This is proving to be a fun week. On Sunday I observed that the Gospel is a story and that we do not see God showing up in real life, attending church, and raising the long-dead. Jayman777 objected to that observation and tried to refute me—by supplying more stories about people seeing alleged miracles. He continues the same attempt in a second post, but like the first one, he only reinforces my original observation.
He begins by exposing a key weakness of his approach. Speaking of my observations, he writes:
The argument appears to be: I personally have not observed a miracle, therefore no one has observed a miracle. If this is not obviously fallacious reasoning to you then consider another argument of the same form: I have not personally observed a volcano erupting, therefore volcanoes do not erupt. Recall from the last post that hundreds of millions of people claim to have directly witnessed or experienced a miracle. One person’s experiences do not dictate the experiences of others or what is possible.
Imagine that for a moment. You meet someone who claims that there are hundreds of millions of volcanic eruptions taking place all around the world. Hundreds of millions. And yet, suppose that somehow, you had never seen one. In fact, nobody you know has ever seen one. Even the person insisting that here are hundreds of millions of eruptions has never seen one. Then you say, “We keep hearing stories about volcanic eruptions, but somehow we never actually see any”—a perfectly reasonable and accurate observation—and your friend says, “You can’t possibly know that!”
Well, yes we can. We’re the ones making the observation, and we’re getting nothing but reinforcement of those observations, even from the people who are trying to disprove them. For example, Jayman complains that “he [meaning me] misunderstands my position, misrepresents the evidence, and avoids seriously interacting with the evidence at all.” But how have I misunderstood his position?
Let me be clear that my neutrality towards miracles in the last post was done to prevent the post from straying too far off course. The main point I was making was that the kinds of miracles narrated in the NT are narrated by credible, modern eyewitnesses and, therefore, the presence of miracle accounts in the NT is not sufficient reason to doubt that the NT documents are rooted in eyewitness testimony. DD is drifting into a discussion of whether miracles actually happen but not addressing the thrust of my post.
So determining whether or not any of these “miracles” actually happened is “straying too far off course.” We have “credible, modern witnesses,” but it doesn’t matter whether any of them is telling the truth or not. (Ever get the feeling that the word “credible” means different things to different people?)
Think about it. My claim is that we do not see things like the long-dead being raised, or the congenitally blind being restored to sight—without medical intervention—in adulthood, and that all we have are stories. If Jayman produced such a genuine miracle, it would overthrow my claim completely, once and for all, but he doesn’t want to “stray” into refuting me because… because…
Well, ok, he does want to refute me. The question is, can he succeed? If hundreds of millions of genuine miracles are actually happening, then his most promising strategy would be to demonstrate a few of them and show that they are genuine. If, however, all we really have are hundreds of millions of rumors, exaggerations, superstitions, and outright frauds, then his optimal strategy is to assert ignorance, and to deny that we have any ability to make reliable assessments about the truth of the matter. Ignorance is the best defense against having your preferred beliefs exposed as false, and that’s why looking too closely at the truth of these alleged miracles would be “straying too far off course.”
So let’s stray. Let’s look at some of those stories. Do any of them refute my claim that we hear unsubstantiated stories about miracles, instead of seeing the miracles themselves?
Jayman quotes from a book by Craig Keener, a 2-volume set actually, in which the latter attempts to document genuine miracles happening in the real world. We’ll get to Keener in a minute, but first let’s ask, why did Jayman have to go to a third party in his search for a miracle with which to refute my claims? Hundreds of millions of miracles are supposedly happening, and yet my observation remains true: Jayman himself does not have genuine miracles, he has only stories, which he had to go to a third party to obtain.
Now, what about this third party? Is he a “modern, trustworthy witness,” as Jayman claims? Does he know how to distinguish between rumor and fact? Can he properly document the stories he tells, so that other researchers can easily follow up on his research and fact-check his reports? Here’s a story from Keener’s book, quoted by Jayman as a fair example of “modern eyewitness testimony that suggests, at the very least, that the healing of those blind from birth and the raising of the dead (among other miracles) may still happen today.”
Yet however one chooses to explain them, many stories from China cannot be simply gossip; they derive from persons directly affected by them. A young man recounted that as a boy, he was given up by the doctor for dead, but when his father desperately cried out to God and dedicated the boy to his service, the boy quickly recovered.
Let’s see, remote, unidentified/inaccessible location: check. Unidentified subjects: check. Unverifiable problem: check. Unexpected-but-not-unheard-of outcome: check. This representative sample, as chosen by Jayman to refute my point, turns out to be a mere rumor about a case where a doctor was unduly pessimistic about a patient’s recovery. Doctors, of course, are better off being pessimistic, because if they promise a full recovery and the patient subsequently dies, they can be sued for malpractice, whereas it only makes people happy when negative expectations fail to materialize.
Remember, Jayman is trying to refute my claim that we do not see miracles, we only hear stories. Yet here he is, reinforcing my observations! Let’s try another.
Josiah Mataika from Fiji noted that when his aunt gave birth, the baby was blind and expected to live only a few days; his grandmother, a pastor, led the family to pray and fast in hopes that God might intervene. The child’s eyes were healed, and she is now in third grade.
Check it out, this one has a name. Where’s the contact information, though? Oh wait, this is just another story about things turning out better than people thought they would—unexpected but not unheard of. We’re not raising anyone from the dead, we’re just finding out that doctors err on the side of pessimism. Any more?
One book documents a boy in Kinshasa, Congo, returning to life hours after being pronounced dead and left in the morgue, at the moment that Christian evangelist Mahesh Chavda prayed. In this case the source provides medical attestation, including photographs of the raised boy and his earlier death certificate. Others tell of a local minister in the same country who raised a woman dead four days, despite the unbearable stench beforehand.
Cool story, bro. So the evidence is mentioned in the story, but where is it in real life? Granted, someone coming “back to life” only a few hours after being pronounced dead falls into the “unexpected but not unheard-of” category, since people can and do misdiagnose death. But if you’ve got a woman who really came back to life after decaying for four days, then that blows away my whole argument.
Only we don’t have that woman, do we? All we have are stories about people rising from the dead. Jayman’s “credible modern eyewitnesses” turn out to be people uncritically accepting and passing on stories just because other people claim that they are true. (Look up the definition of “gullible” sometime.)
Jayman thus confirms my observation: that when we look at Christianity, we hear a huge number of stories, but we don’t see the miracles. Jayman would like to send us all to China on a wild goose chase, looking for genuine miracles, mind you.
There is nothing stopping the atheist from from reviewing Keener’s sources. For the interested, Keener documents numerous cases of the blind gaining sight and the dead rising (although I only recall the one cited case of someone dead for more than 72 hours but brain damage should set in a few minutes after death anyway).
There’s nothing stopping Jayman either—except maybe the fact that documentation like “a minister in Kenya raised a woman from the dead” doesn’t really give you much to go on. But that’s irrelevant. Jayman doesn’t want to “stray” into finding out whether any of these stories is really true. Far safer to throw up a huge wall of hearsay and rumor and superstition, and then send the skeptics on an endless snipe hunt.
It all boils down to ignorance as the foundation for faith. He does not know himself whether any of these tales is really true, he’s just counting on the hope that he will have given us more claims than we have time and resources to investigate. Therefore (he hopes) we cannot know that they are all false. Ignorance comes to God’s rescue, once again. Except that we can know—but I’ll save that for tomorrow.