Did Apostle Paul Just See a Meteor?
An astronomer explains away Paul’s Damascus vision as a meteor that “changed the course of Christianity.” But does this explain a miracle or insert several more?
There has been a long tradition by scientific materialists to explain away Biblical miracles as natural phenomena that simple people in ancient times did not understand. The Flood, for instance, was just a local inundation from the Black Sea. The plagues on Egypt were natural cycles of normal events. The resurrection was a case of the disciples going to the wrong tomb. Here’s a new one: Saul of Tarsus saw a meteor over Damascus. It changed the course of western civilization.
According to New Scientist:
William Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, has a different explanation for what happened to Paul. He says the biblical descriptions of Paul’s experience closely match accounts of the fireball meteor seen above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013.
Hartmann has detailed his argument in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science (doi.org/3vn). He analyses three accounts of Paul’s journey, thought to have taken place around AD 35. The first is a third-person description of the event, thought to be the work of one of Jesus’s disciples, Luke. The other two quote what Paul is said to have subsequently told others.
“Everything they are describing in those three accounts in the book of Acts are exactly the sequence you see with a fireball,” Hartmann says. “If that first-century document had been anything other than part of the Bible, that would have been a straightforward story.“
Explanations of this kind usually require auxiliary hypotheses. The voice was meaningless noise that got misinterpreted. The scales that fell off Paul’s eyes were flakes of sunburn from the bright fireball.
Writer Jacob Aron finds some plausibility in this account of a natural incident changing the course of history. Didn’t the dinosaurs go extinct from a meteor, changing the course of evolution? Didn’t the Tunguska meteor flatten forests for miles around? Meteors can be world-changing things!
Hartmann believes we need to think seriously about the implications of his idea. “My goal is not to discredit anything that anybody wants to believe in,” he says. “But if the spread of a major religion was motivated by misunderstanding a fireball, that’s something we human beings ought to understand about ourselves.”
Hartmann might test his hypothesis scientifically, even though he thinks it would be highly unlikely to find pieces of the meteor still lying around in Syria. He could examine how many times meteors created new religions. He could find meteors that speak the words of Jesus. Or, he could point to great philosophers, theologians, and authors of sublime books who were inspired by meteors.
The problem with naturalizing miracles in the Bible is that the proferred explanations become more unlikely than the miracle itself. Are we to believe that Paul had never seen a meteor before? Meteors are visible every dark night, and meteor showers several times a year. Almost everyone has seen several bright fireballs by the time they are in their twenties or thirties. Meteors may not have been understood in the way we know them today, but any commonplace natural phenomenon will be understood on its own terms. Paul spent many nights outdoors on his travels. Never did he relate any other case of a “talking meteor” speaking for Jesus. Wouldn’t you think that this intellectual, camping out somewhere in Asia Minor, would see a bright meteor and realize he had been mistaken at Damascus years before? This was no meteor! Fireballs come in with a bang and vanish in seconds. The risen Christ spoke with Paul for a minute or longer, relaying specific words and sentences to him that he remembered the rest of his life.
Paul was no fool. He was well educated, an intellectual of his day. His writings are of a high intellectual and moral caliber, showing acquaintance with logic, reason, and philosophy. He is not the sort of person to be deceived by his senses, hearing voices and seeing apparitions that did not occur. He repeated his testimony about that Damascus event many years later to Herod Agrippa II without modification, stating additional things the Lord told him.
More importantly, Paul’s message came from other personal appearances of the risen Christ and his own knowledge of Scripture. His own study of the Old Testament—not a meteor—was the foundation for his theology. He did not preach to the people on his travels about the Damascus event, but about Old Testament prophecies to the Jews, and the evidence of creation to the Greeks. If Hartmann’s weird hypothesis were to be followed, we would have to think that meteors generate sublime writings like I Corinthians 13 about love, or the great moral teachings about humility and Christlikeness in his epistle to the Philippians.
And, we might ask, what meteors inspired Peter, John, Luke, Matthew, and the other disciples, Barnabas, Philip, and the author of the epistle to the Hebrews? Paul did not change western civilization in a vacuum. He was welcomed by all the other apostles as God’s chosen messenger to the Gentiles. They gave him the right hand of fellowship. When Paul proclaimed the resurrection of Christ in I Corinthians 15, he did not point to a meteor, but to 500 eyewitnesses—many of them still alive—who could corroborate the certainty of the event. Together, not alone, they changed the world, because they were all eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. (Would that today’s Syrians would open Paul’s letters and read them. They still have the power to change the world.)
One could ask who is really starstruck here. Hartmann has already undermined his credibility, because his evident naturalism is self-refuting: i.e., to trust his own senses, his own reasoning, or his own credibility, he must presuppose objective truth and morality. So he is a supernaturalist already. And if he thinks his brain is the product of blind, chance forces, he believes in miracles, too: miracles of chance so implausible as to question the sobriety of those who lean on them.
Eyewitness testimony is a form of evidence. Most of what we believe about history is based on eyewitness testimony. You can’t put Paul in a test tube, or repeat an alleged meteor. One has to weigh all the evidence for something as unlikely as the conquest of the Roman empire by a group of persecuted fishermen and commoners. It makes good sense to trust the eyewitness account of a faithful and wise man like Paul, whose credibility was undergirded by a lifetime of self-sacrifice, compassion, humility, love and reason—a man willing to suffer a martyr’s death for his account of how the Lord changed him from the “chief of sinners” who persecuted the early church to an obedient servant of the Christ He met, and came to know, and loved. Discounting Paul’s testimony because one’s philosophy cannot accept it is what’s unnatural.
12 “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language,[a] ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
24 And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” 25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. 26 For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” 28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”[b] 29 And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (Acts 26:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9).