Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > Supernatural Religion




WE have maintained that the miracles reported after apostolic days are precisely of the same types in all material points as the earlier miracles. Setting aside miracles of a trivial and unworthy character, there remain a countless number cast in the same mould as those of the Gospels -- miraculous cure of diseases, expulsion of demons, transformation of elements, supernatural nourishment, resurrection of dead -- of many of which we have quoted instances. A natural objection is anticipated by Dr. Mozley: "It will be urged, perhaps, that a large portion even of the Gospel miracles are of the class here mentioned as ambiguous -- cures, visions, expulsions of evil spirits; but this observation does not affect the character of the Gospel miracles as a body, because we judge of the body or whole from its highest specimen, not from its lowest." He takes his stand upon, "e.g., our Lord's Resurrection and Ascension." [109:1] Now, without discussing the principle laid down here, it is evident that the great distinction between the Gospel and other miracles is thus narrowed to a very small compass. It is admitted that the mass of the Gospel miracles are of a class characterised as ambiguous, because "the current miracles of human history" are also chiefly of the same type, and the distinctive character is derived avowedly only from a few high specimens such as the Resurrection. We have already referred to the fact that in the Synoptic Gospels there is only one case, reported by the third Gospel alone, in which Jesus is said to have raised the dead. St. Augustine alone, however, chronicles several cases in which life was restored to the dead. Post-apostolic miracles, therefore, are far from lacking this ennobling type. Observe that there is not here so much a discussion of the reality of the subsequent miracles of the Church as a contrast drawn between them and other reputed miracles and those of the Gospel; but from this point of view it is impossible to maintain that the Gospels have a monopoly of the highest class of miracles. Such miracles are met with long before the dawn of Christianity, and continued to occur long after apostolic times.

Much stress is laid upon the form of the Gospel miracles; but, as we have already shown, it is the actual resurrection of the dead, for instance, which is the miracle, and this is not affected by the more or less dramatic manner in which it is said to have been effected, or in which the narrative of the event is composed. Literary skill and the judicious management of details may make or mar the form of any miracle. The narrative of the restoration of the dead child to life by Elisha might have been more impressive had the writer omitted the circumstance that the child sneezed seven times before opening his eyes, and the miracle would probably have been considered greater had the prophet merely said to the child, "Arise!" instead of stretching himself on the body; but, setting aside human cravings for the picturesque and artistic, the essence of the miracle would have remained the same. There is one point, however, regarding which it may be well to make a few remarks. Whilst a vast number of miracles are ascribed to direct personal action of saints, many more are attributed to their relics. Now, this is no exclusive characteristic of later miracles, but Christianity itself shares it with still earlier times. The case in which a dead body which touched the bones of Elisha was restored to life will occur to everyone. "And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of Moabites; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet." [110:1] The mantle of Elijah smiting asunder the waters before Elisha may be cited as another instance. [110:2] The woman who touches the hem of the garment of Jesus in the crowd is made whole, [110:3] and all the sick and "possessed" of the country are represented as being healed by touching Jesus, or even the mere hem of his garment. [110:4] It was supposed that the shadow of Peter falling on the sick as he passed had a curative effect, [110:5] and it is very positively stated: "And God wrought miracles of no common kind by the hands of Paul; so that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them." [110:6]

Absence of Distinctive Character
The argument which assumes an enormous distinction between Gospel and other miracles betrays the prevalent scepticism, even in the Church, of all miracles except those which it is considered an article of faith to maintain. If we inquire how those think who are more logical and thorough in their belief in the supernatural, we find the distinction denied. "The question," says Newman, "has hitherto been argued on the admission that a distinct line can be drawn in point of character and circumstances between the miracles of Scripture and those of Church history; but this is by no means the case. It is true, indeed, that the miracles of Scripture, viewed as a whole, recommend themselves to our reason, and claim our veneration beyond all others, by a peculiar dignity and beauty; but still it is only as a whole that they make this impression upon us. Some of them, on the contrary, fall short of the attributes which attach to them in general; nay, are inferior in these respects to certain ecclesiastical miracles, and are received only on the credit of the system of which they form part. Again, specimens are not wanting in the history of the Church, of miracles as awful in their character, and as momentous in their effects, as those which are recorded in Scripture." [111:1] Now here is one able and thorough supporter of miracles denying the enormous distinction between those of the Gospel and those of human history, which another admits to be essential to the former as evidence of a revelation.

Such a difficulty, however, is met by asserting that there would be no disadvantage to the Gospel miracles, and no doubt regarding them involved, if for some later miracles there was evidence as strong as for those of the Gospel. "All the result would be, that we should admit these miracles over and above the Gospel ones." [111:2] The equality of the evidence, however, is denied, in any case. "Between the evidence, then, upon which the Gospel miracles stand, and that for later miracles, we see a broad distinction arising, not to mention again the nature and type of the Gospel miracles themselves -- from the contemporaneous date of the testimony to them, the character of the witnesses, the probation of the testimony; especially when we contrast with these points the false doctrine and audacious fraud which rose up in later ages, and in connection with which so large a portion of the later miracles of Christianity made their appearance." [111:3] We consider the point touching the type of the Gospel miracles disposed of, and we may, therefore, confine ourselves to the rest of this argument. If we look for any external evidence of the miracles of Jesus in some marked effect produced by them at the time they are said to have occurred, we find anything but confirmation of the statements of the Gospels. It is a notorious fact that, in spite of these miracles, very few of the Jews amongst whom they were performed believed in Jesus, and that Christianity made its chief converts not where the supposed miracles took place, but where an account of them was alone given by enthusiastic missionaries. Such astounding exhibitions of power as raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, walking on the sea, changing water into wine, and indefinitely multiplying a few loaves and fishes, not only did not make any impression on the Jews themselves, but were never heard of out of Palestine until long after the events are said to have occurred, when the narrative of them was slowly disseminated by Christian teachers and writers.

Comparison of Evidence
Dr. Mozley refers to the contemporary testimony "for certain great and cardinal Gospel miracles which, if granted, clears away all antecedent objection to the reception of the rest," and he says: "That the first promulgators of Christianity asserted as a fact which had come under the cognizance of their senses the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead is as certain as anything in history." [112:1] What they really did assert, so far from being certain, must, as we shall hereafter see, be considered matter of the greatest doubt. But if the general statement be taken that the Resurrection, for instance, was promulgated as a fact which the early preachers of Christianity themselves believed to have taken place, the evidence does not in that case present the broad distinction he asserts. The miracles recounted by St. Athanasius and St. Augustine, for example, were likewise proclaimed with equal clearness, and even greater promptitude and publicity, at the very spot where many of them were said to have been performed, and the details were much more immediately reduced to writing. The mere assertion in neither case goes for much as evidence, but the fact is that we have absolutely no contemporaneous testimony as to what the first promulgators of Christianity actually asserted, or as to the real grounds upon which they made such assertions. We shall presently enter upon a thorough examination of the testimony for the Gospel narratives, their authorship and authenticity; but we may here be permitted so far to anticipate as to remark that, applied to documentary evidence, any reasoning from the contemporaneous date of the testimony, and the character of the witnesses, is contradicted by the whole history of New Testament literature. Whilst the most uncritically zealous assertors of the antiquity of the Gospels never venture to date the earliest of them within a quarter of a century from the death of Jesus, every tyro is aware that there is not a particle of evidence of the existence of our Gospels until very long after that interval -- hereafter we shall show how long -- that two of our Synoptic Gospels, at least, were not composed in their present form by the writers to whom they are attributed; that there is, indeed, nothing worthy of the name of evidence that any one of these Gospels was written by the person whose name it bears; that the second Gospel is attributed to one who was not an eyewitness, and of whose identity there is the greatest doubt, even amongst those who assert the authorship of Mark; that the third Gospel is an avowed later compilation, [113:1] and likewise ascribed to one who was not a follower of Jesus himself; and that the authorship of the fourth Gospel and its historical character are amongst the most unsettled questions of criticism, not to use here any more definite terms. This being the state of the case, it is absurd to lay such emphasis on the contemporaneous date of the testimony, and on the character of the witnesses, since it has not even been determined who those witnesses are, and two even of the supposed evangelists were not personal eye-witnesses at all. [113:2] Surely the testimony of Athanasius regarding the miracles of St. Anthony, and that of Augustine regarding his list of miracles occurring in, or close to, his own diocese within two years of the time at which he writes, or, to refer to more recent times, the evidence of Pascal for the Port-Royal miracles, it must be admitted, not only does not present the broad distinction of evidence asserted, but, on the contrary, is even more unassailable than that of the Gospel miracles. The Church, which is the authority for those miracles, is also the authority for the long succession of such works wrought by the saints. The identity of the writers we have instanced has never been doubted; their trustworthiness in so far as stating what they believe to be true is concerned has never been impugned; the same could be affirmed of writers in every age who record such miracles. The fact is that theologians demand evidence for later miracles which they have not for those of the Gospels, and which transmitted reverence forbids their requiring. They strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

The life of sacrifice and suffering of the Apostles is pointed out as a remarkable and peculiar testimony to the truth of the Gospel miracles, and notably of the Resurrection and Ascension. Without examining, here, how much we really know of those lives and sufferings, one thing is perfectly evident: that sacrifice, suffering, and martyrdom itself are evidence of nothing except of the personal belief of the person enduring them; they do not prove the truth of the doctrines believed. No one doubts the high religious enthusiasm of the early Christians, or the earnest and fanatical zeal with which they courted martyrdom; but this is no exclusive characteristic of Christianity. Every religion has had its martyrs, every error its devoted victims. Does the marvellous endurance of the Hindoo, whose limbs wither after years of painful persistence in vows to his Deity, prove the truth of Brahmanism? or do the fanatical believers who cast themselves under the wheels of the car of Jagganath establish the soundness of their creed? Do the Jews, who for centuries bore the fiercest contumely of the world, and were persecuted, hunted, and done to death by every conceivable torture for persisting in their denial of the truth of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension, and in their rejection of Jesus Christ -- do they thus furnish a convincing argument for the truth of their belief and the falsity of Christianity? Or have the thousands who have been consigned to the stake by the Christian Church herself, for persisting in asserting what she has denounced as damnable heresy, proved the correctness of their views by their sufferings and death? History is full of the records of men who have honestly believed every kind of error and heresy, and have been steadfast to the death, through persecution and torture, in their mistaken belief. There is nothing so inflexible as superstitious fanaticism, and persecution, instead of extinguishing it, has invariably been the most certain means of its propagation. The sufferings of the Apostles, therefore, cannot prove anything beyond their own belief, and the question, what it was they really did believe and suffer for, is by no means so simple as it appears.

Now the long succession of ecclesiastical and other miracles has an important bearing upon those of the New Testament, whether we believe or deny their reality. If we regard the miracles of Church history to be in the main real, the whole force of the Gospel miracles, as exceptional supernatural evidence of a Divine Revelation, is annihilated. The "miraculous credentials of Christianity" assume a very different aspect when they are considered from such a point of view. Admitted to be scarcely recognisable from miracles wrought by Satanic agency, they are seen to be a continuation of wonders recorded in the Old Testament, to be preceded and accompanied by pretension to similar power on the part of the Jews and other nations, and to be succeeded by cycles of miracles, in all essential respects the same, performed subsequently for upwards of fifteen hundred years. Supernatural evidence of so common and prodigal a nature certainly betrays a great want of force and divine speciality. How could that be considered as express evidence for a new Divine revelation which was already so well known to the world, and which is scattered broadcast over so many centuries, as well as successfully simulated by Satan?

If, on the other hand, we dismiss the miracles of later ages as false, and as merely the creations of superstition or pious imagination, how can the miracles of the Gospel, which are precisely the same in type, and not better established as facts, remain unshaken? The Apostles and Evangelists were men of like passions, and also of like superstitions, with others of their time, and must be measured by the same standard.

The Gospel Miracles Sink in the Stream
If we consider the particular part which miracles have played in human history, we find precisely the phenomena which might have been expected if, instead of being considered as real occurrences, they are recognised as the mistakes or creations of ignorance and superstition during that period in which "reality melted into fable, and invention unconsciously trespassed on the province of history." Their occurrence is limited to ages which were totally ignorant of physical laws, and they have been numerous or rare precisely in proportion to the degree of imagination and love of the marvellous characterising the people amongst whom they are said to have occurred. Instead of a few evidential miracles taking place at one epoch of history, and filling the world with surprise at such novel and exceptional phenomena, we find miracles represented as occurring in all ages and in all countries. The Gospel miracles are set in the midst of a series of similar wonders, which commenced many centuries before the dawn of Christianity and continued, without interruption, for fifteen hundred years after it. They did not in the most remote degree originate the belief in miracles, or give the first suggestion of spurious imitation. It may, on the contrary, be much more truly said that the already existing belief created these miracles. No divine originality characterised the evidence selected to accredit the Divine Revelation. The miracles with which the history of the world is full occurred in ages of darkness and superstition, and they gradually ceased when enlightenment became more generally diffused. At the very time when knowledge of the laws of nature began to render men capable of judging of the reality of miracles, these wonders entirely failed. This extraordinary cessation of miracles, precisely at the time when their evidence might have acquired value by an appeal to persons capable of appreciating them, is perfectly unintelligible if they be viewed as the supernatural credentials of a Divine revelation. If, on the other hand, they be regarded as the mistakes of imaginative excitement and ignorance, nothing is more natural than their extinction at the time when the superstition which created them gave place to knowledge.

As a historical fact, there is nothing more certain than that miracles, and the belief in them, disappeared exactly when education and knowledge of the operation of natural laws became diffused throughout Europe, and that the last traces of belief in supernatural interference with the order of nature are only to be found in localities where ignorance and superstition still prevail, and render delusion or pious fraud of that description possible. Miracles are now denied to places more enlightened than Naples or La Salette. The inevitable inference from this fact is fatal to the mass of miracles, and it is not possible to protect them from it. Miracle cures by the relics of saints, upheld for fifteen centuries by all the power of the Church, utterly failed when medical science, increasing in spite of persecution, demonstrated the natural action of physiological laws. The theory of the demoniacal origin of disease has been entirely and for ever dispelled, and the host of miracles in connection with it retrospectively exploded by the progress of science. Witchcraft and sorcery, the belief in which reigned supreme for so many centuries, are known to have been nothing but the delusions of ignorant superstition.

Notwithstanding the facts which we have stated, it has been argued: "Christianity is the religion of the civilised world, and it is believed upon its miraculous evidence. Now, for a set of miracles to be accepted in a rude age, and to retain their authority throughout a succession of such ages, and over the ignorant and superstitious part of mankind, may be no such great result for the miracle to accomplish, because it is easy to satisfy those who do not inquire. But this is not the state of the case which we have to meet on the subject of the Christian miracles. The Christian being the most intelligent, the civilised portion of the world, these miracles are accepted by the Christian body as a whole, by the thinking and educated, as well as the uneducated, part of it, and the Gospel is believed upon that evidence." [116:1] The picture of Christendom here suggested is purely imaginary. We are asked to believe that succeeding generations of thinking and educated, as well as uneducated, men since the commencement of the period in which the adequate inquiry into the reality of miracles became possible, have made that adequate inquiry, and have intelligently and individually accepted miracles and believed the Gospel in consequence of their attestation. The fact, however, is that Christianity became the religion of Europe before men either possessed the knowledge requisite to appreciate the difficulties involved in the acceptance of miracles, or minds sufficiently freed from ignorant superstition to question the reality of the supposed supernatural interference with the order of nature, and belief had become so much a matter of habit that, in our time, the great majority of men have professed belief for no better reason than that their fathers believed before them. Belief is now little more than a transmitted quality or hereditary custom. Few men, even now, have either the knowledge or the leisure requisite to enable them to enter upon such an examination of miracles as can entitle them to affirm that they intelligently accept miracles for themselves. We have shown, moreover, that so loose are the ideas even of the clergy upon the subject that dignitaries of the Church fail to see either the evidential purpose of miracles or the need for evidence at all, and the first intelligent step towards inquiry -- doubt -- has generally been stigmatised almost as a crime.

Miracles Denied by the Educated
So far from the statement which we are considering being correct, it is notorious that the great mass of those who are competent to examine, and who have done so, altogether reject miracles. Instead of the "thinking and educated" men of science accepting miracles, they, as a body, distinctly deny them, and hence the antagonism between science and ecclesiastical Christianity; and it is surely not necessary to point out how many of the profoundest critics and scholars of Germany, and of all other countries in Europe, who have turned their attention to Biblical subjects, have long ago rejected the miraculous elements of the Christian religion.

It is necessary that we should now refer to the circumstance that all the arguments which we have hitherto considered in support of miracles, whether to explain or account for them, have proceeded upon an assumption of the reality of the alleged phenomena. Had it been first requisite to establish the truth of facts of such an astounding nature, the necessity of accounting for them would never have arisen. It is clear, therefore, that an assumption which permits the argument to attain any such position begs almost the whole question. Facts, however astounding, the actual occurrence of which had been proved, would claim a latitude of explanation, which a mere narrative of those alleged facts, written by an unknown person some eighteen centuries ago, could not obtain. If, for instance, it be once established as an absolute fact that a man actually dead, and some days buried, upon whose body decomposition had already made some progress, [117:1] had been restored to life, the fact of his death and of his subsequent resuscitation being so absolutely proved that the possibility of deception or of mistake on the part of the witnesses was totally excluded, it is clear that an argument, as to whether such an occurrence should be ascribed to known or unknown laws, would assume a very different character from that which it would have borne if the argument merely sought to account for so astounding a phenomenon of whose actual occurrence there was no sufficient evidence.

It must not be forgotten, therefore, that, as the late Professor Baden Powell pointed out, "At the present day it is not a miracle, but the narrative of a miracle, to which any argument can refer, or to which faith is accorded." [118:1] The discussion of miracles, then, is not one regarding miracles actually performed within our own knowledge, but merely regarding miracles said to have been performed eighteen hundred years ago, the reality of which was not verified at the time by any scientific examination, and whose occurrence is merely reported in the Gospels. Now, although Paley and others rightly and logically maintain that Christianity requires, and should be believed only upon, its miraculous evidence, the fact is that popular Christianity is not believed because of miracles, but miracles are accepted because they are related in the Gospels which are supposed to contain the doctrines of Christianity. The Gospels have for many generations been given to the child as inspired records, and doubt of miracles has, therefore, either never arisen or has been instantly suppressed, simply because miracles are recorded in the sacred volume. It could scarcely be otherwise, for in point of fact the Gospel miracles stand upon no other testimony. We are therefore in this position: We are asked to believe astounding announcements beyond the limits of human reason, which we could only be justified in believing upon miraculous evidence, upon the testimony of miracles which are only reported by the records which also alone convey the announcements which those miracles were intended to accredit. There is no other contemporary evidence whatever. The importance of the Gospels, therefore, as the almost solitary testimony to the occurrence of miracles can scarcely be exaggerated. We have already made an anticipatory remark regarding the nature of these documents, to which we may add that they are not the work of perfectly independent historians, but of men who were engaged in disseminating the new doctrines, and in saying this we have no intention of accusing the writers of conscious deception; it is, however, necessary to state the fact in order that the value of the testimony may be fairly estimated. The narratives of miracles were written by ardent partisans, with minds inflamed by religious zeal and enthusiasm, in an age of ignorance and superstition, a considerable time after the supposed miraculous occurrences had taken place. All history shows how rapidly pious memory exaggerates and idealises the traditions of the past, and simple actions might readily be transformed into miracles, as the narratives circulated, in a period so prone to superstition and so characterised by love of the marvellous. Religious excitement could not, under such circumstances and in such an age, have escaped this exaggeration. How few men in more enlightened times have been able soberly to appreciate, and accurately to record, exciting experiences, where feeling and religious emotion have been concerned. Prosaic accuracy of observation and of language, at all times rare, are the last qualities we could expect to find in the early ages of Christianity. In the certain fact that disputes arose among the Apostles themselves so shortly after the death of their great Master, we have one proof that even amongst them there was no accurate appreciation of the teaching of Jesus, [119:1] and the frequent instances of their misunderstanding of very simple matters, and of their want of enlightenment, which occur throughout the Gospels are certainly not calculated to inspire much confidence in their intelligence and accuracy of observation.

The Evidence Required
Now it is apparent that the evidence for miracles requires to embrace two distinct points: the reality of the alleged facts, and the accuracy of the inference that the phenomena were produced by supernatural agency. The task would even then remain of demonstrating the particular supernatural Being by whom the miracles were performed, which is admitted to be impossible. We have hitherto chiefly confined ourselves to a consideration of the antecedent credibility of such events, and of the fitness of those who are supposed to have witnessed them to draw accurate inferences from the alleged phenomena. Those who have formed any adequate conception of the amount of testimony which would be requisite in order to establish the reality of occurrences in violation of an order of nature, which is based upon universal and invariable experience, must recognise that, even if the earliest asserted origin of our four Gospels could be established upon the most irrefragable grounds, the testimony of the writers -- men of like ignorance with their contemporaries, men of like passions with ourselves -- would be utterly incompetent to prove the reality of miracles. We have already sufficiently discussed this point, more especially in connection with Hume's argument, and need not here resume it. Every consideration, historical and philosophical, has hitherto discredited the whole theory of miracles, and further inquiry might be abandoned as unnecessary. In order, however, to render our conclusion complete, it remains for us to see whether, as affirmed, there be any special evidence regarding the alleged facts entitling the Gospel miracles to exceptional attention. If, instead of being clear and direct, the undoubted testimony of known eye-witnesses free from superstition, and capable, through adequate knowledge, rightly to estimate the alleged phenomena, we find that the actual accounts have none of these qualifications, the final decision with regard to miracles and the reality of Divine revelation will be easy and conclusive.

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