Bridging Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch”: The Historical Testimony to Miracles

One of the great skeptical minds of the 18th century, Gotthold Lessing, coined a phrase to describe what for him was an unbridgeable gap between the 18th-century enlightened mind and the purported supernatural events of the Bible. Lessing called this gap the “ugly broad ditch,” a chasm in knowledge that made it unreasonable for someone in the 18th century to believe in miracles and consequently many of the New Testament claims. For Lessing, since miracles did not occur in his time, the likelihood of them having never occurred at all was high. As such, the historical claims made by the Apostles and recorded by the writers of Scripture were too unreliable to put one’s faith in.

In Lessing’s thought, the contingent, or “accidental,” events of history could not be the basis for a rational belief in what had to be universal and necessary truths of religion. Whether or not historical claims were true, was leaving far too much to chance and fluctuations in the kinds and degree of evidence for those claims. This inherent susceptibility of historical testimony to skepticism made belief in any supernatural features of that testimony, especially the miracle stories of the Gospels and resurrection of Jesus, unjustified. If one was to accept only what was rational for an 18th century person to believe, one would have to forgo belief in the miracles related in the Scriptures, and consequently the idea of their being any historical basis for Christianity’s grand, theological claims.

Still, why think that Lessing’s “ugly ditch” is really there? Why believe either that religious claims must be grounded in necessary truths, like those of mathematics, or that the historical evidence for miracles was in the 18th century no longer valid, while it seems that in the 12th century it was?

First, the claim that religious truths cannot be left to the evidence of history is itself question-begging, since there is no reason to think that all truths must be self-evident or necessary in the same way that “2+3 = 5” or “there are no married bachelors” are necessary and self-evident. Moreover, if the actual content of a specific religious revelation (e.g. the Bible) gives good theological reasons for why religious claims are not grounded in necessary truths like math or logic– for example because human freedom is valuable, and interpersonal love must be freely chosen as opposed to coerced–then there is also an explanation for why religious truths are fundamentally different from others, and consequently need not be grounded in the same way. As to Lessing’s second contention, that the historical evidence is too shaky to believe in the miracles of the Bible, or that there was too much temporal distance between himself and those events to justify belief, this also seems tendentious at best.

Miracles and Historical Testimony

One obvious reason to reject Lessing’s claim is his assumption that miracles did not occur in the 18th century. Much of his argument seems to ride on the fact that because one has not experienced miracles personally, it is then unreasonable to assume that figures in the past experienced miracles. Seeing for Lessing would indeed be necessary for believing, albeit one is left to wonder if it would have been sufficient.

Lessing therefore begs the question whether or not there were credible miracle claims circulating in his own time. This is a logical fallacy that also appeared to not bother the Scottish philosopher David Hume enough to rethink his own position on contemporary miracle claims. It was assumed that there simply were none, and that they were mainly to be found among the more “barbaric and ignorant” peoples– peoples that must be intellectually naive, or predisposed to perverting the truth for the sake of more mundane goals. Either way Lessing, like Hume, argues circularly, simply asserting that contemporary miracles claims are not reliable.1 It is worth noting here that Humean skepticism goes far beyond just claims of supernatural activity, but to cause and effect relationships themselves. As such, Hume’s skepticism cut across a much broader range of knowledge than just the religious.

There is another problem though with Lessing’s understanding of miracle claims as it relates to the generational thread of historical testimony. For, it is not simply that the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ apparent miracles, or to the apparent Resurrection, claimed to have experienced miracles, it is that all of the early church–all subsequent Christian communities that persisted past the original eyewitnesses– also believed in those same miracles. Those historically and culturally closest to the original testifiers of Jesus’ miracles had no problem believing them, unlike Lessing who, being further removed in time, apparently could not. But, temporal distance alone seems hardly sufficient to dismiss the validity of a historical claim!

While it could be the case that the earliest, non-eyewitnesses were simply duped by the so-called eyewitnesses (e.g. Peter, Paul, the Marys), this would entail that all, or many, of the early Christians (young, old, rich, poor, peasant, aristocracy) were equally susceptible to the lies of these original Apostles. They (the early Church members) basically believed the testimony of the Apostles without any independent, corroborating evidence to support the idea that things like miraculous healings, or the multiplying of food, could really happen. This means that none of these early Christians, many of them eventual martyrs, had ever seen or heard of a credible miraculous event in their own time, yet regardless still believed the Apostles’ testimony to the same or similar kinds of events in their time.

If not duped, however, then the other option is that early followers knew for themselves the stories were false, yet propagated them in spite of knowledge to the contrary. If this were the case, then the earliest Christian communities, to include their leaders, would be implicated in the greatest conspiracy of all time– propagating known falsehoods about miraculous events, events that never occurred, over a vast geographical space and an extended, continuous period of time. For what purpose they would have done this, we have no idea. That they were able to maintain that known falsehood for so long, and across so many cultures, might itself be considered more miraculous than the Resurrection they claimed to believe occurred.

Further, it is hard to believe that these earliest Christian communities would continue to propagate known falsehoods only to enjoy the social ostracism, imprisonment, and even the torture and death that ultimately befell many of them. This was hardly a win-win situation. In fact it was clearly a lose-lose: lose if you are persecuted for telling the known falsehood, lose even if you are not, since ultimately you know there is no real, redeeming content to the faith you claim to hold– something made explicit by the Apostle Paul himself (see 1 Cor 15:12-19).

On the other hand, one reason why the early Christians might have believed in the purported miracles of the Gospels is that they had independent evidence that miracles occurred in their own times, a fact that would begin to undermine Lessing’s critique, as belief in contemporary miracles, say in the 2nd century, would bridge the epistemic gap about supernatural claims between 2nd century Christians and the generation of the 1st century Apostles. Thus, if this belief in contemporary miracles by post-Apostolic, early Christians was part of the reason why they believed the miracle stories passed on by the Apostles– orally or in Scripture– then the question must be asked: “When, or at what point in time, or even in what place in time, did this epistemic bridge from one generation to the next regarding belief in miracles collapse? When did the “ugly ditch” actually get dug?

The question can also be formulated this way: at what point in history did testimony about specific miracles, either the ones mentioned in Scripture, or in ones ongoing, cease to be a valid source of evidence for justified belief in miracles?

The Seamless Testimony from The Apostles to Today

It seems that for the vast majority, historical testimony to miracles was still a valid source of evidence in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as well as in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and all the way through to the 14th and 15th centuries. There is not an abundance of skeptical literature about either ancient claims to miracles, or contemporary ones, in the 16th century either (although skepticism about Natural Theology begins with the likes of Michel de Montaigne around this time). That is not to say that there are not any critiques of miracle claims prior to the 16th century, but just that the abundance of evidence is to the contrary: most people accepted the reality of miracles up to Lessing’s day.

So, when does Lessingische skepticism toward human testimony about miracles first emerge in history? When does the “ugly ditch” get dug, especially if the majority of people up until the 18th century did hold that testimony about miracles was reliable? Who or what ultimately digs this ditch? After all, the ditch cannot simply be assigned to some arbitrary date; as if in 1748, on a Thursday at 5:45pm GMT, all miracle claims, both ancient and contemporary, became subject to the skepticism of 18th century man.

The reason for Lessing to reject justified belief in miracles is not that the historical testimonies were ever demonstrated to be false, something that is nearly impossible to do, or that the temporal gap between the New Testament miracle claims and Lessing’s belief about them is too long, especially if there was continuous, persistent belief in miracles. Clearly it would be one thing to pick up some ancient text no one had read in several hundred years, comprised with fantastic stories in it and say: “Eh, these are ancient stories filled with claims of things we have never seen before. Why believe these things really happened?” But, when you have a historical lineage, a succession of real, human communities called “the Church” that has passed on these beliefs, and passed them on often under very harsh conditions, then you have some additional reasons to believe that what was being passed on was not just mythological. It was something real enough that people were willing to stake their physical lives and their cultural identity on its being true. Very few philosophies have garnered that kind of dedication in both belief and practice!

It seems therefore that the reason Lessing felt belief in miracles was unjustified was the simple fact that he never experienced one personally. So, there really is no argument about whether older, or contemporary, testimonies about miracles are false other than to say: “I never saw one, therefore all testimonies to miracles are false, or at least unreliable.”

Further, if the writings of the New Testament were mere fabrications, at least in regard to reports about its miraculous events, then the entirety of the early church, starting with men like Polycarp and Ignatius, moving forward to Irenaeus and Origen, up on through Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas, to Luther and the Reformers, through the great puritan thinkers of the 17th and 18th-century, to today’s analytical philosophers of religion, are all in some way implicated in the continued fabrication of said miracle stories– for each generation going back to the first would have known that the miracles reported by the Apostles were false and thus irrational to believe, and yet passed them off as being true. Or, if not liars, there has been a persistent, almost seamless strain of men and women being “fooled” into thinking something incredible happened that did not happen, and that based solely on the fact that someone told them so.

After all, if miracles do not happen then literally no one, not Clement of Rome, not Ignatius, not Polycarp, not Jerome, not Augustine, not Aquinas or Edwards, nor Lewis or Ratzinger, Swinburne or Polkinghorne, has ever experienced anything themselves, or heard any credible account in their own time that would give them additional warrant that the claims made by the Apostles, or found in the Scriptures, are reasonable to believe. Talk about a leap of faith by men who could hardly be called “barbaric or ignorant.”

What is more likely then– that thousands, if not millions, of Christians throughout the Church’s history have experienced miracles that make it justified for them to believe the miracles reported in the Scriptures actually occurred;2 One contemporary compendium of miracle claims is Craig S. Keener’s book, Miracles. Keener documents personal testimonies from every continent, most of which are healing miracles. That said, some miracles in the Bible might be harder to accept than others, e.g. the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as opposed to the healing of the paralytic, in virtue of seeing more kinds of one miracle attested to today than other kinds. Still, a miracle is a miracle.or that Christians from the very beginning have been fooled into thinking that incredible events for which they have no independent reason to believe happened, except it was told to them, really happened?

In the end Lessing dug his own ditch, and did so because he was seeking absolute certainty. But, absolute certainty is not forthcoming about anything in this life outside of a very limited set of claims. Lessing’s concern about the shifting sands of time may have been warranted, but his ultimate conclusion on where to place his faith was not. What Lessing perhaps should have done is believed in the preponderance of evidence– a preponderance that points to the reality of miracles, both in 1st-century, in the 18th, and today.

Satan’s Strategy: Social Justice, Sin and The Devil

In Chapter 25 of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes a subtle, yet vulnerable, human dynamic the devil longs to exploit in order to trap his patient (i.e. the Christian man) into sin, and by doing so to cause division— division between the man and God, as well as division between man and his neighbor:

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.1Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935

In every generation, so it goes, the devil attempts to draw men’s attention away from those sinful dispositions that are real threats to their current culture. Satan does this first by focusing the cultural mood against a real vice— a vice, however, which is either not significantly present in the culture, or minimally presents no imminent danger to it. At the same time the devil works to tempt the culture to embrace a virtue that is very near to that vice which really does pose an imminent danger. In other words, the “shadow side” of a particular virtue being actively embraced by a society or nation in a particular cultural moment is what the devil wants to make “endemic” to that culture.

In Screwtape, written during WWII, Lewis does not have Screwtape specify which virtue of the day is in view for wartime Britain, and subsequently which vice (although Lewis provides a sustained attack against “Unselfishness” as a form of spiritual pride). It doesn’t really matter though, so long as whatever virtue is in view at any given cultural moment can be ultimately twisted into a widespread, societal vice. A vice that succeeds in tearing the culture apart, moving it from a higher form of human existence to a lower one. Screwtape suggests, therefore, that when a culture is really going in one direction, say giving itself over to Emotionalism, then this becomes the occasion for repeated warnings about being too rationalistic. On the flip side, when a culture has succumbed to a cold rationalism, it will be the emotions that are stigmatized, as if they might throw the nation into chaos. Either way, the real danger is never addressed, and a nation is left attempting to stem floodwaters with fire extinguishers:

The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’.2Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935

But, how might this dynamic be playing out today in light of our own societal upheaval? Was Lewis’ theory correct, and, if so, is the devil still up to his same, old tricks?

A Word on Virtue Theory

In classical virtue theory, which Lewis is clearly referencing in this chapter, there is always an extreme side to any virtue, as well as a deficit side. For example, the classical virtue of courage, or the habits and dispositions that engender it, taken to an extreme would transform courage into a vice—too much courage morphs into something like brazenness or lack of restraint. It becomes an attitude and a behavior marked by recklessness and audacity, not by true fortitude in the face of unwelcome danger. A soldier who constantly rushes off into battle out of pure lust, never reflecting to count the costs associated with the fight, is disposed quite differently from the one who counts the costs of war, recognizes the horror associated with those costs, yet still goes off to do his duty. The first is impetuous, the second is brave.

On the flip side, too little courage would be simple cowardice, or spinelessness. Cowardice is a deficiency of courage, just as wantonness its excess. The goal is to find the right balance, the middle ground that is the virtue itself.

Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics calls this the “golden mean,” suggesting there are vices that can appear virtuous, in that they shadow or mirror a particular virtue, but, in the end, they are neither righteous nor good, but unjust and cruel. The mean is always the goal for the man seeking to be good, and to be genuinely happy (eudaimonia). Further, this finding of the “mean” is itself a virtue— the virtue of prudence. For it is the prudential soul that carefully weighs, assesses, and evaluates all other moral virtues, taking into account the nature of those virtues, and the moral context in which they need to be realized. The one who exercises prudence, will exemplify the golden mean in his life.

Evaluating Today’s Cultural Virtue

Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice. Justice, according to Karen Swallow Prior (paraphrasing Aristotle) is “the morality of the community”.3 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well. 70 For justice inherently has to do with the proper balancing and harmonization of social interactions. When well-adjusted souls operate in harmony together, there is justice in society. When malformed souls act discordantly toward one another, there is injustice in the community. Fairness is also a form of justice, one that alludes to the aesthetic quality that accompanies a right ordering of things. When things are rightly ordered there exists a symmetry, a beauty in the world that can be experienced, even sensibly. The image of a mother lovingly coddling her newborn is a classic image of a just relationship, one that has the right proportionality between the subjects involved. The image of a mother throwing her child into an alley dumpster does not. One is beautiful, the other grotesque. The justice or injustice of the act is what makes it appear either fair (aesthetically so), or ugly.

To say that the virtue being pursued in our current, American culture is Justice seems almost too easy and too obvious to state. But, sometimes things really do lie right before our eyes, or under our noses. For clearly if there is one virtue that is mentioned more often than any other in our culture today, it is not the virtues of Chastity or Temperance, but that of Justice. The fashionable outcry for social justice places the quest for the virtue Justice at the center of our cultural conversation. This point requires no further elucidation, as we are figuratively and literally inflamed, or “in flames,” over the need, want, and desire for Justice.

But, if Justice is the virtue that is in view, and if Lewis’ theory holds water, then what is the vice nearest to Justice that is the real threat to our nation? Where are we particularly vulnerable to the Devil’s plot to engender a particular vice, a sin, in society that will further lead us down the road of separation from God and each other?

The Shadow Side of Justice: Vengeance

While the Bible may warn mankind that “vengeance is [the Lords]” (Deut 32:35, 41; Isa 35:4) and that His day of vengeance is a sealed promise (Isa 34:8; Psalm 58:10), it is not always the case that human beings display the patience required to wait on divine rectification. As broken and sinful men work toward justice, the temptation for that pursuit to spill over into vengeance is always present, and vengeance just is justice in extremis. It is the excess that runs over.

Vengeance, furthermore, is at bottom fueled by anger, but an anger that rejects the reality of divine providence, and that seeks retribution on its own terms. It goes against the warning of the Apostle Paul to “be angry and do not sin.” Sinful anger, unrestrained by the Spirit of God in man, eventually degrades into bloodlust and violence of various forms and types. What starts out, for example, as a noble, gallic revolution against real human injustice (like gross economic disparity and starvation), turns into “The Terror,” an ecstatic frenzy of political violence— symbolized by the awful image of the guillotine and scores of disembodied heads. Dickens describes it this way:

The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions.4 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 206 quoted in Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, 77.

As we begin to see more concrete examples of actual blood lust in our cultural pursuit of justice, we must pause and consider whether we have lost our way in the pursuit of the Good and the Beautiful. For if we are lost, and it seems like we are as blood lust targets even the innocent, then the Devil has achieved, or is achieving, his ultimate goal. As we see attacks on authority mount, and protests turn into para-military style operations, it cannot hurt to step back and recall those disembodied heads, or the millions of ‘cracked eggs” that went into making the Marxist-Leninist omelette.

However, the examples of physical violence in the name of social justice still seem fairly limited in intensity and scope, thank God. While we can extend acts of physical violence to include things like the tearing down of statues and damaging of property (for certainly they are that), there are still other kinds of violence that are not physical. Acts that, although not attacking the person bodily, nevertheless target her soul. These non-physical attacks are just as detrimental, sometimes more so, than the dull blows that land on heads, or hands, or feet. Thus, vengeance has many ways in which it can be carried out, and as such, so too has Satan many paths to carry out his plan of dividing and conquering the human man, and of robbing his cultural storehouse.

Forgotten Sins: Calumny and Detraction As Means of Vengeance

Calumny is an older word for what we might today call slander. At the heart of of any act of calumny is always a lie— a lie not meant to keep concealed a surprise birthday party, or to hide a family of Jews from a Nazi search party, but rather a lie told purely for the sake of ruining someone’s good name. Any lie told to destroy a reputation, usually the reputation of someone seen as a social rival, a political threat, or perhaps a former oppressor, is a calumnious one. To commit calumny is to sin against God and man (Exodus 20:16; 23:1 & 23:7), for to attack a man’s name is no less harmful to an image bearer of God than an attack on his body. The ruining of a life can occur just as effectively through a well-placed and infectious lie, as through a gunshot to the belly. In fact, a ruined name can endure long past the physical death of the one whose name was ruined, prolonging suffering for those family and friends left behind with a tainted legacy.

While we do see calumny on display in our culture, especially on our social media sites, and most egregiously in our political sphere and the major news media, there is yet another sin of vengeance even worse than calumny. For it is at least possible that a false accusation against a person can be publicly retracted, or shown to be false by a court of law, or otherwise undone in a forensic and visible manner. Much damage will already have occurred, but if a lie is exposed, there is at least hope that through much time and effort the falsely accused can restore their good name. Detraction, on the other hand, does not allow for this possibility. For unlike calumny, the sin of detraction does not involve a lie, it entails a truth.

Detraction is the intentional, yet unjustified exposure of another’s sins or moral failures for the sake of ruining that person’s good name. The detractor destroys his victim by exposing their “dark secret,” a secret, however, which is true. Because this sin inherently involves a truth, it is something that once committed is almost impossible to recover from. As one Catholic theologian put it, detraction is like throwing a bag of feathers into the wind— good luck trying to collect them back up again.

That is not to say that there are not warranted exposures of sinful acts or intentions. Detraction may not relate, for example, to the parish priest who upon hearing a confession of a serial rapist, goes off and tells the police about the confessor’s future intentions. While those special cases can still be tricky for the Catholic priest, a more common example of a warranted exposure of another person’s sins might be telling a trusted friend or pastor that one’s spouse is a heavy alcoholic who desperately is in need of intervention. Such examples are justified exposures of another’s moral failures.

However, there is a good reason why in grade school the nuns chastised us for being a “tattle tale,” even though we really were reporting the actual breaking of the rules by our 3rd-grade classmate. For, to expose the sins of someone unjustly, and for the purpose of ruining their name, is what is entailed by detraction. That children are susceptible to such wicked intentions is obvious, as we all desire to look better than our classmate, or our workmate, or perhaps even our spouse.

Consider then, for example, a husband who has once cheated on his wife many years ago. He has duly repented, his wife has forgiven him, and they have lived happily in that place of forgiveness for many years. However, now that same husband decides to run for a local public office, and his political rival gets wind of his sexual past. You get the picture. This case should illustrate the clear difference between a justified and an unjustified exposure of sin, which is not to say that every case has such clarity.

Detraction is the sin that our culture swims in today. We are up to our necks in the unwarranted and unjustified exposure of other people’s sins. We play off of it. We feed off it. We get our social media kicks off of it. We call it “shaming,” and its effect on our otherwise noble pursuit for justice is exactly what the Devil has had planned for us all along: for in shaming and detracting our neighbor, we commit a whole new kind of injustice. And in our pursuit to rectify old injustices, like racial injustice, we create a new kind of unjust society, a new kind of injustice that itself needs correction.

Finally, as we see detraction carried out even against figures no longer with us: presidents, pioneers, and even actual saints, figures who left a historical mark significant enough so as to be memorialized with statues or inscriptions, we must again pause and realize the self-destructive nature of this sin of detraction. For one thing we all know is this: once the statue of one sinner has been torn down and tossed into the dustbin of history, there is no end to the exposure of new sins, and thus no end to the tearing down, and the throwing away. But, that is not even the worst of it. For the one who tears down today, is also the one who will be torn down tomorrow. Today’s saint is tomorrow’s sinner, and apart from a genuine appeal to Him who was without sin, every sinner will indeed be torn down.

Calumny and detraction are both violations against justice. Ultimately, both reject the reality of that which is most fundamental, most central, to the Christian message: grace. As such they are representative of that vice closest to justice: vengeance. They are the most common means by which we take part in vengeance, and they are the means through which we become eternally separated from God, and from our neighbor.

Conclusion: Satan’s Vengeance

In an earlier part of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis imagines what Satan’s ultimate goal is, putting that desired goal in the mouth of Screwtape, “To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.” The “Father” for Screwtape is of course the devil himself. For Satan to destroy the human man is to take his own vengeance on his Creator.

The kind of vengeance culture we are seeing in America today is part of the devil’s plan for humanity— to take from man everything, and give nothing in return. Satan would rejoice to see us doing this to each other– becoming his pawns, in his infernal game. The tools he is using are the sins of calumny and detraction; sins now so commonplace we fail to think about them, and can hardly name them. Yet, all the while we go about spending precious resources on more futile attempts to rectify what is ultimately a problem of the heart, not one of the color of the skin (which really is only so deep).

If we ask ourselves the honest question of whether or not the attempt at Justice we are seeing in our country today is bearing good fruit, is actually moving us to a more just society, we dare not be unaware of the vices that accompany this naturally good desire. It may be good to hope for the “better angels of our nature” to win out, but it would be foolish to deny that the “vicious devils of our hearts” are not always at work.