Opening Statement by the Reverend Dr. David Wilkinson


Can we believe in miracles in a scientific universe?

I am grateful to Steven Carr for the invitation to debate the question of miracles with him. In this my opening statement I will attempt to map out my general position and then respond to his specific points in our subsequent emails.

I will argue that, contrary to the popular assumption, science does not rule out miracles. However, we need to be careful in our understanding of science and indeed of the nature of miracles .

It is worth noting from the beginning that there is a resurgence of interest in miracles. Within the Christian church, the beginning of the Pentecostal movement earlier this century and the charismatic movement of the last 30 years has raised the profile of the 'supernatural' in many churches. My own experience of the Christian faith has involved prayer for healing, the speaking of prophetic messages both in english and in the language of tongues, and a belief in the guiding and special action of God in history.

Such interest in miracles is not confined to the Christian faith. Claims of healing occur regularly in a wide range of faith communities. At the same time miracles pose difficult questions for all faith communities including Christianity. The horrendous experience of the Holocaust for example raises the question for all those who believe in a loving God of why he did not intervene.

This is an important reminder that the major difficulty with miracles is not scientific, it is theological. If God works by miracle why does he not do it more often? Many philosophers and theologians have attempted to answer such a question. I need to honestly acknowledge from the beginning that there may never be a full answer to this question and therefore there will always be an element of mystery to miracles.

The question however we examine closely in this debate is the belief that science makes miracles impossible. This is a widespread statement amongst those who both hold a Christian faith and those who argue against it. To examine whether it is true, we first need to be sure what we mean by 'miracle', and then to be sure about the science.

The biblical view of a miracle?

Christians take their definition of the miraculous from the Bible. It unashamedly relates the miracles as an intrinsic part of the story. Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding (John 2:1f), defies gravity and walks on water (Mark 6), feeds 5000 men plus unnumbered women and children on 5 loaves and 2 fish (Mark 6:30f) and heals those who are sick (Mark 6:56f). Even these acts seem almost insignificant alongside the virgin birth and the resurrection.

The biblical writers record these stories in a natural and at times almost matter of fact kind of way. It is not enough to immediately dismiss this 'matter of fact' way on the basis that the biblical writers did not know modern scientific laws and therefore saw no problem. It might be the case that Peter had no understanding of Newton's law of gravitation or Archimedes' principle, but as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee he knew it was unusual for people to go for a stroll on the surface of the water!

Within the Bible are a wide spectrum of cases which are commonly called miracles. Some are clearly not at odds with our known scientific laws. Finding a coin in the mouth of a fish, is highly improbable in the statistical sense, but does not contravene a known law (Mt 17:27). They could be rare but natural events. However, others such as water into wine, and the resurrection do seem to go against our current understanding of the regularities in the Universe.

The writers show little interest however in how these things happen. One of the few exceptions is the parting of the Red Sea which delivers the people of Israel out of the hands of the Egyptian chariots. This is understood to be due to a strong east wind (Ex 14:21). It reminds us that we must be careful not to draw too big a distinction between what we commonly call the 'miraculous' and other events. What is important is their meaning or significance.

John's gospel, of all the parts of the Bible, emphasises this aspect. John calls the miracles 'signs' and they are intricately woven into the story and structure of the gospel. The signs are coupled together often with the great 'I am' statements. Thus, the feeding of the five thousand is the sign of Jesus' statement 'I am the bread of life'. It points towards and embodies Jesus' claim.

Miracles are signs which point beyond themselves to some deeper reality. For example:

*the raising from the dead of Lazarus was 'for the glory of God' (Jn 11:4)

*it was also a demonstration of the compassion of Jesus (Jn 11:33,35,38).

*in John's gospel they are a demonstration of Jesus as the Son of God (Jn 20:30)

* the healing of the blind man is an acted parable of the way that Jesus will soon open the spiritual eyes of the disciples (Mk 8:22-26, Mk 8:27f).

*other miracles seem to reveal things about Jesus and the Father such as the right to forgive sins (Mk 2:1-12).

The common theme is that these actions are more than just acts of mercy, or pointers to the divine origin of Jesus, or to attract the crowds. They are first and foremost signs and indications of the fact that the messianic age had arrived in Jesus. That is, they are a dramatic demonstration of God's reign, or the arrival and character of the Kingdom of God through Jesus.

Noticing that the miracles are not just an added extra but very much part of the story is very important for our understanding. CS Lewis wrote, 'If you are writing a story, miracles or abnormal events may be bad art , or they may not. If, for example, you are writing an ordinary realistic novel and have got your characters into a hopeless muddle, it would be quite intolerable if you suddenly cut the knot and secured a happy ending by having the hero left a fortune from an unexpected quarter. On the other hand there is nothing against taking as your subject from the outset the adventures of a man who inherits an unexpected fortune.....Some people probably think of the Resurrection as a desperate last moment expedient to save the Hero from a situation which had got out of the Author's control....(but) Death and Resurrection are what the story is about; and had we but eyes to see it, this has been hinted on every page, met us, in some disguise, at every turn, and even been muttered in conversations'

How does the Bible view the laws of nature?

Basic to the biblical view is that all events are God's events. Creation is not seen as a mechanical model apart from God, which he makes and then waves good-bye. All events owe their existence to him. Therefore, so-called 'natural' events such as the sun shining (Mt 5:45) are not only because of 'the contraction of a ball of molecular hydrogen under gravity to a point where at the centre the temperature has risen so that nuclear fusion of the hydrogen into helium begins, thus halting the gravitational collapse while emitting photons of electromagnetic radiation which penetrate the atmosphere of the Earth', but because of God's constant activity. Whether it be grass growing (Ps 104:14), rain falling (Mt 5:45), mist rising (Jer 10:12) or the path of the Sun (Ps 19:4-6), all are seen as part of God's sustaining activity.

In this way there is no hard and fast distinction between the 'miraculous' and what we would call natural events. Creation is not like a clock which God winds up and allows to run its course independently, occasionally intervening by poking his fingers into the mechanism.

Science searches for patterns in the world. We call those patterns the laws of nature. They describe to us what normally does happen. Michael Poole helpfully likens scientific laws to a map of how the land lies. As the lie of the land determines the shape of the map, so our observations of the Universe determine the form of the laws. He goes on to contrast this with an architect's plans. These plans are not descriptive but prescriptive in that they show what ought to take place. Many people make the mistake of seeing scientific laws as architect's plans, telling us what should or should not happen. Of course they do have the ability on the basis of what happened before to lead us to expect certain things, but they do not make these things happen. The map has to be changed by what is really there.

The laws of science are a description of God's regular activity in sustaining the Universe. As I sit writing this paragraph on my laptop, the software gives to the screen and to the keys I press some regularity and order. The software enables me to see what I am writing and I know which parts of the screen to click on in order to change the font, the size, the background colour and how to save all that I have been writing. For most of the time that I write, I do not think a lot about the software, but without it I would not be able to use this computer to write. If there was not a constancy to the software, that is, if it was changing all of the time, the task would be impossible. In fact it is only when something unusual happens that I notice the software. If I press a key by accident which does something unusual (like scrapping a whole day's work!), then I recognise the role of the software in maintaining the environment.

God is the one who maintains the consistency of the laws of physics as they are a reflection of his 'upholding all things by his word of power' (Heb 1:3). If God did not have a faithful relationship to the Universe then there would be no patterns, no regularities, no laws of physics. The Universe would be a place of physical anarchy!

What then is a miracle?

It has always been difficult to define miracles. However, on the basis of what we have seen from the Bible, we might broadly say that a miracle is something unusual which catches attention because of its nature or its timing and intended by God to be a sign of his activity and power.

This is quite a contrast to what is the popular view, that a miracle is something scientifically impossible. In fact, the word miracle is not really a biblical word. The three main words used are 'signs', 'wonders' and 'mighty works'. Noting this, it frees us from seeing miracles as events of supernatural origins which break the scientific laws. The Bible encompasses a wider set of events. The order and vastness of the Universe can be seen as signs of God's work which leads to wonder. The parting of the Red Sea, due to the wind, by the nature of its very special timing is a mighty work which does not go against the laws of nature.

Miracles are those events that are intended by God to be special signs of the fact that he is present in the world and is in control of it. As a scientist in astronomy you are always dependent on others. Many observations are now done by satellites and the observations are 'packaged' by a team of scientists often elsewhere in the world. That means that they send you the observations and the computer software to display the data on your computer screen. Some years ago the data from one particular satellite had a little surprise to it. Occasionally and without warning, when you displayed the satellite's photograph of a particular part of the sky, a small silhouette of the Starship Enterprise appeared in the picture! Assuming that this was not real(!), the team who had written the software had included in the program a routine which randomly displayed the Enterprise. It certainly reminded you of who wrote the software!

There is a strong tradition in the history of the church of appealing to miracles as recorded in the Scriptures as the foundation of religion. For example, Samuel Clarke in his 1705 Boyle Lectures argued that Christianity was proved by signs and miracles. It is the same argument that exists today, in the way that some Christians will say 'come and see people healed at this meeting and this will prove to you the existence of God'.

However, there are difficulties with such a view. The first is to note that it has a tendency to separate miracles from the rest of the message. Some of the early arguments that saw miracles as proof of Christianity saw the Christian message as moral teaching. You would accept the moral teaching on the basis of the miracles. But as we have seen, that is not the message of the Bible. Miracles such as resurrection are not proof of Christianity, they are Christianity. The message and the miracles go together in the ministry of Jesus.

The second difficulty is to notice that in the New Testament itself, miracles do not lead to proof. Mark records an incident when Jesus was with the disciples in a boat (Mk 8:13-21). The disciples are troubled that they have only one loaf of bread. One can almost hear the frustration in Jesus' voice as he asks them how many basketfuls they collected up after feeding 5000 with five loaves, and how many basketfuls when 4000 were fed from seven loaves, events which according to Mark had happened previously (Mk 6:30-44, Mk 8:1-13). Jesus is telling them to do the mathematics! Twelve loaves with Jesus feed 9000, and that figure leaves out the women and children! Now, work how many are in the boat and as long as there are no more than 750 then we'll be alright with one loaf! 'Do you still not understand?' says Jesus! The miracles by themselves were not enough for the disciples.

Miracles were not proof but clear pointers which people could recognise if they were open to Jesus. For example the evidence for the resurrection cannot prove the truth of Christianity. It may be a pointer that there is more to this Universe than meets the eye, that Jesus is really who he said he was, and that death is not the end. Confirmation of the evidence comes with experiencing the risen Jesus personally which involves risk, trust and commitment.

Miracles and Science

A popular view today is that God cannot work miracles in a scientific Universe. It is an old argument. The scientific revolution disclosed a Universe which was regular and predictable. Newton's law of gravitation coupled with Kepler's elliptical orbits was successful in explaining the movement of the planets around the Sun. Models were made as toys which represented these motions as a clockwork mechanism. In fact with a knowledge of the laws of physics and the present position of things, it was believed you could tell what had gone on in the past and what was to happen in the future. Edmund Halley's prediction of the arrival of the comet which now bears his name was evidence of how powerful this method was.

Although Newton himself did not take this view, seeing the Universe as a predictable clock is often called a Newtonian world view. The beauty, regularity, and simplicity of the scientific laws were seen as reflections of the order and faithfulness of the Creator God. But this in itself led to problems. If everything could be explained by scientific laws, where was there space for God to do miracles? And if everything was so perfect, being created by God, why did God have to 'correct the mechanism' by doing miracles. Thus influential thinkers such as Spinoza and Leibniz saw miracles as ugly cases where God would be acting against his own wisdom and violating the laws of nature.

On the basis of this, miracles of healing and miracles to show God's power were unnecessary because everything was provided for in creation - both for healing and for showing the nature of God.

This problem was then linked to the claim that the evidence for miracles was unreliable. The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). He suggested that miracles were not recorded by 'men of good sense' but by uncivilised people who knew no better and therefore could not be relied upon. In addition, for Hume 'a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence'. As a miracle was rare compared to the evidence for the natural laws of science, then the miracle was not to be believed. Hume believed that in our knowledge of the world, our personal direct experience has priority and the testimony of others is only to be accepted if it fits with our experience. Therefore as most of us have not had direct experience of a miracle, we cannot accept the testimony of others.

However, these arguments are not as conclusive as they used to be. In particular our understanding of science has moved on a great deal. In any assessment of miracles we need to be clear about a number of things.

Be clear about the science

Why do forecasters get the weather wrong? If Newton's view of the world, which is like a clock, is predictable, then surely we should be able to have perfect weather forecasts not just for the week ahead, but for the next century. Holidays could be planned with utmost precision, cricket matches at Manchester could be time tabled into the few days without rain, and the shipping forecast could be bought in a book for the next hundred years ahead rather than using up all that time on radio!

The trouble is that you cannot forecast in that kind of way. Whether it be the great storm which hit England in 1987, or the fact that it rains when the little sun symbols were on the television weather map, weather forecasting is a difficult business. Of course, sometimes it gets it right. To be honest, forecasting a week or so ahead is pretty good these days. Studies of global warming give us a good idea of how the atmosphere will change in the long term future. But this is still a long way from perfect prediction. Why is that?

1. Do scientists really know everything?

One answer is to say that we don't as yet fully understand the laws governing the atmosphere. The 'laws' used in the calculations in the Meteorological Office's computer are our current best description of what the atmosphere is really like. As we saw in Chapter three, science does not give a literal description of reality. Scientific laws are very similar to but not exactly reality, which means that our current scientific picture will improve with time.

This is a reminder of the folly of saying that our scientific understanding rules out miracles. Scientific laws are the regularities that we have discovered about the Universe, all are subject to possible modification as more data becomes available, and if there are exceptions then we look for an explanation in terms of other laws. It may be that some phenomenon appear miraculous not because they are breaking scientific laws but simply because they reflect a deeper truer reality that our present understanding does not reach.

2. It's more uncertain than we think!

However, our limited knowledge of scientific laws is not the only reason why we get the weather wrong. Although some may still be stuck in it, science has come a long way from a Newtonian world view which sees the Universe as a vast clock. Over the last century two theories of modern physics have transformed our view. There may not be total agreement on what kind of view they lead to, but they do undermine a mechanistic view. Both question our ability to predict the future in a fundamental way.

a. Quantum theory

This was developed in the early part of this century and deals with the world at the level of atoms and the particles such as protons, neutrons and electrons which form them. It is a very successful theory which has led to major advances such as lasers, computers and even perhaps an understanding of the origin of the Universe.

In Newton's laws, which describe well such systems as the orbits of the planets or the trajectory of a golf ball, by knowing the present position of an object and its movement you could predict where it will be in the future. In the quantum world, that is not possible. You can either know the position of an electron or its movement, but you cannot have both. In John Polkinghorne's phrase this means that the quantum world is 'radically random'. He means by that it is unpredictable and unmechanical.

Some have tried to suggest that it is in this uncertainty that God acts in the world. God has the freedom to 'push' an electron here or there and alter the course of events in the world. The trouble with such a simplistic view is that we are still not terribly sure how the quantum world relates to the everyday world. A golf ball is made of atoms, but the laws which determine its flight are not the uncertainty of quantum theory but the certainty of Newton. It does have a very small probability of spontaneously disappearing in mid flight, but that is never observed (contrary to the claims of some golfers who should be looking more intently in the rough!).

Quantum theory does not therefore give us an easy way of fitting miracles in, or explaining why we have such difficulty forecasting the weather. However, it does severely undermine the assumption that the Universe is a closed mechanism. Reality is a little more subtle than that.

b. Chaos theory.

Unlike quantum theory, this theory deals not with matter at the atomic level but with things at an everyday level similar to Newton's theories. What it has helped us to see is that Newton's laws themselves are not able to predict the future in the way we thought. The full implications of chaos theory have only been brought out in the last 30 years mainly due to the advent of computers able to do high speed calculations.

When we look at problems to solve we begin with the easy ones and work up towards the difficult ones. When Newton published his monumental work Principia in 1686, he applied his new theory of gravitation to a reasonably simple system, that is two bodies such as the Earth's motion around the Sun. It is simple because you can get an exact answer.

Unfortunately most of the rest of the world is not that simple. Most systems in the world are extremely sensitive to the circumstances around them, so much so that the slightest disturbance will make them act in a radically different way. This means that after a short time a system becomes essentially unpredictable.

We can illustrate this by snooker (or by pool). A world champion wins his matches on the basis of Newton's view of the world. After having hit the cue ball, the balls eventually come to rest because of the friction of the table, the cushions and the balls themselves. But imagine if there was no friction and after the player made his break at the beginning of a frame we simply let the balls continue to collide into each other and the cushions. Our task would be to calculate using the vast computer that we have brought along with us to the snooker hall, where all the balls would be after just one minute. If you know a little bit about mathematics you might think this is fairly easy. The collisions require no more than school maths to work out. Once you knew the force with which the cue ball was hit, in the case of no friction, you would assume it would be an easy task, more suited to your home personal computer.

You would be wrong. This system, that is the balls moving on a table, is a chaotic system. The staggering answer, is that to accurately predict the position of the balls after only one minute, you need to take into account effects as small as the gravitational attraction (the weakest force) of an electron (the smallest particle) on the edge of the Galaxy which is some 1,000,000,000,000,000 kilometres away!

This is clearly beyond the ability of any computer! To know where the balls would be for further than one minute into the future would require computers bigger than the Universe itself!

You may be thinking that here is the scientific reason which explains why you can never pot a snooker ball, especially in front of your friends. But a world champion can. This is because the uncertainties are relatively small at the beginning but build up incredibly with time.

This is the reason why weather forecasts can be relatively good in the short term, but get much worse the further ahead you want to predict. The atmosphere is partly chaotic. The laws of physics can be known, but this extreme sensitivity to initial conditions means unpredictable results. This has become known as 'the butterfly effect' after the scientist Edward Lorenz who gave a lecture in 1979 entitled, 'Predictability; does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?'

Sir John Houghton, former Chief Executive of the Meteorological Office and co-chairman of the scientific group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change writes, 'Even if we could observe the state of the atmosphere all over the globe much more accurately than present...... forecasts of detailed weather conditions would be possible at most some two or three weeks into the future. But forecasts of the average weather or climate, at least in some parts of the world, may be possible much further ahead. And despite the frightening complexity of the whole system, we also have good reason to expect that useful predictions can be made of the likely climatic change due to human activities'

These words are important to bear in mind. While acknowledging that detailed predictions are out, Houghton is saying that does not mean you can say nothing about the future. Some recent philosophers and theologians have made the mistake of saying that chaos means the future is fully 'open', that is we can know nothing about it. That is not correct. We can predict certain things about the future whether it be chaotic systems or simple systems, but chaos reminds us of the severe limitations of those predictions.

Now what does this mean for miracles? Does chaos give God room for manoeuvre? You see in this way, God does not have problems with 'breaking his own laws'. Because these systems are unpredictable God could work, it is argued, while being undetectable. He could provide an unexpected lighting flash on York Minster while not compromising the physics of weather forecaster.

This may seem attractive in some ways for the defence of miracles. However, if we go down this road are we saying that God can work only in chaotic systems and not in other ways?. Furthermore, we saw earlier that the Bible saw miracles as signs of God's activity. If God's work is 'concealed' in chaotic systems, is this really a sign?

Such a view still has the danger of falling into the trap of seeing scientific law as prescriptive rather than descriptive. It is saying that in chaos the laws are less prescriptive. As with quantum theory, chaos does not at the moment give us an easy way to understand miracles. But in a similar way, it clearly reminds us that the problem of God violating the Newtonian world view is not such a severe problem as it was the nineteenth century.

These developments have undermined one of the strongest arguments against miracles. If the final picture of the relationship of God to particular actions in the physical world is still somewhat unclear, at least these actions are not ruled out by a now outdated world view which has more to do with philosophy than science.

In the biblical sense, in miracles God is not overriding the order in world. The scientific laws are regularities of the way God sustains the Universe. The unusual phenomenon which amaze us may be part of a deeper unity, rather like the Starship Enterprise in the satellite data program. Or they may be, from the human standpoint, deviations from what is regular, while for God they are changes to the regular ordering of natural events.

Be clear about the evidence

Two years ago I was sitting in a seminar group at an international conference listening to talks on different models of the church. Then a Christian minister from Zambia started to talk about the importance of miracles. As an illustration, he told of an incident when he was asked to go by his church to a certain jungle tribe who had killed a previous missionary.

The minister went and attempted to preach the good news to the tribe. However, after a few days the tribe felt that he was offending their nature gods and while he slept some of the villagers crept into his hut, stole his bible and hymn book and threw them into the nearby river. When he woke he was summoned to the chief who told him that he should go away from the village. The minister replied that his books had gone missing and he would not leave until he found them.

As he prayed in his hut he felt God was telling him to go to the river. This he did, followed by some interested villagers. As he again prayed, the Bible rose by itself out of the river and flew at the villagers. They ran screaming back to the village and told the chief what had happened. The chief was so impressed by this that he invited the minister to stay longer and share with them more about this powerful God.

Now I guess you are thinking right at this moment what we were thinking in that seminar group! The minister saw our faces and said, 'I know what you're thinking, but I was there and I can tell you it happened!'

What we were thinking was, did this really happen and on what evidence do we make the judgement? If David Hume was part of the seminar group he perhaps would have made the following criticisms:

1. The reliability of witnesses?

A miracle story from a jungle tribe would fit with Hume's claim of miracles being recorded by uneducated people. Quite how he would have put it to the minister who happened to have a Cambridge PhD I would have liked to have seen!

Miracles have been recorded by educated and uneducated people, those who already have religious commitments and those who do not. To write off all witnesses of miracles as uncivilised people is imperialistic intellectual snobbery. To do so in a court of law, would be to a produce a court room where instead of promising to tell the whole truth, witnesses would have to first recite Blackstone's Commentary on English law in full to show that they were worthy! Of course the testimony of a witness is given weight according to a number of other factors, but that does not mean writing their testimony off.

2. The difficulty of rare events?

Moving quickly on, Hume would then have remarked that we usually see Bibles fall into rivers, not the other way around. This is certainly true, the Bible is likened to the sword of the Spirit, not a jet bomber!

However, that argument is not convincing. To say, that we only believe things that have happened a large number of times, although on the surface seems to be a scientific statement, in fact would invalidate a lot of science. Of course science looks for regular patterns in the world, and so repeatability of an experiment is important. If one worker claims a particular result then others will try the same method to confirm the result.

However, it is not always that simple. Some scientific events are unrepeatable, for example the origin of the Universe in the Big Bang. This is a one off event and the way of studying it is more akin to history. Evidence is sought which then enables you to construct your best model of what actually happened. Now I know that this analogy with the unusual event of a flying Bible does not quite work, as one may argue that the science that produced the Big Bang is the same as the science we observe today. Nevertheless, one does not dismiss events simply because they are unusual or indeed unique. Whatever the event may be, the scientist will test the evidence and investigate further.

3. I need to see it myself!

Finally Hume would say that as he had never seen such an occurrence himself, this outweighs the testimony of others. But to say that we only accept things we experience ourselves is just obviously untrue. How much do we actually experience ourselves? We are always accepting the testimony of others. Few of us bother to work through the formal proofs of mathematics, but we accept the arithmetic of our bank statements. We use what is generally accepted.

Of course we weigh the testimony of others to an extent by our own experience and the evidence they provide, but there are some events which we never can experience for ourselves. I do not have to spend the millions of pounds necessary to build a particle collider for myself before I accept the testimony of others that an experiment was carried out which demonstrates the existence of particles called quarks within protons and neutrons. Nor do I need to test myself a jet engine before I step inside an aeroplane for the first time.

4. Assessing the evidence

Hume is just too idealistic and pessimistic in how we actually assess evidence. He tends to talk in generalities rather than considering specific events. For many events there is going to be evidence for a particular interpretation and evidence against. What we do is to weigh up the evidence and take a decision. We never get proof, but so what, that is not the way the world is.

Many people today rule out the possibility of miracles because of too simplistic a view of science or evidence. A better 'scientific' approach would be to weigh seriously the evidence for or against particular miracles. This involves looking at different explanations of the same event and seeing which is more likely. For example, can we really agree with the rationalists that Jesus was walking on a sand bank and the disciples thought he was walking on water. It may sound plausible, but think it through. The disciples were fishermen who knew the Sea of Galilee very well. Would they really not know that there was a sand bank there, or even worse let the story of their mistake circulate around their friends and colleagues!

Perhaps the crunch comes on the resurrection. We agree that our normal experience is that dead people do not rise to a state where they will never die again. Do we dismiss this miracle on this basis or are we willing to change our view of the world on the basis of evidence? Other books have gone into such evidence in a great deal of detail. It is enough here simply to note that the kind of questions that one would need to examine are:

a. What is the historical basis and reliability of the New Testament which records the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus?

Many people have dismissed the accounts as unreliable propaganda written many years after the event. Now of course, the gospels were written for a purpose, and that purpose was not just to record historical fact but to present the good news of Jesus.

However if we discounted all ancient documents on this basis then there would not be much history left! It does not have to be an 'either or' question. The gospels have now withstood years of study and criticism and still there historical reliability can be vigorously defended. There are differences between the gospel accounts concerning details of the resurrection, but far from questioning their reliability, the fact that they are different confirms it. If they were all exactly the same, I guess we would be worried.

Finally as historical documents go of that period, the New Testament books were written down very early. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians was probably written no later than 30 years after the crucifixion. Thus Paul in writing about the resurrection is able to say to his readers that many who Jesus appeared to are still alive (1 Cor 15).

b. What is the best explanation of the empty tomb?

Christians in Jerusalem who were preaching the resurrection would have been quickly silenced if the tomb was not empty! A curious fact was that there was never in Christian traditions any record of tomb veneration. Now these things seem to indicate an empty tomb but the real question is, why was it empty.

There have been many alternative hypotheses. Some have suggested that in fact on the morning of the resurrection the women went to the wrong tomb! Others suggest that the Romans or Jews stole the body. But all of these explanations fall on the consideration that the easiest way to stop early Christianity (which both the Romans and Jews wanted to do) was actually to produce the body. Others have suggested that the disciples stole the body, but this surely cannot be right for many of them died for their belief that Christ was risen.

Finally, there have been many who have suggested that Jesus did not die on the cross but only passed out. In the cool of the tomb he revived and convinced his disciples he had risen. Well, one could believe that, if you were prepared to accept that a man cruelly beaten, exhausted, crucified, and checked by Roman soldiers who were 'experts' on death, could by himself struggle out under a weight of spices and bandages, role a heavy stone away, overpower the tomb guards and then convince the disciples that not only was he alive but he was the undisputed conqueror of death! It seems somewhat unlikely to say the least!

c. What is the best explanation for the claimed appearances of the risen Jesus?

The New Testament claims that the risen Jesus was seen over a period of six weeks, on at least eleven different occasions by at least 550 people, many of whom were still alive when Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

Is their evidence to be discounted as simply hallucinations, or did they really meet with Jesus?

d. What is the best explanation for the growth of church?

All the evidence of the gospels is that the disciples were frightened and confused after the death of Jesus. They did not expect the resurrection and even doubted the first reports of the empty tomb. What transformed them into the roaring lions that preached and died for the risen Jesus? And what about the testimony of millions of Christians over 2000 years who in their own experience have encountered the reality and life of Jesus?

Now none of these things prove the resurrection. But taken together they give at the very least strong evidence for the Christian claim that Jesus was raised on the third day. That conclusion cannot be forced. I guess one could always maintain another explanation for all of the evidence. But is it as strong or as comprehensive in the face of the evidence?

On the basis of this evidence, the most reasonable conclusion is that, in the words of the theologian Pannenberg, that the resurrection bursts our view of the world. Our view is often that death is the end and that there is no victory for self giving love. The resurrection points to a deeper reality. It becomes the model, 'the first fruits', of our own resurrection. There is a sense also in the New Testament that the resurrection is an outcome of a spiritual 'law' that self giving love cannot be held by death, 'But God raised him from the dead.......because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him' (Acts 2:24).

I was once at lecture given by a Buddhist monk. At the end of the talk, a young woman said, 'Thank you for the talk, but I have one question. What happens when you die?' The monk scratched his head and replied, 'I don't know I've never died'. The audience laughed at the clever answer but the young woman would not give up and asked the question again. This time he replied, 'I don't think we can ever know. The only way to know is if someone died, came back to life and told us'. I wish I had stood up at that point and said, 'But Christians know someone who did!'

The evidence is there for each person to make their judgement. There are alternative explanations but one has to weigh the evidence of this unique event. It is to a large extent based on the testimony of others, but it also has an invitation to meet this risen Jesus personally.

Be clear about God's relationship with the world

Sometimes it seems that philosophers make it too easy. In trying to systematise knowledge about the world, their models are just too simple. This is often the case in talking about God. J.B. Phillips many years ago warned 'Your God is too small'. Of course it is right to think about these things, and it is right to attempt to understand in a logical way how God relates to the Universe. But it should not surprise us if certain things remain unresolved or a mystery to us.

It would remove many problems if God did not do any miracles at all. If God just made the world and then sat back letting it evolve, we would not be faced with such a serious problem of evil. In addition there would not be the need to try and explain how God can alter the manner of his upholding in small ways that may produce miracles and answers to prayer without affecting the overall regularity of the world.

However, the evidence of the New Testament and in particular the resurrection does not leave me with such an easy solution. There is no such solution. Christians are left with an element of mystery which goes beyond our ability to explain. Nevertheless there are a number of important issues that we need to be clear about concerning God's relationship with the Universe.

First, the God of the Bible is both personal creator and redeemer. Traditions within the Christian church have often separated the two. Some have stressed God's particular and unusual acts in history to the exclusion of his role in sustaining the whole creation. This has led to a definition of miracles as exclusively something over against the scientific laws.

A man approached me recently asking for prayer for healing. This I agreed to but also asked him whether or not he had seen his doctor. He gave me a look which communicated that he was worried about my faith and said, 'That's not very spiritual!' But to go to see a doctor is very spiritual! It is utilising the wisdom that is built into the regularities of nature by the creator God. The skill of the doctor is made possible by being made in the image of God, and the human body's own powers of recovery once again are made possible by God.

It has to be 'both and', when it comes to God. We must stress the importance that the God of order upholds the Universe with regularities. These regularities allow us to do science, to learn about the Universe, to marvel at the wonders of creation and they also allow us to grow in the moral sense. What would our growth be like if I pushed someone over a cliff only for God to overrule the consequences every time?

At the other extreme some have so stressed creation that God has been given no freedom at all within that creation for particular acts. Miracles are defined exclusively as 'the wonders of nature' such as the birth of a child. God is unable to do anything apart from sit back and watch. If God is moment by moment sustainer of the physical laws, then science could be seen as simply describing his normal mode of working. But God must be ultimately free to work in unusual ways.

If we see miracles in the context of a personal creator and redeemer God we should expect both his sustaining and his particular actions. Indeed we should expect a tension at times. The Bible reflects in this a tension of what we might call law and grace.

In an earlier book, I attempted to develop a personal analogy to try and express this tension . Imagine parents bringing up their child. If the child is to grow up responsibly then he or she needs to know various agreed norms or rules. If the parents are continually changing their minds, the child will find it difficult to grow in understanding or responsibility. However, it would be a poor childhood if there were not special treats, times when the normal rules were superseded by special acts of love. There will be times when bed-time is normally 9pm but the highlights of the West Ham game are on later and as a special treat (or not, depending on how you view West Ham United!) the child can stay up. The development of the child requires a tension between law and what the Bible would call grace, that is extravagant generosity.

If the order in the Universe is a reflection of God's faithfulness in creation, then miracles could be seen as special acts of grace when God supersedes his normal ways of working. If God did too many miracles then the world would become totally unpredictable, if he did no miracles at all it would be extremely boring! This view does not answer all the questions, in particular one may ask if God does work in this way why does he not do it more often to relieve suffering and destroy evil? But it may be that this more personal analogy for miracles is helpful in emphasising the tension or even mystery in God maintaining an ordered Universe while working in unusual ways for specific purposes.

Second, the God of the Bible both ensures our freedom and is sovereign Lord. Quite how he does this is a whole bookcase of differing volumes in a good Christian library! That God is sovereign Lord reminds me that whatever the circumstances God is working his purposes out. The concept of God's rule over all things makes it consistent both to marvel at the regularities of nature and the irregularities of the miracles. He is not a slot machine that we can use by putting enough prayers of faith in at the top, pulling the handle of the name of Jesus and expecting ready made miracles to drop out of the bottom!

That our freedom is real reminds me that we have responsibility in knowledge and in moral behaviour. We have the freedom to accept or reject the evidence that God has given of his existence and nature. We have the freedom to mess up this creation and to inflict suffering on our fellow human beings. In such a view miracles can never be proof but only pointers to a better way.


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Steven Carr's Opening Statement

Dr.Wilkinson's First Response

Steven Carr's First Response

Dr. Wilkinson's Second Response

Steven Carr's Final Response

Dr.Wilkinson's Final Response


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