By Bruce Edwards, Jr.
The intellectual climate in which we live is one which tends toward extremes. On the one hand there are the complete skeptics who admit nothing but the “natural,” who affirm that there is nothing beyond the world that we can perceive with our five senses. Consequently, no “supernatural” events can take place–events like the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. On the other hand, there are those who are ready and eager to believe anything and everything, who affirm the miraculous and supernatural in every event and in every circumstance. The presence of these two opposite forces in society has made it difficult for the convicted Bible believer to offer a rational defense for the miracles recorded therein. The total skepticism of the one group influences some to discredit even the possibility of God and His presence in the world. The easy-believeism of the other group influences some to discredit the miracles of the Bible because of the rank phoniness and deliberate deceptions of modern-day “faith-healers” and their clan. Thus, the problem is two-fold: the Christian must establish a “believability” for Bible miracles to break the stronghold of the skeptic while at the same time distinguishing the Bible miracles from the bogus claims of misdirected people today.
It is unlikely, however, that our problems are unique; it would seem that both types appeared in the environs of first century Palestine where Jesus walked, both those who would believe anything and those who will believe nothing. The question then and the question now is still: Jesus’ miracles – are the accounts trustworthy? It is this question we propose to deal with in this article.
The Gospel Miracles
The gospels contain narratives of about 35 different times when Jesus is said to have performed feats that appeared miraculous to those who witnessed them. In addition to these, there are several passages which quite clearly affirm that Jesus was in fact performing a miracle. More than half of these narratives deal with the healing Jesus did. In other cases we are told that he cast demons out of distressed victims. Three times we are told that he raised people from the dead. The remaining incidents speak of his power over things: feeding multitudes with little food, walking on water, changing water into wine and catching enormous amounts of fish.
Modem Objections to Miracles
At the very least, these narratives testify to the tremendous impression which Jesus’ ministry had upon those who witnessed it. Even if these stories were legends we would still be interested in finding out just what it was about Him that compelled people to tell such stories about Him. One thing must be faced, however, from the beginning: there is no use in trying to separate some kind of “non-miraculous” Jesus from the story. His deeds are an integral part of His story – it is impossible to remove them from His life – they are there. Why then do skeptics try to remove them?
First, it is commonly argued that somehow “science” has ruled out the possibility of the miraculous. This is a formidable objection in the minds of many if for no other reason than the fact that “science” is held is such high esteem today. When 20th century man witnesses men on the moon, the advent of atomic energy and the tremendous strides in medicine, he reasons, perhaps, that science has “explained away” the supposed “superstitions” of prior ages. But as one looks more closely at this “argument from science” he realizes that it is nothing more than the statement of a presupposition-the affirmation of prejudice. And this “prejudice” takes the form that “in a purely natural, material universe nothing can happen that cannot be explained through natural cause.” But, quite obviously, this is merely an assumption about the universe that cannot be proven. It is an assumption which is no more valid (and, in fact, less valid) than the assumption that the universe is not wholly “natural and material.” Surely, we must realize that the honest truth-seeker will have an open-mind about the question and will sincerely examine the evidence for both possibilities.
Secondly, it is argued that there is actually no reliable historical evidence for the miraculous. Miracle-believers are told that their “miracles” must comply with a rigid set of rules in order to establish the fact of their occurrence. The evidence for miracles, they argue, must be extremely strong and it must be something that cannot be explained by non-miraculous fact since (to the skeptic) it “is more likely that the witnesses got it wrong than that a miracle actually happened.” It is easy to see that a skeptic who is determined to remain an unbeliever can do so even when the evidence for miracles actually complies with his rigid criteria; he will simply “explain away” the miraculous from the circumstances to fit his pre-conceived notions.
In the final analysis it is not very productive to argue about this or that matter and how it “could have been pulled off;” the central miracle of the Gospels (and the whole Bible for that matter) is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is upon this one grand miracle that the whole of revealed religion depends. Thus it is reasonable to center our investigation upon this one event as a “test case” for the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts about Jesus. By an analysis of the testimony of the evangelists it should be possible for us to establish whether or not the accounts of the resurrection are trustworthy, i.e., reliable historical records of what happened. But we need to keep in mind one important fact: what we are establishing is a reasonable platform for faith, not “absolute proof.” There is an element of faith in all knowledge and no less an element when we are talking about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. We can point out the facts, we can affirm the reasonableness of faith, but we cannot compel people to believe; this is a decision that they must make for themselves on the basis of the evidence.
The criteria for determining the validity of testimony may be fairly said to rest upon three categories: (1) the honesty and integrity of the witnesses involved; (2) the ability of the witnesses to know the facts of a situation; (3) the agreement of the witnesses. And how do the witnesses of the resurrection square up to these categories?
1. Honesty and Integrity. When one actually reads the individual accounts of the resurrection (and this is a major problem, it seems, with so many; most unbelievers have never read the accounts for themselves, he is impressed by the straight-forward simplicity of the accounts. It is, in fact, impossible to attribute to these men and women ulterior motives for believing and proclaiming a risen Lord. The fame, wealth and reputations that the world accounts as valuable were left behind when these dedicated believers surrendered to Jesus as Master. These were hounded and persecuted men and women all of their lives; who could think that these humble, dedicated ones would knowingly believe and propagate a false account? And neither were these believers “fanatics” who believed what they wanted to believe. When the accounts are read, one realizes that of all people, the disciples were the most shocked and surprised by the resurrection. The tough-minded Thomas refused to believe in the risen Christ without “hard” evidence (John 20:24-28) and his example serves as a key to the essential integrity of these witnesses to the resurrection.
2. Ability to Know the Facts. One of the requisites to sound testimony is the ability of a witness to know the facts. If the disciples were somehow handicapped in this regard, if, for instance, they did not know Jesus well enough to identify him, or that none of them had been in the environs of Jerusalem within the alleged forty days after his death and burial, or if any other difficulty presented itself such that the witnesses could not possibly have seen and heard what they claimed, then we should seriously doubt their testimony. But, as any fair-minded reader must admit, none of these things are the case. John declared that the apostles had preached only what they “(had) heard, that they (had) seen with (their) eyes, that which (they had) looked at and (their) hands (had) touched” (1 John 1:1). Peter argued that he and the others had not “followed cleverly invented stories” (2 Pet. 1:16) and, when he preached to Cornelius, he pointed to pre-selected witnesses who had eaten and drunk with Jesus after His resurrection (Acts 10:40,41). The disciples indeed knew Jesus – and no one could possibly maintain, when the evidence is examined, that they could have been misled or deceived. This was their Lord!
3. Agreement of Testimony. Unbelievers, yesterday and today, have pointed to alleged “jars and clashes” in the resurrection accounts, affirming that this is “proof” that the disciples were probably confused and mistaken about the risen Lord. And while it must be admitted there are differences as to detail in the accounts (that is, different writers emphasizing different facts to the exclusion of others), there are no “contradictions” to be found. In fact, would it not be highly suspicious for the four gospel writers to have recorded exactly the same facts and details without any variety of emphasis or design? The truth is that the four gospel accounts that we have of the resurrection are just what one might expect from four different writers, each with his own purposes in mind: accurate details, without contradiction, and yet with the personal perspective of each writer kept intact. (The Christian, of course, realizes that these men were guided by the Spirit, Jn. 16:13, who guaranteed the accuracy of their records.)
It should be apparent by now that the question of the reliability and trustworthiness of the gospel accounts regarding Jesus’ miracles is not really a question of evidence. To any fair-minded reader, the evidence is not merely “ample,” it is, in fact, overwhelming! There is nothing to suggest in the accounts that we have that there has been any sort of elaborate ruse or deliberate trickery foisted upon us. There is no hint of deceit or charlatantry. The facts of the matter are set forth very simply and, we might add, very ‘humbly be a group of devout, dedicated disciples of the risen Jesus. If people persist in unbelief it is not because there is not enough evidence to believe. It is not a problem of evidence, but of the will. There is no “reason” for honest men and women to disbelieve; it is a matter of their conscious choice to ignore and/or reject the evidence that points to faith. It is thus crucial at this point to ask the reader, “Believest thou what thou readest?” If the answer is yes, we bid you to obey the gospel of the risen Lord who died for you (Acts 2:38); if the answer is no, we beg you to consider your stubborn will and the consequences of rejecting God in this life (Acts 17:31).
Truth Magazine, XX:22, pp. 1-2
May 27, 1976