Miracles: the Historical Problem

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Bart Ehrman and I disagree when it comes down to his view of evil and my view. I believe that evil is bad, as much as Ehrman does (if not more), but I don’t believe its existence testifies against God but rather, for Him — the reason being that evil exists as an alternative to good, which testifies to human choice and thus, a God who granted human choice from the beginning.

And yet, there are some things that my former New Testament Literature professor and I do agree on (and this post is one of them).

In today’s post, Ehrman points to miracles such as the resurrection and labels them “the historical problem” because historians cannot prove the miracles happened. Here’s the quote:

Historians have no access to God, only to what goes on here on earth, for which we have historical records. And there is nothing historically problematic about Jesus getting crucified.

There is something historically problematic with his being raised from the dead, however. This is a miracle, and by the very nature of their craft, historians are unable to discuss miracles. That is my thesis in this final section…what I want to show is that because of the very nature of the historical disciplines, historians cannot show whether or not miracles ever happened…Despite the prominence of miracles in the Gospel traditions, I don’t think historians can show that any of them, including the resurrection, ever happened. This is not because of an anti-supernatural bias. I’m not saying that miracles by definition cannot happen…The reason instead has to do with the limits of historical knowledge. There cannot be historical evidence for a miracle” [Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins, 2009, pp. 172-173].

That is the problem inherent in miracles. Miracles, by our very definition of the term, are virtually impossible events. Some people would say they are literally impossible, as violations of natural law: a person can’t walk on water any more than an iron bar can float on it. Other people would be a bit more accurate and say that there aren’t actually any laws in nature, written down somewhere, that can never be broken; but nature does work in highly predictable ways. That is what makes science possible. We would call a miracle an event that violates the way nature always, or almost always, works so as to make the event virtually, if not actually, impossible. The chances of a miracle occurring are infinitesimal. If that were not the case it would not be a miracle, just something weird that happened. And weird things happen all the time. (Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, page 175)

Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past. They cannot show that a miracle, the least likely occurrence, is the most likely occurrence. The resurrection is not least likely because of any anti-Christian bias. It is the least likely because people do not come back to life, never to die again, after they are well and truly dead. But what if Jesus did? If he did, it’s a miracle, and it’s beyond historical demonstration.” (Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, page 176)

What is it that Ehrman and I agree on? We agree that, if Jesus did rise from the dead (and I wholeheartedly believe He did, that He was God and is God, and that the supernatural exists), then His resurrection and miracles can’t be proven by history. I’ve already said that science cannot comment on God; history is even less qualified to do so.

Why can’t miracles be historically verified? One reason pertains to the limits of history. History deals with things that happen within the natural realm, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or the Civil War. History verifies things that have happened within the natural realm; historical events are seen, observed, tangibly recorded. There’s a document, photograph, eyewitness, and even a secondary account (someone who talked to an eyewitness) to verify it.

In the case of miracles, it’s possible that eyewitnesses exist — but science nor history can verify that a miracle happened because 1) miracles don’t leave a trail of evidence and 2) miracles can’t be repeated. “The limits of historical knowledge” involve verifiable, repeatable events. Historical knowledge is not all-knowing or holds all the answers. This is important because our atheist friends would like us to believe it does. And yet, even Bart Ehrman, an atheist who has done a lot of work on “The Historical Jesus,” says that history has a limit and doesn’t hold all the answers to Jesus.

Miracles go against the natural order of things, the way things work. As Ehrman says in the third quote above regarding the resurrection, “people do not come back to life, never to die again, after they are well and truly dead.” What Ehrman says is a teaching of naturalism. Naturalism says that only what happens in the natural order of things exists.

It’s not completely accurate in the eyes of those who believe in the supernatural, but those are the rules of history and science. If it’s in the supernatural, it can’t be verified and history can’t confirm it. Since miracles do violate the natural order of things (Lazarus coming back to life in John 11, for instance), they are viewed in history and science as impossible. Lazarus came back from the dead, but he died again later on.

Jesus not only rose from the dead, but He rose and never died again. History nor science can verify whether it’s true or not. Notice I said “whether it’s true or not.” Ehrman and I agree that history nor science can speak on the subject of miracles. This is where he and I disagree with Richard Dawkins. Dawkins believes that science can speak on the cosmos, that science can speak in philosophy regarding the nature of life as we know it.

Ehrman says that history lives by philosophical naturalism and can’t answer questions regarding miracles. Bart Ehrman and Richard Dawkins don’t agree with each other. That’s an interesting thought, considering that both Ehrman and Dawkins are atheists. And Dawkins himself lives by philosophical naturalism from which, he says, come minds, emotions, the whole gamut of our consciousness (or what Christians would call “the soul”).

What the historical problem means for atheism

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Ehrman is honest with his assessment that history has limits and that history cannot prove nor disprove the divine or miracles, but you’d find that hard to believe if you listen to atheism and its proponents around us. Richard Dawkins has become the “prophet” of the movement (yes, Atheism is a religion unto itself), and the movement has said that science and nature is all there is to life; that is, if science can’t provide the answers, then they don’t exist. Dawkins has already told us that he’s opposed to all forms of supernaturalism:

An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles — except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Boston: First Mariner Books, 2008, Kindle Edition, page 34).

What this means is that, if he doesn’t believe in miracles, then he believes that the natural is all we can know. Ehrman is far more intellectually honest here than Dawkins; after all, he knows that history doesn’t have the tools to observe the supernatural and the miraculous, so he admits as much. Dawkins believes science can speak to the unseen, that science can tell us whether the unseen exists or not. But if science practices philosophical naturalism, just as history does, then how can science speak any more on miracles than history?