Delia Knox healed of a spinal injury

If you only have the time to investigate one healing then this is probably the best one to choose. Due to the high profile of the healing and because Mrs Knox had a public profile beforehand there is a large amount of video footage available on the internet. The healing itself was profound; it was filmed and can be viewed on video-sharing websites.

A life changing accident

A near fatal car accident on Christmas day in 1987 left Delia Knox paralysed from the waist down. Some spinal injuries can improve slightly for up to a six month period after the initial trauma, but rarely after nine months. A year later Delia Knox was still paralysed and had no significant feeling and no movement at all in her legs; there would have been no medical prognosis for a recovery. In the decades that followed she developed a ministry as a Christian singer, released albums and on a number of occasions was filmed singing from her wheelchair.

For many years after the accident she steadfastly trusted that God would heal her, but as the years turned into decades her expectation for a healing waned. Eventually, her faith was replaced with a fear of disappointment and she began to feel uncomfortable attending Christian healing meetings.

Healed after 22 years

It was on 27 August 2010, over 22 years after the accident, in The Bay of the Holy Spirit Revival church in Alabama that her situation was instantly and radically changed. She watched while two parents brought their baby up to the front of the church for healing. She found that her fear of disappointment for her own healing was replaced with compassion for the child. Shortly afterwards, evangelist Nathan Morris called her forward and prayed for her. After a few minutes she began to experience feeling in her legs. The prayer persisted and after several more minutes she was able to stand with assistance from others and take uncoordinated steps.

Over the next few days she was able to build up some strength in her legs and gradually learn to use them again. A week later she walked again in the same church, but with much less assistance and with improved coordination. After several weeks her coordination and strength was sufficient for her to walk unassisted and she was filmed walking up a flight of stairs to her parents front door and also walking and singing at The Bay of the Holy Spirit Revival church.

Examining the evidence

In my topic, Modern day miracles, I define four criteria that a miracle must meet before I will consider it to be evidence for the existence of God. The first two state that the medical condition must be fully understood by modern science and that there must be no known natural phenomenon that can bring about the recovery. Although, I am not aware of the exact category of Mrs Knox’ spinal damage I think it is fair to assume that an injury that has caused paralysis for over 22 years would have no known medical cures and there would have been no prognosis for a natural recovery. As far as I am aware no-one has made even a gradual natural recovery from such an injury, let alone a rapid recovery such as Mrs Knox’. Spinal injuries are also sufficiently understood by medical science to know how limited their recoveries are. The placebo effect or the effects from adrenalin can not overcome paralysis caused by a spinal injury.

The third criterion states that the healing must coincide with a spiritual event of some kind. In this case it is clear that the healing coincided with Nathan Morris’ prayer. Finally, the fourth criterion states that there must be evidence that the initial condition existed and also of a genuine recovery. In Mrs Knox’ case, the evidence is entirely in the public domain. A simple search on video-sharing websites will show a trail of videos confirming that Mrs Knox spent a couple of decades in a wheel chair. Several videos exist of Mrs Knox singing and being interviewed from a wheel chair, even as far back as the early nineties. The event of her healing itself was recorded in a video and there are several other videos that show her progress over the subsequent few weeks and months.

This miracle cannot be attributed to mere exaggeration. The changes to Mrs Knox’ condition were just too profound; 22 years of paralysis with no feeling in her legs instantly ended and were replaced with ongoing feeling and movement.

I’ve included several links to the above mentioned videos here for you to follow. Sadly, it seems that some people interpret these events from an atheistic world view without even considering their contents and then draw a conclusion that Mrs Knox must have been a hoaxer. Some have even become angry that Mrs Knox has created a hoax from such a serious and sensitive subject as paralysis. Anyone who assumes that Mrs Knox is a hoaxer without considering the evidence simply because it does not line up with their personal world view is in danger of exhibiting arrogance. It is also grossly insensitive to Mrs Knox who, we should assume at least, may have suffered considerably with her paralysis for over 22 years.

Considering the hoax accusation

Personally, I cannot see how this could possibly be a hoax. Mrs Knox is clearly recognisable in the videos, and her youthful appearance in the older videos is clear proof that they aren’t recent fabrications. It is may be possible for a hoaxer to have conveniently been videoed in a wheel chair at one point in their life and to have fabricated a history of paralysis from that. However, Mrs Knox’ public profile has ensured that the videos and pictures of her in wheelchairs are too numerous to be as a consequence of anything other than permanent disability.

Delia Knox also has an identical twin. However, there are videos of both standing together that quickly dispute any claim that the miracle was conjured by a simple role reversal and that the real Delia Knox is still wheelchair bound.

The final evidence that this was not a hoax is the genuine emotion that can be seen in all of these videos. The tears of Delia Knox, her sister and her parents are so sincere and so moving that it is difficult to see how they could be a mere act. If our rational mind cannot allow us to believe that a genuine miracle has occurred then maybe we at least can allow our own humanity to accept that something deeply moving has happened to these people.

Links to videos

Modern day miracles

I define a miracle as a supernatural event that cannot be explained by any natural or scientific law. Such an event would clearly be a strong evidence of the supernatural and an indication that God exists. However, it does not automatically follow that a complete absence of miracles would disprove the existence of God; it merely gives us the choice to believe one of three options: he doesn’t exist, he exists but is utterly removed from mankind or he exists but wishes to hide his existence from mankind.

In my topic, God doesn’t want his existence proven I describe how God might want his existence to remain unproven to allow mankind the freedom to make their own moral choices. However, a God who wishes to remain unproven would not necessarily want to hide his existence altogether; if he were to exist he could still reveal himself through the supernatural and still remain unproven. Most of the world’s religions believe in a God that reveals his existence on occasions and I believe that it is reasonable to expect to find some evidence that cannot be purely attributed to natural phenomenon.

Staying objective

If God were to exist he might not limit himself to supernatural acts. For example, we owe the existence of the human race to numerous highly improbable natural events. The omission of one of these would have meant that life on earth, the universe as we know it or even matter itself would not have existed. The combined improbability of these events has led some people to postulate that a divine being might be working within the natural laws of the universe to steer the outcome of chance events to create life. Others have remained resolute that God does not exist and have instead questioned the accepted understanding of the origins of the universe and life.

In the same way that the absence or rarity of miracles on their own shouldn’t lead us to assume that God doesn’t exist we need to guard against the opposite mindset where we assume that all unexplained events are miracles. We are fortunate to live in a time where our understanding of the physical world is far greater than it has ever been before. In fact, our understanding is so good that nearly all events that we experience on a day-to-day basis can be explained. However, there are still some areas of the natural world that are poorly understood. Little is known about the mechanisms that underlie the conscious mind and emotions. A profound and sudden healing of the emotions may be miraculous, but, because we know so little about the functioning of the human brain, we cannot rule out a natural cause. In addition to being cautious in areas where scientific knowledge is poor, we also need to be careful to screen out the effects of external and random influences. For example, some medical conditions can fluctuate in their intensity overtime due to any number of influences: diet, physical exercise, stress. A sudden alleviation of symptoms might be miraculous,but they might instead be attributed to one of these other external influences.

The placebo effect can add even further complications. A patient’s belief in their healing could also make them feel better even when they are not cured in the same way that the mere act of taking a sugar tablet can have the same effect.

Miracles cannot be tested like medication in a medical trial

Medical trials attempt to screen out these effects statistically by assuming that the medication that they are testing is one influence of many unknown or random influences. If the medication is a consistent positive influence then its effect will appear as a significant bias in the test results. However, we are looking for miracles that, by definition, are acts of God and are therefore subject to the will of God and not under our control.

Miracles are reported to happen to one person at a time; they aren’t repeated on demand in the same way that medication can be re-administered to a group of patients. It is impossible to use statistical analysis with this sample size of one. We are therefore forced to limit our search of the miraculous to events that are profound, where scientific and natural laws have either been broken or where the effect of the miracle is too great to be attributed to random external influences. This is a demanding challenge and would be the equivalent to finding a ‘miracle drug’ with a single medical test on a single person. This approach becomes the most sceptical of filters, screening out all events that could be attributed to natural causes.

Four criteria for a miracle to be treated as evidence of God

With this in mind my criteria for selecting these ‘super miracles’ are:

  • The natural limitations of the situation before the miracle should be fully known. So, for a healing, the health condition must be one that medical science fully understands and has identified all possible remedies that aren’t supernatural.
  • It must not be possible to attribute the miraculous change in the situation to a natural phenomenon. So, for a healing, it must not be possible to attribute the recovery to dietary change, physical exercise, the placebo effect, an immune system response or medication.
  • The change in the situation must coincide with a spiritual event or experience, for example, prayer or worship.
  • Evidence must be available for both the situation prior to the miracle and for the changed situation after the miracle. So, for a healing, these might be medical notes that record the medical condition and the recovery.

The first three criteria help ignore any miracle that could be attributed to natural phenomenon. The fourth helps to ignore those that could be attributed to exaggeration, imagination or even worse a hoax. The isolation of these ‘super miracles’ is still a work in progress for me, but for the moment here is one that has a high profile on the internet: the healing of Delia Knox.

Christians aren’t required to believe in a 6 day creation

The first chapter in the first book of the Bible (Genesis 1) unambiguously states that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. This leads some people, who may be Christians or non-Christians, to assume that Christians, by definition, must believe in a six day creation. Genesis also attributes the origin of the human species to the supernatural creation of two people, Adam and Eve, and provides enough information to make it possible to place some of the descendants of Adam and Eve into a family tree. This family tree, together with dates of later archaeological events has led some Christians to attribute an age of about 6000 years to the Earth.

The six day creation and the belief in a young Earth is one of the most divisive parts of the Bible in so far as it divides Christians from those non-Christians who concur with the theory of evolution. Scientists have spent generations considering the history of the Earth and the means by which new species arrive. They have developed strong theoretical models that seem to be correct and that are incompatible with a six day creation.

Resolving the conflict between faith and science

I’ve listed four different strategies that Christians might employ to resolve the apparent conflict between Genesis’ creation narrative and the theory of evolution. There are others, but these four cover a good range of views:

Strategy 1: View the Bible as literally correct and science as flawed

Broadly speaking, when evolution leads to the generation of new species over a large number of generations it is calledmacroevolution, but when it leads to the adaption of a species to an environmental change it is called microevolution. Microevolution is generally universally accepted and can be observed, for example, in bacterial strains developing antibiotic resistance.

Some Christians seek to identify flaws in any science that supports macroevolution or the 4.5 billion year age of the Earth. Sometimes they use science to support a belief that species were created rather than evolved and that the age of the Earth is a few millennia.

This point of view is called scientific creationism and was advocated by Phillip E. Johnson, the father of Intelligent Design, in his book Darwin on Trial. Johnson is a retired university law professor and set out in his book to demonstrate that scientists had not found sufficient evidence to prove that purely natural mechanisms were responsible for the creation of life on earth, though he did not go so far as to try to demonstrate that the earth is a few millennia old. The book has been criticised by the scientific community for containing discredited science and also for its attempt to prove creation as if it were in a criminal trial by merely presenting flaws in science and evolution. In a criminal trial the case for the defence could be made by discrediting the case for the prosecution. Science seeks to present models that describe reality. Most science is flawed to some degree and these models may not be completely accurate, but their flaws don’t automatically make the alternative models correct by default. I personally feel that the scientific models of the origin of species and the age of the Earth have proven to be too useful to scientists for too long to be dismissed lightly.

Scientific creationism has however raised some interesting arguments against a purely materialistic approach. The theory of the origin of species through evolution does not demonstrate how the very first life form came into existence. Even the most primitive single celled life form is immensely complex and employs highly sophisticated and compact mechanisms for their reproduction. Viruses are far simpler, but are unable to reproduce without host cells. Reproduction is a fundamental requirement for evolution to occur, meaning that the first life form could not have come into existence through evolution. Theories have been created to explain how inanimate matter might ‘self-organise’ into a life form that was sophisticated enough to reproduce, but these are very tenuous. At this stage in our understanding, it is very hard to imagine how life could have been formed by purely natural means, in other words, without a designer.

Strategy 2: Believe that a young Earth was created with the appearance of an old Earth

Some Christians, though only a few in my experience, believe that God could have created the Earth and the universe just a few millennia ago, but created them to appear as if they had been in existence for much longer. This is called the Omphalos hypothesis and originates from a book written by Philip Henry Gosse in 1857 called Omphalos.

Gosse argued that everything has a cycle of reproduction and development and that God must have created the Earth and everything in it fully developed, as if it had come into existence through reproduction, in order for it to properly function. He argued that the Earth would therefore have had the appearance of being older than it was. This line of reasoning does not, however, properly explain the existence of fossils within rocks or why we can see stars when their light takes millions of years to reach the Earth. These signs of age are unnecessary for the Earth and universe to function correctly. Some critics of this hypothesis have suggested that God would have had to have created a deception for the hypothesis to work and have therefore rejected it on the basis that such an action would be contrary to God’s nature.

Strategy 3: View the creation narrative in Genesis as a metaphorical description of Earth’s history

Many Christians accept that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and view the creation narrative in Genesis as being a metaphorical, but nonetheless correct, description of Earth’s history. They view the six days of creation as six periods of time, recognising that the concept of a day would not have existed prior to creation and that a day could therefore not have been a unit useful for the measurement of the creation time span.

Some of those Christians will, however, deny that macroevolution was the mechanism through which new species originated, instead choosing to believe that God intervened at specific points in Earth’s history to create new species. This is called progressive creationism. Other Christians will accept that macroevolution was the mechanism through which new species originated and believe that God used this mechanism to create the species that he wanted. This is called theistic creationism.

Many Christian denominations support or accept a non-literal interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis along with the generally held scientific view that the age of the Earth is 4.5 billions years old.

Strategy 4: Trust the scientific model of evolution more than the Genesis creation narrative

This is not really a formally defined viewpoint, but I include it here because it is the one that I adhere to. I am essentially a theistic creationist. However, I suspect that some theistic creationists will still view the creation narrative in Genesis as the inerrant inspired Word of God, even though they interpret it as a metaphorical narrative. Their rationale being that the narrative is a theological one rather than a scientific one that should therefore be viewed as theologically inerrant. I personally struggle to attribute inerrancy in any form to the creation narrative. I’m not opposed to its theology, but I do recognise that we know very little about the narrative’s origins, authenticity and age other than that it might be a compilation of older narratives. The creation narrative clearly cannot have been recorded by eye witnesses, which means that the only reason for trusting it completely is if we were to attribute inerrancy to it by virtue of it appearing in the Bible. In my topic, The Bible should not be treated as a single inerrant book, I challenge the case for treating Genesis as inerrant, but also show that any doubt that we may have regarding the narratives of Genesis should not be automatically carried over to the rest of the Bible. The Bible should not be treated as a single book, but a collection of books written over a period of more than a millennium.

Don’t let distrust in Genesis stop you from investigating the rest of the Bible

Even though there may be grounds to distrust the creation narrative in Genesis, the gospels should be treated differently. In my topic, The Gospels are reasonable records of Jesus’ life, I show that we know far more about the origins of the gospels than of Genesis and that, by considering the society in which they were written, we can actually conclude that the authors of the gospels were attempting to write reasonably accurate records of Jesus’ life, his miracles and his resurrection and that this should lead us to seriously consider what they wrote about Jesus and who Jesus really was.

The Bible should not be treated as a single inerrant book

The Bible is not a single book, it is a collection of books. Even its name reflects this, being derived from the Greek ‘ta biblia’, which means ‘the books’. However, it is often accepted or rejected as if it were one single book. One person might, for example, read the account of the six day creation and a few harsh Old Testament laws; disagree with them and reject the whole Bible. Another person might find faith and comfort in the words of Jesus; put their trust in the Bible and then spend the rest of their lives arguing that scientists don’t really know anything about the true age of the Earth.

Sadly, some Christians continue to argue against scientists and say that the earth was created in six days and that it has a history of about 6,000 years. They do this from an honourable intention to defend the integrity of the Bible, but it is my sincere belief that they actually achieve the exact opposite. The age of the Earth is a question that has undergone generations of scrutiny from scientists. The passive onlooker who watches the debate unfold will generally feel that the Christian is out of their depth and, as the Christian appears to loose, the onlookers will be left with the feeling that the whole Bible is rather unconvincing.

A look inside the Bible

The Bible is split into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the original Hebrew Bible and predates the birth of Jesus. It contains,

  • Genesis (the first book of the Pentateuch – includes the creation of the world and the formation of the Jewish nation)
  • The remaining books of the Pentateuch (describe the release of the Jewish nation from Egyptian slavery and the new laws it adopted)
  • Historical Books (describe the formation of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, their history, the nation’s exile to Babylon and the final reinstatement of the nation)
  • Wisdom Books (books of proverbs, songs and other sources of wisdom)
  • Prophets (books written by Jewish prophets)
  • Minor prophets (smaller books written by Jewish prophets)

The New Testament contains,

  • The four gospels (biographies of Jesus’ life)
  • Acts of the Apostles (a record of the apostles actions after Jesus’ resurrection)
  • The epistles (various letters written to churches)
  • Revelation (an apocalyptic prophecy)

The Bible is a varied collection of different types of literature, with different authors written over a period spanning more than one and a half millennia. There are many books in the New Testament for which we have a good idea who wrote them and when they were written to an accuracy of a few decades. We know much about the society in which their authors lived and we have a good idea about how their readers were expected to be enlightened by those books. We can read those books with a reasonable degree of confidence.

In contrast, we know much less about the origins of some of the books in the Old Testament. The book of Genesis is an extreme example. This has traditionally been assumed to be written by Moses, which would place its composition at about the 13th century BC. However, recent findings suggest that it is actually a compilation of much older texts. In reality, we don’t really know who composed Genesis and when. We don’t even known if the author perceived these older texts to have much or little integrity himself and whether the author expected the book to be read as if it were inerrant.

It is actually the book of Genesis that contains some of the most divisive accounts in the whole Bible, in so far as causing division between Christianity and Science. In particular, it describes the six day creation of the world and the temptation of Adam and Eve by a serpent.

Genesis does have an important role in the Bible in so far as it communicates God’s relationship with the Jewish people and many of the other Old Testament books would be far more confusing without it. However, Genesis contains little Christian doctrine other than to show that mankind has a tendency to sin. It seems strange then that some Christians vehemently defend a literal interpretation of Genesis even though doing so probably makes Christianity appear unconvincing to a wider audience.

Examining the case for an inerrant Bible

I suspect that there are three reasons why some Christians defend a literal interpretation of Genesis. Firstly, they believe the whole Bible to be the inerrant Word of God. They do this because a passage in the New Testament states that all scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). In doing so they are making an assumption that scripture that is inspired by God is automatically inerrant as if it could only have come from a God to man dictation, which left the author no room for human error. Such an event would require a human to write whilst completely controlled by the Holy Spirit. It would be a remarkable event; one that I’ve never heard happening within Christendom either now or recorded in the Bible.

Secondly, those Christians state that Jesus acknowledged the existence of Adam and Eve, the two humans created within Genesis’ creation account. It is true that Jesus refers to the creation account (Matt 19:4-6) to explain that marriage should be permanent, however he never actually refers to Adam and Eve directly or to a six day creation.

Thirdly, modern Christian teachers might feel it to be easier to teach doctrine if it can be communicated as being an absolute unambiguous truth. I believe that the heart of Christian doctrine is simple and this simplicity can cause it to remain unambiguous even without believing the Bible to be inerrant. Jesus himself said that all the law can be summed up by two commandments to love God and love your neighbour. The Christian message of salvation is beautifully simple: forgive others, repent, believe that Jesus died and rose again and ask God for forgiveness.

In my mind a person can have a strong faith in the Christian God without believing in an inerrant Bible. In contrast, I sometimes think that a strong faith founded on the inerrancy of the Bible can sometimes become a strong faith in a book rather than a strong faith in God.

The Bible contains millennia of history, not just religious doctrine

My belief that the Bible is not inerrant does not devalue it in my mind; it, in fact, makes it seem more authentic. The Bible contains a large number of accounts of the miraculous, all written by humans like you and me. The rational mind finds it easy to refute the claim that the miracles are proven merely by their presence in the Word of God, but denying the testimony of the original authors does not come so naturally. To do so requires us to find a reason why they lied or were mistaken and why they weren’t confronted by a list of witnesses ready to correct them.

In addition, by seeing the Bible as a collection of books written over one and a half millennia by different authors, we can see prophecies announced in one book and then fulfilled a few books later. Prophecy and fulfilment would have been separated by a time span of centuries, but the reader can flick between them in mere minutes.

When you read the Bible you are not reading a sanitised religious message. You are reading a messy real life account of good vs. evil played out through the history of a country, its kings and prophets and ultimately in the life of a man who was, if you choose, Son of God.

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.

The gospels are reasonable records of Jesus’ life

The canonical gospels are the four books in the Bible that record the events of Jesus’ life. In this topic I’ll ask whether they were fiction or fact, propaganda or a sincere attempt to record the facts of Jesus’ life.

Before we can trust the gospels as reasonable records of Jesus’ life we need to ask three questions:

  • Are our modern day gospels accurate copies of the original gospels?
  • Were the authors of the gospels motivated to record events accurately?
  • Were the authors of the gospels objective enough and able enough to record events accurately?

Are our modern day gospels accurate copies of the original gospels?

The answer to this is largely undisputed. The original gospels, being written down by a poor marginalised community, were probably written on cheap papyrus paper. Papyri in anything other than the driest of climates are almost guaranteed to perish. It is not surprising, therefore, that we do not have the originals of any of the four gospels. It is fairly typical for the originals of historical manuscripts to be lost; for example, none of the 37 originals of Shakespeare’s plays exist today, even though they were written only four hundred years ago.

Due to early persecution, the Christian community fled from the Land of Israel into other parts of the Roman Empire. It was probably this migration of Christians that initially led to the distribution of numerous copies of the gospels across the Roman Empire. Today, there are hundreds of vellum manuscripts and early papyrus fragments of New Testament texts. In contrast, we only have a single 12th century copy of Tacitus’ history of the early Roman emperors.

The prevalence of the gospel manuscripts helps us determine how similar the oldest surviving manuscripts are to the originals. A copying error or modification in one manuscript would have been preserved in its future copies. However, the errors or modifications would not have migrated across to those manuscripts that already existed. Those manuscripts would themselves be copied and distributed without those errors or modifications. The commonality between the copies that we now have gives us a feeling for how close our best copies are to the original gospels. Overall, there is good reason for us to be confident that the gospels in a modern day Bible are very close to the original gospels. There are indications of minor copying errors and some minor additions in some copies. Some of these additions can be attributed to the inclusion of marginal notes into the main text during the copying process. There seems to be one significant addition, the story of the woman caught in adultery whose imminent execution by stoning was prevented by Jesus’ words, “He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” The ending of Mark’s gospel is sometimes considered to be a latter addition because it is omitted in some manuscripts, though some believe that this, because it is at the end, may have been caused by a loss of the outer pages of one manuscript, which was later copied.

Some modern Bibles highlight these differences to their readers. None of these differences give any reason at all to doubt that the gospels in a modern Bible fundamentally agree with the original gospels, in particular, with respect to their record of Jesus’ preaching, miracles, crucifixion and resurrection. In addition, the abundance of copies of the gospels means that we can be sure that a later institution or government has not biased the gospels for their own purposes. Even if they had been able to rewrite one subset of the copies, they would not have been able to destroy or rewrite all the remaining copies across the known world.

Were the authors of the gospels motivated to record events accurately?

If we can understand the motives of the gospel’s authors then we’ll be more able to decide whether we can trust the gospels ourselves. It might seem unreasonable to try and guess their motives nearly 2000 years after their writing, but, I believe, by the process of elimination, we can make a convincing attempt. The following is a list of every possible motive a writer of any narrative of events might have. They might be motivated to write:

  • Folklore that has lost touch with the events that inspired it.
  • Fiction for the purpose of entertaining its reader.
  • Propaganda for the purpose of manipulating a group of people.
  • A hoax for the purpose of fooling its readers and entertaining its writer.
  • A deliberate deception for the purpose of achieving a financial or social gain.
  • A genuine attempt to record events for the purpose of informing other readers or reminding the writer of the events in the future.

I’ll discuss each one of these in turn.

Folklore that has lost touch with the events that inspired it

I use the term ‘folklore’ here to describe stories that have been passed down through the generations and, by virtue of their retelling, have become embellished to such an extent that they no longer represent the real events that gave rise to them. This embellishment can only happen over multiple generations, allowing each generation to forget some details and embellish others. There will clearly be little or no scope for embellishment once the narrative is written down and widely circulated as a literal account

The gospels do not fit this pattern of embellishment. In my topic, The gospels were written within eye witnesses’ lifetimes, I show how they were probably written early enough to be verified by eye witnesses of Jesus and that their early acceptance into the Christian community suggests that they would have been seen as being sufficiently accurate. In addition, there is reasonable evidence indicating that the Gospel of John was indeed written by one of Jesus’ apostles. Furthermore, the commonality between the copies of the gospels that remain to this day shows that the gospel stories weren’t embellished after they were first written down. We can therefore confidently conclude that the gospels do not contain mere folklore.

Fiction for the purpose of entertaining its reader

The gospels do not exist in isolation. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus quickly inspired the formation of an early Christian community that were prepared to risk isolation, danger and death to follow their religion. The early Christians clearly didn’t behave as if they believed the gospels to be mere entertainment. Copies of letters to churches, some of which are now called epistles and are found in the Bible, clearly echo this. None of these epistles treat the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as fictional. If contemporaries of the gospel writers were convinced that the gospels were not intended to be viewed as fiction then we too can be sure of this as well.

Propaganda for the purpose of manipulating a group of people

I’m using the term ‘propaganda’ to describe a form of fabrication organised by a powerful governing body that has the means to deceive a large number of people. Throughout history many states or institutions have used propaganda to control or influence people. There were only two governing bodies in power in first century Israel: the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious authorities: the Sadducees and Pharisees. Neither the Roman Empire nor the Sadducees and Pharisees would have had any motive to write the gospels as a form of propaganda. The Christian’s refusal to worship the Roman pagan gods and their independence from the Jewish religious authorities threatened the religious status quo of both Rome and the Land of Israel. 300 years after Jesus’ death the Roman Empire Constantine might have had success uniting the Roman Empire with the Christian religion. However, up until this point, almost from Christianity’s start, the Roman Empire actually persecuted Christians and so was certainly not responsible for writing the gospels that would have been a centre of strength for the religion.

A hoax for the purpose of fooling its readers and entertaining its writer

I’m using the term ‘hoax’ here to describe a fabrication that is organised by people with limited means for no purpose other than to fool its readers. Powerful governing bodies are not motived to utilise their resources to create hoaxes because hoaxes offer little gain to the hoaxers other than mere entertainment. Although a small group of people would have had the means to fabricate the gospel stories, mere entertainment would be insufficient motivation for the life’s work and full time dedication required to fool a community into believing and following this hoax. The Christian community grew too quickly and too soon to be substantiated by nothing more than fictitious characters and events. In reality, the rapid growth that early Christianity enjoyed could only have happened if Jesus and his actions were already publicly known, which they would not have been if they were the result of a fabrication.

In addition, I feel it would be unlikely that a hoax could become so firmly established that it would even be recorded as fact by the well educated Roman-Jewish historian Josephus a few decades after Jesus’ death.

A deliberate deception for the purpose of achieving a financial or social gain

If the entertainment of a hoax would have provided insufficient reward for founding a religion based on fabricated truths then maybe financial gains would have. It is true to say that religious teachers earned livings from their teachings in first century Israel. A sceptic could suggest that the apostles fabricated or embellished the gospel stories in order to earn a living from the subsequent religious following. However, the Christian community underwent severe persecution within a few years of the start of the religion. Firstly, they were persecuted by the Jewish religious authorities and then a few years later in the reign of the Roman Emperor, Nero, many of the Christians were tortured and killed. It is believed that some of the founder members, the apostles, were martyred in this latter persecution. Whatever motivation they would have gained from the livelihood offered by the new religion would have been utterly inadequate to sustain them through such terrifying persecution. The fact that Christianity instead prospered with the founding apostles holding fast to their convictions even to the point of death shows that they were convinced that their religion was based on substance not fabrication.

A genuine attempt to record events

This is the only motive for the writing of the four gospels remaining from our original list. All the others have crumbled under even very basic scrutiny. There is, however, no reason that I’m aware of for rejecting this one remaining motive. To assume this to be true would not even be a misplaced modern day notion; two of the gospels themselves, Luke and John, state that they are an attempt to record events:

Luke 1:3-4
“Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (NIV)”

John 21:24
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (NIV)”

I feel that there is no other reasonable explanation as to why the gospels were written. There is, however, one other question that needs answering before we can trust the gospels ourselves …

Were the authors of the gospels objective enough and able enough to record events accurately?

For the writers to be able to write a reasonably accurate record of events when motivated to do so three factors need to be in place: they need the time and skill to write, a source of reliable information and a moderately objective view point with which to interpret events. We know that the writers had the time and skill to write because the gospels exist, so I’ll focus my attention on the two remaining points instead. In my topic, The gospels were written within eye witnesses’ lifetimes, I describe what we know of the gospel’s authors. I believe there is adequate room for both the believer to trust and the cynic to distrust the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Although, the traditionally held view is that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew there is little surviving evidence to support this. The Gospel of Luke states that it is the result of careful investigation. Although there is some evidence to suggest that Luke was a colleague of the apostle Paul, there is no record of his sources. (Paul himself was not a witness of Jesus, although he was a close colleague of the apostles who were.) In summary, there is no reason to doubt these two gospels, but, likewise, there is no reason for the cynic to believe them either.

However, there is some surviving evidence stating that the Gospel of Mark was written by a translator of the apostle Peter who transcribed the gospel from Peter’s sermons. If this is true then we know that he would have had an excellent source for his information. The Gospel of Mark does contain some reporting errors with regard to the geography of the Land of Israel and the interpretation of Jewish divorce law, but these are in keeping with the author being a non-Jew and are insufficient, in my view, to cast doubt on the basic account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

The Gospel of John is the most interesting. 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 was 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 being 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 view point 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. It seems that there is enough evidence to challenge even the deepest of cynics that the Gospel of John was written from an excellent first hand account.

So, there is evidence to suggest that the gospels of Mark and John, at least, were supplied by eye witness accounts. Of course, any form of writing is affected in some way by the bias of its author. We need to finally ask if it is possible that the events of the gospel have been unwittingly embellished through the author’s own religious fervour or through a trick of their memory. To answer this question we need to carefully distinguish between the events that could be subjectively recorded and those that cannot. In my topic, There is no natural explanation for Jesus’ miracles, I sift through those events in the Gospel of John that are subjectively recorded and those that are based on third party evidence to see if there are enough of the remaining events, those that are objectively recorded and based on a first hand account, to justify Christianity’s claims regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The gospels were written within eye witnesses’ lifetimes

The canonical gospels are the four books in the Bible that record the events of Jesus’ life. This topic discusses whether they were written early enough to be verified by eye witnesses and it forms the foundation of several of my other topics that discuss whether they can be trusted significantly to be used as evidence for the existence of God. The question of who wrote these gospels and how close they were to Jesus affects how we trust their contents.

Who wrote the gospels?

Traditionally, the authorships of the four gospels have been attributed to the apostles Matthew and John, an interpreter of the apostle Peter called Mark and a companion of the apostle Paul called Luke. However, although the contents of the gospels have been diligently copied and preserved since their creation the evidence supporting these authorships is a little sparse.

It is mostly tradition that attributes the Gospel of Matthew to the apostle Matthew, although Papias, one of the leaders of the Christian church in the second century states that, “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language,” and this is sometimes assumed to refer to a Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew, though this is now highly contested. Papias also states that the gospel of Mark was written by Mark, the interpreter of the apostle Peter. Irenaeus, one of the church fathers in the second century, agreed that the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke the companion of Paul and this is echoed when the first person plural is used in the Acts of the Apostles (a continuation of the Gospel written by the same author), “After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered the island” (Acts 28:11). Irenaeus also recorded that the Gospel of John was written by John the apostle. In his youth, Irenaeus had heard Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, speak, who in turn was a disciple of the apostle John. Epiphanius, the bishop of Salamis in the fourth century records that John delayed the writing of his gospel out of humility until he was in his nineties. Interestingly, this gospel, which mentions other apostles by name, does not mention the name of John the apostle at all, but refers to him as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’. This might be further evidence of John’s humility and some scholars have suggested that this is a further indication that the gospel was indeed written by John.

However, the sparseness of the supporting evidence has led some scholars to question the authorship of the gospels and even their dates. It has to be said that no serious scholars have dated the gospels beyond AD 70 for Mark and AD 100 for John.

When were the gospels written?

Dating any archaeological document accurately can be difficult. References to known historical events typically cause the document to be dated after that event, whilst the lack of any reference to a significant event that would normally be expected to be found can indicate that the document was written before that event. With regard to the gospels, the date of AD 70 is profoundly significant; it is the date in which Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by Roman soldiers following a Jewish uprising against their Roman occupiers and the subsequent siege of the city. Not only did this inflict terrible suffering on the residents of Jerusalem, but it destroyed the political and religious cornerstone of the Jewish culture at the time. The Christian community, which was predominantly resident in the Land of Israel was profoundly affected and fled to an area that is now located in present day Jordan.

The Gospel of Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain a prediction of this event by Jesus:

Mark 13:1-4
“As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’
‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ Jesus replied. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down'”

Some scholars have assumed that this was retrospectively written after the events of AD 70. However, John AT Robinson in his book ‘Redating the New Testament’ convincingly argues that these passages don’t accurately describe the events well enough to be written after their occurrence. They are recorded alongside Jesus’ prophesies of the end of the world and clearly show that the gospel writers were not aware that the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world were different events. Although, both the destruction of Jerusalem and temple and the end of the world prophecies are similar in so far as they are cataclysmic, Robinson shows that the end of the world prophesies differ significantly from the AD 70 events and that they instead probably reflect the Old Testament prophesies in Daniel. Writers prior to the event of AD 70 would not have been aware of this distinction and could easily confuse the two, whilst the differences would have been obvious to writers after AD 70, who would have avoided the confusion.

Robinson also presents other similar counterarguments. For example, Matt 22:1-10 contains a parable in which a king burns the home city of some people who rejected his invitation to a banquet and killed his servants. Some scholars suggest that this burning of the city, which could easily reflect many military expeditions of the day, is actually an inference to AD 70. The perceived inference is unlikely to be real, particularly as the Caesar who sent the Roman armies to destroy Jerusalem was Nero, the infamous persecutor of Christians, who would not have been suitable inspiration for the king in the parable, which was actually an analogy of God.

Robinson concludes that there are no significant retrospective references to the events of AD 70 and quotes Charles Torrey, who argues that if none of the gospels make any retrospective references to such a momentous event then they were probably written before that event.

Where Robinson argues that there is no significant evidence to suggest that the gospels were written after AD 70, Carsten Peter Thiede in his book ‘The Jesus Papyrus’ claims that there is significant papyrological evidence to suggest that Matthew and Mark were written prior to AD 66.

Thiede redated a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Matthew which was originally found in Luxor, Egypt in the late 1800’s and was bequeathed to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1901. He noticed that it had remarkable similarities in format and style to a smaller fragment (indexed 7Q5) found amongst the dead-sea scrolls of Qumran and concluded that it is likely to have been written about the same time. It is known that the religious community in Qumran abandoned their scrolls in AD 68 and there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that Cave 7, where the fragment was found, was ever revisited after that date. This indicates that 7Q5 was not written after AD 68. Additionally, 7Q5 was not written on a codex (a book format), but a scroll. Scrolls were quickly being superseded by codices at that time; something that affirms the earlier date. Thiede also argues that 7Q5 is a fragment of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 6:52-53); however, the small size of the fragment makes this latter point difficult to prove and highly contested.

Theide and Robinson therefore put forward strong arguments that some of the gospels, at least, were written within 2-3 decades of Jesus’ Crucifixion. They also both show how the later datings of the gospels have been based on academic assumptions, which have, in turn, been based on further assumptions, which like a house of cards, can easily fall if the underlying assumption is proven false. For example, some dates were based on the assumption that papyri would only be copied and transported between countries at an interval of ten years. These dates would then set the standard upon which other dates would be assumed. However, we now know that a papyrus could be copied and transported across the Roman Empire within days or weeks, leading to different dates.

The late datings seem to be further fuelled by a culture prevalent amongst the scholarly community in which scepticism is merited far more than a willingness to affirm traditionally held beliefs.

The Gospel of Luke is another gospel that could have easily been written before AD 70. The last half of the Acts of the Apostles closely follows the life of the Apostle Paul, even through his house arrest in Rome, but it stops short of his execution in AD 65. This is a strong indication that it was written before AD 65. In its opening sentence it also states that it is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. This indicates that the Gospel of Luke would have been written before the Acts of the Apostles and therefore before AD 65.

To me it seems perfectly likely that some gospels at least would have been written within a few decades of Jesus’ crucifixion. The early Christian community was spawned from the Jewish community, which, in turn placed a great importance on the reading and study of scriptures. It would have seemed perfectly natural for the early Christians to document and circulate their own scriptures early on.

Their validation by eye witnesses

Gospels that were written a few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion would have been in the Christian community during the lifetime of eye witnesses of the events that they recorded. These eye witnesses would then be able to either validate or discredit those gospels, which would in turn affect how well they were accepted. There are other gospels that exist that were never included in the Bible, but, judging by the numbers of papyri that remain to this day, it would seem to me that the Biblical gospels were most widely accepted and circulated, particularly the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. The very fact that the church fathers, such as Irenaeus, were quoting from the canonical gospels a couple of generations later shows that they had by then become trusted.

Theide’s and Robinson’s arguments are by no means universally accepted, but even if we accept the later dates suggested by the more sceptical scholars, we can still see that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written only four to five decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, early enough to be verified by those contemporaries of Jesus.

My feeling is that if the contemporaries of Jesus were involved in the writing and/or acceptance of these gospels then they can be trusted as a reasonable effort to record the facts of Jesus’ life as they were understood at the time.

Human kindness would never exist if our world was perfect

This counter-intuitive statement is an opinion of mine. I’m not a psychologist and have very little evidence to support it, but bear with me and see if you agree with my reasoning.

Children learn to understand the needs of others

Humans are born entirely dependent on their parents providing for their needs. The newborn’s existence will undoubtedly provide its parents with much joy, but because it is unable to fully process the stimuli of its world it is probably completely unaware of this, in fact, at this point of its life, it is probably entirely unaware of the needs of others around them. For infants we see this as morally acceptable. Their needs are simple and their parents are probably perfectly able to provide for those needs.

However, as infants grow to become children their needs will become more sophisticated and their parents may be unable to meet some of those needs. The child then has to learn to relinquish their needs, for example, they may be compelled to endure the long visit to the shops or to forgo the toy that they wanted.

Eventually, the child will develop a degree of autonomy and will be able to satisfy some of their needs themselves. They will also learn to empathise with other peoples’ needs and will occasionally find that their ability to satisfy their own needs compromises the needs of others around them. Their first instinct might be to satisfy their needs regardless of the impact on others, but through conflict and parental guidance they will soon learn to negotiate their needs with the needs of others.

We are all aware of this process, but I illustrate it here merely to highlight how limitations in the child’s environment encourage the child to understand the needs of others. We could speculate that the more severe the limitations the more aware the child would have to become.

Moving beyond negotiation

At this point the child has learnt to negotiate merely for the purpose of meeting their own needs. For all of us, as we matured into childhood and adulthood, we became habitually programmed to resort to negotiation to meet our own needs. We might often encompass this need to negotiate within a moral framework. For example, we might easily feel indignant when our part of the negotiation has not been reciprocated. We may have given 110% to our workplace and watched while promotion passed us by or supported our partner in the home and felt that our needs have been ignored. This drive to negotiate comes in many guises. Even acts of kindness may be done to receive gratitude or social recognition.

Sometimes, however, we can move beyond this need to trade kindnesses. For example, we may sacrifice a pleasure to give an anonymous donation to a worthy cause simply because we are moved by compassion. It seems to me that the greater our compassion the more likely we are to make a genuine personal sacrifice to meet the needs of others. Generally, the greater the suffering of others, the more we are moved in compassion. Of course, our reactions to suffering may be mixed. Apathy or self preservation may lead us to ignore it. However, without the suffering of others there would be no drive for us to abandon the trading of kindnesses in favour of true compassion.

An imperfect world leads to human kindness

So, it seems to me that our moral development is dependent on us living in an imperfect world. Without limited resources we would not have to learn to consider others’ needs and to negotiate. Without the suffering of others we would not have the choice to either act in compassion or to be apathetic towards the needs of others.

This may seem obvious, but it underpins my arguments as to why God might allow suffering and that The Christian calling is to love selflessly.

The Christian calling is to love selflessly

On the face of it, this topic might seem to be only about the subtleties of Christian theology. However, it’s more than that; it is the foundation for an argument that suggests that God might require his existence to remain unproven so that humans can fulfil their calling to love selflessly.

What is Love?

‘Love’ is an ambiguous word that has many meanings. In fact, you could consider there to be four categories of love, each named after an ancient Greek word: Storge (pronounced Stor-gay), Eros, Philia and Agape. Storge refers to the love found within families, Eros refers to the desire to draw out all that is good, beautiful and true (particularly in a romantic context), Philia is the love within a friendship and Agape refers to a selfless love.

The first three of these categories, Storge, Eros and Philia, could be considered to be kinds of love that are typically offered on condition that they will be reciprocated. For example, the love found in families can often be accompanied with expectations of loyalty and behaviour. Romantic love and friendships often only function when they are reciprocated.

However, Agape love, in contrast, is not offered conditionally. By definition, it is most likely to be unreciprocated, and the giver is less likely to withhold it even when it is unreciprocated.

Agape Love in an Imperfect World

In my topic, ‘Human kindness would never exist if our world was perfect’, I argue that humans can only develop traits of kindness by learning to compromise their desires and by learning to act in compassion and that their opportunities to do this depend on them living in a world of conflict and suffering. These traits (being able to compromise personal desires) and acting in compassion are those that are most akin to the characteristics of agape love.

Agape Love in the Bible

I personally believe that the Christian calling is predominantly a calling to love selflessly. I’m not trying to undermine the importance of other aspects of Christianity such as divine forgiveness, prayer, worship and evangelism. However, I do feel that the Christian calling to love selflessly is by far the most important and is sometimes more neglected than it should be.

References to the overriding importance of selfless love within Christianity can be seen throughout Jesus’ teachings. For brevity I list only two passages taken from the Gospel of Matthew; there are others.

Matthew 5:39-48

“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 22:37-40
“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In the topic “God doesn’t want his existence proven,” I argue that God may require his existence to remain unproven so that our actions are more likely to be acts of selfless love rather than reluctant acts of obedience.

God doesn’t want his existence proven

Following on from my topic The Christian calling is to love selflessly I hope to show in this topic that acts of selfless love would be much less prevalent in society if God’s existence were to be proven beyond all doubt and that a belief in God should not therefore be rejected merely because there is ambiguity regarding his existence.

Moral ambiguities cause us to express our inner character

Most of the moral dilemmas that we face are obscured by ambiguity. We might, for example, want to buy an item of clothing such as a jacket. Equivalent jackets might be available in various clothe stores, some at prices beyond what we wanted to pay, whilst others at prices that are more affordable. We could then go on to question why the jackets are priced differently. If the qualities seemed equivalent then we might suspect that the affordable jackets had lower production costs, probably benefiting from worker exploitation in developing countries.

Of course, none of the clothe stores would advertise their worker exploitation, so our moral dilemma is immediately clouded by ambiguity. However, this ambiguity actually gives us the freedom to express either our inner morality or even our inner immorality. We could, for example, take the highly moral approach and decide not to do anything that could potentially encourage the exploitation of workers in the developing world. We could say that the act of simply searching for the best bargains would ultimately encourage clothe stores to cut prices and that the resulting price competition between stores might ultimately result in further cost cutting and further exploitation of workers in developing countries. This would clearly be a very moral approach, which, if we followed through with our actions, would require us to selflessly pay more for the jacket than we would otherwise need to.

Alternatively, our inner moral dilemma could result in an action that was more favourable to ourselves. We could conciliate our conscience with the knowledge that the clothe store might not be exploiting workers or even argue that any exploitation was not our doing and, therefore, not our responsibility.

The moral ambiguity will have then given us the freedom to either make a highly moral decision or to make a decision that benefited ourselves. If there were no moral ambiguity then the opportunity would be lessened. If, for example, every clothe store that benefited from worker exploitation, either directly or indirectly, was forced to advertise the fact then our decision to buy a more expensive jacket would be driven by a sense of obligation or a desire to keep our conscience clear rather than generosity of character.

The moral ambiguity made it possible for us to make a decision based on shear generosity. Our conscience would have been clear whatever our decision, but we had the opportunity to say, ‘Just in case there is a chance that my money will encourage worker exploitation, I will pay more.’

Our purpose is to love selflessly

In the same way, our tendency or otherwise to believe that God exists reflects our inner morality because his existence is unproven. I’ll explain my reasoning next. (I’m not trying to say that all followers of religion are automatically more moral than others; there are many reasons why people can follow a religion and not all of those reasons are moral.)

In my topic The Christian calling is to love selflessly I explained that I believe the most important calling for a Christian is to love selflessly. This selfless love is sometimes called ‘agape love’ and is an unreciprocated love. In others words, it is the kind of love that makes the receiver feel better than the giver. As you can imagine, it’s a challenge to love in this way.

Our selfless acts are more generous when we are uncertain about God’s existence

It is perfectly reasonable to say that if God existed he might be calling us to love selflessly. However, it’s also perfectly reasonable to expect that the challenge to love selflessly does not suit everyone. If our preference is for a different, more self serving kind of love and we are confronted with the challenge that God exists and that he is calling us to love selflessly we have three choices.

The first choice is the one we would be least likely to take; we could believe the challenge, but decide to reject the challenge to love selflessly. I say that it’s the one we would be least likely to take because the act of believing and rejecting the challenge is fairly self condemning, in the sense that it is a judgemental statement of our own character and it is an acceptance of any consequences associated with the rejection of the challenge.

The second choice is the easiest to take. We could deny that the challenge is true. In the same way that we could earlier deny that the cheapest clothe store might be benefiting from worker exploitation, we could say that God’s existence is unproven and that the challenge can therefore be ignored.

The third choice is the one that I believe to be the most honourable. We could honestly consider and investigate the challenge and, if it seems reasonable to us, then we could say to ourselves that, although we are not entirely sure that God exists, we would like to strive to love selflessly and accept God’s calling for our lives. I’m not saying that the mere act of following a religion is honourable, but the act of sacrificing our own desires to love selflessly because God might exist is definitely both honourable and generous.

Again, it was the ambiguity of God’s existence that gave us the opportunity to make either a decision based on shear generosity or a decision that benefited ourselves.

If God’s existence and calling were proven beyond all doubt then I suggest that we would probably be more likely to try to accept the challenge, but also more likely to fail. Our actions would no longer be those of generosity and self sacrifice, but actions of self preservation as we seek to appease God. The very call to love selflessly itself would be invalidated as we made vain attempts to act out the lifestyle that we felt God wanted from us, whilst our motives to love selflessly would be overrun with a desire to keep God happy with us.

Does God’s unproven existence form part of a universal moral test?

I suggest then that the very ambiguity that surrounds God’s existence is not a reason to dismiss his existence. Although, Jesus himself was never ambiguous about the existence of God, the Bible describes in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 16 (verses 13-20) how even he warned the disciples not to reveal that he was the Christ, relying instead at that time on the interaction between a person and God as a source of the revelation. The process of ‘discovering God’ might in itself be part of a moral test, a challenge that we either accept or reject. I don’t find it surprising then that Jesus himself seems to hint at this in various places in the Bible, including the Gospel of Matthew chapter 13 (verses 24-30, 36-42) and chapter 25 (verses 31-46) where he describes how all of mankind are being/or will be sifted according to their morality.

It’s a challenge to us all that the seemingly inconsequential decisions that we make daily may be justifying or condemning ourselves. Please, continue to investigate the evidence of God’s existence, possibly by reading some of the other topics on this website.