Is the Resurrection Miracle impossible?

Is the Resurrection Miracle impossible?

When discussing the case for the resurrection of Jesus an objection that attempts to undermine the entire collection of historical data presented is the objection regarding the impossibility of the supernatural or in this case miracles, specifically. I will briefly examine an argument against miracles as formulated by David Hume[1], as well as an argument by Historian Bart Ehrman when debating Dr. William Lane Craig and Historian Michael Licona respectively, and then I will conclude by examining whether historians are in a position to make accurate claims regarding what we would consider strong anomalies.

For the purposes of this article we might say that natural laws describe what happens regularly, by natural causes; miracles, if they occur at all, describe what happens rarely, by supernatural causes.[2]

Hume’s Argument Against Miracles

Hume asserted that miracles are “a violation of the laws of nature” and that our “un-altered experience has established these laws,” therefore “there must […] be a uniform experience against every miraculous event [emphasis my own].”[3] Upon closer examination of this persuasive and widely popular argument there are a few fatal flaws that are noteworthy.

Consider how Hume defines a miracle in this argument as “a violation of the laws of nature,” this uncharitable definition avoids the essence of a miracle as defined by earlier philosophers, like Samuel Clarke.[4] The laws of nature are not causes in themselves. The laws of nature are only meant to describe the effects of how natural things operate if left untouched. This does not exclude the possibility that an outside agent could change or feed a new event into the system; neither does it preclude an outside agent from creating the laws in the first place because the laws themselves are not violated —they remain unscathed and essential for determining when anomalies arise.[5]

When Hume mentions our “unaltered experience” as humans, he is making a hasty generalization because our personal experience cannot capture the totality of natural laws and induction[6] does not preclude anomalies. As Craig Keener states “one cannot adopt the conclusion of uniformity as a premise without investigating all [miracle claims].”[7] It would essentially require us to be all knowing to argue against God, who is defined as all knowing.

Given these refutations to Hume’s argument, one can see how it might be considered an abject failure according to John Earman[8] and circular according to C. S. Lewis.[9] By crafting the definition of a miracle Hume, inadvertently, weaves himself a rather circular web, rendering the possibility of miracles —unimpeded and intact.

Bart Ehrman’s Argument Against the Resurrection

Ehrman’s argument against the resurrection can be stated as follows, “if [the resurrection] did happen, it would be a miracle,” and “it’d be so highly improbable that we can’t account for it by natural means.” Ehrman goes on to say a miracle is by “definition the least probable occurrence,” and affirms that “we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened,” because “by definition, it probably didn’t.”[10] There is much to say regarding this argument but allow me to briefly counter some obvious points.

This is very similar to Hume’s argument against miracles but instead of saying it is impossible, Ehrman states they are improbable. Why should we presuppose that miracles are the “least probable” events and evaluate claims with this restriction? To dismiss the resurrection a priori as a competing theory only exposes ones own dogmatic commitment to Philosophical Naturalism and avoids the most reasonable inference from the evidence. Judging by Ehrman’s remarks, he seems to be closed to the possibility of the resurrection theory and therefore insinuates a parallel ideology as Hume. Bart’s attempt is to attack the plausibility of the resurrection and rule it out with certainty before the evidence is considered. This presumptuous claim cannot be taken seriously because a general rule is based on past experience and is not capable of excluding anomalies, an anomaly is outside of the general expected rule and thus whenever we encounter anomalies our rules should adapt, in theory, to the evidence. Bart also tries to present his argument as if Jesus is to rise naturally from the dead ¾unassisted¾ but that is an extraneous straw man because the evidence points to the intervention of an outside agent.[11] Michael Licona offers a reasonable alternative in rebuttal,

“historians can take facts, [which] virtually everyone agrees on, and subject them to controlled historical method, when we do this the resurrection is the best explanation by far and thus, it is probably what occurred […] Historians could conclude that Jesus rose from the dead without making any assertions pertaining to the cause.”[12]

As Licona states one doesn’t have to jettison the historical method or the inference with the greatest explanatory scope because of where the evidence might point, that would be perfidiously favoring a comfortable bias.

The Role of Historiography Regarding Resurrection Claims

The case for the resurrection is very strong,[13] and —like others— Wolfhart Pannenberg is bewildered by the silence regarding the historical evidence for the resurrection, and I quote:

“It is not clear why historiography should not in principle be able to speak about Jesus’ resurrection as the explanation that is best established of such events as the disciples’ experiences of the appearances and the discovery of the empty tomb.”[14]

The only obvious conclusion seems to be, that miracles point to God, an unwelcome resolution for the Naturalist. At the very least this would constitute an anomaly. A naturalistic explanation can potentially be formed for weak anomalies but not necessarily for strong anomalies, the resurrection would qualify as a strong anomaly; therefore it is easier to disallow miracles than to follow the evidence. When scientists encounter anomalies they appeal to theoretical entities to explain their findings, like sub-atomic particles, quirks, and strings. Why is this beyond Historiography and not Historical Sciences like astrophysics or Cosmology? Gary Habermas says that history and the possibility of miracles are not at odds with one another, consider, “it is an open question whether miracles occur in normal history, it would seem to be at least possible to investigate the historical portion of these claims with regard to their accuracy.”[15] The opposition to supernatural explanations, for where the good historical evidence points, is a remnant of the enlightenment, as N. T. Wright duly noted by saying,

“the natural/supernatural distinction itself, and the near-equation of ‘supernatural’ with ‘superstition’, are scarecrows that Enlightenment thought has erected in its fields to frighten away anyone following the historical argument where it leads. It is high time the birds learned to take no notice.”[16]

And if we are going to avoid the ‘scarecrows,’ then what should be our aim? How do we separate our presuppositions from truth about reality? Don’t we all believe something extraordinary?[17]

Perhaps Francis Bacon can offer some wise counsel; our aim should be “to examine things to the bottom; and not to receive upon credit, or reject upon improbabilities, until there hath passed a due examination.”[18] Or perhaps, John Earman: “I acknowledge that the opinion is of the kind whose substantiation requires […] difficult and delicate empirical investigations […] into the details of particular cases.”[19] In other words, we should allow the strength of the evidence to inform our avowed presuppositions.

In conclusion, I have briefly countered, the impossibility of miracles as presented by David Hume, and the improbability of the resurrection as presented by Bart Ehrman. I have explained why Historians can make historically accurate claims, based on the veracity of the evidence, without committing themselves to any specific theological or philosophical conclusions.

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[1] The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) formulated powerful arguments which were pivotal in the so-called Enlightenment era were superstitious beliefs ¾in miracles or the divine¾ were jettisoned by belief in reason and the scientific method.

[2] Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Foreword by David Limbaugh) (Crossway, 2004), 201

[3] “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience as can be imagined…It is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.” -David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Filiquarian Publishing, LLC., 2007), 10.1 page 76-77

[4] A miracle is “an Effect produced contrary to the usual Course or Order of Nature, by the unusual Interposition of some Intelligent Being Superior to Men.” -Samuel Clarke, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God: And Other, 150.

[5] This is a paraphrased version of comments from an interview with John Lennox regarding “miracles”. John Lennox, Science and Miracles, accessed on April 14, 2016. (https://youtu.be/dB71Vzw71eo?t=5m25s)

[6] Inductive reasoning, loosely, is the ability to generalize from a set of facts to one or more axioms. Consider, “all swans we have seen are white, therefore, all swans that exist are white”, before black swans were discovered. Inductive reasoning cannot provide certainty only plausibility. Medieval writers such as al-Ghazali and William of Ockham connected the problem with God’s absolute power, asking how we can be certain that the world will continue behaving as expected when God could at any moment miraculously cause the opposite. Franklin, J. (2001), The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 232-3, 241

[7] Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Books, 2011), 764

[8] John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[9] “In fact, we are arguing in a circle.” -C.S. Lewis, Miracles (HarperCollins UK, 2011), 102

[10] Bart Ehrman made this claim in a debate with William Lane Craig at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?, March 28, 2006. Accessed April 21, 2016.
(http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman#ixzz46WuqdTxZ)

[11] A paraphrase of Michael Licona’s comments in a debate with Bart Ehrman, Can Jesus’ Resurrection Be Proven Historically?, Southern Evangelical Seminary, 2009. Accessed April 22, 2016. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWvRurdHRJg)

[12] A paraphrase of Michael Licona’s comments in a debate with Bart Ehrman, Can Jesus’ Resurrection Be Proven Historically?, Southern Evangelical Seminary, 2009, Accessed April 22, 2016. (https://youtu.be/OWvRurdHRJg?t=54m25s)

[13] Gary Habermas, 12 Historical facts. Accessed April 22, 2016. (http://www3.telus.net/trbrooks/garyhabermas.htm)

[14] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 109

[15] Gary Habermas, “The Resurrection of Jesus and Recent Agnosticism.” In Reasons for Faith, edited by N.V. Geisler and C.V. Meister (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 288.

[16] N.T. Wright, Resurrection of The Son of God (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2003), 707

[17] Frank Turek, Everyone Believes Something Unbelievable (crossexamined.org, December 29,2009). Accessed April 13,2016. (http://crossexamined.org/everyone-believes-something-unbelievable/)

[18] Francis Bacon and Basil Montagu ,The Works of Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England: A New Edition (William Pickering., 1826), 495

[19] John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 21).

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