The Case Against Miracles Chapter 3

What do I think of John Loftus’s chapter? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Well, I was wrong. I thought I had got to the chapter last time that was the worst. I thought nothing could top Matthew McCormick’s chapter. Sadly, I spoke too soon. John Loftus had a chapter next on defending ECREE.

If you don’t know, that means Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence. The problem with this is first off, what is an extraordinary claim varies from person to person. I consider it an extraordinary claim that God doesn’t exist. Someone might consider macroevolution an extraordinary claim. Another would consider Intelligent Design an extraordinary claim. Some might consider Muhammad being a false prophet an extraordinary claim. Some might consider reincarnation being false an extraordinary claim.

Who decides the standard?

Second, how do you recognize extraordinary evidence? Does it glow in the dark? What does it really look like? The terms are way too vague.

Also, this whole chapter seems at times loaded with any atheist canard that Loftus can put in there. This especially goes after New Testament ideas. It would have been better for Loftus to just stick to his argument, which is essentially just repeating Hume ad nauseum.

In defining his terms, Loftus says that

Third, a miraculous claim is one made about miraculous events that are unexplainable and even impossible by natural processes alone, which requires miraculous levels of testimonial evidence.

Is this not begging the question? It requires miraculous evidence? Who says? Suppose I pray for someone blind to have their eyes opened and as I pray in Jesus’s name for their healing, their eyes open and they see. Am I justified in believing in a miracle? Why not?

He also talks about the way believers treat Hume.

They continue to believe in their sect-specific miracles despite his standards. But they duplicitously use his standards when assessing the miracles of the religions they reject.

Well, no. Not all of us. I have no problem with miracles occurring in other religions. I am fine with Muslims having prayers answered or anything like that. Maybe God is giving them a dose of grace to lead them to Him. Maybe some miracles are demonic in nature. If you talk about visions of Mary appearing, I am open, and even if I don’t know what is going on, I do not rule it out. I also do investigate those in my own tradition, much like I investigate political claims in my own political walk. Many of you know my father-in-law is a New Testament scholar and when possible, I try to verify him as well.

Now some claims I do think are quite false for evidential reasons. I don’t think many of the claims of Mormonism are likely to be true, but could miracles happen there, if perhaps even by demonic powers? Why not? I don’t rule it out.

Loftus interacts with a critic who argues it is self-defeating to use ECREE since the principle itself doesn’t have extraordinary evidence. Loftus has a threefold response. I will deal with what I deem relevant. First

My response is threefold. First, since all claims about the objective world require sufficient corroborating objective evidence commensurate with the nature of the claim, it’s clear that extraordinary types of extraordinary claims require more than mere ordinary testimonial evidence.

But this is just him stating his principle again to which one just has to ask, “Why?” All he has done is taken ECREE and restated it as if that counts as a response. Why should it?

Second, such an objection entails there must be exceptions to the ECREE principle.

Or it could just entail that ECREE is false.

And then we get into the usual arguments.

But what we find exclusively on behalf of miracles in the Bible is human testimony, ancient pre-scientific superstitious human testimony, second- third- fourth-handed human testimony, conflicting human testimony filtered by editors, redactors, and shaped by early Christian debates for decades and/ or centuries in the ancient pre-scientific world, where miracle claims were abundant without the means to discredit them.

Where does someone begin with a train wreck like this? First off, pre-scientific? Granted they didn’t do science like we do, but they had rudimentary knowledge. They knew dead people stay dead. They knew people don’t walk on water. They knew virgins don’t give birth. They knew paralysis and blindness don’t just get healed without a reason. They are called miracles for a reason.

Also, not all of this testimony is second or thirdhand. Consider 2 Corinthians 12:12.

I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles. 

Here Paul is saying that he did miracles in the midst of a testimony to a church that is questioning Paul’s apostleship. Note that also no one disputes that Paul wrote this. If Paul is making a claim like this, he’d better be sure that even his opponents know it.

Finally, miracles back then could be evaluated and they were often scoffed at. Lucian is a prime example. If people just believed miracle claims blindly, then why did the whole world not immediate turn to Christianity? Loftus himself will have something in his book about most Jews rejecting Jesus at His time. Why, if miracles were blindly believed?

Next he looks at the virgin birth, which I do affirm.

Let’s take at face value the extraordinary miraculous tale that a virgin named Mary gave birth to the god/ baby Jesus. There’s no objective evidence to corroborate her story. None. We hear nothing about her wearing a misogynistic chastity belt to prove her virginity. No one checked for an intact hymen before she gave birth. Nor did she provide her bloodstained wedding garment from the night of her wedding that supposedly “proved” she was a virgin before giving birth (Deuteronomy 22: 15– 21). After Jesus was born Maury Povich wasn’t there with a DNA test to verify Joseph was not the baby daddy. We don’t even have first-hand testimonial evidence for it, since the story is related to us by others, not Mary, or Joseph. At best, all we have is the second-hand testimony of one person, Mary, or two if we include Joseph who was incredulously convinced Mary was a virgin because of a dream, yes, a dream (see Matthew 1: 19– 24), one that solved his dilemma of whether to “dismiss her quietly” or “disgrace” her publicly, which would have led her to be executed for dishonoring him.[ 97] We never get to independently cross-examine them, along with the people who knew them, which we would want to do, since they may have a very good reason for lying (pregnancy out of wedlock?).

The reason why we believe the stories here is because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus and believe He’s fully God and fully man and lo and behold, a miraculous birth seems consistent. Some other points to consider are Mary would hardly be able to implicate YHWH immediately. A story of rape or just a one-night stand would be shameful but more readily believed. Second, the writers would not want something that could seem remotely close to paganism, and yet critics would use this. Third, it would confess that Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph which would bring shame to Him. Fourth, while Loftus dismisses a dream, we do not know all the content of this dream. We just know it was convincing and why couldn’t God speak in a dream?

He also says the Gospels were anonymous, which simply means the names weren’t included in the manuscript itself, much like the majority of other ancient works from that time. It’s not the case that no one knew who wrote it. A Gospel did not just show up at the door of a church one day and no one knew who wrote it. A person delivering it would know or somewhere on there it could say who wrote it. Any New Testament survey could give you reasons why a traditional authorship can be believed.

No reasonable investigation could take Mary and/ or Joseph’s word for it.

Because? I mean, if Luke or Matthew is already convinced of the deity of Christ and His being the Messiah and His rising from the dead and doing other miracles, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to believe in these miracles. Perhaps they also spoke to the wise men and/or shepherds. We don’t know. We know Luke was a thorough researcher though, particularly in Acts.

For if this is the kind of research that went into writing the gospels, we shouldn’t believe anything else they say without requiring corroborating objective evidence. But if research was unnecessary for writing their gospels— because they were divinely inspired—why do gospel writers give us the pretense of having researched into it (see Luke 1: 1– 4)? Why not simply say their stories are true due to divine inspiration and be done with the pretense? Then the gospel authors would be admitting their tales lack the required corroborating objective evidence, which in turn means there isn’t a good reason to believe them.

So Loftus says “They did research that ends in miracles and we know that didn’t happen.” How? This is begging the question. Then because these are divinely inspired, then why do research? Loftus brought up inspiration. Not I. Inspiration is a detail that doesn’t really matter. If it’s true, it’s true whether inspired or not. Even if God is inspiring the work, why can it not be done through the means of research? Thus, Loftus has it that if they go and do their research, we can’t believe them because research would never admit a miracle. If they don’t do research, we still can’t believe them.

He then goes on to quote Robert Fogelin.

Hume nowhere argues, either explicitly or implicitly, that we know that all reports of miracles are false because we know that all reports of miracles are false… Hume begins with a claim about testimony. On the one side we have wide and unproblematic testimony to the effect that when people step into the water they do not remain on its surface. On the other side we have isolated reports of people walking across the surface of the water. Given the testimony of the first kind, how are we to evaluate the testimony or of the second sort? The testimony of the first sort does not show that the testimony of the second sort is false; it does, however, create a strong presumption— unless countered, a decisively strong presumption— in favor of its falsehood. That is Hume’s argument, and there is nothing circular or question begging about it.

So it is. How do we evaluate it? Well, off the top of my head I would say we examine the claimants and see what evidence they give and see what the environment is and what the claim entails and then decide if it happened or not. It’s noteworthy in all of this chapter I didn’t see Keener referenced once. You know, the guy who went out and did just that with the evidence. I also don’t see Candy Gunther Brown referenced. Not a shock.

In my previous anthology, Christianity is the Light of Science,

I have to say I was delirious with laughter when I read this. Now, I know we could say it’s just a typo, of which is the first chapter I read with such typos, but I don’t know if we can. I mean, this is the great John Loftus we’re talking about. He studied under William Lane Craig. Surely he would not make a mistake like this. Well, I guess he wants us to know that Christianity is the light of modern science. Excellent!

One idea he says about archaeology disconfirming the Bible is first off, the Exodus. The problem here is that there are some who have questioned this, such as Hoffmeier in his books. Second, such used to be said about David as well. Used to be. Now we have found David in archaeology.

The next is Nazareth being a town during the life of Jesus. Bart Ehrman doesn’t even think this one has validity. See here for details.

Loftus then goes on to mention atheists who have argued against Hume’s argument.

Graham Oppy, who has been every fundamentalist apologist’s friend for taking their beliefs seriously, strangely says “Hume’s argument against belief in miracle reports fails no less surely than do the various arguments from miracle reports to the existence of an orthodoxy conceived monotheistic god.” Surely he doesn’t really mean that? Does he?

Oh please say it isn’t so! Say that Oppy really doesn’t mean it! Surely he would know better! If Loftus’s argument is reduced to “Surely he doesn’t really mean that does he?”, then we have the case of a child just crying wanting it to be otherwise. This does not count as an argument against Oppy. Perhaps we could say it’s “cognitive dissonance.”

He also argues against Mike Licona who says that much of what we know about the past comes from one source and rarely beyond all suspicion. Loftus says

So if historical evidence about ordinary claims in the past has such a poor quality to it, as Licona admits, then how much more does historical evidence of extraordinary miracle claims in the past? If the first is the case, then the second is magnified by thousands.

But Licona didn’t say they have poor quality. He said there’s sometimes one source and just because it is disputed doesn’t mean the evidence is poor. That vaccines don’t cause autism is disputed. That 9/11 wasn’t an inside job is disputed. That heliocentrism is true or the Earth is round is disputed.

Loftus also begs the question again about his standard for miracles. If I question his standard before, why should I accept it now?

Finally, Hume argues that competing religions support their beliefs by claims of miracles; thus, these claims and their religious systems cancel each other out.

I can only surmise that Hume didn’t know much about miracles and religions. Let’s consider Judaism first. The grand miracle of that would be the Exodus. Christians have no problem with that and I doubt Muslims would as well. Jews would reject Christianity’s grand claim of the resurrection as does Islam. Islam itself has no founding miracle except the Qur’an itself. Hinduism and Buddhism have no founding miracles.

If we go further, Mormonism depends on Christian truth to some extent such that if there was no resurrection, Mormonism would likely fall as well. I can also question Mormonism on other grounds, like the Book of Abraham. So I have to ask what Hume was getting at.

Furthermore, all this proves is not all religions would be true, which we would accept. Some would be false. Would it work to say some theories on the origin of life contradict, so they all must be false? Of course not.

If miracles are the foundation for a religion, then an apologist for that religion cannot bring up a miracle working god to establish his supposed miracles. For miracles are supposed to be the basis for the religion and its miracle working god.

And later

Apologists might start by first arguing for their god’s existence, but very few of them say, “Here is the objective evidence that our god exists.” They always seem to talk in terms of “presenting an argument” rather than “presenting the evidence,” which is very telling. So, an unevidenced god will not help an unevidenced miracle, just as an unevidenced miracle will not help an unevidenced god. The only thing apologists can do is special plead to their god and his religion by assuming what needs to be proved.

Loftus doesn’t realize apparently that an argument is evidence, which he should since all he has been giving in this chapter is an argument. I find that very telling. Second, there is nothing inconsistent. This is the classical approach. One uses arguments, like the Thomistic ones, to show that there is a God and some qualities He must have. At this point, belief systems like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are still in the running. Then one looks at the different religious claims to see how that God might have revealed Himself.

One could also start the other way though. One could look at the evidence for the resurrection and be convinced it happened and say “There must be a God then!” That’s not inconsistent at all. Loftus knows if Jesus rose, it would be the Christian God. As he says,

At this point they’re already assuming their Christian god exists and is the one who raised Jesus from the dead, for if the hypothesis was that “Allah raised Jesus from the dead,” we already know the answer— of course not! Nor would it be the Hindu god, any of the pantheistic gods and/ or goddesses, a deistic god, or even the Jewish god, since overwhelming numbers of Jews don’t believe in the Christian god.

But it’s not being assumed. A case is made that a God exists that is consistent with the Christian God, but it does not necessitate the Christian God. That is an important fact to remember.

Finally, he gets to what he calls private miracles

There are two of them. One) Christians claim the gospel writers received private subjective messages from the spirit world who subsequently wrote down these messages known as the divinely inspired Scriptures. On this see David Madison’s excellent chapter for a refutation. Two) Apologists also argue that Christians receive their own private subjective messages that lead them to trust the private subjective messages of the gospel writers.

I’ll be fair and say I agree with some criticisms here. I tire of people constantly thinking God is talking to them or the Holy Spirit is giving them a secret message. Why do I trust the Scriptures? Not because of anything I feel. I trust them because the evidence for them is strong.

So I conclude once again that if this is the best kind of argumentation Loftus has, our Christianity is in really good shape.

In Christ,
Nick Peters