There is no natural explanation for Jesus’ miracles

In the topic where I discuss the objection, Jesus Christ was just a good man, I show how Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and would have had to have been a fraudster or deluded if his claims were wrong. However, a fraudster, who was capable of leading a double life of deceit, would have been unlikely to preach a high integrity life style of love, forgiveness, graciousness and purity. In addition, four books in the Bible called the gospels record the events of Jesus’ life. If these are to be believed then we know that Jesus performed many profound miracles. These miracles would have been impossible to fake, which they would have had to have been, if he was a fraudster. Similarly, if these miracles actually happened then they validate Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God and we know that Jesus was not therefore deluded. If the gospels are to be believed then there is no other conclusion to draw other than Jesus was who he said he was, namely, the Son of God.

This conclusion, however, depends on whether the gospels can be believed, which, in turn, tells us whether we can believe the accounts of miracles found in them. This is a large subject that is addressed both here and in the topic, The gospels are reasonable records of Jesus’ life. This topic first describes how our modern day copies of the gospels are very close to the original gospels before looking at whether the gospel’s authors were writers of myth, fiction, were hoaxers or confidence tricksters or, finally, were making a genuine attempt to record the facts of Jesus’ life. The topic came to the conclusion that only the latter could be true when considering the gospels’ history and cultural context. The topic finally surmised that the authors of the gospels of John and Mark, at least, would have had the means to write an accurate record of Jesus’ life so long as they remained objective enough. In this topic, I’ll continue this discussion and ask whether the writers could have instead perceived miracles where there were none or whether Jesus’ miracles genuinely happened. If Jesus was not a fraudster or deluded then there are no other alternatives: he either performed miracles or the miracles that were recorded were subjective embellishments of natural events.

In this topic we’ll look at the miraculous events of Jesus’ life and ignore both the ones that could have been subjectively interpreted from natural events and the ones that came from undisclosed third party sources to see if there are sufficient remaining, namely first hand accounts that can only be objectively viewed. If there are sufficient of the latter then, bearing in mind that the gospels were genuine attempts to record the facts of Jesus’ life, this leaves us with only one explanation – the miracles genuinely happened.

Could Jesus really have performed miracles – a modern day analogy?

A conclusion that Jesus did perform miracles might seem too remarkable to be believed so, before we investigate it, I’d like to consider a modern day analogy to help us stay open minded and objective. In 1969 humans walked on the moon for the first time in mankind’s history. It was such a remarkable event that today, several decades later, despite the broadcasting of the event on television and first hand accounts, there are sceptics that claim that the lunar landing was a mere hoax, employing Hollywood style special effects. Our modern day advances in technology are, to a certain extent, made possible through surplus wealth and the clever utilisation of our world’s resources. It’s not difficult to imagine that a century or two in the future the world’s diminishing resources may reduce our surplus wealth, which may, in turn, make future manned lunar landings impossible. The education of the future will adapt in-line with the changing opportunities for work and business. An absence of opportunities in the space industry may even mean that the knowledge required to travel to the moon will be lost. If this happens, it may seem imperceivable in the future that a human could have ever travelled to the moon. As the centuries roll by many of the historical records of the lunar landing will also be lost: the film footage, the material artefacts, some of the written records of the event. Eventually, maybe two millennia in the future, the concept that a human could ever walk on the moon could become completely implausible to most people. There will, no doubt, be more sceptics than believers. However, whatever the sceptics might say in the future, a manned lunar landing did happen in 1969.

Similarly, the claims regarding Jesus’ life were truly remarkable. Two millennia ago people were educated to be more aware of philosophy and religion, but, I’m sure that even then, the claims would have been astounding. As the centuries have rolled by many of the historical documents have been lost and our modern day scientific and technological education makes the claims seem implausible to some people. But it doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen.

The Gospel of John – the best source of information

If in two millennia we were to investigate the manned lunar landing to determine if it genuinely happened we would start by reading the records that were based, as much as possible, on eye witness accounts. We would then try and understand the context in which they were written, in particular, we would aim to understand their writers’ motives so that we would be aware of any bias that may affect their objectivity. This is what I’m going to attempt to do here.

In my opinion, the Gospel of John, is the gospel that is most likely to be based on an eye witness account. It states that it was written by one of Jesus’ apostles, which, if true would mean that it would have been written by a very close eye witness of Jesus. In my topic, The gospels were written within eye witnesses’ lifetimes, I briefly describe how some early church writings state that John was the last of the apostles to write a gospel and that he lived to a great age, even into the reign of Trajan in the second century (AD 98-117). There is an inference that he wrote his gospel in his latter years. John is traditionally believed to have settled in the Hellenistic city of Ephesus in Asia Minor and the gospel is written with a style that reflects this. Some scholars have believed that the Hellenistic style dates the gospel to even later than the beginning of the second century, which, if true, would discredit its claim to have been written by an apostle. However, more recently, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid 20th century has shown that a Hellenistic style of writing was in existence in the middle of the first century before AD 70. In addition, the Gospel of John includes many accounts taken from the viewpoint of a close eye witness and it includes detailed and accurate references to geographical features of Jerusalem that would have been difficult to achieve by a writer who was not familiar with the city prior to its destruction in AD 70. My topic, The gospels are reasonable records of Jesus’ life, shows that there is good reason to believe that this was a genuine attempt to record the facts of Jesus’ life.

Finding miracles that aren’t open to interpretation

I’m now going to be as sceptical as is reasonably possible and discount every miraculous event in this gospel that is either subjective or recounted through a third party. I’m not advocating scepticism as the perfect way to isolate facts, but in this case I believe it suits my purposes. By restricting myself to the Gospel of John I’m ignoring a good number of miracles that are recorded in the other three gospels. However, I believe that focusing on only this one gospel will help make this topic concise and will still allow a conclusion to be reached.

In this topic’s appendix I’ve listed every miracle or reference to Jesus’ divinity within the Gospel of John. I’ve placed these into four categories:

  • Subjective account These are events or statements that could be derived from an individual’s interpretation. That interpretation may well be true, but we cannot know the rationale behind their reasoning, so we cannot use these accounts as evidence that Jesus’ miracles actually happened or of his divinity.
  • Third party account These are events that will have had to have been reported to the apostle John by a third party. Again, these may well be true events, but because we don’t know how many people they were recounted through before reaching the author, we can’t use them as evidence that Jesus’ miracles actually happened or of his divinity.
  • Jesus’ account These are statements Jesus has made about his own divinity. I could use these as evidence for Jesus’ divinity on the basis that my topic arguing against the objection that Jesus was just a good man shows how he was not a fraudster or deluded and so must have been who he said he was. However, I’m sure this won’t be seen as a convincing argument by some readers, so I’ll ignore these as well.
  • Objective account These are first hand or near first hand accounts of events that could only have been reported objectively. They are unlikely to be misinterpreted by a writer whose motive is to genuinely record an accurate account of Jesus’ life because they are not open to interpretation.

The apostle John, as a follower of Jesus, would probably have been quick to believe that Jesus could perform miracles. This in itself suggests a bias that could cause him to perceive natural events as miraculous. However, none of the events that I’ve labelled as ‘objective accounts’ could be natural events perceived to be miraculous by an overzealous religious fervour or a similar bias. There are miracles of the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies that were written hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth that describe his crucifixion including the dividing of his garments. There are more profound miracles: water was turned into wine, Jesus walked on water, over 5000 people were fed with a single person’s meal leaving basketfuls of leftovers, Lazarus and, ultimately Jesus himself, were raised from the dead. None of these could be embellished by the author’s enthusiasm. Jesus’ garments were either divided or they weren’t. The water was either turned into wine or it wasn’t; it’s impossible to mistake water for wine. Jesus either appeared to his disciples and ate food with them after his crucifixion or he didn’t. These are all events that the apostle John would have witnessed that allowed no room for embellishment through personal interpretation. In the same way, a poor memory could not easily embellish them over time. Many of them would have been so profoundly startling that their witnesses would have had no choice but to remember them clearly for their entire lives.

To summarise, the gospel’s accounts of Jesus’ miracles cannot be attributed to a latter day rewrite of the gospels, a mythological embellishment of the stories over time, a fabrication in the form of fiction, hoax or propaganda and a good number of the miracles at least cannot be attributed to the author’s personal interpretation of natural events. In fact, I can see no way of attributing the events I’ve classified as ‘objective accounts’ to natural events and, as unlikely as it might seem in our modern age that seeks to explain everything though natural causes, I have to conclude that the gospels are evidence of the supernatural outworking through Jesus and, by association, that they are evidence of God.

Appendix – References to the miraculous and Jesus’ divinity

Reference Type of Account Comments
1:48 Objective account Jesus tells Nathanael that he had been sitting under a fig tree when he had no obvious way of knowing this.
2:1-11 Objective account Jesus turned six stone jars worth of water into wine at a wedding.
5:1-14 Objective account Jesus healed a man who had been disabled for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda. The man was later questioned about the healing by the Jewish religious authorities who believed that the healing should not have been conducted on the Sabbath. This offers some independent verification.
6:1-13 Objective account Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five small loaves and two small fish in an isolated place. There were twelve basket loads of leftovers.
6:16-21 Objective account Jesus walks on the water of the lake of Capernaum, walking out to his disciples who had been rowing their boat for about three miles.
9:1-41 Objective account Jesus heals a man born blind. The man was later questioned about the healing by the Jewish religious authorities who believed that the healing should not have been conducted on the Sabbath. This offers some independent verification. The healing was also corroborated by the man’s parents.
11:1-44 Objective account Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after he had been buried in a tomb for four days. This was witnessed by the man’s family and friends of the family.
12:28 Objective account A voice from heaven answered Jesus’ prayer. This was witnessed by a crowd of people.
16:16, 20-22 Objective account Jesus predicted his resurrection after his death. It is remarkable that Jesus predicted an event that, in the natural, he would have had no ability to fake.
19:23-24 Objective account Jesus’ crucifixion was described in a remarkably detailed prophecy (see Psalm 22). This prophecy was written about 1000 years before Jesus was born and at least 500 years before the practice of crucifixion existed. The detail of this prophecy even includes the manner in which Jesus’ garments were distributed amongst the Roman soldiers.
19:34, 40, 20:1, 14-30, Objective account Jesus was flogged, crucified, pierced with a spear, embalmed and sealed in a tomb behind a heavy stone. His death had numerous witnesses and was outside of the control of his friends and family who would have wanted to keep him alive. After three days he was witnessed alive on several occasions by his family and disciples. On two of those occasions he appeared in a room without obvious signs of entering through its locked doors.
21:1-7 Objective account Jesus’ command to throw a fishing net over the other side of a boat after the disciple’s failed attempt to catch fish resulted in a massive catch. This was particularly remarkable because it occurred after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus then shared breakfast with his disciples.
1:1-18 Subjective account John describes Jesus as the Word, alluding to the Greek concept of a divine being.
12:23-24, 32-34 Subjective account Jesus predicts that his death will lead to many disciples. This seems to have been prophetic knowledge, but sceptics could argue that it was a guess.
13:18-19, 21-30 Subjective account Jesus predicts his betrayal. It is not clear if this is a guess or prophetic knowledge.
13:37-38, 16:32 Subjective account Jesus predicts that he will be disowned by Peter/abandoned by his disciples. This seems to have been prophetic knowledge, but sceptics could argue that it was only a guess.
16:2 Subjective account Jesus predicts the apostle’s martyrdom. It is not clear if this is a guess or prophetic knowledge.
19:33-37 Subjective account Jesus’ death on a cross was considered to be analogous to the Jewish custom of sacrificing a lamb at Passover. In this custom none of the lamb’s bones were allowed to be broken. Jesus’ legs were not broken to hasten his death unlike those of the criminals crucified with him. Both the crucifixion and the Passover share other significant symbolism, but there is room for sceptics to see this as coincidental.
1:14 3rd party account The apostle Andrew says that Jesus Christ is the Messiah
1:32 3rd party account John the Baptist saw the Spirit of God fall on Jesus like a dove. This is a close 3rd party account because the apostle John was originally a disciple of John the Baptist.
4:17-18, 29, 39 3rd party account Jesus tells a Samaritan woman that she has had five husbands when he had no obvious way of knowing this. The passage suggests that John was not immediately present.
4:46-54 3rd party account Jesus heals the son of an official. The healing was confirmed to the official after he had left Jesus meaning that John was not present.
20:12-13 3rd party account Mary sees two angels at Jesus’ empty tomb.
3:13, 8:42 Jesus’ account Jesus says he came from heaven.
3:16-18 Jesus’ account Jesus refers to himself as the Son of God.
5:17-23, 8:49, 10:29-30, 14:2-11, 14:20-24, 15:8-10, 15, 23-24, 16:23, 25 Jesus’ account Jesus refers to God as his father.
5:24-30 Jesus’ account Jesus says the dead will hear his voice.
5:35-40, 6:46-59 Jesus’ account Jesus calls himself the bread of life, saying that he came down from heaven and that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
7:16 Jesus’ account Jesus says his teaching comes from God.
7:37-39 Jesus’ account Jesus says that the Spirit of God will be given to those who believe in him.
8:12-29 Jesus’ account Jesus says he is the light of the world; those who believe in him will not die in sin and he speaks what God has taught him.
8:58 Jesus’ account Jesus refers to himself as ‘I AM’, a Jewish name for God.

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