When, as the story goes, Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree and saw an apple fall, he already believed that God was ultimately responsible both for the apple’s existence and its fall from the tree. Newton discovered the principles of classical physics because he wanted to know the means by which God made apples fall.
Science assumes that all natural phenomena have natural causes that can be discovered if we look for them. This assumption is called methodological naturalism. There is no inherent contradiction between the use of methodological naturalism and belief in miracles and the supernatural. Isaac Newton formulated the laws of classical physics while holding passionate faith in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. Many scientists share Newton’s Christian worldview.
Unfortunately, some people have been so deeply impressed with the power of science that they make methodological naturalism the standard for judging all truth and value. This misapplication of methodological naturalism results in the dogmatic rejection of miracles. Most people today have a sense of the importance of methodological naturalism for science. But they also know that science has little bearing on their most important decisions. No one depends on science to choose a spouse or select a career. (See the ATQ articles, Why Believe in God’s Existence, When It Can’t Be Proven Scientifically? and How Can I Prove to Someone that God Exists?) Trying to do so would be like an orchestra replacing a concert pianist with a piano repairman.
Different subjects call for different evidence. If we want to examine historical events, we need more tools than the scientific method can provide. A murder trial, for example, attempts to reconstruct historical events. Every murder is unique, involving specific people and circumstances that can’t be reproduced. Science may be used in the process of clarifying and presenting evidence, but no murder can be repeated and scientifically tested so that guilt can be established with absolute certainty. A judgment of (legal) guilt or innocence is reached on the basis of cumulative evidence, including circumstantial evidence and subjective factors like motive.
Historical evidence, like the evidence in a trial, is not strictly “scientific.” Nevertheless it requires rational standards for analysis and verification. A juror who ignores a vast array of evidence for guilt, because he assumes from the start that the defendant is innocent, violates standards of truth just as much as a scientist who ignores evidence that doesn’t support his hypothesis.
The New Testament skeptic has to account for the sudden rise of a group of believers who centered their lives and hopes in a man they proclaimed was raised from the dead, the Son of God, worthy of worship.
What is the sufficient historical explanation for how a band of first-century Palestinian (predominantly Galilean) Jews came to abandon some of their most deeply held religious convictions—indeed, the central tenet of their traditional faith—and worshipped a Jewish contemporary of theirs as, in some sense, “Yahweh embodied”? Of course, one explanation—the traditional Christian explanation—begins by appreciating how extraordinary the Jesus event must have been to inspire such a radical shift in the faith in his followers. If Jesus made the claims, lived the life, and performed the miracles the Gospels attribute to him, and if Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead as the Gospels claim, and if his earliest Jewish followers personally experienced these momentous events—particularly the resurrected Jesus—then the radical worldview reorientation these followers experienced begins to make sense.” (Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 99.)
Although skeptics have dedicated themselves to finding an explanation, they have failed. (See the ATQ article, What Are Some Arguments Used to Downplay the Significance of the Gospels?)
In fact, their attempts to account for the evidence have often deteriorated into self-deception and transparently weak arguments. (See the ATQ article, Why Do Many Western People Doubt the Accuracy of the Gospels?)
The vast majority of Western people have never stopped believing in miracles.1 The paradigm of metaphysical naturalism is weakening, and there is growing pressure on scholars to look at the actual historical evidence rather than making metaphysical assumptions about what can or cannot happen. As decades pass and evidence accumulates, it becomes more and more clear that the most reasonable conclusion is that miracles actually occurred in connection with Jesus and His ministry, and that the historical tradition contained in the Gospels is reliable.
- For example, in 1989, George Gallup Jr. reported that 82 percent of the American populace affirmed that, “even today, miracles are performed by the power of God.” So too, a 1998 Southern Focus Poll found that 83.1 percent of its respondents believed that “God answers prayers,” with 33.6 percent reporting that they had personally experienced having “an illness cured by prayer.” Not only this, but it is undeniable that Western culture at the present time is experiencing a significant surge of people publicly reporting experiences of healings, angelic or demonic encounters, and so on. Whatever else one makes of this, at the very least it suggests that the “modern, Western worldview” is not nearly as committed to naturalism as scholars such as Bultmann, Harvey, Funk, and others have suggested.
The stark clash between what naturalistic scholars say the Western worldview should entail, on the one hand, and what the majority of Western people in fact believe and experience, on the other, suggests that when scholars proclaim that the Western worldview is incurably naturalistic, their intent is not so much to describe what the Western worldview is as it is to prescribe what the Western worldview should be. (The Jesus Legend, p. 74) Back To Article