Home > Christian History, Philosophy > Why Miracles Are Beyond Historical Analysis

Why Miracles Are Beyond Historical Analysis

There are various Christian apologists in recent years that have set out to argue that the resurrection of Jesus is the most probable explanation given the available evidence. That is to say, based on the evidence, the resurrection of Jesus is more likely to have occurred than not. As the resurrection is an event that is said to have occurred nearly two thousand years ago, their argument will undoubtedly have to be an historical one. Here’s the problem. The very procedures that guide historical analysis do not allow for the conclusion that a miracle has occurred. Why? Because historical arguments are, by their very nature, inferences to the best or most probable explanation. And miracles are, by their very nature, extremely improbable occurrences. In fact, they are the most improbable logically possible occurrences available. Thus, there will always be a more probable explanation available that does not involve a miracle.

My argument goes something like this:

 

Historians can only establish what probably occurred in the past

Miracles are (by definition) the least probable of logically possible occurrences

Therefore, historians cannot establish that miracles ever probably occurred.

 

This is why you get such seemingly silly alternative explanations from non-Christians about the resurrection of Jesus. Explanations like the swoon theory in which Jesus is said to have survived the crucifixion, fooling his disciples into thinking he had resurrected. Or theories that propose that some of Jesus’ followers (non-disciples) moved his body the night after his death in order to bury it somewhere more appropriate, were then killed in a struggle with a few guards who suspected foul play, and then the bodies were dumped outside of Jerusalem in Gehenna. The disciples then took the empty tomb as evidence that Jesus had resurrected. Is this a probable explanation? Not at all. No one believes these theories. They are proposed in order to make a point. The point is this: there are alternative explanations available to us—even if they are improbable—that are much more probable than a dead man coming back to life.

None of the above is an a priori dismissal of the possibility of miracles. Some have argued that: they have argued that miracles are logically impossible. I make no such claim. Miracles may happen and Jesus may have resurrected. As far as I can tell, there is nothing logically contradictory inherent in such a claim. But the way history works is the same way the sciences work. Their conclusions are based on probabilities. Consider the following example. I come home one day and find that all of my pens that were resting on the table before I left are now stuck on the ceiling. I have no idea how this happened so I begin contemplating not only possible but probable scenarios that could explain this bizarre phenomenon. There are near an infinite amount of possible scenarios. One of them is that a miracle has occurred. The pens just floated up in the air seemingly without cause and stuck themselves to the ceiling (maybe God or the devil did it). There is nothing logically impossible about such a scenario. But based on inductive considerations, the probability of this happening is absolutely minuscule.

Here’s another explanation. The law of gravity stopped functioning temporarily. As a result, the pens floated into the air and came in contact with the ceiling. Meanwhile, the pens mutated and grew a sticky adhesive, which explains why they are still stuck to the ceiling. Technically speaking, this is not a miracle. It has a perfectly natural explanation (gravity stopped working and the pens underwent some unknown chemical reaction.) But some people have defined miracles as temporary suspensions of known natural laws, so I’ll go with it. Is this a probable explanation? Not at all. It is possible but not probable in the slightest. And no one believes that just because it is logically possible for this to have occurred, that this is the most probable explanation. The most probable explanation will sound something like this: my friend is playing a prank on me or my son was being mischievous. Do I have any evidence for these claims? No. Yet they remain more probable than the aforementioned scenarios.

The analogy should be obvious. The resurrection of Jesus is possible but various alternative scenarios can be constructed that are much more probable. Do we have any evidence for these other scenarios? No. But they nonetheless remain much more probable than a resurrected Jesus.

In the end, the nature of historical evidence is simply too weak to ever show that a miracle probably occurred. Although perhaps cliché by now, it really is the case that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And this is something that historical evidence is unable to provide.

The conclusion then is not that Jesus did not resurrect (or that any other particular miracle did not occur). The conclusion is that (1) the resurrection of Jesus (or miracles in general) is, historically speaking, improbable and (2) the resurrection of Jesus (or miracles) must therefore be believed on other grounds.

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  1. 10/27/2009 at 3:54 pm

    I didn’t know you had a son! 😉

    Good point. It’s clear this Orthies are getting to you. So much certainty…so little knowledge…

    • 10/27/2009 at 11:32 pm

      They definitely annoy me. More because I know more about Christian history than they do. And they’re the Christians.

      The reason I posted about this though is because I found it interesting that in Bart Ehrman’s latest book, “Jesus Interrupted,” he briefly makes the same argument. And so I felt inspired to write about it.

      Amazing book btw. The title (or subtitle) of the book makes it sound like he’s just going to show a bunch of biblical contradictions. In fact, his purpose is to cover various issues that biblical historians deal with and the conclusions that they have come to. About biblical authorship, diversity of early Christianity, the historical Jesus, the historical Paul, what the earliest Christians believed, and so on. It’s probably not mystical enough for you. 😉 But in terms of historical analysis, it’s great.

  1. 11/11/2009 at 3:15 am

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