If nobody believed in superstition it would be unable to hurt anyone
MIRACLES AND THE HISTORIAN
Nothing in the past can be proven beyond reasonable doubt or proven 100% because
you cannot bring the past back to check it. You cannot repeat it to experiment
on it. When a historian says his conclusions are beyond reasonable doubt he
means something different from what is usually meant. If you are talking about
10,000 BC you will have little evidence to work on so you just come to the most
reasonable conclusion you can. It is beyond reasonable doubt with regard to what
evidence you have got. But it is not beyond reasonable doubt in the sense that
it is extremely likely to be correct.
Miracles and supernatural events are by default not as believable as any natural
For a historian, even if magic can happen and he can verify it, a highly
unlikely non-magical event is more likely than a magical one. It does not matter
even the non-magical is even a tiny bit more likely than the magical. That is
not the point.
Today's believers in miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus are told, "But
science cannot show that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and science
says dead people stay dead." The Christian answer is, "But it is a historical
question not a scientific one." Is it really? The Church uses theologians not
There are attempts to argue that God probably exists for God probably raised Jesus from the dead. But if Jesus probably was seen alive after his body vanished from the tomb that does not mean he was probably resurrected. And if he was probably resurrected that does not mean that God probably did it.
is no evidence that the resurrection has any importance for there is no evidence
that Jesus is alive today.
Believers say that if you say there is no reason to believe in any miracle then
you should admit that you cannot know if miracles have never taken place at all
in the past. They say, "You cannot look at the evidence for and against every
claimed miracle. Only doing that can settle the question." But that argument can
be turned against them too. They cannot look at every event that is possibly a
miracle to get evidence that overall people are trustworthy or too untrustworthy
when they report miracles. It is better to assume that miracles have never
really happened in the past than to assume that they have ever happened. It is
for the same reason that you should assume that some illness killed your cat and
not some black magic spell. You assume because you have to assume something and
it is sensible to assume all you need to assume.
FROM THE STANDFORD DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY
A classic formulation of a criteriological argument for miracles is employed by
Charles Leslie (1697/1815: 13), who argues that we may safely believe an
historical claim that meets four criteria:
1 That the matters of fact be such, as that men's outward senses, their eyes and
ears, may be judges of it.
2 That it be done publicly in the face of the world.
3 That not only public monuments be kept up in memory of it, but some outward
actions to be performed.
4 That such monuments, and such actions or observances, be instituted, and do
commence from the time that the matter of fact was done.
The first two criteria, Leslie explains, “make it impossible for any such matter
of fact to be imposed upon men, at the time when such fact was said to be done,
because every man's eyes and senses would contradict it.” The latter two
criteria assure those who come afterwards that the account of the event was not
invented subsequent to the time of the purported event. Leslie points out that
these criteria are not necessary conditions of factual truth, but he insists
that they are—taken jointly—sufficient. Hence we may speak of Leslie's
principle: If any reported event meets all four of these criteria, then its
historicity is certain.
1#A miracle is by definition the most improbable of events; the probability of a
miracle is infinitesimally remote.
2#A historian can establish only what probably happened in the past.
#A historian can never establish that a miracle happened.
Waiving the tendentious definition in premise 1, the supposed contradiction
involved in denying the conclusion—“that the most improbable event is the most
probable” (Ehrman 2003: 229)—is merely verbal, arising from a failure to
distinguish between the probability of a miracle claim considered apart from the
evidence and the probability of the claim given that evidence.
The above argument says that a historian depends on evidence to see what
probably happened in the past and the evidence can point her or him to assert
that a miracle probably happened. It says that a miracle being very unlikely
does not mean that the evidence for it can be dismissed as unpersuasive.
Christianity claims to be a historical faith thus it needs to based on the principles used by the historian. If its historical, then its a religion for historians.
Philosophy can never show or prove that any miracle took place. Suppose it showed the need for a saviour to return from the dead as a resurrected being. That would not prove the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus to be right. Philosophy may be able to prove that belief in miracles is intrinsically absurd.
Miracles claim to be and are presented as a HISTORICAL QUESTION. A miracle
report of any kind is never a philosophical question. All philosophy may be able
to do in theory is show that miracles are not necessarily absurd. If it shows
they are absurd then no evidence for a miracle can be good enough.
Miracle reports do not "ring true." This instinct needs to be taken seriously. We have to resist this to believe in miracles. That raises questions about objectivity and honesty.
Religion says that if the evidence says a miracle report is probably true
according to the evidence then it must be accepted as historical fact or as
probably historically factual. But it is not as simple as that. Suppose the
evidence says that Joan of Arc was alive after she was burned to ashes. It does
but nobody says it was a miracle. An imposter is believed to have been at work.
The historian will simply say that it was claimed she was seen after. He would
say this even if it were reported as a miracle. And even if there was a Church
based on the death and resurrection of Joan of Arc.
And if there is force raising the likes of Joan from the dead how do we know
that is actually what it did? Maybe it made the people have a false vision of
Joan being burnt at the stake? Maybe false memories were planted in the record
keepers? A historian who accepts a miracle on the basis of history is
unprofessional unless he admits that the evidence says something supernatural
took place but he does not know what it is. The historian's tool can never tell
us what the miracle was.
Criminology and history have something in common. A man is found murdered.
Criminologists will not say, "There is no point in trying to find the killer for
we cannot prove the killer did it anyway. It could be that a fairy or demon or a
god murdered him." They have to leave the case open. They have to put
supernatural possibilities out of their minds and hunt the killer and maybe
accuse those who are pointed at by the evidence even though the supernatural
casts doubt on the evidence. The possibility of the supernatural has to be
considered a non-possibility. Historians do the same thing. The tools of the
historian cannot show that Jesus really was conceived without a father or that
Elijah went to Heaven in a chariot of fire.
It seems humble to say that you don't know for sure if you can exclude
supernatural activity from any event. Perhaps your mother was sterile and didn't
know it for God miraculously made her get pregnant. But is it humble? You are
saying you know the supernatural or magical might be involved. But you cannot
understand the natural so how can you understand if the supernatural might
happen? You do not know if it might happen at all. But you might say you don't
know if it might not happen either! But at least you cannot be blamed for you
have to take a default position and that is the only wise default to take for
you cannot really know if something supernatural did something. In other words,
see the miracle as something that is somehow natural for improbable things can
and do happen naturally.
A historian will find testimonies to ghosts and different kinds of miracles. In
some cases, there is no testimony as good as those testimonies that contradicts
them. So is the historian to say that the evidence favours the miracle as a real
event and not as a pack of lies or exaggerations or based on some error? No
professional historian can or will answer yes. If he did, he would have to
insist that we should believe a miracle no matter how ludicrous it is as long as
there is testimony in its favour that outweighs any evidence or testimony that
Out of respect for historians and the tools of the historian, we should never
use history as an excuse for accepting that a miracle has happened. Miracles are
presented as good when they implicitly insult one of our most important academic
The Christian is supposed to judge if a miracle is a sign from God by the
teaching it gives or implies or supports. Some say that all miracles that
support untrue teaching are hoaxes even if we don't know how it was done.
Perhaps the testimony for it was false or mistaken in some way. So you judge a
miracle by its doctrine - it is not the other way around. Many Christians
complain about those who chase after miracles because they want signs that false
doctrine or stupid doctrine is true.
Historians both Christian and non-Christian find miracle tales or far-fetched
yarns in the material they examine from decades and centuries gone by. They do
not take them seriously if they seem to have been written down long after the
alleged events. The longer the gap between the event and its being written down
the more suspicion is aroused.
Some say they are biased because something could be true and written about a
long time later. Yes but the point is plausibility. We cannot be expected to
assume that the tales are true.
Others say that a miracle can happen but through another miracle, the evidence
only comes to light and gets written down decades or centuries later. So in
other words, God miraculously can suddenly provide evidence for a miracle tale
that is centuries old. But this argument is stupid. You could produce evidence
and claim it is a miracle. Also, what if God say cures Johnny of paralysis today
to verify somebody saying that Noah rose from the dead in 2000 BC? A God that
can't master the evidence when he does the Noah evidence and has to resort to
providing evidence years later is hardly trustworthy.
History is an art. It is a science too but not as much as it is a form of art.
It is about what probably happened in times gone by. The probable is as far as
you are going to get for it is impossible to work out what actually happened.
The historian has to realise that people in the past made mistakes and often
lied and often got away with it. So the historian does not read something in an
ancient writing and assume it is true for there is no evidence against it. No.
He looks with suspicion at it. If he agrees with it he only means he is going to
assume that it is probably true until new light might come. In history, it is
vital not to think that because something is possible it is therefore probable.
A historian says something seems probable but that is not the same as saying it
is probable. The historian cannot even consider miracle stories as probably true
or possibly true. It is not that he is biased. It is just that history is ruined
if you imagine its full of miracles. The historian who says that Hitler was a
saint and an evil alien double replaced him would have credence.
James McGrath: "All sorts of fairly improbable scenarios are inevitably going to
be more likely than an extremely improbable one." Mary, though a virgin, getting
pregnant by a stray sperm makes more sense than the Holy Spirit impregnating
her. Jesus being put in the wrong tomb and being stolen from it while another
tomb that is found open is mistaken for his is better than imagining that he
rose bodily from the dead leaving his tomb empty.
Religion says it is biased to say that miracles do not happen. But when history
is a system of errors and guesses about what probably happened history cannot
say for sure if a miracle took place. We are not being biased but being
consistent with what history is. And religion agrees with us about history and
defiantly puts forward miracles for belief.
Christians say it is biased to just assume without investigating that miracles
never happen. But how do you know which ones to investigate? If miracles are
about showing God's personal love for each person then you need to pick the best
ones that seem to show it. A historian cannot do that. A historian would have to
just investigate anything that comes up in his chosen subject or topic. So
clearly miracles oppose in principle and often in practice the good sense that
is needed to be a historian. That alone is a warning sign and another example of
how miracles truly are superstition and harmful to belief.