Dear Believer, It is Arrogant to Think You Have the Only True Religion

Christianity claims to be the only, ultimately true religion. Jesus is recorded as having said:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”[1]

The Father Jesus is talking about here is God, you can tell that from the context of these verses. So – Jesus is claiming to be the only way to get to God. If religion is defined as us getting connected with God, then that’s a pretty restrictive view of religion. Right? Jesus is saying – Christianity is the only correct one. The other religions might be helpful in various ways for people’s lives. But – in the end – they don’t get you to God like Jesus does.

In their video, Plumbline Pictures claim it is arrogant to think that any one religion is the only right one – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.[2]

“Isn’t it time to stop thinking that we are somehow the reason why this universe was made? That our culture is somehow better than other cultures? Its time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, and forces us to admit we do not have all the answers. You must confront these fundamental questions.”[3]

I think we need to make several important responses to this.

Initial Response

First – I agree with their statement that it is time to learn how the universe is. It is important to follow the data where it leads. We must hold lightly to our assumptions if we are going to honestly confront fundamental questions. Because inevitably, we will not understand everything. This is absolutely a helpful approach to take. And – notice – it cuts many ways. It is a call to everyone whatever their persuasion, whether they are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, secular humanist, or whatever.

Second – I can’t speak for other belief systems, but Christianity was not founded on the idea that Christians are better than anyone else. Jesus laid down the foundations very explicitly:

  • love your enemies[4] because…
  • you and they are made in the image of God[5] but…
  • your sin has broken your relationship with God, so believe in me and my death and resurrection will count for your sinfulness and make you right again with God.[6]

Christians don’t claim they are better than others. They claim that everyone is of the utmost value, because we are made in God’s image. John Dickson notes that, while the Christian church has a chequered history living this out, history shows that these foundations were a rationale for “caring for the poor, burying the dead, starting hospitals, and even freeing slaves.”[7]

It’s interesting to note that often online, it is the internet atheist who looks down their nose at professing Christians. Christianity and Jesus as its founder has no time for this common superior thinking.

Third – the Bible does not claim the universe was created for humans. Rather, it was created because God is God – he’s creative, powerful, and he made the universe for himself.

“For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”[8]

Deeper Response

But having said all of this – I think there is a deeper assumption being made here and it is that it is arrogant for the believer to think they have the only right religion.

Here’s two problems with that statement.

First – ideas are not arrogant. How can an idea possess an attitude all of its own? No – ideas are simply ideas. Following the evidence where it leads isn’t arrogant, it is accepting the unwavering uniqueness and exclusivity of the truth of a situation. In a murder case, there can be many suspects, but only one culprit or culprits. Truth by its very nature is exclusive. We know this. But a truth claim is not arrogance.

Do you know what is arrogant? People. People can be arrogant, because arrogance is a haughty, superior, and rude way of speaking to another person. Now – the Plumbline video voiceover is polite in its use of vocabulary, but I detect a lot of “talking down” to the religious believer in their video. It sounds from the video that the video narrator is privy to some privileged knowledge, and every religious believer on the planet is living in a version of the supposed Dark Ages. To me – that sounds very arrogant.

Second – truth claims are either true or false. Wesaw earlier that Jesus makes a truth claim, that he is the only way to God for people. That claim is either true, or its not. Maybe our culture doesn’t like the sound of this exclusive truth claim, preferring to think that everyone has a bit of the truth about God and no religion is necessarily the right or wrong one. Okay – but notice that this attitude doesn’t make Jesus’ words false. Also – it is itself an exclusive truth claim. The claim that all religions lead to God is an exclusive one, but where does the claim come from? It certainly doesn’t come from the lips of Jesus. Personally, I think we should prioritise what Jesus says on the matter and defer to that.

Also – claiming that all religions are false (as the video seems to do) is also an exclusive truth claim. It seems that on matters such as these, we cannot get away from making exclusive truth claims. And the reality is that these claims are either true or false.

Summary

Is Christianity arrogant? Not at all. It makes an exclusive truth claim like every other belief system on the planet – atheism included. Christian truth claims are not arrogant just like lawyers and scientists aren’t arrogant when they are seeking the truth about a state of affairs.

The question is – how are we going about talking to people about our truth claim? Are we acting in an arrogant way or are we valuing the people we speak to as Jesus said we must?


[1] John 14:6-7, NIV.

[2] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[3] Ibid., 08:48.

[4] Matthew 5:44.

[5] Genesis 1:27.

[6] Ephesians 2:1-5, Romans 5:10.

[7] John Dickson, Bullies and Saints An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, (Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 33.

[8] Romans 11:36, NIV.

Dear Believer, You Know What It’s Like To Be an Atheist for All God’s Except Your Own

I’ve been thinking about the claims made by the video, “Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe?”[1], which is often beautiful in its depiction of human cultures. You can watch it here – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.

One of the points made in the video that I agree with is that religions are mutually exclusive. They teach different and incompatible doctrines, and so they cannot all be right. This is an important point that is often missed. Yet the video also proceeds to lump all religions together, stating that secular humanism is a better outlook. They don’t take religious claims on their own terms, preferring instead to reject them all.

It’s important to point out that not all religions believe there is a creator God, an author to all of time, space, reality and what they contain. Theistic religions (e.g. Judaism, Islam, Christianity) are distinct from non-theistic religions (like Buddhism), and very compelling arguments for the truth of theism have been proposed down through the centuries. Philosopher Alvin Plantiga gave a talk once called “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments,” and you can find a summary of some of the work that’s been done on these arguments here. There are many good reasons to be a theist.

Having said that – lets return to the Dear Believer video, and respond to their next objection:

Objection 3 – Religious believers are atheists too when it comes to other religions. They just believe in one more god than the atheist does.

“Truth is, you already know what it’s like to be an atheist for all gods but your own. The way you view them (other people) is the same way they view you. Every devout Hindu, for example, has embraced his faith for the exact same reasons you’ve embraced yours. Yet you do not find his reasons compelling, nor do you lose sleep at night wondering whether you’ll wake up in his hell. Given this, is it so hard to see why some of us just take our atheism one God further?”[2]

In other words, every religious person is like an atheist with regards the gods taught be other religions. The atheist just goes one god further – saying there are no gods.

This was first proposed by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion book and has been picked up and used as a supposed axiom and conversation stopper by many atheists since. Perhaps these atheists don’t realise that – this claim has been clearly shown to make absolutely no sense whatsoever! It is the equivalent of saying, “the bachelor is married.” How can an unmarried man be married? That makes no sense – it’s a contradiction. So is the video’s “one god more” claim.

First – the “one god more” claim is a contradiction.

The “one god more” claim says the experience of atheism is like religious belief (“you already know what it’s like to be an atheist”). But is it right to do so?

Let’s define atheism as belief there is no god. Let’s define Christianity as the belief in the God of the Bible to the exclusion of every other God presented by other non-Biblical religions (Judaism and Christianity are on the same page till it comes to Jesus). Can you see why atheism and Christianity are not in the same category of belief? How can you liken atheism (there are no gods) and Christian belief (there is a single God)? You are trying to claim apples and oranges are the same when they aren’t. This claim makes no sense.

Second – the objection forgets that there are very good reasons to be a theist. I pointed towards some of those reasons above. There’s the argument from human reason, the moral argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and so on. If there are arguments for theism, then surely you must show how all of these theistic arguments are flawed before atheism becomes a reasonable belief. And then you’ve got to explain what kind of atheism you have adopted. There are many different kinds. The objection seems oblivious…sounding like empty rhetoric.

Third – the “one god more” claim is like an acid that eats away at many important human disciplines beyond religion. Andy Bannister observes that the argument just goes too far. In any situation where we have a number of possible options, and we decide to choose X exclusively over Y or Z, the “one god more” skeptic could say “no – we must reject X, Y, and Z.” This would be devastating to the legal system, where evidence is sifted to arrive at a single judgement and just conviction of the guilty person. It would also devastate science, where evidence is assessed, and multiple models are suggested to explain the data. Eventually one scientific model becomes the winner, leaving failed hypotheses by the wayside. But not if the “one theory more” skeptic had his way![3] Nope – all options must be rejected.

Fourth – the “one god more” argument acts like an acid because it assumes all possibilities in religious terms are equally likely. It doesn’t care about the evidence at all. It has decided all options are as unlikely as each other, and so it rejects all of them without assessing the arguments for each. Can you see why that would be a devastating approach to take in the other disciplines I mentioned? If the argument doesn’t work in law or science, why should it be used in religious belief?

Fifth – the “one god more” argument makes a category mistake when it says, “Believers are atheists with regard Zeus, Thor, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.”

When you include God in a list like that, you are trying to make out that God is like an entity inside the universe. Yet the Christian view of God is not like that at all.

Imagine if I tried to claim J. R. R. Tolkien was in the same category as the Hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin? You would probably laugh, saying “You’re crazy. Tolkien is the author, and these Hobbits are his characters.” Exactly! That’s why the “one god more” argument makes a category mistake.

God is not like the entities we find in our universe. Rather, “all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite well-spring of all that is, in whom … all things live and move and have their being.”[4]

Summary:

The problem with the “one god more” argument is that it is contradictory and makes God out to be something he’s not. Further, it is very uncritical. It doesn’t care to look at the evidence for a claim, rather it just assumes all options are equally unlikely, and so decides to reject them all. This is a bad way to reason about everything in life. It is just a silly argument.

Also – consider this.

I engage with a lot of people who spend time arguing against the existence of God. I wonder whether they realise that when they do this, they tacitly admit that God exists.

  • To write books, tweets, blogs, or blog comments arguing against Christianity (for example) is to admit truth is important. If truth isn’t important, why does it matter what anyone believes?
  • Consequently, pursuing knowledge is a virtuous thing to do. It is beneficial to pursue a hard truth over a comfortable lie (as Carl Sagan said).
  • It is right to claim that justice matters, and morally bankrupt belief systems must be rejected on moral grounds.

Yet truth, the pursuit of knowledge, the existence of ultimate values like morality and justice cannot be grounded in atheism. They can only be grounded in a transcendent, personal God. They reflect his character, and they are therefore reflected in the universe he has created. A truly consistent atheist position would be to say:

nothing means anything because there is no ultimate meaning in the universe. So, it doesn’t matter what anyone believes and life is absurd. So my absurd beliefs can coexist with the Christian’s absurd beliefs. It doesn’t matter.

How interesting that – by seeking the truth of God’s supposed non-existence, the atheist often plays by God’s own rules![5]

In the next blog, I’ll address the next objection – “Religion is a crutch to make people feel better.”


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 06:43.

[3] Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist Or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments, (Grand Rapids:Monarch Books, 2015), 52.

[4] David Bently Hart, “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss,” quoted in Bannister, 57.

[5] Bannister, 59.

NDE Experiences Complement Biblical Teaching

What happens when we die?

So far in this series I have explored some interesting evidence from Near Death Experiences (NDEs) that seem to suggest we go on – we do not cease to exist. I have argued a naturalistic dying brain theory fails to account for the OBE element of NDEs. Yet those who experience NDEs (NDErs) are most struck by their visit with beings in an unearthly world. Following her NDE, Mary Neale wrote a creed reminding her of what she learned; the truth of God’s promises in scripture, heaven exists, God is loving, daily divine support, and God’s purposes for her life.[1] I think the response of NDErs like Mary suggest NDEs complement the teaching of the Bible in three ways.

1) NDEs Do Not Supersede Scripture and the Christian Gospel, they Apply It

First, NDErs almost always experience a being of brilliant light in an otherworldly place who communicates overwhelming love and acceptance to them. This reminds me of Daniel’s vision of God. “His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him.”[2] Yet as the Psalmist reminds us, he also cares deeply for us because He, “created [our] inmost being … knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb.”[3] God loves us. The scripture says, seek him and you will find him.[4]

The Christian NDE critic (NDEc) may object to NDErs claims of overflowing love and acceptance. Perhaps it sounds to the NDEc like universalism, the heretical idea that the Atonement is unlimited, applies to all people, and that all men will eventually be reconciled to God.[5] I think this worry is unwarranted. First, because Jesus exhibited deep love in his life; he said, “as I have loved you, so you must love one another,”[6] and Paul taught faith, hope, and love are vital for the Christian, but “the greatest of these is love.”[7] Perhaps the NDE experience is a divine gift to let some people experience the Bible’s idea of this love. Second, the love experienced by NDErs does not supersede the Christian gospel, it seems to illustrate it. Some NDErs like Ian McCormack find themselves in distressing darkness during the NDE and explicitly call to Jesus to save them. Ian describes being drawn out of darkness by the brilliant, loving light.[8] This aligns with the New Testament claim Jesus is the light of the world whose followers will not stay in darkness.[9] It is also illustrative that Jesus came to seek and save the lost.[10] Third, this love is reminiscent of the biblical God because, as J. P. Moreland observes, it challenges human cultural assumptions of highest goods being success, ancestor worship, honour or purity.[11] Rather, the Bible teaches love for God and people is the highest good.

But who or what does the mystical loving light represent? If it really is the God of the Bible, wouldn’t God reveal himself rather than leaving his identity vague and open to interpretation? On the contrary, scripture often reports times when God intervenes in human affairs while leaving his identity ambiguous. God’s angels visit Lot in Sodom but hide their identity,[12] Joshua encounters the mysterious commander of God’s army,[13] and Jesus comes to Israel as the divine Messiah yet many fail to recognise him.[14] An unidentified being of light is not at odds with God’s behaviour in scripture. Rather, it is consistent with it.

2) NDEs Seem Consistent With the God of Scripture Who Knows What I Need

The second alignment of NDEs with scripture comes in the apparently tailored nature of NDE experiences, designed to draw the NDErs toward God. Scripture shows this is the way Jesus engaged with friends and critics. For example, when the rich man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, the text says Jesus loved him and sensed a love for his wealth, so he challenged him to give it away and live a life loving and honouring God instead.[15] Likewise, in his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus saw through their piety observing they honoured God with their lips, yet their hearts were far from him.[16] NDEs seem consistent with God knowing our hearts, engaging with us in the way that will draw us towards himself.

The NDEc might object to the extra-biblical nature of these NDE experiences. Why should only some people have a special divine encounter prior to their ultimate death? Scripture seems to say it is better not to have this, because “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[17] Yet there is nothing in these words precluding a pre-mortem encounter with God. The apostle Paul may have had one of these experiences himself.[18] Surely if God opts to allow such a thing, he is free to do so. The NDEc may also object that Hebrews says we all die once, and then face the judgement.[19] Yet NDErs have not actually died yet, though they were close to their ultimate death. Consequently, because the NDErs remained alive, their NDE experience does not contradict the teaching of Hebrews.

3) NDErs Return With a Biblical Sense of God’s Purpose for People

The third alignment of scripture with NDErs experience is found in the sense of God’s plan for them involving hope, purpose, and beauty.[20] Scripture says our days are ordained by God before our birth,[21] and our lives matter because God has placed eternity in our hearts.[22] Further, God has a plan for us to, “do good works, which [He] prepared in advance for us to do.”[23] The NDErs returning sense of divine purpose seems aligned with God’s promises. Yet scripture also teaches the gospel message, God’s plan to save humanity. Do NDErs return with a new appreciation of this? Ian McCormack reportedly did, being instructed by God to “see things in a new light.”[24] A specially arranged, direct encounter with the loving God, and a sense of God’s purpose in one’s life, has transformed NDErs like McCormack to love people and seek to serve them. The gospel is about God welcoming us home. NDErs who experience this “being of light describe a love … [running] towards them [to] embrace them, value them … simply want[ing] them home.”[25] Perhaps NDErs experience the gospel more vividly than most. Further, the minority of hellish NDE experiences reported in Long’s study suggests while God wants no one to be lost, the possibility remains that those rejecting God’s love will spend their afterlife separated from God. NDEs therefore remain consistent with scripture’s teaching.

Conclusion

In this series, we have found that:

  • we found here and here that dying brain hypotheses do not account for the NDErs evidence
  • NDEs seem to be somewhat objective because sometimes they are shared by the living
  • Neuroscience gives reason to think that the human mind is only correlated to the brain, and can function when the brain is virtually absent, so its no great leap to suppose mind can exist apart from brain

Further – NDEs are consistent with the Bible’s teaching. We haven’t had time to discuss the fact that those of other religious traditions return from an NDE with their interpretation of a solidly Christian picture of the afterlife, rather than any other religious outlook.[26]

NDEs are common, and as we assess an NDErs account, we must remain open to the possibility that they have engaged in a supernatural circumstance which complements the Bible’s teaching. Taking this willing perspective on NDEs may encourage Christian believers in their hope of heaven, and it may challenge unbelievers to finally choose to believe in Jesus and so orient themselves toward an eternity with Him.


[1] Mary Neale, “Seven Lessons from Heaven,” quoted in Moreland, 214.

[2] Daniel 7:9-10, NIV.

[3] Psalm 139:13, NIV.

[4] I Chronicles 28:9, NIV.

[5] J. R. Root, “Universalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1232.

[6] John 13:34, NIV.

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV.

[8] John Burke, Imagine Heaven Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 138.

[9] John 8:12.

[10] Luke 19:10.

[11] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 217.

[12] Genesis 19.

[13] Joshua 5:13-15.

[14] Moreland, 221.

[15] Matthew 10:17 – 22.

[16] Mark 7:7.

[17] John 20:29.

[18] 2 Corinthians 12:2.

[19] Hebrews 9:27.

[20] Moreland, 213.

[21] Psalm 139:16.

[22] Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[23] Ephesians 2:10.

[24] Burke, 263.

[25] Burke, 79.

[26] John Burke, Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 141.

Near Death Experiences – Responding to the “Dying Brain” Hypothesis

Medical science today can bring people back from the brink of death. In the last fifty years, doctors, philosophers, and theologians have been studying a phenomenon called Near-Death Experience (NDE). This is an altered state of consciousness some people experience when close to death, and also when in a completely flat-line physical state, or clinically dead. Doctor Raymond A. Moody did the first major study of thousands of these reported experiences, publishing the first book on NDEs in 1975 – Life After Life. Moody notes that, while NDEs are in some senses a modern phenomenon, resulting from medical advances in technology and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he also finds evidence of them occurring in ancient Greek philosophy from thousands of years ago. Plato’s Republic recounts the tale of Er who was apparently killed in battle, yet revived during his funeral, and told the tale of leaving his body and entering the afterlife before returning. Democritus founded atomic theory, and in his fragmentary surviving writings, show an interest in many “returning from the dead” stories.[1] NDEs have been happening throughout human history it seems.

In this blog series I am going to argue that naturalistic explanations for NDEs fail to account for the evidence surrounding the cases I assess, and they aren’t sufficient to account for the cumulative weight of testimonial and veridical NDE evidence. Susan Blackmore’s naturalistic “dying brain” hypothesis claims NDEs occur within a dying individual’s head, they are not instances of a soul departing the physical body. First, I’ll discuss her physiological argument, then I will assess her psychological argument. I will argue Blackmore’s argument does not adequately account for testimonial and veridical evidence of particular NDEs. I will then discuss the important veridical phenomenon called “shared NDEs” and finally, I will assess how I think NDE reports are consistent with a Biblical view of life after death and can therefore withstand challenges from NDE skeptic Christians. I conclude that NDEs complement a Christian view of life after death.

Defining Near-Death Experiences

An NDE is an event sometimes reported by people who return from either a near-death or complete clinical death state. Three hundred million contemporary cases exist from Near-Death experiencers (NDErs) of different ages and cultures. Jeffrey Long surveyed over six hundred NDErs to identify common elements in their experiences. Over fifty percent reported an out-of-body (OBE) experience where consciousness apparently left their body. They experienced heightened senses, encountered an unearthly kind of world, and met a mystical light, spiritual beings, or previously deceased relatives. They described a love and beauty that was hard to articulate. This group also recounted a decision during the NDE to return to their body. Under fifty percent of NDErs experienced an OBE involving tunnel traversal, a life review assessing how they had impacted others in life, and a one-way barrier.[2] Long also reports NDErs are profoundly changed by their experience, becoming more loving, and knowing decreased fear of death.[3] In a small number of cases, Long encountered evidence of frightening, or hellish NDE experiences.[4]

Responding to Blackmore’s Physiological Dying Brain Hypothesis

Susan Blackmore is a psychologist who engages with NDEs from her naturalistic worldview, seeking to ground them in physiological and psychological terms alone. Physiologically, she observes the human brain requires oxygen to function, and at some point, the oxygen supply to the brain of a dying person will cease. Eventually, the brain enters a state of oxygen deprivation called anoxia. Studies on fighter pilots show that under extreme G forces they experience G-LOC, temporary acceleration induced anoxia.[5] Blackmore suggests the effects mirror NDEs; unconsciousness, having an OBE, vivid dreams, and seeing loved ones.[6]

NDEs may be like the effects from anoxia, yet fundamental differences exist. First, unconscious G-LOC subjects encounter living loved ones, while NDErs report only meeting dead relatives. If the NDE is due to anoxia close to death, surely comforting images of living relatives would appear, not dead ones. William Serdahely opines the dying brain hypothesis fails to account for these visions of dead relatives.[7] Second, the clarity of a subject’s anoxic experience differs from the average NDE. Blackmore’s G-LOC study records during unconsciousness, the anoxic subject displays total incapacitation followed by a period of confusion until consciousness returns.[8] Anoxia causes confusion that impairs human perception.

Chris Carter describes high altitude mountain climber studies that match the pilot G-LOC studies. As the brain loses oxygen, disorientation and confusion occurs, and one’s capacity for completing tasks is impaired.[9] Yet Long’s NDErs experienced complete loss of brain function combined with extreme clarity of thought and heightened awareness during their NDE. Dr Pim van Lommel observes during NDE, “there … [is an] inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.”[10] This suggests anoxia differs fundamentally from the NDE experience. Carter supports this conclusion with Allan Pring’s testimony. Pring experienced both high altitude anoxia and an NDE later in life. Assessing both experiences, he concludes, “there was no similarity. On the contrary, the whole [NDE] … was crystal clear and it has remained so for the past fifteen years.”[11]

However, a more fundamental challenge to Blackmore’s hypothesis comes in Vicki Umipeg’s case. She died in a sudden car accident and experienced a vivid NDE that she recounted upon resuscitation.[12] In her case, the brain had no time to succumb to the chemical changes caused by anoxia before her NDE began. This reinforces the conclusion that these oxygen deprived brain states are quite distinct from the NDE experience, so the physiological dying brain hypothesis fails to account for this NDEer testimonial evidence.

In part two of this series, I will respond to Blackmores psychological explanation for NDEs.


[1] Raymond A. Moody, “Near-Death Experiences An Essay in Medicine and Philosophy,” in The Science of Near-Death Experiences, John C Hagan III MD, ed, (University of Missouri Press, 2017), 11-12.

[2] Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife The Science of Near-Death Experiences, (New York:HarperCollins, 2010), EPub edition, 5 – 20.

[3] Long and Perry, 50.

[4] Jeffrey Long, “Frightening NDEs,” Evidence of the Afterlife – Supplementary Material, accessed 3rd November, 2021, https://www.nderf.org/NDERF/EvidenceAfterlife/evidence/Frightening_NDEs.htm.

[5] Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live Near-Death Experiences, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993), 57.

[6] Ibid., 59 – 60.

[7] William Serdahely, “Questions for the Dying Brain Hypothesis,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 15(1), 1996.

[8] Blackmore, 57 – 58.

[9] Chris Carter, Science and the Near-Death Experience How Consciousness Survives Death, (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2010), 162.

[10] Van Lommel, “Consciousness Beyond Life,” quoted in John Burke, Imagine Heaven Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 326.

[11] Fenwick and Fenwick, “The Truth in the Light,” quoted in Carter, 168.

[12] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 232 – 233.

Thoughts on Dune and Messiahs

Denis Villeneuve and his team have finally begun to bring Dune to cinema in a way that is fitting. It is years since I read the book, but experiencing this film brings it back in a vivid and compelling way. I can smell it. This is a movie that you live through for its 155-minute running time. You can see, feel, and breath in the fabric of this story in a compelling and satisfying way. One of the real successes here is in taking a complex, politically woven novel, yet presenting the important themes in a clear and interesting way.

Frank Herbert wrote the original novel and it was published in 1965. He has brought together many ancient political, religious, and economic strands from the history of human civilization and woven his story through it giving his fictional world a real weight.

The Dune Wiki says that the religious themes of Dune are mainly derived from Islam, and the language inspired by Arabic.[1] The Middle Eastern influence is clear. But the life of Paul Atreides is a Messiah story that recalls the stories that are rooted in ancient Judaism and fulfilled by the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Set Islam aside for a moment. There is a lot of Christian symbolism in Dune.

Paul may be the Kwisatz Haderach, or Muad’Dib. These words identify the Dune universe Messiah figure who will lead people to true freedom and is expected by both the Fremen on Arrakis and the Bene Gessarit. In his blog, Scott Smith identifies links in Dune to the Hebrew Kabbalistic term Kefitzat Ha’derech.[2]

Paul is the son of a king (or Duke) and he comes to a people who are repeatedly abused and colonized. The Fremen of Arrakis are reminiscent of the Hebrew people, colonized by the Romans, and visited by the Messiah Jesus. Yet while the Jews expected a military Messiah, and the Fremen of Dune expected and got the same in Paul Atreides, Jesus of Nazareth is anything but a military figure. Like Jesus, Paul is expected and tested in the desert. Unlike Jesus, the people recognize him when he arrives on Arrakis. The film captures these themes really clearly.

Dune Reminds Me – We Are Looking for a Messiah

This reminds me that humanity has a history of expecting the divine. So many ancient mythologies and religions down through history have pointed to a coming deity – just like Dune does. J Warner Wallace has helpfully listed many of the characteristics of these religious deities:[3]

The deity is:

  • Predicted, like the birth of Zoroaster, and Paul Atreides.
  • Comes from royal heritage, like the Greek god Adonis, and Paul Atreides.
  • Comes from unnatural means, like the Hindu Tibetan deity, and possibly Paul Atreides.
  • Protected as a child, as the Buddah’s parents may have done.
  • Faces temptation, like Krishna the Hindu deity.
  • Is identified with shepherds, like the Egyptian god Osiris.
  • Possess supernatural power, like Quetzalcoati the Mesoamerican deity.
  • Active in engaging humans directly, like Tammuz the Mesopotamian god.
  • A teacher of  human followers, like Serapis the Graeco-Egyptian deity.
  • One who recognizes the need for a sacrifice, like Shangdi the Chinese deity.
  • One who faced a judicial death, like Dionysus the Greek and Roman god.
  • One who establishes a divine meal, like Mithras the Persian and Roman god.
  • One who has the power to defeat death, like Heracles the Greek god.
  • One who offers eternal life to their followers, like Zalmoxis the deity of Getae and Dacian.
  • One who will judge the living and the dead, like Thakur Jiu, the Santal deity.

I guess we can add Paul Atreides to this list.

Jesus is the Ultimate Messiah

There are similarities here in these deity figures between these ancient religious figures and Paul Atreides of Dune. Frank Herbert was inspired by human religious tradition, so this is expected. But even more, there are similarities between the attributes on this list and Jesus of Nazareth. Wallace observes that, rather than joining this list as yet another humanly invented deity, Jesus is different. He uniquely possesses all the characteristics found in so many ancient mythologies. He embodies and personifies mankind’s expectation of God.

This similarity with mythology was the thing that kept C S Lewis back from accepting Christianity for many years, until his friend J R R Tolkien helped him see that Christianity is not just another fictional mythology to add to the list. Rather – it is the mythology which is true, being rooted in history and real events.  Later in his life, Lewis wrote this:

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous different that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are man’s myths … Christianity is God expressing himself through what we call “real things.”[4]

I loved Dune part 1, and I recognize the power of myth. And I think it – like the many compelling fictional myths that have come before it – point ultimately to the true myth of Jesus who meets all of mankind’s needs for a Messiah. The one who finally makes us free men and women, free from the weight of mankind’s rebellion against God, free from guilt and shame, free to experience life in the future as God intends..

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” Galatians 5:1


[1] Religion | Dune Wiki | Fandom

[2] Scott Smith, Theology of Dune, The Scott Smith Blog, The Theology of Dune (thescottsmithblog.com).

[3] J Warner Wallace, Person of Interest, (Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 33-35.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the Idea of the “True Myth” | Russell’s Inspiration Daybook (wordpress.com)

Book Review: A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles

J P Moreland’s new book is quite remarkable. I’m not a fan of the book’s title. It sounds a bit “off the wall” to me. The book content, however, is anything but.

JP has chosen to speak cogently to a couple of audiences. First, to an audience of Christians who may have lost the expectation that God would ever intervene in the natural world in a supernatural and measurable way. Maybe because they think bible kind of miracles ceased a long time ago. And at the same time, Moreland also challenges the natural presuppositions of atheists who roll their eyes at such a notion to begin with.

Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

JP speaks to his audience by addressing fundamental matters of philosophy and worldview. What is epistemology, and what does it mean to know something? What should we make of the common atheist response to miracle claims – “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?” Spoiler alert – when you are talking about the activity of an agent (God) you cannot expect agents to always behave the same way. You need to judge their activity on a case-by-case basis. Appealing to natural law in an attempt to refute miracles is just wrong headed. So – the improbability of an event does not require extraordinary evidence to establish it. Further – the probability of the evidence for the event and the reports of the event occurring must also be factored in given the scenario that the event did NOT in fact occur. And in the miracle cases given in this book (and countless others) the likelihood of this is vanishingly small. You don’t need extraordinary evidence (whatever that is) to sustain belief that the miracle occurred.

Why Should People Pray?

JP addresses some common struggles believers and non-believers face when it comes to prayer. If God knows everything anyway, then what is the point of praying about something? This common conundrum misunderstands the issues of free will and the omniscience of God. Here, JP points to de ray and de dicto distinctions. The bible’s view of this problem is misrepresented if we assume we must take the de ray line – which leads to hard determinism. This is incorrect because our evidence suggests human beings have free will – we are not determined. If you need to try to convince me otherwise then – I am sorry – you tacitly assume I have the free will to choose to believe or reject your argument! Returning to the issue of God knowing everything, the de dicto distinction is the most adequate approach to understanding this. De dicto says it is not God’s knowledge that leads to the event. Rather, the event that occurs is the one God foreknows. Also, wouldn’t a perfect good God prevent evil occurrences whether we pray or not? This misunderstands God’s purposes – God is working toward a greater good in all circumstances. This will often be at odds with our limited view of the good outcome, and often involves our relationship with him.

Veridical Miracle Claims and the ID Principle

He also devotes a large chunk of the book to veridical claims of a supernatural nature. These stories are not just recycled from unknown or remote sources. Rather, before including them in the book, J P has done the work of tracking down the people involved, hearing their stories first-hand, and establishing confirmatory evidence where he can. Some of them are taken from his own life. Others are from the lives of others. For example, he recounts an instance experienced by the parents of his friend Ruth Henderson. Having spent many years as missionaries in Venezuela and Spain, they returned home to San Diego. Unfortunately, their low financial income meant they had no pension to draw from, and so they were broke. They lived in a small apartment and worked low paid teaching and pastoring jobs. Yet they dreamed of living in a proper house with a white picket fence. So – they prayed about this. They visited a nice property that had just lowered in price and found it to be perfect for their needs. While visiting the property, they had to admit to the real estate agent that they had minimal funds for a down payment. So, the agent phoned the sellers there and then to ask whether they would reduce the price again. While they were all standing in the property, there was an unexpected knock at the door. The agent opened the door. A man stood there from a cell phone tower company. He had been knocking on doors in the area because he needed to build a tower in this area and was willing to pay the house owners 10,000 dollars a year for thirty years for the privilege of using their back yard. A deal was done, and the bank agreed to give the couple a mortgage based on the commitment of the tower company. Miraculously, they got the house they asked God for.[1]

This example is like many of JP’s miracle stories. Its amazing and it sounds like God might be providing in response to a real need. But we have also to ask – how do we know this wasn’t just a coincidence? Here – JP applies a principle first put forward by Bill Dembski, and this ID principle is used today in many fields (not just biology) like insurance, law enforcement, and forensic science. The ID principle states that whenever two factors are present, investigators are rational to conclude that the event is the result of an intelligent agent.

  1. There was a small probability of the event happening
  2. The event is special, it is remarkable for reasons other than the fact that it actually happened.

Such an argument applies not only to human agents, but also divine ones. And – given the context of the events, it would point to the story with the cell tower guy paying the broke couple’s mortgage as an intentional, divine miracle. I have a similar story in my own life, and this ID principle suggests to me that I too experienced a miracle, not merely a coincidence. I wrote about that event here:

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2021/10/18/was-it-a-miracle-that-saved-our-lives/

Conclusion

JP focuses on many more examples of God’s supernatural intervention in people’s lives. He looks at instances of miraculous healing, guidance, evidence for the activity of angels and demons in the world, and the veracity of near-death experiences and what they may tell us about what comes next after we die. He also provides a reading list at the end of the book that points to many other sources like his own that can build our hope and expectation in the existence of divine miracles today.

Many Christian believers are embarrassed by miracle claims. And – many claims made by people can sounds pretty dumb or unlikely. But not all of them fall into this category. When one is armed with the resources JP brings, this mistaken embarrassment can be set aside. We can know – not merely believe – that God is real and still performs miracles today.


[1] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids:Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 76 – 78.

The Cost to Skepticism

“I simply need proof for God. But you have not adequately given it to me.”

This is a message I get from some folks when they learn I am a Christian. I will even hear it from some people when I’m not even speaking to them. Perhaps I’ve retweeted someone else online, and out of the blue I will suddenly be hit by anonymous demands for proof. Proof for what? Proof that Christianity is true, that God exists.

Skeptical people can sometimes (not always) be outspoken. And I usually appreciate the opportunity to hear where they are coming from. Personally, I think a healthy skepticism is a very positive thing in life. I think it helps us stay grounded, encouraging us to take a careful and thoughtful approach to important matters in life. As I seek to give people reasons for the truth of Christianity – engaging with the thoughtful skeptic is often helpful because it reminds me not to overstate the case that I am making to them. It’s a good counterbalance for me as a Christian case maker. So – I value the thoughtful skeptic.

However – I think there are some fundamental epistemological problems facing the hard line (sometimes called Cartesian) skeptic. What is a hard line skeptic? Well, I’ll define it as someone who demands absolute (or tautological) certainty about a subject. Here’s an example. Imagine I am wrestling with whether or not to make a career change in my life. Also, let’s say I take a hard line skeptical approach to this process. In that case, I am going to need to be absolutely certain of the correct course of action before deciding to take it. That means – 100% certainty. There must be no aspects of the issue – or my decision-making processes – that are unknown to me. And my understanding of the issues must be absolute. There must be no unknowns at all. Does that sound like a high bar to reach when changing jobs? Yup. Ever managed it? Nope.

Here’s the problem for the skeptic. We can only be tautologically certain about a very few minor things in life. Does a triangle have three sides? Is a divide by zero undefined in mathematics? Is there no upper limit to the set of prime numbers? These sorts of issues can be known with absolute certainty. The answer is yes in all three cases. They probably aren’t very important to my life right now though. Yet – the skeptic can find tautological certainty here. But what about elsewhere in their lives? I just don’t think certainty is possible. There’s no way to be absolutely certain about the ethical, aesthetic, political, business, religious, and relational issues we face. These are way too complicated. The hard line skeptic’s bar of absolute certainty can be met in the math textbook, but not in their daily life outside of the classroom.

That’s a problem. But, it’s not the skeptic’s biggest problem.

Let’s now think about the skeptical person who is demanding absolute proof of the truth of Christianity. The person who is constantly saying, “you have not given me enough. I want PROOF!” The biggest problem is – his position is completely self-refuting. It is a position that undermines itself. You see, because we cannot be 100% certain about very much in life (outside of math, for example) that means the skeptic cannot be 100% certain of his/her own skepticism. Yet their position dictates that – to have knowledge – they MUST know something absolutely, at 100%. Consequently, because they themselves cannot meet their own demand for knowledge, this means they cannot even be certain of their own skepticism! This is a fundamental epistemological problem that, if they are thinking rationally, would lead them to abandon their hard line skepticism and trade it in for a less hard line approach to take instead (more about that later).

When the skeptic fires demands (or sometimes even polite requests) for “proof of the existence of God,” I used to say to myself, “oh dear. I must try harder to give them proof.” Now I do not say that to myself. It’s not that I don’t care about the skeptic, because I do care. Rather – I have come to know two things. First – that they are using a standard on me that they cannot sustain for their own skepticism. So – I’m not impressed by their demand one bit. And second – they are asking me for something I simply do not need to do. The Christian is not required to give proof of the existence of God. Rather, they are to give “reasons for the hope they have.”[1]

In their book “How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology,” Dew and Foreman make some really helpful observations about the hard line skeptic’s dilemma.

1 – There are good reasons to think we do know things about the world, even though we do not know everything 100%. Sure, our senses can be fooled. But people have used their sense and mental faculties to perform open heart surgery, to fly to the moon, and to drive to the shops.[2] We can reasonably say we know, even though we don’t know everything. Right?

2 – The tautological, hard-line skeptic’s bar for knowledge is just too high for every subject in life, including whether or not God exists and whether Christianity is true. If we persist with this skepticism, we will find that the number of beliefs we can hold in our lives will be seriously undermined. How can we know something scientifically, historically, or morally if we require absolute proof?[3] That epistemological bar leaves us in a place where we don’t really know anything. It robs us. And that’s not helpful, and its actually wrong (as I pointed out above).

3 – The things we CAN know with absolute certainty are pretty unimportant (e.g. a triangle has 3 sides). The important stuff in life tends to be the stuff I lack absolute certainty for. The issues that really impact me (e.g. what is my destiny in life, what are human beings, is there a God) are issues that we will never fully understand. There will always be an element of doubt here somewhere.[4] But – as I’ve said already – having doubts about something does not disqualify me from claiming that I know something in that area.

4 – It is the nature of the subject in question that determines how we come to know it. If we are thinking about an apple, then our five senses are going to be sufficient to get to know an apple pretty well. However, if the subject is God, then there are many many factors in play here that make this subject different from an apple. So – we need to adjust our expectation about the level to which we can know God, compared to an apple.[5] If the angry skeptic demands, “give me proof,” then I would be tempted to reply, “God’s not an apple, you know.” There may be very good reasons why God does NOT make himself as obvious as an apple in your fruit bowl. Reasons that confer respect by God on the skeptic themselves. But those reasons will have to wait for another blog.

Conclusion

Hard-line skepticism of the kind I’ve described just isn’t tenable. It is harmful to us if we adopt it as a stance toward Christianity (and everything else in life). So – what stance could we adopt instead? Well – actually, it is not a different stance at all. It’s the stance we take on everything else in life (whether we realise it or not).

We could take an inductive approach to deciding whether we can claim to have come to know something about God and Christianity. It’s like this. “In a good inductive argument, the truth of the premises provides some degree of support for the truth of the conclusion.”[6] This is the most rational approach to take in our lives. And we probably do it in other areas without thinking about it. We don’t try to reach 100% certainty before taking a decision. We gather evidence, and then decide what level of support for the issue at hand is given by the evidence. If the evidence is good enough, we are likely to go with it.

So – my answer to the charge “give me proof of God,” is to say something like this. It’s not proof you need. What you are looking for is evidence, of rational arguments pointing towards Christian theism. You need to assess the evidence that is right in front of you in a careful way. And then – decide whether there is enough support for you to make a choice. It’s no good demanding absolute proof, when large amounts of evidence are right there in front of you.

Hey – I’ve been a Christian for 45 years. I cannot say that I am 100% convinced of the truth of Christianity. But – I am generally convinced based on my personal experience of God’s work in my life, and of my assessment of the historical evidence, and the wider evidence for God in the world. Is that proof? Not that would satisfy an irrational, persisting, cartesian skeptic. But it is a position that is considered, is rational, and is based on experience and argument. And those things seem to me to be a good foundation for saying – “I know God exists, and his name is Jesus.”


[1] 1 Peter 3:15.

[2] James K. Dew JR and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2014), 158.

[3] Ibid., 159.

[4] Ibid, 161.

[5] Ibid., 162.

[6] Inductive Logic, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, revised March 19th, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-inductive/.

The Cost of the Multiverse

Marvel’s Loki series has built an interesting narrative on the idea of an infinite multiverse. Anything that could happen (including an alligator with a great Tom Hiddleston grin on its face), has happened. This makes for a rich story telling device. It is the way ahead for Marvel’s Multiverse of Madness phase 4 storyline. But there might be more going on here. Fiction is helping to cement the actual physical idea of a real multiverse into the public consciousness. The idea of a multiverse crops up in both science and science fiction.

The multiverse is how some scientists account for the fine tuning of the universe for life – without resorting to God as an explanation. Physicists Andrei Linde, Alan Guth, and Paul Steinhardt have proposed a scientific model called Inflationary Cosmology, while other physicists have proposed String Theory. You cash out the details in different ways, but you end up with:

1 – Our universe is finely setup for life to exist.

2 – There are an infinite number of different universes.

3 – There is a high likelihood of life sustaining universes coming into existence.

4 – We are just lucky to live in a life sustaining universe.

MIT physicist Max Tegmark has gone further to say that, “all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically.”[1] If you can think of a structure that is mathematically possible, then because there is an infinite multiverse, that structure isn’t just an idea. It actually must exist! So – hello Gator Loki.

However – there is a big epistemological cost to this idea. Stephen C. Meyer points out the cost in two ways.

The Cost of Our Rationality

The infinite multiverse means that any event- however unlikely – has actually occurred an infinite number of times. One such event is the sudden appearance (through quantum fluctuations of subatomic fields/particles) of a brain with preset memories and an ability to perceive a limited universe. These are called Boltzmann Brains after 19th century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. They pop into existence for a while – and then pop out of existence again.

If physicists posit a multiverse to explain the fine tuning of the universe for life, then this also must lead us to doubt the reliability of our own minds because it is more likely that we are Boltzmann Brains than individuals in a naturally complex and populated universe. And if that is the case – our scientific reasoning abilities, perceptions, and our basis for accepting the multiverse hypothesis are all undermined. The infinite multiverse is a self-refuting hypothesis.[2]

The Cost of Scientific Prediction

If we live in an infinite multiverse, then what can we say about our understanding of the laws of nature? Take the law of gravity for example? Well – we can say that so far – the behaviour of nature is such that the law of gravity leads us to expect certain behaviours. For example, the dropping of an apple from the branch of a tree to the ground. But because anything that could happen must happen in an infinite universe, we must also face the possibility that at some arbitrary point in the future, the natural laws will diverge and begin to behave in unexpected ways. Apple’s can start to fall up, for example. This is because for all we know, the mathematical laws describing the universe are not fully understood by us yet and are controlled by a wider and more general equation that will lead nature to behave differently in the future. We cannot rule out this possibility. But that means we can no longer confidently predict scientifically whether or not events will happen based on our experience of the past. Stephen Meyer puts it this way:

“Scientific explanation presupposes the uniformity and regularity of nature, including the uniformity of the fundamental laws of physics and the regularity of patterns of cause and effect [but] such uniformity and regularity may not characterize our universe, however much it might have seemed to do so up until this point.”[3] We might think we are experiencing cause and effect in nature. But what we don’t realise is that actually, we have been experiencing random fluctuations and nature will behave differently in the future compared to the past. Science as we know it – ceases to be helpful.

Summary

If we accept the thesis that we live in an infinite multiverse, then we must also accept two additional conclusions. We cannot be sure that we are rational, and we cannot rely on our ability to make scientific predictions.

Both of these conclusions undermine the multiverse hypothesis and the practice of science – so – I would suggest we cannot live with these conclusions. They are not logically sound. And so this is a strong reason to reject the multiverse in physics, look for another theory to explain the fine tuning of the universe.

Having said all of that – roll on season 2 of Marvel’s Loki!


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis, (HarperOne, 2020), 394.

[2] Ibid., 401 – 402.

[3] Ibid., 396.

A Case for Miracles – What if Natural Laws Help Reveal the Miraculous?

In part 1, I looked at the skeptical position against miracle claims. This often says:

 

1 – Miracles violate the laws of nature, and our experience tells us these natural laws are fixed. Dead people stay dead.

2 – No testimony can establish a miracle happened unless the falsehood of that testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle claim.

3 – Only primitive people entertain the idea that miracles could ever occur.

I talked about how the skeptic erects a knowledge barrier against the idea of particular events because they don’t like the implications of them. But there are two more problems with the skeptical rejection of miracles.

2 – It is Mistaken to Think that Miracles Violate the Laws of Nature

Why is it mistaken? After all, we know people don’t come back from the dead after a few days like the Bible claims of Jesus.[1] What’s more, people can’t turn water into wine as Jesus is reported to have done. We’ve never seen anything like that before in a lab, never mind at a wedding. Surely that’s enough for us to say – miracles like these are impossible?

I can see three problems here:

2.1 Natural Laws are DESCRIPTIVE not PRESCRIPTIVE

The law of gravity, for example, is an approximate description of a natural phenomenon. It describes what we usually perceive, all things being equal. Apples fall from trees, and what goes up usually comes down again. But natural law does not demand or prescribe what MUST happen. Law is not a straight-jacket to nature. It is simply a description of our current understanding of nature. Humans did not create nature, we simply work to understand it and express our tentative understanding using laws. For example, if a rocket is designed to produce enough kinetic energy, it can break the gravitational pull of the earth and send its passengers into orbit around the planet.

If natural law prescribed what must always occur, then rockets can’t break gravitational pull, and certain types of miracle would also be impossible because they both would violate natural laws. But that’s NOT what natural law is. Natural law is not a straight-jacket. It is simply a description of what people usually observe.

But unlike the rocket, a miracle (like turning water into wine) is an unusual or unique event which does not occur by natural but by supernatural means. This does not violate natural law. God created matter in the universe and established the chemical properties of both water and wine. Were he to switch the chemical composition from one to the other on one occasion, then this would extend our understanding of what is possible when a divine agent is involved.

It seems to me there are at least two ways God could intervene in nature:

  1. God could simply use natural law to achieve his purposes in the world. But it would be the timing of the natural event that would make it miraculous, not the conditions of the event.
  2. God could reach into the natural world and redirect events so that something out of the ordinary happened. This would not break natural law, because law is descriptive of what usually occurs. In this situation, something different happens which we describe as miraculous because it is surprising and out of the ordinary.

C S Lewis said it this way. Imagine on two consecutive nights I place two British 5 pound notes in my bedside drawer. The laws of arithmetic tell me that by the second night, my drawer contains a total of 20 pounds. Now, if I wake up the next day and open the drawer and only find 5 pounds there, I do not conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken. Rather, I know that someone has come along and pinched my money. It would be ludicrous to suggest the laws of arithmetic prevent the existence or activity of thieves![2] In other words, agents act and laws exist. One does not contradict the other. Rather, the existence of the law of arithmetic reveals the activity of the thief. Miracles work like that when it comes to God.

2.2 It’s a mistake to judge the likelihood of a miracle by considering normal experience

A skeptic may claim that they have never seen a miracle.[3] But that’s irrelevant to whether or not other people have witnessed miracles, or whether miracles occur. The point is that miracles are unusual events, so their existence is out of the ordinary. It is pointless to judge miracle claims by our own personal experience.

People do not usually come back from the dead by way of normal natural causes. Yet Christians do not claim that Jesus somehow spontaneously came back from the dead by natural means. Rather, God chose to raise Jesus from the dead. And this was a unique event in history. And if God exists, he would be able to suspend the laws he himself created without contradicting them.

All of this is can be true whether or not our own personal experiences involve miracles or not.

2.3 We argue in a circle when we deny miracles based on what usually occurs

The skeptic says because natural laws are uniform and predictable, miracles cannot and do not occur. But they have a problem. Our experience of nature is only uniform and predictable if we already know that all reports of miracles are actually false.

The skeptic is saying:

“Miracles never occur, so miracles are impossible.”

They are therefore presupposing what they are attempting to prove, and circular arguments like these are logically fallacious. But its worse than that. There are many contemporary, well evidenced and credible miracle claims reported by both believers in God and skeptics alike. It is simply mistaken to suppose that no miracles have occurred, because this claim flies in the face of the documentary evidence.

3 – Primitive People Did Not First Believe the Miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection

It’s true that primitive people have attributed natural phenomena to the work of their gods. But Ancient Judaism was quite different, it was a sophisticated, humane and learned culture. Children were taught the Torah from a young age, and many could read and write. The Apostles were not primitives. Sure, they were ignorant of the modern scientific methods and discoveries we have today. But it’s wrong to accuse them of ignorance for that reason because that knowledge wasn’t available to them. They knew very well that dead people stay dead. To notice an event as miraculous, you have to have a solid appreciation for how the world works. And this is exactly what helped them realise Jesus had been raised from the dead.

They also understood the risks facing them for challenging the authorities and preaching the risen Christ in Jerusalem. And yet the risk was clearly worth it for them, and Christianity has been the result.

 

Conclusion

In this brief blog series, I’ve responded to the common claim is that miracles can’t happen, and we cannot know whether they can happen. What we’ve seen is that this amounts to nothing much more than a bare prejudice against the idea that God exists and he intervenes within the natural universe he created. Miracles don’t violate the laws of nature, they would extend them. We don’t need extraordinary evidence of miracles, just sufficient evidence. And while primitives may have attributed natural phenomena to the gods, the Bible’s view of miracles is a highly sophisticated one.

When you consider the many cumulative logical arguments for God existence (e.g. cosmological, moral, fine tuning, biological information, etc), the possibility that God exists becomes strong, and so the idea he would intervene in nature through miraculous means becomes highly likely.

 

 

[1] I know medical Doctors who HAVE witnessed this on a smaller scale, people returning to life a few hours later. And there are many documented examples of this sort of thing in Craig Keener’s book.

[2] C S Lewis, Miracles A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1947).

[3] For a vast archive of contemporary miracle claims, see Craig Keener, Miracles The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

A Case for Miracles – What If We Had Sufficient Evidence?

Forty years ago, Carl Sagan introduced the idea that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and this aphorism entered into public consciousness. But Sagan’s idea dates back much further. In the 18th century, Scottish philosopher David Hume helped lay a skeptical groundwork against the Bible’s claims that supernatural historical events have occurred. Speaking about the claimed resurrection of Jesus, Hume said:[1]

1 – Miracles violate the laws of nature, and our experience tells us these natural laws are fixed. Dead people stay dead.

2 – No testimony can establish a miracle happened unless the falsehood of that testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle claim.

3 – Only primitive people entertain the idea that miracles could ever occur.

Here’s how people tend to use these ideas today. When a Christian makes a case for Jesus’ resurrection, the skeptic will often respond with:

“Ha! Jesus’ resurrection is an extraordinary claim, so where’s your extraordinary evidence? All you’ve got is a bunch of old books!” When the Christian presses further, they will probably find that the skeptic has no idea what could actually qualify as extraordinary evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. But whatever the Christian can present as evidence, the skeptic replies, “Not extraordinary enough. Try again.” So – the skeptic remains justified in his position. Miracles don’t happen.

What is happening here? The skeptic is strongly committed to the non-existence of miracles like Jesus resurrection, so they have raised an unscalable epistemic wall. No-one can scale it and convince them that Jesus rose from the dead. This is just fine for them because they feel that means they don’t need to worry about God’s existence.

Now – personally, I think it is very wise to be initially skeptical about any miraculous claim we hear. But it sounds dangerous to me that the skeptic would refuse to accept something based on what they WANT to be true. It seems much safer to follow the evidence where it leads in these matters.

I’m going to point to three serious problems with the skeptic’s position.

1 – We Don’t Erect Knowledge Barriers Against Other Unique Events

Unique and surprising stuff happens in life all the time. But so what?

1.1 Surprising Events Happen

For example, in 1954, Roger Bannister achieved something that people thought impossible. He ran a mile in under four minutes. A small crowd was there to witness the achievement, but the reports spread quickly. How extraordinary! Yet the newspaper reporting on its occurrence was pretty mundane. Here’s another one. In 1969, the first humans stepped onto the surface of the moon, and all people had to witness this were expert commentary, news reports and grainy, poor quality video. Even though a tiny minority of people would later claim these moon landings were faked, this did not reflect the international outpouring of excitement and acceptance of this unique event at the time. Extraordinary! But all the evidence we had that it happened was very normal indeed.

And someone replies, “Hang on. Neither of these events are miraculous. They are natural events.” Yes. They are unique natural events at the time, never having happened before. If you want an example of a non-natural unique event that we treat in exactly the same way, think about the beginning of the universe. Cosmologists generally accept the Big Bang theory, but point to naturally observable evidence for this supernatural event. For example, the cosmic background radiation level, and the red-shift of receding galaxies.

My point is this. For these and countless other events, we do not have extraordinary evidence supporting them. Instead, we have SUFFICIENT evidence, and this is enough for us.

1.2 Sufficient Evidence Rules Out Other Explanations

What is sufficient evidence, and what does it do? The evidence must be sufficient to make the alternative explanations for these extraordinary events to be unreasonable. In other words, given the evidence we have that these extraordinary events occurred what’s the likelihood that the event did not actually occur? It’s highly unlikely the event did not occur. For example, skeptical theories about the US moon landings are incredibly outlandish and bizarre when compared with the very normal evidence supporting the events themselves.

I think we look for sufficient evidence and are satisfied by it all the time. Here’s another example. What happens more often? People being married, or political leaders being assassinated? Clearly, more people have been married than have been assassinated. Now, consider the case of the assassination of US President Abraham Lincon. It was a unique event that is reported to have occurred on 15th April, 1865. Are we more skeptical about this event compared to, say, a Royal wedding? No we aren’t. And the reason is that, even though the assassination of Lincon is a unique event in history, we have sufficient evidence that it happened. But more importantly, the evidence rules out the alternative possibilities. Namely, he was not assassinated that day, or he died of natural causes that day, or something else.

My point is that when unique events occur, we don’t seek some extraordinary level of evidence that is beyond reach. Not at all. We are satisfied with sufficient evidence that rules out other explanations.

When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, the documentary evidence is sufficient for many reasonable people because this evidence rules out alternative explanations of that historical event. The evidence of the empty tomb, the eyewitness appearances and the first century birth of the Christian church can only adequately be explained by the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth died and was raised from the dead unexpectedly and significantly. However extraordinary the claim, we don’t treat this event any differently from other unique events in history.

But – should we? After all, miracles like the resurrection Of Jesus are not natural occurrences. In the next part of this blog, I’ll talk about miracles and whether the laws of nature prevent them from happening in the real world.

[1] David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding Section X Of Miracles, https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/43811/hume-on-miracles.htm.