William Lane Craig's Answer To Lessing's Ugly Broad Ditch

German critic Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) wrote about an “ugly broad ditch” he could not cross over, no matter how hard he tried. It was between the probabilities of historical knowledge and the truths we can know from reason. Lessing argued, “Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another.” “But I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen. The problem is that reports of miracles are not miracles....they have to work through a medium which takes away all their force.” LINK.

The problem is that if I see a miracle I have evidence that it happened. But if I hear of a miracle from someone else, I have to trust that person’s word on it. And if I read about a miracle in the ancient past, I have to trust the document that reports it. The historical probabilities diminish in terms of verification. One cannot verify a miracle claim in the ancient past comparable to the conclusions of reason.

Bill Craig acknowledges this problem. But look at his answer.

“The problem, it seems to me, is the relativity of the historical evidence as well as one’s ability to grasp it.” He says the historical evidence is there for people like him who have “the training, the time, and the resources to conduct a historical investigation of the evidence for Jesus.” But the “vast majority of the human race down through history simply haven’t had access to the evidence.” Craig says, "To me this is unconscionable. This, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which confronts us: the gap between people’s historically conditioned epistemic situation and the evidence required to warrant Christian belief.” He concludes:

"if one’s religious beliefs are to be rational, there must be some other basis for them than the evidence. [Emphasis mine] And I think that there is. Through an existential encounter with God Himself every generation can be made contemporaneous with the first generation. We are therefore not dependent on historical proofs for knowledge of Christianity’s truth. [Emphasis mine] Rather through the immediate, inner witness of God’s Holy Spirit every person can come to know the truth of the Gospel once he hears it. So that’s how I leap Lessing’s ditch. Christian belief is confirmed by the historical evidence for those of us fortunate enough to be epistemically so situated as to be able to appraise it correctly; but Christian belief is not based on the historical evidence." [Emphasis mine] LINK (July 2007). Podcast: LINK (October 1, 2008)

Let me illustrate the problem of Lessing’s ugly broad ditch with an analogy Bart Ehrman used:

Suppose Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea and then two of Jesus’ followers decided that night to move his body somewhere else. But Roman soldiers kill them and have the three corpses (including that of Jesus) dumped outside of town into Gehenna, which then deteriorated beyond recognition. Jesus’ original tomb is empty, and no one seems to know why.

“Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! From a purely historical point of view, a highly unlikely event is far more probable than a virtually impossible one." [Jesus Interrupted, 171-179]. Prof. James McGrath agrees, by telling us of the historian’s dilemma: “All sorts of fairly improbable scenarios are inevitably going to be more likely than an extremely improbable one.” LINK

When Craig says that the situation believers now find themselves “is unconscionable”, the buck stops with his god. For any claimed miracle, especially those in ancient pre-scientific superstitious history, no matter how much testimony can attest to it that testimony will always be of lesser weight than seeing and observing a miracle personally. So almost any natural explanation of these ancient miracle tales will be of much more weight than a miraculous explanation, especially second- third- fourth- handed testimony in the gospels as edited and filtered down to us through 2000 years of varying interpretations. This is the problem Craig says is “unconscionable.” And he needs to solve it because his god didn’t.

Craig’s god could have solved this problem objectively, as so many reasonable people have proposed, LINK. These varying suggestions of ours would have been preferred by Craig if his god had done them as a reasonable person would do, who expected to reach reasonable people. But since Craig's god doesn’t exist he couldn’t do these reasonable deeds that any reasonable person would expect from a reasonable god. Since Craig’s expertise is in defending the indefensible with special pleading, he's forced against all reason to defend a subjective quicksand foundation for his faith that all ancient religions and all modern religions share with each other.


John W. Loftus is a philosopher and counter-apologist credited with 12 critically acclaimed books, including The Case against Miracles, God and Horrendous Suffering, and Varieties of Jesus Mythicism. Please support DC by sharing our posts, or by subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon. Thank you so much!