The naturalistic assumption

Spring 2005

Everyone would agree that you don't appeal to supernatural causes if you don't have to. But these scholars go beyond that and say you don't everhave to. They operate under the assumption that everything in history has happened according to their own experiences, and since they've never seen the supernatural, they assume miracles have never occurred in history.

Here's what they do: they rule out the possibility of the supernatural from the beginning, and then they say, "Now bring on the evidence about Jesus." No wonder they get the results they do!

. . . . . .

I would grant that you shouldn't appeal to the supernatural until you have to. Yes, first look for a natural explanation. I do that in my own life. A tree falls -- OK, maybe there were termites. Now, could an angel have pushed it over? Well, I wouldn't go to that conclusion until there was definite evidence for it.

So I grant that. But what I can't grant is the tremendous presumption that we know enough about the universe to say that God -- if there is a God -- can never break into our world in a supernatural way. That's a very presumptuous assumption. That's not a presumption based on history; now you're doing metaphysics.

I think there should be a certain amount of humility in the historical investigation to say, "You know what? It is just possible that Jesus Christ did rise from the dead. It's just possible that his disciples actually saw what the gospels say they saw." And if there's no other way of accounting adequately for the evidence, let's investigate that possibility.

--Gregory A. Boyd, professor of theology, Bethel College

Quoted by Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ

I agree with Boyd's conclusion. Let us indeed investigate the possibility that a man rose from the dead if there is no other way to account for the evidence.

But is there no other way? I think there are several. One other way we can account for it is by supposing that early Christians were mistaken about the provenance of certain stories they heard about a man called Jesus of Nazareth.

Those stories are the evidence that we're talking about. The existence of those stories is what has to be explained. Were the stories told because they were true, or for some other reason?

There is no Jesus. There are stories about Jesus. There is no crucifixion. There are stories about a crucifixion. There is no tomb, empty or otherwise. There are stories about a tomb that was found empty three days after Jesus' body was put into it. There are no appearances to Mary Magdalene and other women, or to the disciples, or to 500 others. There are stories about those appearances. One way to account for those stories is by supposing that there was a resurrection. But there are other ways.

We have to explain how those stories came to be told and believed. We have to explain how the stories came to be written. We have to explain not only how the books of the New Testament came to be written, but also how an assortment of other gospels and epistles came to be written but failed to be canonized. We also have to account for the patristic writings. We have to explain why they were written and what they most likely reveal—and don't reveal—about the beliefs of their authors.

One possible explanation for all these documents is that the gospel stories were true, but Boyd begs a question by how he phrases his version of that possibility: "that his disciples actually saw what the gospels say they saw." This assumes that there was a real Jesus, and that he had disciples, and that those disciples were the ones listed in the gospels, and that those disciples were telling people after his death that they had seen him alive again. Boyd assumes that the only remaining question is whether those disciples were telling the truth.

Well, it is just possible that they were not telling the truth. However, we can also account for the evidence by supposing that the disciples themselves never really told anybody such a story. We can account for it by supposing that Jesus did not have a band of disciples as the gospels claim, that the gospels are a collection of mostly fictional stories about a charismatic rabbi who did nothing more spectacular in real life than preach some very memorable sermons.

Of course such hypotheses are off limits to the minds of evangelical Christians. That's OK. If it seems incredible to them that the gospels might contain some untruths, then they will believe what they will. If a man rising from the dead is consistent with their worldview, so be it. But let them not insist that the evidence cannot be otherwise explained. If they cannot believe any other explanation, then I can understand that, but their disbelief does not mean that there is no other explanation.

Let's look at a paraphrase of Boyd's comments.

Everyone would agree that you don't assume any mortal man is infallible if you don't have to. But these evangelicals say that you always have to if you're dealing with the men who wrote the New Testament. They operate under the assumption that everything in Christian history happened according to Christianity's own traditions, and since they've never seen any reason to drop that assumption, they assume that anyone who disagrees with them cannot possibly have a good reason to disagree.

Here's what they do: They rule out the possibility that their beliefs could be mistaken, and then they say, "Now bring on the evidence that we're wrong." No wonder they get the results they do!

I would grant that religious faith might have some justification, at least for some people. By all means, keep your mind open to the possibility that God is real and that he cares about humanity.

So I grant that. But what I can't grant is the tremendous presumption that any man knows enough about God -- if there is a God -- to say with any justification that all skeptics, all who question the authenticity of writings that he thinks were inspired by God, are surely doomed to an eternity in hell.

The naturalistic assumption is not arbitrary or capricious. It is a well-founded generalization based on centuries of careful and methodical observation. It is the common experience of humanity that nature operates according to certain invariable laws. It is also the common experience of humanity that humans are prone to erroneous perceptions and erroneous memories as well as occasional deceit. No effort to scientifically investigate reported violations of natural law has turned up evidence proving beyond reasonable doubt that the people reporting such violations could not have been mistaken. The sincerity or passion with which a person is convinced of having witnessed a miracle does nothing to diminish the likelihood of error.

Scientific rationalists embrace the naturalistic assumption because it has worked very well and very consistently for many centuries. Furthermore, not even evangelical Christians question its efficacy or its justification when applied to reports of miracles that, if confirmed, would validate religions other than their own. To an evangelical, no Muslim witness to a miracle effected by a prayer to Allah is credible enough to prove that that miracle actually occurred. To most evangelicals, no Roman Catholic witness to a miracle effected by a prayer to a Catholic saint is credible enough to prove that that miracle actually occurred.

Toward other religions, evangelicals are every bit as skeptical as any atheist. It is only when the miracle, if it really occurred, would validate evangelical Christianity that the skeptic is accused of muleheadedness for thinking that a naturalistic explanation is likely to account for whatever actually occurred. Only when the miracle would validate his version of Christianity does the evangelical think it preposterous to suggest that a witness to a miracle might be mistaken about what he really saw, or that a document purportedly written by a witness might really have been written by someone else.

Of course this kind of double standard is not unique to followers of evangelical Christianity or any other religion, nor to religion itself. Believers in all philosophies, all worldviews, are susceptible to it. But that is precisely why the scientific method incorporates ideas such as replicability and peer review. If something is seen under certain conditions even by people who don't expect to see it, then we are well justified in believing that it is real. Otherwise—if it is seen only by people who expect to see it—then we reasonably suspect that the observation might be an artifact of the believers' mindsets.

Yes, I do assume that miracles don't happen, that dead men do not return to life. Yes, I do assume that even if there is a god, he does not intervene in the natural course of events. And I do consider these assumptions well justified. But I also affirm, with all the sincerity at my command, that I do not consider these assumptions inviolable. I do not consider myself infallible. I could be mistaken, and I am prepared to admit my mistake when I am given a good reason to think it really is a mistake. But, the mere fact that I am contradicted by statements contained in ancient documents of unknown authorship is not a good reason. The mere fact that I am contradicted by millions of people committed to a belief in the inerrancy of those documents is not a good reason. The mere fact that those millions tell me I will burn in hell for not believing those documents is not a good reason.

A good reason would be irrefutable evidence that the men who wrote those documents could not have been wrong. Such evidence would have to begin by establishing their identities beyond reasonable doubt. Such evidence would have to establish that they had perfect memories, such as ordinary people do not have, of events they witnessed and words spoken to them. It would have to establish that their perceptions were unaffected, as all other people's perceptions are affected, by their beliefs, emotions, and expectations.

Some apologists will now whine about a double standard, saying I do not demand such perfection of witnesses to natural events.

Double standards are wrong when they are arbitrary, but there is nothing arbitrary about the difference between a natural event and a miracle. Natural events are the common experience of humanity. Miracles are not. I have no justification for supposing that if somebody says a miracle happened, then it must have happened. I do have justification for thinking that if a person believes he saw a miracle, then that person could be mistaken and probably is mistaken.

The presumption that a report of a miracle is due to human error is so well grounded in precedent that any alleged witness's competence has to be proved beyond doubt. If any lesser standard is employed, then every religion that has ever appealed to miracles for validation would be proven true. If anybody is using a double standard, it is those who say "Our miracle stories are credible, their miracles stories are not. Our witnesses are believable, their witnesses are not."

Furthermore, I do not assume that any witness even to a natural event is infallible. To the contrary, I assume that any witness, to any event at all, can be mistaken. No matter how reliable the witness or how ordinary the event, I consider it possible that the event did not happen as the witness reported it. And if it happens that the event, although natural, seems prima facie improbable for any reason, I may well doubt even a reliable witness. Again it seems to be the apologists who employ a double standard. They believe arbitrarily that eight men living about 2,000 years ago wrote 27 books without even the possibility of making a single mistake. I would not accuse them of being arbitrary if they claimed only that the New Testament writers were credible. I would dispute them, but reasonable people may surely disagree about any ancient writer's credibility. Credibility is not tantamount to infallibility, though. I may think a person credible while also believing him to be mistaken about a particular matter.

But to hear apologists tell it, it is not reasonable for me to think that any New Testament author was wrong about anything he wrote. If Paul said that 500 people saw the risen Christ, then I must believe that 500 people saw the risen Christ. Why? Because Paul said they did. Could Paul have been mistaken? The apologists say no. I say yes, and the apologists cannot explain what is so unreasonable about that.

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