With so many miracles claimed by other religions, how can anyone use miracles as evidence for Christianity? Can there be a religiously neutral test for miracle claims?
Following the tradition of the famous 18th-century philosopher David Hume, skeptics will often accuse Christians of special pleading. We eagerly accept the resurrection of Jesus and other miracles reported in the Bible. But we’re just as swift to reject miracle claims made by other religions. Critics will say if you accept one miracle, you have to open up the floodgates to them all. But is that true? Could there be a way to sift through all the noise?
Enter Charles Leslie’s terse yet powerful book A Short and Easy Method With the Deists. This booklet is around 40 pages, but it packs a punch. Leslie’s method is a religiously neutral test regarding how we can judge an event as undeniably historical.
Leslie proposes four common-sense tests that make no reference to any particular faith. While his criteria make allowances for miracle claims, they don’t permit gullibility.
What are Leslie’s four tests?
1. That the matter of fact is such, that men’s outward senses, their eyes, and ears may be judges of it.
2. That it be done publicly in the face of the world.
3. That not only public monuments are kept up in memory of it, but some outward actions are performed.
4. Those such monuments and such actions or observances are instituted, and to commence from the time, that the matter of fact was done.
A Short and Easy Method With the Deists
To clarify, Leslie isn’t saying that in order for something to be historical, that event needs to pass all four marks. But if the event in question passes all four, we can be sure it really happened.
One example would be America’s independence from the British. It was an experience of the senses. It was a public event. Independence Day was instituted on July 4th in 1777. We can obviously be certain of it.
In consideration of the first two criteria:
Leslie gives us a hypothetical scenario: Imagine someone claims to have split the Thames river and led a large population of London over on dry land to Southwark. We’d think this person was either joking or that they are crazy. We wouldn’t think they were telling the truth.
In consideration of his next two criteria:
Leslie gives us another illustration. No one knows for sure who set up Stonehenge, why it was set up or what exactly it commemorates.
There are fanciful stories that giants brought them from Africa to Ireland for their healing properties. The fifth-century king Aurelius Ambrosius wished to erect a memorial to 3000 nobles slaughtered in a battle against the Saxons and buried at Salisbury, and, at Merlin’s advice, chose Stonehenge.
The king sent Merlin, King Arthur’s father, and 15000 knights, to remove it from Ireland, where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by the giants. They killed 7000 Irishmen, but when the knights tried to move the rocks with ropes, they failed. Then Merlin, using “special” (read: magical) gear and skill, easily dismantled the stones and sent them over to Britain, where Stonehenge was dedicated.
Why hasn’t this story caught on? It’s pretty simple. No one saw it. This wasn’t a public act that anyone would have witnessed. The story first emerged hundreds of years after the alleged events happened. This is a good example of the fact that you can’t persuade people of a monument being based on historical events they haven’t heard of before.
So what miraculous event would pass the test?
Leslie argues that Israel’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt would pass. There were 10 plagues in Egypt and the miraculous passing through the Red Sea. That would be a public event that would be subject to people’s senses if there ever was one.
We know about Passover. God commanded it to be celebrated from the start. (Exodus 12:14) Now imagine someone in Hezekiah’s time smearing lamb’s blood on their doorposts and sweeping out all the traces of leaven in their house. Their neighbor asks, “Hey Levi, what are you doing?” Levi replies, “I’m getting ready to celebrate Passover. You know, that time our people got delivered by frogs, locusts, hail, etc. and passed through the Red Sea. It’s all recorded in Moses’ Law. It’s going to be awesome!” Obviously, this wouldn’t have caught on.
Does the resurrection of Jesus pass the test?
Leslie then moves to the claims of Christianity, which is based on the resurrection of Christ. Looking at the first two criteria:
Jesus appeared to people after his resurrection. He spoke to them, ate food with them, and invited them to touch him — the resurrection was apparent to their senses. (Luke 24:39)
Jesus appeared to many people — sometimes in groups, including the eleven remaining disciples (Luke 24:33) and over 500 people at once (I Corinthians 15:6) — the resurrection was a public event.
So the first two marks ensure that the original witnesses of the event were not deceived since the event took place in public and everyone with eyes and ears could see and hear it.
What about the next two criteria? Skeptics tell us that the resurrection stories came late when the original witnesses were long dead. But that’s not true.
The founding of the Church and the commemoration of the resurrection by Sunday worship took place immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion in about A.D. 30. (1 Corinthians 16:1–2, Acts 20:7. See also early Christians writings such as Didache 14, Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians, Ch 9.)
Paul also relates the tradition of communion in his letter to the church at Corinth. (1 Corinthians 11:23–27) Paul also mentions him baptizing certain church members in Corinth and he refers to the meaning of baptism throughout his letters. (1 Corinthians 1:12–17, Galatians 3:27). Sunday worship, communion, and baptism were all rituals memorializing the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Logically, the event commemorated must come before the action that commemorates it, so the death and resurrection of Jesus were being celebrated in the early first century.
What about supernatural events in other religions?
Leslie gives counterexamples of miracle claims in other religions. He mentions that in the Koran there is a story that Muhammad saw the moon split in half. But the Koran says that this takes place in a dream, so it was not a public event that other people could see. (Surah 54:1–2) Muhammad presents the inspiration of the Koran as his only miracle. (Surah 29:48–51)
Apollonius of Tyana’s miracles were written over a century after the events took place. He lived from 15–100 AD and Philostratus wrote his biography of Apollonius in approximately 220. Philostratus wrote in Athens, Apollonius’ alleged acts happened nearly 1200 miles away. These miracles were not objects of sense with memorials set up immediately afterward.
Leslie also mentions that while heathen deities have priesthoods, feasts and other public institutions in memory of them, all these didn’t commence from the time when such things were said to be done. These were known to be mythologies not based on historical claims.
No slippery slope
It’s said that Conyers Middleton, a critic of Christianity and a contemporary of David Hume, searched in vain to find a counterexample that would refute Leslie. Had Hume paid attention to Leslie, he would not have made the slippery slope argument he made in his infamous essay Of Miracles.
Leslie clearly shows that a miracle claim can be strongly attested. One doesn’t have to gullibly accept all miracle claims. But neither do they have to incredulously reject all of them either.
Check out the book for yourself. It costs you nothing and is well worth an hour of your time. If that whets your appetite, check out HistoricalApologetics.org. They have a collection of awesome older books like this one that will help you be able to better defend the faith. No charge means no excuse!