Second Response by Dr. David Wilkinson

Can we believe in miracles in a scientific universe?


Here is my response to your email. My apologies for the delay - family illness has been difficult this year.

I am grateful to Steven Carr for his second response to our debate about miracles. His response queries some points from my own earlier response and raises some new questions. I will attempt to clarify these earlier issues but will deal more extensively with the new points, feeling that I don't want to waste time restating arguments that are already part of this debate.

1. In terms of the 'gullibility, credulity and superstition' of ancient writers which Steven wants me to point out in ancient secular and biblical writers, he must be careful to define his terms. If he is meaning by this phrase 'the belief in the miraculous' then of course you find this in both biblical and secular writers. But such recording of the miraculous can only be termed 'gullibility, credulity and superstition' by someone who decides a priori that miracles cannot happen.

2. Steven raises the question of miracles recorded by non biblical writers and accuses me of deciding on whether the evidence supports a miracle or not by the criteria of whether it is in the New Testament. This is unfair and misrepresents my position. I stated clearly that any claim to a miracle has to be assessed on the evidence. I do believe that there is evidence for miracles outside the New Testament - not least in miracles today.

Of course I am more convinced of the evidence for New Testament miracles because that has been for me an area of study, and I also am convinced that the evidence for the historicity of the gospel accounts is very good.

Even then I would want to keep an amount of caution in assessing the evidence for any claimed miracle. That is my training as a scientist and how evidence should be assessed.

I am not prepared to give a straight 'yes' or 'no' answer to the question of whether Josephus' record of a heifer giving birth to a lamb happened in the Temple. However I am quite happy to accept the position that the evidence favours such an interpretation.

3. If Steven accuses me of judging truth by whether something is in the Bible or not, then he strays very close to such a position himself. He has a tendency to disregard any evidence simply because it is in the Bible.

My position is not 'he thinks that all discussion must start from the assumption that if a Gospel says something happened, then that event must have happened'. But I do want the New Testament to be taken seriously and judged as an historical document.

Contrary to Steven's simplistic characterisation of me as accepting something simply if it is in the gospels, my position is to take history seriously, whether it fits with my expectations or not.

The guard at the tomb is one such example. Debates about its historicity do not revolve simply around whether it is mentioned in the other gospels. I and many others do not accept that it is motivated by 'late apologetics'as in the words of RT France, 'A purely fictional story could hardly be expected to have any apologetic value so long after the event that no-one was able to deny it from first hand knowledge'.

I am not sure what point is being made in terms of 'round stones' at tomb.

4. Steven claims he has produced 'documented, photographic evidence of plagiarism' by the gospel authors in copying from other stories. I have to repeat without apology that I find his claims 'unconvincing'. He not the first to make such a claim although I still do not understand 'the photographic' evidence he claims. In terms of whether the gospel writers simply copied their stories from other sources, a vast wealth of biblical scholarship has shown this not to be the case. The amount of scholarship is too great to be listed here but useful summaries can be found in Craig Blomberg's 'The Historical Reliability of the New Testament Documents' or in JDG Dunn's 'The Evidence for Jesus'.

5. To arbitarily distinguish between primary and secondary sources in the New Testament is simplistic and historically inaccurate. The gospels may have a more complex literary history but they claim first hand material especially in the case of John.

6. Likewise the attack on Paul is too simplistic. For example, 'giving virtually no details' on the resurrection appearances ignores the fact that Paul states explicitly that many of the witnesses of the resurrected Jesus are still alive - the implication is that if you want to know that this is true then go and ask them.

7. As in the last round of the debate I asked Steven to make a more substantial point on the 'problem' of the 'imminent' return of Jesus. This he fails to do, ignoring a vast amount of biblical scholarship and the nature of the verses he quotes. As the return of Jesus is expected as 'a thief in the night' it is always to be viewed as imminent - an unknown future always gives us ambiguity about when something will happen.

In summary, we have got to a point in the debate on the gospel accounts which has demonstrated our positions clearly. I have laid a lot of emphasis on the evidence of history. Steven is quite right to point out weaknesses and inconsistencies in some of the historical arguments, yet that is the nature of history.

It seems to me however he often oversimplifies for the sake of polemic. In addition there is a tendency to dismiss the gospels as having no historical worth.

The Christian does not believe that the gospels are historical a priori, they are open to historical enquiry. At the same time, the gospels should not be dismissed a priori as lacking any historical worth. The claim for evidence for miracles in the historical record is there and those seeking truth can judge the evidence for themselves.

However, neither the Christian or the sceptic should approach this task in a simplistic way. Two thousand years of scholarship has examined the Bible more than any other historical work.

There is nothing new in Steven's arguments or indeed in my arguments. Steven does not disprove the Christian faith, nor do my arguments prove it. Arguments and evidence have to be assessed for both their strengths and weaknesses and then integrated into a wider worldview.

A major influence in assessing the historical arguments is a belief on whether miracles are possible or not. In my original chapter I dealt not just with the historical approach but also with philosophy and science. I am interested in what Steven believes in this area. Why does he rule the possibility of miracles out? Are all miracle accounts false? Is he living with an outdated scientific worldview which sees the Universe as a mechanism? Is God ruled out by science? Would any evidence be sufficient to convince that a miracle has occurred.

A great deal of the doubting of the historical evidence came from the mechanistic Universe and the philosophical arguments of Hume. How does Steven view these?

My belief in miracles is not a proof of the existence of God. My encounter and experience of Jesus as recorded in history and in life today as risen Lord, convince me of a God who can do the miraculous and that science does not in itself rule out miracles.

Steven Carr's Opening Statement

Dr.Wilkinson's Opening Statement

Dr.Wilkinson's First Response

Steven Carr's Second Response

Steven Carr's Final Response

Dr.Wilkinson's Final Response

Debate Page

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