I was having brunch with a friend recently and, it being the Christmas season and all, the subject of miracles arose. My friend, a believing Christian, expressed skepticism about the miracles. “I just don’t believe Jesus could walk on water — we know that that’s impossible,” she said. “How could Jesus feed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fish?” she asked. “That’s just not plausible.”
She raises a good point. “But as a believing Christian,” I asked her, “don’t you acknowledge that Jesus was (and is) God?” “Sure,” she said. “Well,” I replied, “this means you believe that the creator and sustainer of the universe, of all that is seen and unseen, the being that exists outside of time — indeed, that created time itself — the author of all that is, two thousand years ago became a man.”
Many of my friends are having babies, and I am the proud godfather of little Olivia and Thomas. So I know something of what I’m talking about when I say that babies are pretty helpless. Think of Jesus that first Christmas night — he couldn’t see farther than a few feet, he didn’t know that he controlled his hands, he couldn’t hold his head up, he couldn’t feed himself. And yet the Christian church boldly claims that this little baby is the eternal being who has been worshipped and pondered and mythologized for centuries — the turning point of history, the necessary condition without which the universe, and all of us, would not exist.
That is some claim.
Could it be true? Could God have become man two thousand years ago on the first Christmas night?
Is Christmas possible?
The intellectual framework of the modern world is dominated by the (so-called) Enlightenment. With its focus on knowledge through the faculty of reason and the method of empirical investigation, the Enlightenment ushered in what might be called an era of scientific imperialism — an era that holds to this day. Today many of our brothers and sisters, rooted in the Enlightenment, have an epistemology that restricts the set of knowable objects to those that can be weighed and measured or derived from first principles, while others take Enlightenment reductionism even further, suggesting that the only true knowledge — knowable or unknowable — is knowledge that is either empirical or rational.
The focus on scientific laws — on the laws that govern the natural world — thus becomes quite natural and inevitable. We know this law governs because we derived it on a chalkboard and tested it in a laboratory. Some are famous: e = mc2; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Most are not. But, in a Newtonian sense, they are binding.
Although much of modern science has cast aside Newtonian determinism in favor of a more probabilistic worldview, the Enlightenment mentality that stresses laws of nature still holds in the public mind. Hence David Hume, a key figure of the Enlightenment, is still very persuasive when he writes that a miracle — of which God becoming man on the first Christmas night surely counts — is “a violation of the laws of nature.”
Considering the possibility of a resurrection — a particularly famous claim to one is intimately connected to the Christmas story — Hume writes:
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
To Hume it is simple: if you claim that the baby Jesus is the Son of God, then it is much more likely that you are either being deceived (by someone else, or by your own mind or senses) or that you are lying than it is that you are correct. Therefore, the rational man — the man relying on the principles of the Enlightenment — concludes that your miracle did not take place.