Can miracles pass historical tests? Charles Leslie, a 17th-century clergyman created a method for testing historical events. Jesus’ resurrection passed the test. Skeptics of his time couldn’t refute his criteria or the results.

There are so many good books that have been written in the last 10 years on the subject of Christian apologetics. It can feel overwhelming to keep up with! Not to mention expensive.

Many of these books are responses to modern criticisms against the faith. Because of this, we tend to focus on the new books and neglect the old. This is a big mistake. Most objections to Christianity aren’t all that new, a lot of what we hear today are the same recycled arguments posed by skeptics for centuries.

If you want to get really good at defending the Bible, look no further than the works of apologetics published during the 17th-18th century. This was when Deism was considered all the rage. Deists believe that God created the world but then let it run on its own steam. According to Deism, revelation and miracles are superstitions. Many Deists like Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and others wrote blistering criticisms of Christianity that modern atheists parrot today. 

Many Christian apologists took up the challenge and wrote responses. Some were very scholarly and thorough, like William Paley’s A View of the Evidence of Christianity. Others wrote street-level defenses. One of these is Charles Leslie’s Short and Easy Method With the Deists.

It’s around 70 pages, but it packs a punch. Leslie’s “method” is a test on how we can judge something as historical – and it can include miracle claims. It’s ridiculously simple, but don’t let its simplicity fool you.

What are Leslie’s four tests?

1. That the matter of fact is such, that men’s outward senses, their eyes, and ears may be judges of it.
2. That it be done publicly in the face of the world.
3. That not only public monuments are kept up in memory of it, but some outward actions are performed.
4. Those such monuments and such actions or observances are instituted, and to commence from the time, that the matter of fact was done.

Leslie isn’t saying that in order for something to be historical, that event needs to pass all four tests. He’s saying that if the event in question passes all four, we can be sure it really happened. One example would be America’s independence from the British. It was an experience of the senses. It was a public event. Independence Day was instituted on July 4th in 1777. We can obviously be certain of it.

In consideration of the first two criteria:

Leslie gives us a hypothetical scenario: Imagine someone claims to have split the Thames river. They also claim but they led a large population of London over on dry land to Southwark. We’d think this bloke was barmy.  We wouldn’t think they were telling the truth. (Bear with my lame attempts at using British slang.)

In consideration of his next two criteria:

Leslie gives us another illustration. No one knows for sure who set up Stonehenge, why it was set up or what exactly it commemorates.

Now imagine today, some cabbage comes along and tells us “Stonehenge! Bah! Everyone knows that was set up to commemorate when Hercules captured Cerebus! You see, there’s this book that’s written by eyewitnesses who saw the whole thing. It’s quoted by authors of reputation in all ages since. You haven’t heard of it? We celebrate it every December 26th!” The reaction would be “Rubbish!” (OK, I’m done with the British slang now.) 

In other words,  you can’t persuade people of a commemorating action based on historical events and say it’s long been done.

So what miraculous event would pass the test?

Leslie argues that Israel’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt would pass. There were the 10 plagues in Egypt. And there was and the passing through the Red Sea. That would be a public event that people would be subject to people’s senses if there ever was one.

We know that Passover a thing. God commanded it to be celebrated from the start. (Exodus 12:14) Now imagine someone in Hezekiah’s time smearing lamb’s blood on their doorposts and sweeping out all the traces of leaven in their house. Their neighbor asks, “Uh hey Levi, what are you doing?” Levi replies “Well, I’m getting ready to celebrate Passover. You know, that time our people got delivered by frogs, locusts, hail, etc. and passed through the Red Sea. It’s all recorded in Moses’ Law. It’s gonna be lit!” Obviously, this wouldn’t have caught on.

Does the resurrection of Jesus pass the test?

Leslie then moves to the claims of Christianity, which is based on the resurrection. Looking at the first two criteria: Jesus appeared to people after his resurrection, spoke to them, ate food with them, and invited them to touch him (Luke 24:39); the resurrection was apparent to their senses. Jesus appeared to many people, sometimes in groups, including the eleven remaining disciples (Luke 24:33) and over 500 people at once (I Corinthians 15:6); the resurrection was a public event. So the first two marks ensure that the original witnesses of the event were not deceived since the event took place in public and everyone with eyes and ears could see and hear it.

What about the next two criteria? Skeptics tell us that the resurrection stories came late when the original witnesses were long dead. Not so fast.

The founding of the Church and the commemoration of the resurrection by Sunday worship (1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Acts 20:7) took place immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion in about A.D. 30. Paul also relates the tradition of communion in his letter to the church at Corinth. (1 Corinthians 11:23-27) Paul also mentions him baptizing certain church members in Corinth in passing, and he refers to the meaning of baptism throughout his letters. (1 Corinthians 1:12-17, Galatians 3:27). Communion and baptism were all rituals commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Logically, the event commemorated must come before the action that commemorates it, so the resurrection was being celebrated in the early first century.

What about supernatural events in other religions?

Leslie gives counterexamples of miracle claims in other religions. He mentions that in the Koran there is a story that Mohammed saw the moon split in half. But the Koran says that this takes place in a dream, so it was not a public event that other people could see. (Surah 54)

Leslie also mentions that while heathen deities have priesthoods, feasts and other public institutions in memory of them, all these didn’t commence from the time when such things were said to be done. They were not stating to be commemorating events that happened in the real world, but mythologies.

It’s said that Conyers Middleton, one of those aforementioned critical Deists, searched in vain for decades for a counterexample that would refute Leslie. To my knowledge, there’s nothing in the literature to indicate that anyone has come up with a valid counterexample.

According to Leslie, why is the resurrection of Jesus such a big deal?

Because it’s not another historical fact to log in your memory. We’re quick to believe trivial facts of history. Yet Christianity is of eternal importance. He writes:

Besides that, the importance of the subject would oblige all men to inquire more narrowly into the one than the other. For what consequence is it to me, or to the world, whether there was such a man as Caesar; whether he beat, or was beaten at Pharsalia; whether Homer or Virgil wrote such books; and whether what is related in the Iliads or Aeneids be true or false? It is not two pence up or down to any man in the world. And therefore it is worth no man’s while to inquire into it, either to oppose or justify the truth of these relations.

But our very souls and bodies, both this life and eternity, are concerned in the truth of what is related in the holy Scriptures; and therefore men would be more inquisitive to search into the truth of these, than of any other facts; to examine and sift them narrowly, and to find out the deceit, if any such can be found; for it concerns them nearly, and is of the last importance to them.

How unreasonable then is it to reject these facts, so sifted, so examined, and so attested, as no other facts in the world ever were; and yet to think it the most highly unreasonable, even to madness, to deny other facts, which have not the thousandth part of their evidence, and are of no consequence to us, whether true or false!

Check out the book for yourself. It costs you nothing and is well worth an hour of your time. If that whets your appetite, check out HistoricalApologetics.org. They have a collection of awesome older books like this one that will help you be able to better defend the truth.

When C.S. Lewis wrote his introduction to Athanasius’ classic On the Incarnation, he spoke of the value of old books. He wrote:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read any modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.

And best of all these older books are freely available. No charge means no excuse!

Would you like to present Leslie’s method and the evidence of the resurrection?

I want to help you be able to present this information to your small group/youth group/church etc. If you’d like a slideshow presentation, just enter your email address below and I’ll send you the link to your inbox. It’s totally free, you just need a Google account.


Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. Other interesting stuff about Erik: He’s a baseball nerd. His baseball writing has been published in ESPN.com, Fangraphs.com and has been mentioned in the WSJ. He’s a web designer by day and is the co-owner of a small decor business with his wife. He’s a dad of four and lives in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area. He’s passionate about the intersection of evangelism, apologetics and the local church.

5 thoughts on “Can miracles pass historical tests? Charles Leslie, a 17th-century clergyman created a method for testing historical events. Jesus’ resurrection passed the test. Skeptics of his time couldn’t refute his criteria or the results.”

  1. Wouldn’t the events of Roswell and the Golden Plates of Joseph Smith satisfy these criterion? How about the events surrounding the resurrection – like the eclipse and the walking dead. Wouldn’t those satisfy the idea of public display, yet no external references to them at all? Seems like these criteria are just not enough, and our understanding of how the world actually works has come forward a bit since the 17th century.

    • Good question Brian. I was thinking of addressing this myself in the post but didn’t for the sake of keeping things short.

      Leslie wrote a later book where he added four more marks to strengthen his argument. I don’t have the title off hand at the moment.

      As for Mormonism there were eyewitnesses who later recanted. You can read on that here: http://coldcasechristianity.com/2013/the-witnesses-of-the-resurrection-compared-to-the-witnesses-of-the-golden-plates/

      • …and there were eyewitnesses that never recanted. So for Mormonism we have better evidence than is presented for the resurrection, yet you don’t believe? I find both not believable, so that’s a little easier. 🙂

        The same goes for Roswell – eyewitnesses, physical evidence (we have photos!), etc…

        I’m not going to be strongly convinced by a 16-th century anyone just because the level of evidence and understanding of the world was so much less then. If this argument is so strong, why aren’t most historians convinced?

  2. Those three in the above article were the original three. They recanted. What does that seem to indicate to you? We have no record of the apostles recanting. We also can look at the events that the Book of Mormon reports. We have no monuments or actions regarding these tribes of Lehi and the like, and it’s obvious these are lacking the fourth mark. They are obviously things added later.

    That there would be evidence for aliens is not a defeater for Christianity. I haven’t looked at the evidence. I do know that the likelihood of a habitable planet like ours is very low so that’s at least reason to be skeptical in advance.

    To discredit an argument because it was made in the 16th century seems kinda like a textbook example of chronological snobbery to me. And there are, in fact, many historians who are convinced. Paul Maier who taught history at Western Michigan for decades comes to mind. Historians tend to agree on the facts that I’ve mentioned here too. They believe that Jesus was crucified and his disciples believed that saw him after his resurrection. This included Paul, who was skeptical and a church persecutor. The majority of them agree on that the tomb was empty. No one disputes that certain actions like communion or baptism were actions or memorials that happened right after the event. They might interpret what happened differently (hallucinations or just plain “I dunno”) but these are what they are.

    • > Those three in the above article were the original three. They recanted. What does that seem to indicate to you? We have no record of the apostles recanting.

      I’m having trouble tracking down the original sources for those recants – some places say it didn’t happen, others (only Christian sources?) seem to claim otherwise. At any rate, I am not persuaded by the ” we have no record” argument given both the length of time from the events to the writings and the entire preservation/copying process. I doubt any recant would survive that. It is no surprise that we’d have available better counter evidence for Mormonism given the time frame. There has also been no recant of the Roswell observations, to my knowledge.

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