Monday, 24 June 2019

But what about...?

It is one of the most common responses to the evidence for the miracles of Jesus in general and His resurrection in particular – “What about all the miracles reported in other religions?” As if believing in the miracles reported in the Gospels binds the Christian by the cords of consistency to believe in all reported miracles.

Usually the challenge comes from someone who doesn’t believe any miracle claims. He guesses (correctly) that there are loads of miracle claims that Christians don’t accept as true, so he assumes (incorrectly) that they have a double standard in believing the ones they do believe and rejecting the others.

A helpful way of handling this issue is to ask him for specifics of other miracle claims and ask him why he doesn’t believe them, then see how those reasons fare against the miracles in the Gospels.

Reasons why your sceptical friend rejects claims about other miracles will include the following:
The reports came long after the alleged events. There weren’t any eyewitness accounts, and there was time for legendary development, (e.g. the miracles attributed Apollonius of Tyana, or to Muhammad in the hadith, which were recorded several generations after they died).
The reporters were probably lying, (e.g. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, purchased some ancient Egyptian papyri, and claimed he, as a prophet, had the ability to translate them even though he didn’t know the language. His “translation” is the Book of Abraham, but when the papyri were found and translated by actual Egyptologists it was discovered they didn’t say anything close to what Smith claimed.)
The event could easily be explained in a non-miraculous way.
The witnesses were expecting a miracle and so convinced themselves that it happened.

You can happily agree that these are good reasons to dismiss the vast majority of miracle reports, but do they undermine the miracles reported in the Gospels? Not a bit.

The reports of the miracles in the Gospels are early, eyewitness testimonies.
The Gospels were all written in the first century, and Matthew, Mark and Luke were written (well) before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70.[1] Paul quotes from Luke’s Gospel in 1 Timothy 5:18, calling it scripture. Paul wrote 1 Timothy in AD 62, so Luke must have been written well before that to have been acknowledged as scripture.[2]

In addition to that, scholars propose that Matthew and Luke had Mark’s Gospel (meaning Mark was circulating well before Matthew and Luke wrote), but Matthew wouldn’t have had Luke’s Gospel and Luke wouldn’t have had Matthew’s Gospel. This means then that material common to Matthew and Luke is also very early. Either Luke got it directly from Matthew as one of the eyewitnesses he spoke to (Luke 1:1-4), or they both got it from the same source. Included in this material is the following:
And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
When the men had come to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, saying, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ And that very hour He cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind He gave sight.
Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Luke 7:19-23, see too Matthew 11:2-6)
This passage, which is not only agreed to be early but also authentic by scholars,[3] shows that Christ presented Himself as, and was believed to be, a miracle-worker.

So, we can’t dismiss the reports of the miraculous as later legends. They are early, eyewitness reports. In the very first sermon Peter preached after the resurrection, he spoke about “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know” (Acts 2:22).

I heard a Jewish man tell why he didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. He said the reason was simple, Jesus didn’t do any of the things the Messiah was supposed to do. He didn’t overthrow the Romans, He didn’t liberate the land, He didn’t usher in a reign of peace. The man was absolutely right that these were the things the Messiah was expected to do. Jewish documents from the period establish that the expectation people had of the Messiah was that of a political deliverer.[4] The question then is, Why did anyone think He was the Messiah? The only answer that makes sense to me is that He claimed it and performed miracles to authenticate those claims.

The reporters weren’t lying
Children learn very early in life the first “rule” of lying – you lie to get yourself out of trouble, not to get yourself into trouble. The disciples certainly were not liars. They sincerely believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and they were prepared to live and give their lives for their testimony.

Paul speaks about the “gain” he and his fellow-apostles got for their preaching:
For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonoured! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now. (1 Corinthians 4:9-13)
Hardly a life of glamour. The thing that kept them going was that they were convinced what they preached about Jesus was true.

The events can’t be explained in a non-miraculous way
The attempts to dismiss the miracles in the Gospels as non-miraculous would be funny if not so serious. There are those who suggest that the boy giving his five loaves and two fish to Jesus touched everyone’s heart and prompted them all to share their food. Such people display great ingenuity with scripture, but not much integrity. Christ’s power over sickness, nature and even death can’t be chalked up to coincidence or put down to the power of positive thinking. The Gospel writers were honest in what they wrote; we have to be honest with it too – Christ performed miracles.

The witnesses didn’t convince themselves
Some people can convince themselves they had an experience of seeing a vision or hearing a voice, but not too many people can convince themselves that they can see when they were born blind, or that they can walk when they were once paralysed, or that they are alive after having been dead.

And when it comes to the resurrection of Christ, the disciples weren’t expecting it. They required “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3) to believe it. The empty tomb, the number of witnesses, the tangible nature of the appearances, all join to testify to the fact that the experiences they had of being with the risen Christ took place out there in the external world, rather than in here in their own minds.

So, are Christians guilty of picking and choosing what miracles they believe in? Yes, of course. We choose the early, eyewitness accounts of honest men who gave everything for their testimony, i.e. the ones performed by Jesus Christ contained in the Gospels.

For an excellent defence of the miracles of the Gospels see this debate.

[1] For a discussion on this, see, for example, Josh McDowell & Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Authentic, 2017, pp. 42-46.
[2] Further evidence of an early date of Luke’s Gospel is that it is the first of Luke’s two books, the second being the book of Acts, and the abrupt ending of the book of Acts suggests that the reason Luke stopped was there was no more to write – that’s what had just happened. The events at the end of Acts 28 took place in the early 60s, meaning Luke’s Gospel was written before that.
[3] There are many reasons scholars believe this passage to be historical. One is that it fulfils the criterion of embarrassment. It has John the Baptist expressing doubt about whether Jesus was the Messiah. This is not something Christians would have made up. For more on this, and other reasons, see William Lane Craig, On Guard for Students, David C Cook, 2015, pp. 180-181.
[4] See for example, Psalms of Solomon 17.21-32, written during the Roman occupation.