Zombies, witches, miracles and apologies

May 7th, 2014
by Chris

There’s a very good post at Kelsos (otherwise adversus apologetica) which I’ve just read.

The writer is not a fan of apologetics (and neither am I), but in this case interestingly accepts that miracles can and do happen, analyses the crucifixion and resurrection account with that assumption, and still comes to the conclusion that it can’t have happened as described. Miracles, of course, are unlikely in the extreme; we do not have any really reliably documented miracle to persuade us otherwise, pace the Catholic saint-making apparatus, nor indeed any conclusive evidence of any supernatural occurrence. I include here the medical “miracles” which are so popular in apologetic anecdote; none of them really bears scrutiny in a field in which spontaneous cures for many ailments do actually happen without any suggestion of supernatural intervention.

A major feature of the article is that the account in Matt. 27:51-54 (link NIV from Bible Gateway) would have attracted comment from Roman sources which we actually still have (unkind people have referred to this as “Matthew’s zombie apocalypse”, which is funny enough for me to repeat despite the possible offence).

Another mainstay of the argument is that there is actually far better and more believable evidence for witchcraft in Salem in the late 17th century. There, there is a plethora of sworn statements in court as to the activities of the alleged witches, and no evidence against other than the presupposition that supernatural events do not happen. Very few people these days would, however, accept that the “Salem witches” were actually that, and possessed of supernatural powers, including (I think) the vast majority of Christians.

I hadn’t considered Salem in that way before, and it makes sense as a far more recent (and far better documented) example. My own major stumbling block has always been the miracle claims of other religions. I do try very hard not to allow my presumption against supernatural causes to drift to a dogmatic “there are no miracles and never have been” stance. However, using very much the technique of Matthew Fergusson in that blog, if I suspend disbelief in miracle claims in the New Testament I also have to suspend disbelief in miracle claims in, for instance, the Iliad and Oddysey, in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, even in the Epic of Gilgamesh. I have to consider that it’s likely that Nero was raised from the dead, and probably Elvis as well. I also need to take account of miraculous births of, say, Alexander the Great and many other legendary and even historical figures.

So, with a small but niggling regret, I have to interpret the Bible as if all or almost all of the accounts of miracles and supernatural events are literary decoration rather than hard fact. This doesn’t usually give me a problem, except when talking with fellow Christians who take a different view – and mostly, the fact or non-fact of miracles in the Bible isn’t actually significant to the metaphor or allegory in the passage, and I can move past historicity and concentrate on what the story really tells us, which is in the metaphor, the allegory, the parable.

But there are two problems. Firstly, I quite commonly find myself talking with people who report healing “miracles”. I think of these very much as does Aric Clark in a “Two Friars and a Fool” post. I don’t think they’re actually miracles. But I don’t really want to come out and say that; I’m happy for them that healing has occurred, and I don’t want to shake trust in God. Granted, I think trust in God should be leavened with a reading of Job and Ecclesiastes; while God can be trusted, he can’t necessarily be trusted to do what you want or expect, or what is most comfortable or comforting for you.

The other aspect is in considering the impact of Christ in the world. I find it extremely difficult to think of his birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection (the last of which I interpret largely non-supernaturally) as being a case of God doing something which changes the world radically (for instance, making it possible, perhaps for the first time, for all people to be resurrected after death). I have no problem in thinking of it as changing the thinking of mankind radically, which I think it provably has and continues to do.

But there are those who say that if Christ didn’t actually die in order that I might be saved from something (whereas had he not existed, I wouldn’t have had this possibility), then he died for nothing. Now I don’t remotely believe that to be the case, but it seems that for them, they can see no possible reasoning beyond the PSA which they have been indoctrinated in. If they were to accept any merit at all in my thinking, it seems, they would lose all faith.

I don’t want that to happen. I want them to continue to follow Jesus as their lord, to love God and to love their fellow men as themselves. And if the only way in which they can continue to do that is to believe in miracles and PSA (repugnant as I find PSA), I will walk gently away. I may even apologise – not for saying what I think is true, but for saying it to them at what was the wrong time.

If, for some reason, they find they are having difficulty with the concepts in the future, I can offer other ways of thinking. But I don’t want to offer solutions where there’s no perception of a problem. That, it seems to me, is too much like trying to evangelise by first convincing someone – who was previously comfortable in their alternative belief (whatever it was) or lack of one – that they’re a vicious sinner destined for Hell.

Where I do think miracles occur (although it’s maybe a stretch to call them miracles) is within human consciousnesses. I see many cases of cures of addiction and lives transformed in and (less frequently) outside twelve step. And twelve step requires a “God of your understanding” in order to work. It doesn’t matter (experience has proven) what that understanding actually is. Sometimes it’s a conventional protestant PSA one (which is particularly attractive to addicts, who need no convincing that they’re hopeless sinners), often it involves believing in miracles.

So, my more conventional friends, you don’t have to think the way I do about Christianity in order to be my brothers and sisters in faith. But if you’re having problems with conventional readings (or are merely interested in how someone else thinks), I’m here. And may your God go with you, as Dave Allen used to say.

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