This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 40, number 02 (2017). . For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
a book review of
The Miracle Myth
Why Belief in the Resurrection
and the Supernatural is Unjustified
by Larry Shapiro
(Columbia University Press, 2016)
Is belief in miracles justified? Can we know that God was the cause of events such as the parting of the Red Sea or Jesus’ resurrection? University of Wisconsin-Madison philosophy professor Larry Shapiro discusses these issues in his recent popular-level book The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural Is Unjustified.
His goal is to “convince you that no one has had or currently has good reasons for believing in miracles” (p. xiv, 12, 14). He does not argue that miracles have not occurred but only that if they did, we could not know they did (xv, 84–85). Shapiro is a very clear writer and presents his arguments plainly in order to make disagreements with his arguments more visible (1, 77). There are, however, areas of important disagreement with his philosophical and historical arguments.
Philosophical Argument. Chapter 1 focuses on philosophical concerns while introducing readers to the concept of justified true belief so that in the following chapters, readers may consider properly whether or not one may be justified in believing a miracle has occurred.
Chapter 2 develops Shapiro’s philosophical argument by introducing his definition of a miracle as “events that are the result of supernatural, typically divine, forces….the best evidence for the presence of supernatural activity is that activity’s vast improbability” (18). A miracle should be an “extremely improbable” event that “naturally leads” people to posit a divine cause (21). This definition enables Shapiro to present two criteria for determining whether or not a miracle has occurred. It should be “unlike anything we have seen before….contrary to everything we know about how the world works,” and it “must be the product of supernatural” agency (25).
Chapter 3 proceeds from his understanding of miracle in order to present his first argument that grants for the moment that alleged miraculous events have occurred, but objects to our ability to know the cause of such events. Shapiro writes, “There is no way to justify beliefs about the supernatural origins of those events that are regarded as miracles, so there is no reason to be confident that what we are witnessing when we think we’re seeing a miracle really is a miracle” (29, emphasis in original). Believers never can be justified in holding that the origins of an improbable event are supernatural. They could be, but it would just be guessing (44, 56).
In seeking to demonstrate his point, Shapiro examines the account of Aaron’s staff turning into a serpent when thrown to the ground (41ff.). If this event did occur as recorded, he wonders how one would know that God was the cause of the event, rather than seventeen gods or an unknown natural cause such as aliens (46–48, 52)? Shapiro acknowledges that such explanations are silly, but believes them to be no sillier than suggesting that God was the cause.
While this is an intriguing thought, Shapiro does not discuss why these other alternative explanations sound strange in the first place. He never asks why those who believe in miracles typically think the event was caused by a specific God and not these other options. Interestingly, skeptics frequently claim that if they saw someone grow a limb back after prayer or if God appeared to them, then they would believe God did it (not these other possibilities). Thus there does appear to be something that points, or naturally leads, toward an identifiable God in these situations rather than the other options.
What is that something? First, the context of the event (praying to God or God speaking) provides a positive reason to believe that a specific God is the active agent involved. In the case of Moses and Aaron, the context is filled with theistic religious significance that designates the God of Abraham as the active Agent (Exod. 3–4; cf. Mark 2:1–12). This means that God is able to communicate properly and effectively or reveal something about Himself through meaningful actions in various contexts.
Second, there are no positive reasons to believe the alternative options mentioned by Shapiro, as there is no evidence for them, which he readily acknowledges. Ultimately, the context of an event provides important clues to understanding the event and agents involved. If a person is cut with a knife, it is important to know whether the context was an operating room or a dark alley. Yet Shapiro does not appear to consider the context or believe that it is important to do so. There is neither an operating room nor a dark alley, only a person who has been cut with a knife.
Clearly, if we are only to consider an event that has been completely torn from its context, then its cause could be any number of things. Unfortunately, by suggesting that vastly improbable events “naturally lead” one to posit a divine cause, Shapiro has defined miracles in such a way that ignores the context of the event and requires one to assume a supernatural cause (18, 21).
The problem with this is that he later accuses theists of begging the question by assuming God (83). Of course, on his understanding, the theist must assume a supernatural entity, so naturally this accusation makes sense. Yet if we consider contexts, our ability to identify a specific agent has improved significantly. Thus, as we have seen, Shapiro’s understanding of a miracle is problematic and need not be accepted, for by definition one cannot know, but must assume, supernatural activity. To rework one of his own lines, “Shapiro should not be allowed to help himself to a definition that entails the very conclusion he wishes to establish. That’s just bad reasoning” (cf. 131).
Historical Argument. Chapters 4 to 6 develop Shapiro’s second argument and no longer grant that miraculous events have occurred. Instead, he evaluates the historical evidence for miracle claims. In these chapters, he considers what type of evidence is needed to establish that a miraculous event has occurred. Next, he examines various historical tools (written records, assent of enemies, physical evidence, reliable accounting, and implicating consequences) used by historians when they assess historical claims. Using these tools, he then (unsurprisingly) concludes that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection fails to meet historical standards, let alone those needed to justify a miracle.
It is significant that Shapiro repeatedly acknowledges he is not a historian (54, 91, 111, 113). As will be shown, it was unwise for him to base his second of only two arguments against miracles on an area in which he is a newcomer. To be blunt, Shapiro’s historical assessment of Jesus’ resurrection is filled with mistakes on virtually all levels. While there are a multitude of mistakes in these chapters (e.g., his claim that Jesus’ miracles are found in only one source !), we will focus on only three major problems.
First, one cannot help but suspect that there is a deep controlling bias when we consider Shapiro’s sources and his lack of engagement with evidence presented by Christian scholars. He states that most of what he has learned about the New Testament is from two skeptics, Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier (113). One would expect to see more diversity in his sources and arguments if he truly is trying to examine the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection while also being “dedicated to discovering the truth” (xiii). After all, if one is seeking to determine if Jesus was really raised, then presumably one might want to present at least some arguments from those who believe the resurrection occurred, and what evidence led them to that conclusion.
Many brilliant scholars today believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and do so based on historical facts that are agreed on by most critical scholars of all theological backgrounds. These “minimal facts” generally consist of Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the empty tomb, the disciples’ experiences of the risen Jesus, the conversion of James, and the conversion of Paul.1 Regrettably, these lines of evidence do not receive much, if any, attention from Shapiro.
Second, Shapiro fails to understand not only the ancient sources but also his own sources. For Shapiro, the NT, which he seems to describe as one work instead of a collection of twenty-seven writings, is wholly untrustworthy (131). Such outright rejection of the entire NT is a prejudicial move, not a historical one. Even if one believes the NT to be generally unreliable, historians still believe that there is historical information found in the NT writings.
In fact, one of Shapiro’s favorite sources, Ehrman, has consistently argued that even though he (Ehrman) believes the NT writings to be unreliable, they nevertheless are filled with historical material, and part of the historian’s task is to determine which material is historical.2 This is precisely what many have done when presenting evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.3
Third, and most incredible, is that Shapiro completely overlooks one of the central witnesses, the former persecutor Paul. This is quite an embarrassment, as Paul provides several important evidences for Jesus’ resurrection. For example, the early Christian creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. is not even mentioned, despite the fact that the consensus among critical scholars today is that the information in this creed most likely came from individuals who were on the scene during the early 30s AD and claimed to have seen the risen Jesus (Peter and James in Gal. 1:15ff.). The absence of discussion about this evidence or even the conversion of Paul by Shapiro is indefensible.
Significance. Shapiro’s last chapter is on the significance of belief in miracles in everyday life. Although he makes some unfair complaints (148), he is right that belief in miracles, especially Jesus’ resurrection, should change how we view the world. Jesus’ resurrection, according to Paul, makes a profound moral difference in how we should live (1 Cor. 15:12–20, 32).
We have shown that Shapiro’s philosophical and historical arguments failed to accomplish his goal. This means that belief in Jesus’ resurrection will continue to transform the lives of those who follow Jesus and have consequences for how we live our lives. Jesus’ resurrection will provide hope in the face of suffering, forgiveness of sins, and strength in the face of temptation. —Benjamin C. F. Shaw
Benjamin C. F. Shaw has published multiple articles on Jesus’ resurrection and is currently the research assistant for Dr. Gary R. Habermas. He in the process of writing his PhD dissertation on Jesus’ resurrection.
- Gary R. Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 43–80.
- Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 88–94, 125.
- Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 43–80.