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The supernatural in monotheistic religions

This article concerns itself with the junction between monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the supernatural. A primary topic of interest is how miraculous or supernatural events came to be attributed to historical events.

The term supernatural literally means "transcending the natural". Generally, it involves the belief in forces that cannot ordinarily be perceived except through their effects. Sometimes it is used to characterize or explain events that people consider extraordinary (see also preternatural or paranormal.

A concept of the supernatural is generally identified with religion, although there is much debate as to whether a conception of the supernatural is necessary for religion (see The nature of God in Western theology and Anthropology of religion. Generally, people contrast the supernatural to the natural; some believe that these two concepts are compatable or complementary (in other words, religion and science fulfill different but equally valid functions), and some believe that they are incompatible and in competition.

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The neologism supernaturalize, meaning "to make supernatural", is sometimes used to describe the process of ascribing supernatural causes to natural events. This process may also be referred to as mythification or spiritualization. Because the assumption of the skeptical reader is that supernatural events cannot or are unlikely to occur, their description is seen as the result of a process of deliberate or unconscious mysticism, thus, "supernaturalization".

Supernaturalization in the Hebrew Bible

J. Keir Howard[?] of the Diocese of Wellington Institute of Theology[?], New Zealand, notes that:

Skeptics sometimes cite this process of supernaturalization when criticizing religion. For example, Otto von Corvin[?] wrote in his Pfaffenspiegel[?] (1845) about how primitive humans explained "rain, wind, thunderstorm, heat and cold" with causes in the heavens, animal-like beings directing these forces, who evolved into Gods: "Because prehistoric man believed the agents behind those natural events -- 'Gods' -- only to be more powerful animals or humans, they also ascribed to them many of the respective emotions, like anger, hatred, revenge, benevolence, charity etc. As this anger of humans could be mollified, it was only natural to try the same with Gods, and so sacrifice came into being."

Supernaturalization in the New Testament

Modern skeptical readers of the Bible hold that Christians gradually reinterpreted specific natural events in the life of Christ as supernatural. It is held that important supernatural beliefs in his life were not present or not universal in Christianity from the beginning, and that evidence for their more or less gradual appearance can be found in the New Testament itself. These supernatural beliefs include:

Jesus is viewed Otto von Corvin[?] as a skilled and educated man who managed to make others believe that his actions were supernatural: "Jesus was a revolutionary who, in our time, if not crucified, would be executed per martial law or thrown into prison." His followers "did not know the means by which he accomplished these acts, for if they did, they would not have seen them as miracles." Von Corvin views supernaturalization as one of the main causes of organized religion, which he believes exploits ignorance. This view of supernaturalization was shared by many other writers of Corvin's time.

The hypothesis of creeping supernaturalization makes the prediction that more supernatural events will appear in later manuscripts of the New Testament than in early ones. This means that the hypothesis is falsifiable: if fewer supernatural events appear in later manuscripts or there is no change, the hypothesis has to be discarded or modified. However, even if the hypothesis survives this test, it is not proved, because a failure to falsify a hypothesis is not the same thing as proving a hypothesis (see falsifiability).

However, the Canadian skeptic Earl Doherty, in his book The Jesus Puzzle, asserts the opposite, namely, that the earliest Christians believed in a Jesus who lived on a strictly supernatural plane, and that the historical Jesus did not exist until he was invented by the authors of Gospels late in the first century. More specifically, he believes that the New Testament epistles of Paul were written well before the Gospels, and that Paul did not have in mind a historical Jesus at all, but rather a Jesus who lived in some supernatural plane; this would be consistent with some contemporary Greek philosophies. Doherty asserts that the Gospel writers later thought that Christianity would have more credibility and appeal if it were associated with an historical person, so they invented such a person and placed his activities just far enough back in the past that readers would not be surprised at the lack of eyewitnesses to verify the Gospel writers' accounts.

The Virgin Birth

The Virgin Birth is mentioned in two Gospels, Matthew and Luke and nowhere else in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke are believed to be partly based on Mark and are therefore among the latest parts of the New Testament (see Markan priority and Synoptic problem).

The Resurrection

All four Gospels describe the empty tomb and resurrection but they do not describe it in the same way. If passages from the three Synoptic Gospels are laid out in what is believed to be the order of their composition, it is apparent how the supernatural has increased as time passed:

Mark 16:2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. 3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? 4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. 5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. 6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. 7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.

Luke 24:1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. 3 And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: 5 And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, 7 Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

Matthew 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. 2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. 3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: 4 And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. 5 And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. 6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. 7 And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.

Granting that Mark is earlier, we can observe how his νεανισκος, neaniskos, or "young man", becomes Luke's later ανδρες δυο εν εσθησεσιν αστραπτουσαις, andres duo en esthesesin astraptousais, or "two men in shining garments" and Matthew's αγγελος, aggelos, or "angel" (literally: "messenger") descending from heaven. Note too the way in which the women discover the stone already rolled away by some unknown agency in Mark and Luke, but see it rolled away by a supernatural agency in Matthew.

One skeptical hypothesis is that Christ's prophecy failed and his disciples reacted by becoming evangelical (a reaction predicted by the theories of Leon Festinger), with the enormous advantage that the failure of the prophecy was not spectacularly obvious, or even obvious at all once a little time had passed and Christ was safely in heaven. Evidence for this interpretation of the resurrection can be seen in the New Testament, where the resurrected Christ is not easily recognized by his disciples:

Luke 24:13 And, behold, two of them went that same day [as the discovery of the empty tomb] to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. 14 And they talked together of all these things which had happened. 15 And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. 16 But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

Their failure to recognize Christ is explained supernaturally: their eyes were "holden". The story continues like this:

24:30 And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?

Notice the way they reinterpret the meeting after the event. It is now accepted in psychology that memories are not fixed and can be altered radically by later events and emotions. A similar failure of recognition happens in the Gospel of John:

John 23:11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, 12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. 14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. 16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. 17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

Skeptics therefore suggest that the disciples, in their acute grief, anxiety, and disappointment, were seeing Christ in strangers, and so relieving themselves of their acute grief, anxiety, and disappointment. That they should have been prepared to die for this belief is not mysterious: it is very difficult for human beings to admit that they are wrong, particularly when the consequences of disbelief are very negative and the consequences of belief very positive. If Christ's disciples admitted that they were wrong they continued to suffer acute grief, anxiety, and disappointment; if they convinced themselves, consciously or otherwise, that they were right, they could expect eternal joy in heaven. Skeptics say that a similar process took place after the deaths of Nero, Hitler, Elvis Presley, and Princess Diana, all of whom are said to be have been seen alive after the announcement of their deaths. If one hopes or fears strongly enough that such an announcement is untrue, one can begin to see the dead person in strangers.

Supernaturalization in Islamic writings (to be added)

Supernaturalization in Bahai writings (to be added)

See also: Religion, Supernatural

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