the linguistic character of the phrase in question. For although “the first day of the week” is very awkward in the Greek, when translated back into Aramaic it is perfectly smooth and normal. This suggests that the empty tomb tradition reaches all the way back to the original language spoken by the first disciples themselves.

What Craig forgets to mention here is that this is the exact same language spoken by Paul and by numerous Christian converts throughout the first century, thus it does not entail an origin with the first disciples. Moreover, Craig’s contention that “on the first day of the week” is “very awkward in the Greek” is not relevant–it is a Hebraic form commonly used by Greek-speaking Jews in Hellenistic times. It was not awkward to them. Indeed, the exact same phrase, sometimes a very similar one, appears in Luke 18:12, Acts 20:7, and 1 Corinthians 16:2, none of which pertain to the resurrection. In fact, the last passage is advice Paul is giving to the Corinthians, which shows this phrase to be perfectly ordinary in written Greek among Paul’s correspondents, having no connection with some sort of “early tradition.” In fact, Mark almost certainly chose the phrase himself, because it derives from a relevant Psalm that fits his particular narrative, as I explain in The Empty Tomb (2005), pp. 155-65.

[5] Yet I do not think all invention scenarios to be impossible or even implausible, and since these authors must establish miracle as a necessary cause of the accounts, even an improbable but plausible explanation prevents miracle from being necessary, and reduces it to the status of merely possible. The question of whether miracle is more likely than all other natural explanations requires information, such as a known likelihood of miracles, that no one has. See my review of Purtill and Corduan, and also of Clark and Nash.

[6] cf. John Edgette, The Handbook of Hypnotic Phenomena in Psychotherapy (1995).

[7] There is so much literature on this, I will simply list all the most recent works: David Bjorklund, ed., False-Memory Creation in Children and Adults: Theory, Research, and Implications (2000); and Daniel Schacter and Joseph Coyle, Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (1997). For primary research on the subject see: Josh Landau, Repeated Testing of Eyewitness Memory: The Influence of Misleading Information (1993); Martha Brown, False Memory Production: Effects of Self-Consistent False Information and Motivated Cognition (1996); Lori Canfield, Predictors of Suggestibility and False Memory Production in Young Adult Women (1997); Karen Mitchell, An Examination of the Effect of Contextual Overlap on Eyewitness Suggestibility (1997); Sarah Drivdahl, The Role of Imagery and Individual Differences in the Creation of False Memories for Suggested Events (1997); Lisa Fellner, The Effects of Repeated Exposure to Suggestions: Examining the Parameters (1997); Mary Devitt, The Effects of Time and Misinformation on Memory for Complete Events (1995).

[8] Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Extraordinary Phenomena of Behavior and Experience (1982), which has been updated since: Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking, 2nd ed. (1989).

[9] That Philo, Josephus, and Tacitus would all fail to mention this, or that a war would not have been started by such an abominable atrocity, is far too incredible to believe. Moreover, the story of an evil ruler trying to kill the “chosen one” who then has to be hidden away has many parallels in other hero and king legends (Moses, Oedipus,Romulusand Remus, Cypselus ofCorinth,Krishna, etc.).


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