Thursday, July 12, 2012

Judging Competing Miracle Claims

Critics of the supernatural often ask how Christians explain non-Christian miracle accounts. See, for example, Matt McCormick's chapter in The End Of Christianity (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2011). He asks Christians to explain everything from claims that Michael Jackson rose from the dead (204) to "statues of the Lord Ganesh drinking milk", the "otherworldly powers" of "gurus, New Age spiritualists, and other quasi-religious leaders", and the miracles associated with the founding of Islam and other major religions (214). This past March, Geoff Lillis, an atheist, was on a radio program with Craig Keener, discussing Keener's recent book on miracles. (See the March 17 and March 24, 2012 editions of the Unbelievable? radio program, found in the archives here.) He wanted to know how Keener would explain the miracles attributed to Sai Baba.

And both non-Christians and Christians sometimes ask how alleged post-Biblical Christian miracles are related to the miracles of the Biblical era. Is there any difference between the miracles of Jesus and the apostles and the miracles supposedly occurring among Christians today? That issue is relevant to disputes over cessationism, and it's relevant in other contexts.

In my last post, I said that there probably are billions of people in the world today, including many non-Christians, who would claim to have witnessed at least one miracle. Why would miracles be happening among non-Christians if Christianity is true? Are the non-Christian miracles comparable to or better than Christian miracles? If so, what are the implications for Christianity?

We've addressed some of these issues elsewhere. For example, Steve Hays and I have responded to Matt McCormick in chapter 8 of The End Of Infidelity. I've discussed some of these matters in the process of addressing near-death experiences. (For an index of my posts on the subject, see here. The first thread I link there, from April of 2011, is the one that's most relevant to the present context.) There are many posts in the Triablogue archives about the evidence for Christianity, how it compares to the evidence for other purportedly supernatural belief systems, the evidence for post-Biblical miracles, and other relevant issues. I won't be repeating much of what we've already said in those past discussions. What I want to do here is cite some relevant passages from Craig Keener's Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011).

One of the points I've made in past discussions of this subject is that we should compare the amount of power demonstrated by one system of miracles to the amount demonstrated by another. Moses outperformed Pharaoh's magicians. Elijah's God demonstrated more power than Baal. And the larger the margin by which a system outperforms its competitors, the more plausible the conclusion that the system is Divine.

Keener writes that "Most scholars believe that the founders of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam did not claim to work miracles, though Islam and later forms of Buddhism allow for miracles" (n. 164 on 197). He's distinguishing between how those religions actually originated and how their origins were portrayed in some significantly later sources. By contrast, Christianity attributed a large number of miracles to Jesus and the earliest church leaders from the start.

He quotes Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz commenting, "Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus." (66) He goes on to quote John Meier's observation that "the early dating of the literary testimony to Jesus's miracles, i.e., the closeness of the dates of the written documents to the alleged miracles of Jesus's life, is almost unparalleled for the period." (71) Keener himself notes, concerning Jesus' ability to raise the dead:

"Ancients recounted stories of ancient or even mythical heroes who raised the dead, but these are normally told centuries after the alleged event. I do not know of ancient stories of particular persons, outside the persons under discussion (Jesus and his first followers), raising the dead, based on eyewitnesses and written within a generation. It is possible that I may have missed some, but one can at least affirm with confidence that they are not very many. By contrast, the summary that Jesus performed multiple raisings (Matt 11:5/ /Luke 7:22) belongs to first-generation Q material. Further, specific and likely independent healing accounts in Mark (Mark 5:35-43), special Luke material (Luke 7:11-17), and John (John 11:39-45) confirm by multiple attestation the tradition that Jesus was from our earliest traditions reported to raise the dead." (537-538)

He goes on to comment that the resurrection of Jesus Himself "lacks both ancient and modern analogies" (538). Though resuscitations are often referred to as resurrections, Jesus was resurrected in a higher sense of that term. His resurrection involved a transformation of the body into an immortal state. Jesus' resurrection, distinguished from resuscitations, is unparalleled among post-Biblical miracles. Keener also notes other Biblical miracles that he either hasn't seen claimed in any modern source or hasn't seen claimed with any significant credibility (587-589).

Another difference Keener notes between Biblical and post-Biblical miracles is that miracles "seem to happen less often today than in NT [New Testament] accounts (at least in circles we regularly encounter)" (n.112 on 729). I think what he's saying is that Jesus and His earliest followers performed more miracles relative to their context. They healed a higher percentage of people they came into contact with, produced "fuller attestation" (729), etc. One of the points Keener makes in the surrounding context is that there weren't as many partial and gradual healings among Jesus and the apostles as there are among Christians today. Jesus and the apostles performed a higher proportion of more "dramatic, instant signs" (729).

However, Keener thinks there's a high degree of similarity between the Biblical and post-Biblical miracle accounts, despite some differences. He cites post-Biblical reports of walking on water, turning water into wine, resuscitation, and a large variety of other miracles.

He discusses some post-Biblical power encounters (843-856), in which Christians have competed with demons or human followers of non-Christian religions, similar to how Moses competed with the magicians of Pharaoh and Elijah competed with the prophets of Baal. The most significant power encounters, however, have to occur at a more abstract level. Religious leaders like Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed lived at different times in history, so they wouldn't have faced each other in the manner in which Elijah faced Baal's prophets. Even among contemporaries, a power encounter may not happen. If we wanted to put Christianity up against Islam, for example, how likely would it be that Christians and Muslims would reach an agreement about conducting a power encounter and how to do it? And God might not accommodate it even if it were to happen. We can, however, conduct a more abstract power encounter by comparing the miracles of the two religions. Keener's book suggests that Christianity has demonstrated a massive amount of power not only in the miracles of the Bible, but also by means of a large number and variety of post-Biblical miracles. Islam and other rivals don't have anything comparable or better.

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