Can there be a religiously neutral test for miracle claims?

Following the tradition of the famous 18th-century philosopher David Hume, skeptics will often accuse Christians of special pleading. We eagerly accept the resurrection of Jesus and other miracles reported in the Bible. But we’re just as swift to reject miracle claims made by other religions. Critics will say if you accept one miracle, you have to open up the floodgates to them all. But is that true? Could there be a way to sift through all the noise?

Enter Charles Leslie’s terse yet powerful book A Short and Easy Method With the Deists. This booklet is around 40 pages, but it packs a punch. Leslie’s method is a religiously neutral test regarding how we can judge an event as undeniably historical.

Leslie proposes four common-sense tests that make no reference to any particular faith. While his criteria make allowances for miracle claims, they don’t permit gullibility.

Charles Leslie (1650-1722)

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.

PP 5-6,
A Short and Easy Method With the Deists

To clarify, Leslie isn’t saying that in order for something to be historical, that event needs to pass all four marks. But if the event in question passes all four, we can be sure it really happened.

One example would be America’s independence from the British. It was an experience of the senses. It was a public event. Independence Day was instituted on July 4th in 1777. We can obviously be certain of it.

In consideration of the first two criteria:

Leslie gives us a hypothetical scenario: Imagine someone claims to have split the Thames river and led 3 million Londoners over on dry land to Southwark. We’d think this person was either joking or that they are crazy. We wouldn’t think they were telling the truth.

In consideration of his next two criteria:

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

There are imaginative stories from the 12th century that giants brought the stones from Africa to Ireland for their healing properties. The fifth-century king Aurelius Ambrosius wanted to build a memorial to 3000 nobles slaughtered in a battle against the Saxons and buried at Salisbury. At Merlin’s advice, Ambrosius chose Stonehenge.

The king sent Merlin, King Arthur’s father, and 15000 knights to remove it from Ireland, where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by the giants. They killed 7000 Irishmen, but when the knights tried to move the rocks with ropes, they failed. Then Merlin, using “special” (read: magical) gear and skill, dismantled the stones and sent them over to Britain, where Stonehenge was dedicated.

Why hasn’t this story caught on? It’s pretty simple: No one saw it. This wasn’t a public act that anyone would have witnessed. The story first emerged hundreds of years after the alleged events happened. This is an example of the fact that you can’t persuade people from a monument based on historical events they haven’t heard of before.

So what miraculous event would pass the test?

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

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

Does the resurrection of Jesus pass the test?

Leslie then moves to the claims of Christianity, which is based on the resurrection of Christ. Looking at the first two criteria:

Jesus appeared to people after his resurrection. He spoke to them, ate food with them, and invited them to touch him – the resurrection was apparent to their senses. (Luke 24:39) Jesus also 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.

The first two marks ensure that the original witnesses of the event weren’t deceived. This is because the event took place in public, and anyone with eyes and ears could see and hear it.

What about the next two criteria? Skeptics tell us that the resurrection stories came late when the original witnesses were long dead. But that’s not true.

The early church practiced the Eucharist and baptism to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus from the very beginning. (1 Cor. 11:23-26, Mk. 14:22-26, Gal. 3:27, Mt 28:19-20, Acts 2:38) Communion and baptism are all rituals memorializing the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Logically, the event commemorated must come before the action that commemorates it, so the death and resurrection of Jesus were being celebrated in the early first century.

What about supernatural events in other religions?

Leslie gives counterexamples of miracle claims in other religions. For instance, Muhammad’s miraculous single-night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem wasn’t a public event. (Surah 17:1) We only have his word for it. Some Muslim commentators have even suggested that the Isrā was a spiritual dream and not an actual journey.

Apollonius of Tyana’s miracles were written over a century after the events took place. He lived from 15-100 AD, and Philostratus wrote his biography of Apollonius in approximately 220. Philostratus wrote in Athens, Apollonius’ alleged acts happened nearly 1200 miles away. These miracles were not objects of sense, with memorials set up immediately afterwards.

Leslie also mentions that while heathen deities have priesthoods, feasts and other public institutions and memorials. But all of these didn’t start from the time when their stories were said to be done. These were known to be mythologies not based on historical claims. For example, feasts to Bacchus and Apollo started ages after what was reported of these gods allegedly said and did. They can’t be proved. The priests of Bacchus or Apollo were not ordained by the ‘gods’ but later appointed by men.

No slippery slope

The question that remains is: Are Leslie’s criteria good indicators of the truth? It seems like they are common-sensical enough. Leslie’s bold claim is that if the events meet all four of his criteria is certain. Perhaps it’s best to make a more modest claim that it’s reasonable to accept the event. His criteria would also rule out opposing theories like myths, private visions or legends.

Someone feasibly could come up with a counterexample that refutes Leslie’s principle. That said, reportedly, Conyers Middleton — infamous for his written drubbings of ecclesiastical miracles — looked fruitlessly for decades for one. (And by the way, the Golden Plates of Mormonism don’t seem to cut it. They’re not necessarily miraculous, and three of the main eyewitnesses basically recanted.)

Had Hume paid attention to Leslie, he would not have made the slippery slope argument he made in his essay Of Miracles. Leslie clearly shows that a miracle claim can be strongly attested. One doesn’t have to gullibly open the floodgates and accept all miracle claims. But neither do they have to hyper-skeptically reject all of them either.

Check out the book for yourself. It costs you nothing and is well worth an hour of your time. If that whets your appetite, check out HistoricalApologetics.org. They have a collection of awesome older books like this one that will help you be able to better defend the faith. No charge means no excuse!

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5 thoughts on “Can there be a religiously neutral test for miracle claims?”

  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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