First Response by the Reverend Dr. David Wilkinson


Can we believe in miracles in a scientific universe?

I am grateful to Steven Carr for the points he raises in response to my chapter on 'Miracles' in Thinking Clearly About God and Science.

I will attempt to reply to them in the order he makes them:

1. I agree that at the heart of the issue is whether one is 'open minded or closed minded'. The person who dismisses some of the claims of modern science simply because they do not accord with common sense misses out on quantum theory, relativity and a whole host of other successful scientific theories. At the same time the person who dismisses the possibility of miracle because of a inflexible worldview based on certain philosophical assumptions which may not be scrutinised falls into the same mistake. Science encourages openness to the unusual, but an openness which is based on evidence. The Christian claim of the miraculous, for example the resurrection of a crucified man, is prepared to argue for an openness to the unusual on the basis of evidence.

My question to Steven is therefore does he allow such openness in his worldview?

2. Christian faith is dependent on evidence, and accepts the limitations and difficulty of evidence.

I am not sure that finding the original copies of the gospel in a bedroom drawer immediately 'stands up to scrutiny'. Such a claim would have to be investigated - are they forgeries, how do they relate to the historical evidence of the copies we currently possess etc, etc - a whole host of questions could be levelled against such a claim.

Thus the Christian dependence on evidence is not without major questions as Steven rightly perceives. However, this is no reason for dismissing evidence. Each piece of evidence needs to be assessed on its own merits.

3. Christianity does not confine its belief in miracles to simply the New Testament. It acknowledges the possibility that God can work in unusual ways wherever he wants to. Claims of miracles in Islam or in the early non biblical documents can be looked at in a similar way to the way evidence can be assessed for the biblical miracles.

I do not agree with the claim that there are lots of miracle claims throughout history and these are far better attested than Christian claims.

I have an open mind regarding cows and lambs, and Emperor Vespasian's eye cures! These have alternative possibilities of explanantion rather than miracles and the evidence can be assessed.

The strength of the Christian case for the resurrection of Jesus is the overwhelming historical evidence for it as opposed to alternative possibilities. Its occurrence in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians some 15 years after the death of Jesus, the empty tomb, the appearances etc build up together to a convincing case.

4. It is a somewhat arrogant blanket statement to say that 'ancient writers were credulous, gullible, unreliable, biased and superstitious'. Some were and some were not! All recording of history has its limitations and all has its own point or agenda to make.

The gospels are very explicit in their purpose in recording the history of Jesus. They are there in the words of John's gospel 'that we might believe'. Therefore the stories of Jesus are presented in such a way to commend faith in Jesus. Such 'bias' is of course there but it there with every historical document.

What is intriguing about the gospels is just how restrained they are. They tend to paint pictures of the disciples (the later leaders of the church) with the warts and all of failure and weakness.

5. I am not sure what Steven is referring to when he states 'Using exactly the same arguments used by Christians about the Book of Mormon and the Quran, it is easy to show that the miracles of Jesus are fictional borrowings from other stories.' There are documents which do have a literary dependency on one another and scholars are well aware of when this happens. If Steven is referring to the stories he quotes from extra-biblical sources we have to be very careful in claiming one source borrows or copies from another and whether in fact there is just similarity rather than dependency.

There are a small minority of scholars who claim that the miracle stories are fictional creations of the early church based on Old Testament accounts but their claims are unconvincing.

6. In the light of the above, differences between the gospel accounts do not detract from their reliability. Of course the gospels are dependent upon one another although the relationship is a little more complex than Steven describes.

The gospel writers arrange their material for their own purpose, and anyone doing historical research acknowledges that in historical source documents.

The statement 'careful Biblical study of the texts has shown that there is a huge amount of such alteration' is misleading. There are differences but there is also an overwhelming sense of unity in the history and message given by the gospel writers.

7. We get to the core of the issue when we come to the resurrection and once again I am grateful to Steven for focusing on this.

I attempted to set out briefly a number of pieces of evidence when taken together form a convincing historical case for the resurrection. Each of course can be questioned as Steven rightly does. Nevertheless they stand together to make the case that the best interpretation of the evidence is that Jesus was risen after being killed on the cross.

I accept the charge that there is not a great deal of documented evidence that the disciples died for their belief that Christ was risen.

Persecution was indeed motivated by a number of things about the early Christian faith - the understanding of the Law (this underlies the reference to Gal 6:12 rather than the specific of circumcision) and the claimed Lordship of Christ. However, the basis of the whole of the Christian proclamation, which led to a different view of the Law and the Lordship of Christ, was the death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, a denial of the resurrection was a denial of the whole of the Christian faith.

I do not agree that 'lots of people believed without any evidence that Jesus was somebody resurrected'. Of course some claimed Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah but this was often on the basis of his works.

In terms of what Steven calls the 'old, tired argument that Christianity could have been stopped in its tracks if the authorities had produced Jesus' body', I think he overstates his opposition.

The empty tomb was a fact which had to be explained. Matthew records in his gospel that the guards at the tomb reported it to their superiors who devised a story that the disciples had stolen the body. The authorities knew where the tomb was and that it was empty.

The body of Jesus would have had a profound effect. Now of course it may not have altered those of closed mind but at least we would have some historical record or allusion to it happening.

1 Cor 15:37 does not support the view that Paul would not be bothered by seeing the body that went into the ground. Paul in this passage holds together the continuity and discontinuity of the resurrected body with the earthly body of Jesus - this was important for the whole of early Christian theology. Paul's reference earlier in the chapter to the fact that Jesus 'was buried' is an implicit reference to the empty tomb.

Steven needs to provide a more convincing explanation of the empty tomb, the transformation of the disciples and the risen appearances of Jesus if he is going to argue against the resurrection.

8. The final point about the Christian belief of the return of Jesus seems to have been included without being further developed. I invite Steven to develop it, but his final sentence, 'As Christians were so wrong about this central belief of theirs, why should we believe their other claims?' can not be allowed to stand alone. Can Steven show that they were 'so wrong'?

In conclusion, it seems to me that there is much more to debate. In addition to the historical issues there is the direct question of science. I will look forward to Steven's understanding of the nature of science and whether it rules miracles out.

Best wishes,

David


Steven Carr's Opening Statement

Dr.Wilkinson's Opening Statement

Steven Carr's First Response

Dr. Wilkinson's Second Response

Steven Carr's Final Response

Dr.Wilkinson's Final Response


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