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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

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Skeppie challenges me to show him one miracle.

Me: 65 officially validated at Lourdes
Skepie: By the church. Sorry, I don't buy it. Show me a miracle that has been observed by someone who isn't under the influence.

Now we begin the game of a thousand qualifications, he didn't want just one miracle; turns out he wants it to be perfect. Okay, let's start the haggling. But is there anyone out there who for a minute believes that he will ever be satisfied no matter how may qualifications I meet? But he's not question begging he's just assertive that because he's right no evidence can count against his position.

Supernatural effects.

What has been said so far implies that the supernatural is not a juxtaposed realm that has to break in upon the natural, but something that works within the natural to draw nature to a higher level, Ontologically, this is the “ground and end” of the natural. There might also be “supernatural effects,” however, as a result of nature being drawn to the level of the supernatural. These are effects that nature cannot produce by herself unaided. These effects we label “miracles.”[1]  Of course “miracle” is a very controversial idea, by virtue of the fact that it is such a slap in the face to our understanding of what can happen. The truth of it is that the concept of “miracle” is not all that coherent; it’s not only hard to prove, but it includes a built-in epistemological gap that can’t be traversed except by means of a judgment. What that means is, if one takes sides on the issue of miracles, it has to be a question of which side of an ideological split one comes down upon. It’s not a matter of factual disproof or proof. Again, the issue that “there is no proof” is misleading. The mantra of reductionism that “there is no scientific proof for miracles or the supernatural” is misleading, because there’s no reason to assume there could be the kind of evidence reductionists are seeking. On the other hand, there is evidence, and it is fairly persuasive—but also non-conclusive.

The best evidence for miraculous healing is found in Catholic circles (because of their evidence-gathering traditions). The Roman Catholic Church has two great centers of healing evidence; they run an evidential documentation process that is well thought out and is the best in the world. One center is for saint-making miracles, miracles that justify canonization of individuals as saints. The other is for miracles connected to the shrine to the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. Lourdes is probably a bit more respectable scientifically, because they are free from the pressure of making people saints. For both, the rules are the same and the committee members are the same. The rules are strict and scientific, contrary to both atheist propaganda and popular belief. Yet there are problems which I will discuss.
First, let’s understand the evidential process. I will speak mainly of Lourdes for brevity’s sake. The shrine was established to commemorate visions of a young French peasant girl named Bernadette, who saw a woman dressed in white appear to her in radiant light, and after several such visions, a spring popped up; the application of water from that spring is said to produce miracles. A committee was established to investigate the veracity of the claims. Rules were laid down to govern the process. In the period before the committee and the rules, there were several thousand claims of miracles that were not investigated rigorously. Since that time there have been only 67 miracles that are officially pronounced to be so by the Church. Yet there are about 7000 cases that are so incredible that they would seem to qualify, but the rules are so strict that technicalities of documentation prevent them being officially accepted. These are called “remarkable cases.” In 2006, amid some controversy, the Church relaxed the rules, because doctors were increasingly reluctant to rule anything miraculous— but now it does not use the term “miracle,” only the term “remarkable” for these cases. In 2011 a certain Serge François, 56, was the first case pronounced “remarkable” since the relaxing of rules.[2]
It’s hard to find real scientific or scholarly work on Lourdes, because anything critical would be stepping on the Church’s toes, and anything supportive would be taken as propaganda. The ideological climate in scientific circles prevents a fair treatment there, and the honest, critical nature of doing good science would probably be perceived as hostile by the faithful and the committee. Thus, a real critical view (in the best sense of the word) is not possible. This leaves the topic in the province of popular journalism. My argument is, therefore, not that any of these miracles is proved scientifically, but that the evidential process, closed and problematic though it may be, raises questions that are worth asking and promises the possibility of documenting real miracles.
There are several stages to the process. The committee (which is completely independent of the Church) creates its findings according to scientific documentation. They obtain all the diagnostic material, such as x-rays and EKGs, from the patient’s doctor; they examine the patient to see if they can verify that the condition of sickness existed, that it no longer exits, and that it ceased suddenly. The rules are set up in such a way as to control for diseases that have a high remission rate. They do use skeptics on the committee. I have seen arguments that the people reporting miraculous healings were never diagnosed, but the rules require that they must be. There has to be an accounting to indicate that they were diagnosed, and the material obtained has to be carefully studied.

Criteria according to the rules

1.“ Primum est, ut morbus sit gravis, et vel impossibilis, vel curatu difficilis ”Firstly, the disease should be serious, incurable or difficult to treat.

2.“ Secundum, ut morbus, qui depellitur, non sit in ultima parte status, ita ut non multo post declinare debeat ” – Secondly, the eradicated disease should not be in its final stage or at a stage whereby it may involve spontaneous recovery.

3.“ Tertium, ut nulla fuerint adhibita medicamenta, vel, si fuerint adhibita, certum sit, ea non profuisse ” – Thirdly, no drug should have been administered or, in the event that it has been administered, the absence of any effects should have been ascertained.

4.“ Quartum, ut sanatio sit subita, et momentanea ” – Fourthly, the recovery has to take place suddenly and instantly.

5.“ Quintum, ut sanatio sit perfecta, non manca, aut concisa ” – Fifthly, the recovery has to be perfect, and not defective or partial.

6.“ Sextum, ut nulla notatu digna evacuatio, seu crisis praecedat temporibus debitis, et cum causa; si enim ita accidat, tunc vero prodigiosa sanatio dicenda non erit, sed vel ex toto, vel ex parte naturalis ” Sixthly, it is necessary that any noteworthy excretion or crisis has taken place at the proper time, as a reasonable result of an ascertained cause, prior to the recovery; under these circumstances the recovery cannot be deemed prodigious, but totally or partially natural.

7.“ Ultimum, ut sublatus morbus non redeat ” – Lastly, it is necessary for the eradicated disease not to reappear.[3]

After 1977 these rules were added:

  1. The diagnostics and authenticity of the disease has been preliminarily and perfectly assessed;
  2. The prognosis provides for an impending or short-term fatal outcome;
  3. The recovery is sudden, without convalesce, and absolutely complete and final;
  4. The prescribed treatment cannot be deemed to have resulted in a recovery or in any case could have been propitiatory for the purposes of recovery itself.

These criteria are still in use nowadays, in view of their highly logical, accurate and pertinent nature. [4]

The committee

The Committee includes distinguished medical experts such as Franco Balzaretti and François-Bernard Michel. Michel is also a member and vice President of the National Academy of Medicine in France.[5] The process of verification is long and complex. The church theologians give the final say about a case being deemed a “miracle” (or nowadays a “remarkable” case), because that has to square with theology. The data is given first to the medical committee, which works independently, and the Church takes no hand in what is passed on to them and what is not.

Sample cases

Brother Schwager Léo
30 April 1952
age 28; Fribourg, Switzerland
multiple sclerosis for five years; recognized by the diocese of Fribourg, Switzerland on 18 December 1960
Alice Couteault, born Alice Gourdon
15 May 1952
age 34; Bouille-Loretz, France
multiple sclerosis for three years; recognized by the diocese of Poitiers, France on 16 July 1956

Ginette Nouvel, born Ginette Fabre
21 September 1954
age 26; Carmaux, France
Budd-Chiari disease (supra-hepatic venous thrombosis); recognized by the diocese of Albi on 31 May 1963
Elisa Aloi, later Elisa Varcalli
5 June 1958
age 27; Patti, Italy
Tuberculous, osteo-arthritis with fistulae at multiple sites in the right lower limb; recognized by the diocese of Messine, Italy on 26 May 1965
Juliette Tamburini
17 July 1959
age 22; Marseilles, France
femoral osteoperiostitis with fistulae, epistaxis, for ten years; recognized by the diocese of Marseille, France on 11 May 1965
Vittorio Micheli
1 June 1963
age 23; Scurelle, Italy
Sarcoma (cancer) of pelvis; tumor so large that his left thigh became loose from the socket, leaving his left leg limp and paralyzed. After taking the waters, he was free of pain, and could walk. By February 1964 the tumor was gone, the hip joint had recalcified, and he returned to a normal life. Recognized by the diocese of Trento, Italy on 26 May 1976.
Serge Perrin
1 May 1970
age 41; Lion D'Angers, France
Recurrent right hemiplegia, with ocular lesions, due to bilateral carotid artery disorders. Symptoms, which included headache, impaired speech and vision, and partial right-side paralysis began without warning in February 1964. During the next six years he became wheelchair-confined, and nearly blind. While on pilgrimage to Lourdes in April 1970, his symptoms became worse, and he was near death on 30 April. Wheeled to the Basilica for the Ceremony the next morning, he felt a sudden warmth from head to toe, his vision returned, and he was able to walk unaided. First person cured during the Ceremony of the Anointing of the Sick. Recognized by the diocese of Angers, France on 17 June 1978.
Delizia Cirolli, later Delizia Costa
24 December 1976
age 12; Paterno, Italy
Ewing's Sarcoma of right knee; recognized by the diocese of Catania, Italy on 28 June 1989
Jean-Pierre Bély
9 October 1987
age 51; French
multiple sclerosis; recognized by the diocese of Angoulême on 9 February 1999 [6]

There are independent verifications of the process or incidents that may give us insight into workings of the committee. This is not scientific. The websites that talk about the cures are not scientific. The dispensing of information by the committee, regardless of how honest or good, is not science, because the process is not open enough. The committee may have tried to make the process very transparent, but it’s still not being performed by academic sources. The people involved in it have academic credentials, but they are part of a process that is overall under the sway of non-academic concerns. Yet procedures have been put in place to assure an impartial outcome.

Just how limiting the lack of scientific protocol is will be discussed. First, the independent verifications need to be understood. If the Vatican was only interested in “proving” miracles, they have 7000 remarkable cases to choose from. These “remarkable cases” are cases that are “amazing” enough and well enough documented that they could be declared miracles, but they won’t be because some technical problem in the documentation prevents them passing muster. That’s why there are only 67 cases called “miraculous,” although they have been working on this since the 1880s. It’s not because they don’t have the cases; they are just too picky.

Reviews and analysis of the Lourdes phenomenon

Jacalyn Duffin is an important diagnostician and medical researcher. She was asked to study a case involving a kind of cancer. She did not know who the client was. She assumed the woman was dead by that time due to the progression of the case, then was stunned to find that the woman was alive and that she was being put forward as a miracle at Lourdes. The independent verification process here uses a double blind technique, in that the researcher didn’t know she was studying an alleged miracle and the committee didn’t know who got the case to study. The process does involve follow-up and investigation using top-level medical research. Duffin was so taken with the fact that her work would be in the Vatican archives that she got permission to study the medical records in the archives. What resulted was her book: Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints and Healing.[7]   Duffin is a fine historian of medicine (see endnote for her credentials). Although it only scratches the surface of the Vatican’s investigation processes in the wealth of documents in its archives, this book is ground-breaking. Duffin examined 1,400 miracles found in the Vatican archives. She found that the doctor’s records were complete and meticulous. The doctors were skeptical. Many of the cases were resurrections, and many could not be explained. Some were mistakes, and some leave room for doubt.

One of the major problems she uncovered was the differences in the understanding of medicine in different eras. Many of the alleged complaints are not taken seriously any more. The book is written in a scholarly fashion, although accessible to the layman. It has a wealth of information in the form of charts, graphs, and tables. It traces the rise and decline of various miracles as their diseases become medically known or forgotten. For instance, there are no more documented healings from "dropsy" (swelling of body tissues), because it's not considered a separate disease anymore. But Duffin clearly finds believable the doctors’ reports and independent verifications of a great many cases.

In a 2012 article entitled “The Lourdes Medical Cures Revisited,” Bernard François, Ester M. Sternberg and Elizabeth Fee provide something closer to a scientific appraisal.[8] They studied 411 patients cured in 1909-14 and thoroughly reviewed 25 cures acknowledged between 1927 and 1976. By “acknowledged” they mean cures that were officially declared “miracles” by the church.[9]  The 411 cures between 1909 and 1914 are part of the era known as “the golden age of Lourdes.” This was the time when Lourdes’ popularity was at its height, the medical committee was functioning smoothly with new rules, and crowds were pouring in. In earlier days, right after the visions began, there were many claims of miracles that went unrecorded, or that could not hold up to scrutiny, or that weren’t recorded in a systematic fashion. This state of affairs evolved through the late nineteenth century with the imposition of rules and the creation of the medical board. Since the 1970’s the official “miracles” and the crowds have decreased significantly. As the article puts it, “[T]he Lourdes mystique may have lost some of its momentum. It has been suggested that today's pilgrims as a whole have little in common with nineteenth-century believers….”

According to the article, data on the early period is found in the archives of the sanctuary of Notre Dame of Lourdes (April 1868-June 1944), which provide mainly unsubstantiated and anecdotal evidence. The authors also used Ruth Harris’s scholarly work Lourdes, Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. For the period 1885-1914 they used Annales of Notre Dame de Lourdes, Vol. 17-47, George Bertirins’ Historie Critique Des Evenments de Lourdes, and a host of other materials.[10] The authors set out to determine if Lourdes cures really were cures. Their working methodology for this task was to evaluate the nature of the disease and then to assess the nature of the diagnostic criteria and evidence used for deciding that cure had occurred. The criteria improved over the years as diagnostic ability improved. Their conclusion? “[T]he Lourdes phenomenon, extraordinary in many respects, still awaits scientific explanation.”[11] 

Speaking of the “golden age” (1890-1915), François and his colleagues write, “Led by a talented physician… the Medical Bureau is said to have improved its method and gained a reputation for excellence, but it faced a daunting task…150,000 pilgrims a year.”[12] Yet some of the cures of that era were deemed “remarkable,” such as those of Marie Lebranchu and Marie Lemarchand, cured of pulmonary tuberculosis, who attended Lourdes with the famous atheist writer Emile Zola; Gabriel Gargam, cured of post traumatic paraplegia in 1901 and still living in 1953 at the age of 82; and several others.[13]  Prior to the cures, patents were described as being in decline or in an “alarming state of health.” “Patients confined to bed for years would stand and walk, regain their weight, resume their prior activity… cured patients were evaluated again one year later... they were found healthy and as far as we know, the recoveries stood the test of time.”[14]  The researchers do note that modern researchers reading the accounts can sense the neurotic nature of some symptoms. There were obvious cases of hysteria. But there were also cases with evidence of anatomical abnormalities. “Scores of visiting physicians witnessed the disappearance of macroscopic lesions, easy to identify such as external tumors, uterine fibromas, open wounds, and suppurative or fecal fistulae.”[15] 
The cures were said to be instantaneous in 59 percent of 382 cases for which they had adequate records; this was all within the golden age period.[16] During the golden age there were also strange, spontaneous healings away from the actual shrine, such as at a breakfast table, during a procession, or in the hospital ward in the town.[17]  Apparently it was WWII that put the kybosh on the golden age. The committee changed leadership many times, and doctors were scarce due to the war.[18] 1947-2006 was marked by improved diagnostics, new young physicians, and more careful attitudes. They created an international committee designed to review the work of the Bureau.[19]  There were 25 patients cured and their cures analyzed from this period. The article’s authors had misgivings about some of these cases; but they acknowledge that “[s]pontaneous remissions of diseases, especially of cancers, do not measure up to the speed, power, and variety of the Lourdes cures.”[20]  

The authors found that the word “cure” at Lourdes was often misunderstood. Some of the incidents called “cures” were improvements in the state of health. “By cross checking available data we arrived at a rough estimate of medical events acknowledged as ‘cures’ as 4,516, in the period 1858-1976.”[21]  Most of these cures occurred before WWII, and most were based upon what is described as “flimsy evidence.” There was often a prior expectation of miracles, and no follow up afterwards. For that reason the authors found it impossible to assess the number of valid cures before 1947. There has been a decline in the number of cures for the last one hundred years, and the authors list several factors as the reason for this: increasing efficiency of modern medicine (diagnostic equipment and better definitions for the nature of a condition), and the canons of Cardinal Lambertini to qualify a miracle that have actually stood in the way of being able to declare many cases as miracles.

The requirements for these canons are as follows: (a) the disease must be severe, incurable, or difficult to treat; (b) it must not be in a final stage; (c) no curative treatment can have been given; (d) the cure must be instantaneous; (d) the cure must be complete without relapse. One can see that this is so strict (it’s difficult nowadays to find someone who has not sought some other cure before resorting to pilgrimage to Lourdes, for instance), that it’s one of the major reasons there are so few official miracles. There are examples from certain periods where Lambertini canons have not been met but still constitute remarkable cures. In the article’s study of twenty-five cured patients, six were cured of terminally ill diseases, and eight were cured in a matter of days, months or even years; these are sharp departures from the canons. The canons “seem to have been rescinded in 2006-8, when it was obvious they no longer applied to what was observed.”[22] (That’s one thing that makes for the category I’ve spoken of before of the “remarkable case.” There are only 67 official miracles, but 7000 remarkable cases. Those are based upon a modern study of the committee, not part of the François article.) Miracles are not for the Catholic Church on the same level as the sacraments or the creeds, so belief in them is not obligatory.[23]  A parallel is drawn by the author between their work and that of Jacalyn Duffin. The pathological conditions are the same; the proportion of tuberculosis, neurological disorders and GI diseases were distributed in similar fashion; and the manner of the cures were the same.
For the period 1947-76, the article states, “Thirteen patients out of twenty-five... died nineteen to fifty-seven years after the cure and without relapse of the disease. For nine subjects living in 2008, the time elapsed since the cure was ten to fifty-four years.”[24] They found that four cases of multiple sclerosis had remissions of four-year duration, which is equivalent to assumed cure. Four cases of tuberculosis were actually cured, and the speed of the cure was without known equivalent. Two were taken out of the study because key requirements weren’t met. Of twenty-five, the researchers had misgivings about eight.[25] This means that while eight are doubtful and two discarded, seventeen are solidly documented cures. Looking back over the entire history of the phenomenon, the researchers suggest that about one third of the cases involve cures that were not spontaneous but required days or weeks. The researchers also found that there were significant mental factors present, and an atmosphere conducive to healing, but they did not conclude that this could “explain” it all away. It might also be worth pointing out even though they can’t be studied, there’s an “underside” of Lourdes: people who are healed in connection with prayers involving Lourdes or the use of the water away from the shrine, who never report in but send information so that a plaque can be put up. This number has been increasing, and was about ninety-four in 2008. While these cannot really be claimed as cures because they can’t be studied, they suggest the possibility that healings have been, and still are, occurring outside of Lourdes’ official domain.[26]

The François article is extremely thorough, with sound medical and scholarly caution. It takes a critical view of the subject matter and the data. It tallies the kinds of diagnoses and which diseases were the most cured and the most reported. The authors describe a development over time from an early phase of inadequate reporting and uncritical acceptance of cures, to a modern setup which is well regarded and scientific. Modern controversy stems from the declining reports due to more stringent evidence requirements and the fact that many of Lourdes’ modern pilgrims do not report to the Medical Bureau. There is also controversy over relaxing the rules. All of this, and concern to leave religious considerations out of their analysis, lead François et al to speak of “cures” rather than miracles.








Sources

1 I refer to miracles such as healing incurable disease as “supernatural effects,” so that this can be marked as more of an abrupt departure from the norm than the “sense of the numinous.” Yet the sense of the numinous is an effect and could be called “supernatural effect”— but that gives the impression that it’s seen as a miracle and creates confusion. Both really are effects of Supernature, but the experience of God’s presence is more natural and more connected to the natural than healing of incurable disease. I want people to start thinking of religious experience as something that happens within the natural realm rather than in opposition to the natural.
2 Tom Heneghan, “Lourdes Calls a Healing ‘Remarkable,’ Avoiding the Term ‘Miracle.;” FaithWorld, March 25, 2011. online copy URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-catholic-miracle-idUSTRE72R4SK20110328 visited 10/3/12.
3Franco Balzaretti. “The Miracles at Lourdes, Comparing Science and Faith.” Leadership online source, URL: http://www.leadershipmedica.com/scientifico/sciedic02/scientificaing/10balzae/10balzaing.htm visited 10/3/12. From: De Servorum Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione, (liber IV, Cap. VIII, no. 2),
with commentaries up to the end of the chapter - Author: Cardinal Prospero Lambertini,
future Pope Benedict XIV, 1734.
Balzaretti is a member of Lourdes medical committee, Associazione Medici Cattolici Italiani (AMCI)
Membre du Comité Médical International de Lourdes (CMIL). I first saw this material in 2006. There is no date printed on it.
4 Ibid.
5 National Academy of Medicine, Website URL: http://www.academie-medecine.fr/organigramme.cfm?langue=fr visited 10/10/12.
6 “Recognized miraculous cures at Lourdes” Saints, SQPN. Com. website URL: http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/stb06001.htm visited 10/12/12
This is a partisan website, it’s based upon information supplied by the medical committee. The committee will answer requests to send material. More detailed information about each case can be found on another website: “Our Lady Of Lourdes” http://www.theworkofgod.org/Aparitns/Lourdes/Lourdes1.htm
7 Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Miracles, Doctors, Saints and Healing. Oxford University Press, USA. 2008.
Jacalyn Duffin, M.D. (Toronto 1974), FRCP(C) (1979), Ph.D. (Sorbonne 1985), is Professor in the Hannah Chair of the History of Medicine at Queen's University in Kingston, where she has taught in medicine, philosophy, history, and law for more than twenty years. A practicing hematologist, a historian, a mother and grandmother, she has served as president of both the American Association for the History of Medicine and the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine. She holds a number of awards and honors for research, writing, service, and teaching. She is the author of five books, editor of two anthologies, and has published many research articles. Her most recent book is an analysis of the medical aspects of canonization, Medical Miracles; Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World, Oxford University Press, 2009. It was awarded the Hannah Medal of the Royal Society of Canada.
8 Bernard François et al, “The Lourdes Medical Cures Re-visited,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (10.1093/jhmas/jrs041) 2012. Pdf downloaded SMU page 1-28; all the page numbers given are from pdf. Article may currently be viewed at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3854941/.
Bernard François is former Professor Emeritus of medicine, Universite Claude Bernard Lyon. Elisabeth Sternberg taught at National Institute of Mental Health and The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland. Elisabeth Fee was at National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
9Ibid.
10Ibid.
11Ibid, abstract.
12Ibid, pdf page 8.
13Ibid.
14Ibid, 9.
15Ibid,10.
16iIbid, 12.
17Ibid.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid, 13.
20 Ibid.21, 27.
21 Ibid 19.
22 Ibid, 20.
23 Ibid. They cite Catechism of the Catholic Church Part 3 Section 1, Chapter 3 Article 2, Grace 2003.The Catholic believer may reject all ecclesiastical miracles as pious fables and he may reject modern miracles as imagination.
24 Ibid, 23. Mangiapan was president of the Medical Bureau
25 Ibid, 24.

26 Ibid, 25-27.








Over at Cold Case Christianity, the extremely informative website of J. Warner Wallace (who I would like to call a friend to our blog since he has tweeted several of our posts over the past few months, but I have never spoken to him in person), Mr. Wallace (hereinafter, JWW) posted an article entitled "Does the Temple Prediction Invalidate the Early Dating of the Gospels?" responding to challenges raised by skeptics arising from Jesus' prediction of the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. What exactly is the problem with Jesus having predicted the fall of the Temple? Nothing actually, unless the people raising the challenge are wedded to a viewpoint that says that it is impossible for anyone to prophesy because that would mean that they know the future - which is impossible.

For those unfamiliar with Jesus' prophesy that the temple would be destroyed, it is repeated in three places in the Bible, Matthew 24:1-2, Luke 21:5-6 and Mark 13:1-2. All three of the predictions are basically the same, but they do contain minor differences. For brevity's sake, I quote below only Mark's version of the prophesy which reads:

As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
These verses from all three of the Synoptic Gospels have long been accepted as constituting a single prophesy that the massive Jerusalem temple - a source of national pride for the people of Judea as evidenced by the words of the unidentified disciple in the Mark text - would be destroyed. Of course, it was destroyed together with much of the rest of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. The only remnant of this Temple still standing today is the Wailing Wall, which is thought to be the Western Wall of the Second Temple.



The Wailing Wall testifies to the size of the Temple, as it is "57 meters tall, or 187 feet, built of thick, corroded limestone, and is close to 500 meters in length." (Wailing Wall or Western Wall) So, when Jesus predicts its destruction, it likely shocked the disciples. How could such a beautiful, substantial building be so utterly destroyed? Well, according to some of the current crop of anti-apologists, the reason that the disciples wouldn't have been shocked is because Jesus never made the prediction noted in the Synoptic Gospels at all. According to JWW,
Many have proposed that Jesus’s prediction related to the destruction was inserted to legitimize the text and make it appear that He had some prophetic power. If this was the case, the Gospels would clearly date to after the event (post AD 70), as the writers already knew the outcome before they cleverly inserted the prediction.
I have several problems with this "insertion theory," and JWW handles the first two quite capably. First, the "insertion theory" view presupposes that Jesus couldn't prophesy. Let's face it, the entire insertion theory has been constructed because of the viewpoint that Jesus wasn't really the Son of God who could prophesy because that would require the existence of the supernatural. Almost certainly, a significant number of the people proposing the "insertion theory" are atheists who reject any type of supernatural involvement exists at all. They are, after all, skeptics - but really only skeptical of things that they don't immediately find agreeable to their world view. JWW further writes:
But, this sort of skepticism is clearly rooted in the presupposition I describe on this website and in my book, Cold-Case Christianity. If we begin from a position of philosophical naturalism (the presumption that nothing supernatural is possible), we have no choice but to describe the supernatural elements we find in the Gospels as lies. From a naturalistic perspective, prophetic claims are impossible. The skeptic, therefore, must find another explanation for Jesus’s prediction related to the temple; critics typically move the date of authorship beyond the date when the prophecy was fulfilled to avoid the appearance of supernatural confirmation.
A great amount of the consternation felt by many from the inclusion of miracles in the Gospel accounts is understandable: miracles are outside of our ordinary experience (hence, the description of "miracle"). The Bible is full of miracles. The central pillar of the entire Bible is God's entering of the world through His Son, Jesus, and resurrecting from the dead to save people from their sins -- maybe not as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea, but the most important miracle of all. If a person has the naturalistic world view described by JWW, then these miraculous events simply cannot happen. There has to be a natural explanation for them, and so skeptics forever dream up natural alternatives to the miraculous accounts.

But simply because an event is unlikely to happen on the basis that it is outside of our ordinary experience doesn't mean it cannot happen. By limiting what is possible truth to those things that can be explained by science (the true "priests" of the naturalists, i.e., the people who hold knowledge of the truth), the Naturalists limit potential streams of knowledge. In fact, it is the Naturalists who have an anemic base of knowledge. By limiting their view of truth to only those things that can be explained by science creates a very limited understanding of the universe. As has often been pointed out, the proposition that "knowledge isn't knowledge unless it is confirmed by science" cannot itself be confirmed by science.

Still, people with this anemic viewpoint battle endlessly against the miracle accounts in the Bible because, in this limited world view, miracles are impossible. Yet, clearly Jesus prophesies about something that will happen around 40 years in the future (measured from the time he made the prophesy). So, what to do? Of course, it must be the case that the prophesy was inserted later -- after Jerusalem fell. But there are several problems with this view. The first is ably stated by JWW: If the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Temple, why didn't the authors of the Gospel include the fall of Jerusalem in the Gospels themselves? Because it would look like they created the prophesy (putting words in Jesus mouth) after the fact to make it look like he did prophesy? But if that's true, why would the writers be shy about inserting the fulfillment of this single prophesy when they have included other prophesies and their fulfillments in the Gospels?
In addition to this, on several occasions Jesus predicted His own resurrection. The gospel writers readily described the fulfillment of these predictions in the resurrection accounts. Why would they be willing to describe this aspect of fulfilled prophecy, but shy away from discussing the destruction of the temple?In addition, Luke freely admitted that he was not an eyewitness to the events in his gospel. He told us from the onset that he was writing at some point well after the events actually occurred, working as a careful historian. Why not include the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple?
In addition to the foregoing, I have some additional problems that I believe to be worthy of consideration. First, if the destruction of the temple prophesy was inserted after the fact, why isn't the prophesy more detailed? Bishop John A.T. Robinson makes this point in his book, Redating the New Testament, when he points out his reasons for believing all of the New Testament books were written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. His point is that the Fall of Jerusalem was a central point in the history of the Jewish people, and if it occurred prior to the writing of the Gospels or letters, it would have been included. He acknowledges that the Gospels prophesy that Jerusalem will fall, but he notes that the Gospels don't have the specificity one would expect if they were written after the fact.

The same holds true here for the fall of the Temple. Look at what Jesus says in all three accounts: "Not one stone will be left upon another..." and "Not one stone here will be left upon another..." and "There will not be left one stone upon another...." But obviously, there was multiple stones left one upon another -- the Wailing Wall. It is 187 feet tall and 500 feet long. That's obviously one "stone left upon another." If the writing were made after the Temple fell and was inserted to prove how prophetic Jesus had been, wouldn't the prophesies say instead, "Not one stone will be left upon another except the western wall which will be left standing..."? (BTW, I will leave it for another time to explain how the western wall can be left standing and the prophesy was still fulfilled.) In other words, this doesn't read like a report of what happened if reported "after the fact."

Also, if the destruction of the temple prophesy was inserted later, doesn't that imply the existence of something that existed prior to the fall of Jerusalem? In other words, isn't this an admission that the text of all three Gospels was primarily written prior to 70 AD? Doesn't that raise doubts about the old dates given to the books by scholars who date the books in the Second Century AD?

Additionally if the prophesy was inserted later, how come there is no early versions of the three Synoptics without the prophesies in them? In other words, I know of no early versions of any of the Synopitcs where this prophesied destruction of the Temple is missing. And moreover, notice that the people doing the inserting would have to insert the language into three separate Gospels that were sent to three separate communities. If they inserted it in just one of the Synoptic Gospels, how did it get spread to the others where each of the versions has variations on what was said yet still have the same core of information?

Sorry, but I don't believe that those advocating the insertion theory have done nearly enough to get this to be seriously considered as an alternative to the long held belief that Jesus made these prophesies. Merely doubting the existence of miracles does not allow the skeptics to free-form possible natural solutions without evidence.

The entry below was eventually substantially revised for an article for the Christian Research Journal.


***


Is slapstick comedy unbiblical or immoral? Is it a sin to laugh when Bugs Bunny blasts Elmer Fudd with his own shotgun? And more broadly, is it wrong to enjoy it when other people suffer, even if (we might say) they "deserve" it?


These seem like odd questions, but they were raised of late in the context of some of my YouTube videos, in which I freely make use of outrageous physical humor which resembles that found in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. And closer to home, my local ministry partner Carey and I have discussed the enjoyment of reality television programs like Survivor, in which contestants are frequently subjected to public humiliation. According to some, the sin here concerns what some term schadenfreude -- a German word that refers to pleasure felt at someone else's troubles. According to my YouTube critic, we enjoy seeing Elmer Fudd get shot because he is suffering.


To answer this point, I relied on my own (admittedly layman's) knowledge of the animation industry, and then discussed the matter with a longtime reader of Tekton who is a Hollywood insider with professional credentials in animation. The results of this are that the basis for our enjoyment of this form of humor, which I too have employed, is not the suffering of others but rather that it is comic precisely because it lacks suffering. But TV shows like American Idol do raise some serious questions for the Christian.


As we know from news stories, a real shotgun blast causes serious damage to flesh and bone. Elmer Fudd comes away from such a blast with nothing worse than torn clothes and gray skin. He does not cry out in pain, and nor does any blood spurt. The intrinsic immortality of cartoon performers, and their ability to walk away from such scenes and return in the next one fresh and unharmed (or at worst, encased in bandages that they can immediately shake off and come out of whole, like some sort of revivified Pharaoh!) are the true source of this type of humor.


Of course, there is a certain matter of degree involved here. "Slapstick," a related genre, can refer to Moe poking Curly in the eyes; but it also can refer to humor such as depicted in America's Funniest Home Videos, where the pain can be real. And, it is fair to say, that the lower the pain the greater the laughs. Under such circumstances, we are not laughing at misfortune, as schadenfreude would have it; rather, we are laughing at misfortune not ending up worse than it could have been, which really renders the laughter a sign of relief and not joy at pain.


What, then, is true schadenfreude? For an answer to this I picked up the highly recommended Joy of Pain by Richard Smith (Oxford University Press), which is regarded as a respectable and leading treatment of the topic. It comes as no surprise that Smith does not use either Stooge-like slapstick or cartoons as examples of schadenfreude -- except to the extent that certain cartoon characters (like members of the Simpson clan) engage it in their treatment of each other, but not in terms of what the audience experiences and not in terms of what would be regarded as unique to the cartoon genre. The classic examples of schadenfreude from television are rather to be found in programs like American Idol, as when a contestant falls flat on his face. And how would this tie in, if at all, to the sort of cartoonish antics used by Bugs Bunny or Popeye, and what does it say to the Christian about enjoying such things as that, or slapstick comedy, or even American Idol?


Misfortune or humiliation happening to others can make us feel superior, and lead to schadenfreude. This sort of experience may indeed be ripe for sin; however, it would rather strain credulity to suppose that anyone gains any sense of "superiority" from watching cartoon characters bash each other with mallets, or even the Three Stooges poking one another in the eyes. I would regard any such claim as a strained effort at psychology; and we would be told, by those who prefer to argue about it, that we are harboring "secret" schadenfreude and not realizing our doing so. At such points the matter becomes akin to history as written by Dan Brown: The conspiracy covered up the evidence, then covered itself up to make sure we wouldn't know what it did, so, it is little more than a begged question.


The bottom line is that it is difficult to argue that a person can feel "inferior" or "superior" to a fictional character. The most that could be said, perhaps, is that one imagines one's despised neighbor to be much like said character, and what we really want to feel superior to is the real-life person who has (whether in reality or not) the same traits. In other words, the fictional character becomes a proxy for schadenfreude, not it's true or actual object.


In contrast, it is quite possible for this experience to legitimately emerge on a showing of a program like American Idol, and encourage sinful thoughts. It is readily conceivable that one might envy, and feel inferior to, someone who performs well on the program, and then delight in their failure to perform at a critical moment. What this suggests, then, is that (as is often the case) it is not the object that is the problem, but the person who makes use of the object. It is akin to Paul's attempt to sort out the question of who should eat idol meat. If you watch American Idol to see people humiliated - you probably shouldn't watch it. (If you watch Popeye cartoons to see Bluto humiliated...there is probably something much deeper wrong with you than schadenfreude!)


Smith also refers to a "superiority theory" of humor, in which it is maintained that "humor has social comparison at its core." A related theory is that some things are funny because they make us feel superior.


Here again, it is impossible to dovetail our subject into the issue in any realistic way. Elmer Fudd, and Moe Howard, are not "safe" targets; they are phantom targets. They are not members of any group "disliked" by anyone. (Again, if someone thinks so, their problems are much more deep-rooted than anything we can discuss here.)


So then: Is there indeed anything in the Bible relevant to this emotion? No, not directly, but we do know that the Bible speaks of justice being a "joy to the righteous," (Prov. 21:15) and also says that those who rebuke the wicked will have delight (Prov. 24:24-25). This is probably as close as we will come to what we call schadenfreude in a good sense. (In contrast, the "bad" sort of schedenfreude might be covered by 1 Corinthians 13:6, which warns us to not rejoice in iniquity.)


How then does, or can, this relate to our subject at hand - fiction? Again, I would say only in a vicarious sense, at best. A bad guy like Yosemite Sam, we may say, gets what he deserves when his own rifle goes off in his face, but these are not only phantom targets, they are phantom injustices. At most, these gags may remind us that we would like to see justice done in real life.


This is especially the case because, as Smith points out, this sort of schadenfreude emerges most often when our target is convicted of hypocrisy, as was the case with Jimmy Swaggart. Yosemite Sam is a roughneck, but he is not a hypocrite: He doesn't condemn others who shoot varmints! It is also at its height when the subject is someone evil, as is the case with the reality TV program To Catch a Predator. Yosemite Sam is a "bad guy," sure, but it would be excessive in the extreme to apply the term "evil" to him.


We will close this examination with a comment from my friend in the animation industry. As a response to the criticisms I encountered from the objector I referred to above, he told me about one of the older (black and white!) Popeye cartoons which seemed to be a response to those who thought that the point of cartoon violence was to enjoy schadenfreude. The title of the episode was It's the Natural Thing to Do, and it begins with viewers of the cartoon requesting by telegram that the characters stop fighting and act more refined. The bulk of the story thereafter shows the threesome of Popeye, Olive, and Bluto clumsily trying to act more "refined" by wearing tuxedos, engaging in small talk, and consuming sophisticated appetizers. The threesome end up bored and unable to cope with refined behavior, and Popeye and Bluto quickly return to fighting each other...and enjoying such behavior. It can hardly be said that we could take pleasure in this sort of "pain"!


The pleasure in this genre, then, cannot come from schadenfreude, least of all from what Smith describes as its "dark" side; rather, it comes from absurdity, and from reversal of expectations, and surprise. As noted, it is certainly possible that someone uses the sufferings of a character like Daffy Duck as a proxy for their desire for someone they know, who is like Daffy, to suffer ("He sure reminds me of my boss"), but this is clearly a case of an innocent surrogate taking the blame for the guilty party. There is nothing sinful about laughing at gross physical comedy.


 




Recently a friend on Facebook argued that Christians have no business declaring the Resurrection of Jesus to be the most probable (a posteriori) explanation for the relevant facts, since they are unable to first pin down the prior probability of the Resurrection independent of those facts. I think that's a reasonable enough objection and deserves a reply. After all, posterior probability by definition is a function of both likelihood on the evidence and prior probability.[1] Clearly, then, one cannot determine posterior probability without some idea of the prior.
 
My friend went on to say that the prior probability of a hypothesis is typically established as a ratio of previous instances of the event and total opportunities for the event to have occurred: "Normally we determine the probability of X by how many occasions of X we have seen out of how many opportunities for X there have been. Is the resurrection of Jesus some kind of exception?" This amounts to an appeal to frequentism for finding the prior. Right here is where I begin to take issue with the typical skeptical-Bayesian approach to miracle questions like the Resurrection. What appears missing from so many of these calculations is any consideration of relevant background knowledge. I do agree with Swinburne when he says that "any division of evidence between e [observational evidence] and k [background knowledge] is a somewhat arbitrary one."[2] That said, numerous facts indirectly relevant to the question of the Resurrection are too often overlooked, perhaps lost between very specific, directly relevant evidence (like the empty tomb or post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples) and very general knowledge about the world.
 
First, there are the evidence and arguments from natural theology that suggest the existence of God. Evidence in the way of fine-tuning in the physical universe, specifiable complexity of biological systems, and the universal moral intuition of human beings, among other things, suggests that the probability that God exists is quite high. Moreover the prophetic history of Israel, in which the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world and then re-gathered to her ancestral home in the "last days," suggests the existence of the God invoked by Jesus in particular. Though it is certainly right to bear in mind the number of previous recorded and confirmed resurrections in history (arguably zero), the evidence for the God of Israel is important information to bring to the question of prior probability.
 
Next, consider the particular personality and historical circumstances of the central figure involved. The question before us is not, "What is the probability that some random guy rose from the dead?" but "What is the probability that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead?" I do not dispute that the probability of a random guy rising from the dead is negligible. But from all indications Jesus of Nazareth was not some random guy. Jesus claimed for himself, both explicitly and implicitly, to be the Son of God and the King of the Jews, the Messiah; and elements of his life indeed fulfilled various messianic prophecies from the Old Testament. Jesus was widely reported by followers and detractors alike to have performed healing miracles and miracles of provision. (The Pharisees attributed these to the work of Beelzebub, but did not deny their occurrence; and the later rabbis of the Tannaitic period likewise attributed the miracles of Jesus to "sorcery.") In addition, Jesus frequently foretold his own crucifixion and resurrection – most often to disciples who refused to believe it. These considerations together would seem to make the Resurrection of Jesus much more antecedently probable than the resurrection of some random guy.
 
Finally, I would suggest there is precedent for a miracle, even a "raising of the dead" of sorts, in the origin of life. The fact is that at one point in our prehistory a dead collection of elements became a living organism – whether by God breathing life into the "dust of the earth" as recorded in Genesis, or by some sort of chemical evolution. And of course no origin of life event has ever been witnessed by anyone (not even in principle). The prior probability of the origin of life just before life actually originated therefore must have been at or very near zero. Yet here we are reflecting on the fact that life originated. Thus our continually being alive constitutes evidence strong enough to overcome the seemingly overwhelming prior probability against life originating. In a very real sense the origin of life is evidence of a miracle.
 
Taken together, these background factors arguably make the prior probability of the Resurrection much higher than any prior probability that would be reached by a frequentist interpretation of probability alone. When that higher prior probability is conjoined with a similarly high likelihood ratio (a measure of explanatory power)[3], the posterior probability that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead increases accordingly. I would argue, in fact, that while intuitively implausible, the Resurrection is evidentially probable. This is just the sort of thing we should expect of a God who intends to reveal himself through the "sign" of a miracle in history.



[1] This is essentially an informal statement of Bayes' Theorem,
 
                         P(E│H & K) x P(H│K)
P(H│E & K) =   -----------------------------
                                   P(E│K)
 
where P(H│E & K) is the posterior probability of hypothesis H, given new evidence E and background knowledge K; P(E│H & K) is the probability of the evidence given the truth of the hypothesis and background knowledge; P(E│K) is the probability of the evidence given background knowledge alone; and P(H│K) is the prior probability of the hypothesis, again conditional on background knowledge.
 
[2] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (New York: Oxford, 2004), p. 67.
 
[3] See "Understated Evidence and the Resurrection of Jesus" for reasons to think that the explanatory power of the Resurrection hypothesis is very high relative to competing hypotheses.
 
 
 
 

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