A More Convincing Miracle - Island of Sanity

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Defending Christianity

A More Convincing Miracle

I came across an article by an atheist recently in which he said that, if Christianity was true, Jesus could easily have proven it by giving us a really convincing miracle. The miracle that he suggested is this: Jesus should have said, "If you divide the circumference of a circle by its diameter, you get a number called pi. Pi is an irrational number, which means that it is made up of an infinite number of digits. Someday people will invent computers that will be able to calculate pi to millions of digits. When you do, you will find that the 600 through 610th digits of pi are 32000568127."

So why didn't Jesus do this? Maybe because that would have been a much weaker sign than the signs that Jesus actually gave us.

By the way, the above is not an exact quote. The writer's hypothetical speech by Jesus included a long discussion of the definition of pi, explaining what a diameter is and what a circumference is and so on. None of this would have been necessary, as people in Jesus' day knew full well what circles and diameters and circumferences were. A Babylonian tablet from about 1900 years before Christ gives an approximation of pi that is the equivalent of 3.125 in our numbering system, which isn't bad. The Egyptian Rhind Papyrus, about 1650 years before Christ, estimates pi as 3.1605. And Archimedes, circa 220 BC, proved that pi must be between 3 1/7 and 3 10/71.

Well okay, maybe he supposes that an explanation was necessary, not for the well-educated people of the time, but for the common people. But then he blithely talks about "digits of pi" with no explanation. The idea of "digits", that is, of decimal fractions, is generally credited to Francois Viete in his book Canon Mathematicus in AD 1579.

So apparently the writer didn't know and didn't bother to research the state of mathematics in Jesus' day before presuming to tell us what Jesus should have said on the subject.

But setting that aside, let's suppose that Jesus had indeed made such a statement. The writer says that this would have proven to "any rational person" that Jesus was God. But, umm, no. At best, it would have been convincing to people living in the mid 20th to maybe late 21st century.

It would have done nothing for people living in Jesus' own day. At that time, no one knew the value of pi to more than about two decimal places. What would it prove to give digits that could not be verified for thousands of years? How would anyone know if these digits were correct or if he had just made them up? Such a statement would only prove that the speaker had special knowledge if no one else in the world was capable of calculating the same number, but as long as no one else was capable of calculating the same number, there would be no way to prove that the speaker was accurate.

Suppose someone came along today and claimed to be God or a messenger from God. And to prove it he said, "Someday people will travel to the star Sigma Draconis, and on the third planet orbiting that star, at 40 degrees north 120 degrees west, the temperature will be 23.4 Celcius." Would that convince you that this person has supernatural knowledge? Or would you just say, "Hey, anybody can make up untestable facts. That proves nothing."

So such a statement would prove absolutely nothing until people invented computers and could actually calculate this many digits of pi, in the mid-20th century. It would have been worthless for almost 2000 years.

Well, actually people did calculate hundreds of digits of pi before computers were invented. In 1873 William Shanks calculated pi to 707 places. Except ... except he made a mistake. Only his first 527 are correct.

So suppose Jesus had declared what the 600 to 610th digits of pi are. Then in 1873 Shanks comes along with a calculation of those digits that is different. How many atheists would have said, "See, science has proven the Bible false."

In fact Jesus did something similar to what this atheist called for, but better thought out. He predicted an historical event that would happen 40 years after his death. Read chapter 24 of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus predicted that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and that "not one stone would be left standing on another". He said this would happen before the current generation had passed away. And in fact, in AD 70, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by a Roman army. The temple had been gilded with gold, which melted when the temple was burned, and so the soldiers tour it apart to recover the gold, and not one stone was left standing on another.

The Bible includes hundreds of predictions of things that would occur in the future of the time the prediction was made. Arguably some are vague or debatable, but many have been clearly and plainly fulfilled, and none has been proven false.

Isn't this enough to convince "any rational person" that Jesus and other people in the Bible had divine foreknowledge? Well, maybe so, but it apparently does not convince atheists today. And why not? Because they find ways to dismiss these prophecies. One common argument is that as, of course, predicting the future is impossible, that these so-called predictions must have been made after the events they describe. Any evidence that the book was written before is written off as a curious anomaly, as we know that the book could not have been written until after the fact.

Which is why I say if Jesus had made such a statement about pi, a generation or so after it was proven true, atheists would dismiss it. They would simply claim that, as of course it is impossible for Jesus to have known the value of pi to such precision, these statements must have been added to the Bible after the fact. Just as atheists today claim that books of the Bible were written or altered hundreds of years after the dates that these books assert for themselves, so in this writer's scenario, atheists of the future could claim that the value for pi was added or changed hundreds of years later.

Even for people living at the time that computers were invented, I'm sure atheists would have found reasons to dismiss such a statement. When the first calculation of pi was done proving Jesus correct, I'm sure that some atheists would say that the people who did this calculation were obviously biased and had secretly altered the calculation to make it match Jesus' prediction. They'd come up with all sorts of creative explanations for why the calculations were wrong or why it didn't matter. Just like they do for all the facts that tend to confirm the Bible in real life.

Of course, we go through this same scenario pretty regularly. Atheists routinely say that they would believe the Bible if God would just perform one more miracle. The hundreds or thousands he has already done are not enough, but just one more, that would do it. But of course it wouldn't. They would dismiss it using the same sort of evasion and double-talk that they use for the miracles that he's already done.

© 2014 by Jay Johansen


Sasquatch May 23, 2014

What's wrong with expecting the occasional miracle? It doesn't necessarily have to be an annual event. But, yes, it would be nice to get some affirmation every generation or so. God supposedly once set bushes on fire and parted seas. Why did he quit? What made people so special a few thousand years ago that they got a spectacle and we only warrant stories? There hasn't been a bonafide miracle since the bible was compiled. That's after centuries of god supposedly meddling in human affairs almost daily. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to consider the prolonged absence suspicious. Although I will concede that absence of proof is not proof of absence.

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