May 18, 2010

Skepticism and the Holy Light of Jerusalem

By John Sanidopoulos

“As someone withdrawing from the light does not in the least do harm to the light, but does very great harm to himself, becoming immersed in darkness, so also one accustomed to scorning the power of the Almighty does not in the least do harm to [His power], but upon himself brings extreme harm.” - St. John Chrysostom


For nearly seventeen centuries an annual event has taken place at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday (according to Orthodox Christian reckoning) that is today reported by media outlets around the world and hailed by tens of millions as one of Christianity's greatest miracles. The event is known to non-Orthodox as the ceremony of the "Holy Fire", while Orthodox prefer to call it "Holy Light" because they claim without hesitation it has a divine origin and supernatural qualities.

Orthodox consider the ceremony of the Holy Light to be so sacred that for centuries it has been imitated in every Orthodox church throughout the world to usher in the celebration of Christ's victory over death through His Resurrection. They do this by extinguishing every light in their local church prior to midnight on Holy Saturday, and when midnight strikes and a new day dawns, the clergyman emerges from the darkened sanctuary (representing Christ emerging from His tomb) holding a single flame which he distributes to all the faithful assembled as they sing the joyous festal hymn "Christ is Risen!" This same ceremony is celebrated and has its origins in the Holy Light ceremony that takes place at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem amidst great enthusiasm and much reverence not only in the crowded church, but throughout the world as the faithful await news of the manifestation.

Of course, every miracle claim naturally has its skeptics and critics. Though most people would at least admit this event to be an unexplainable and extraordinary phenomenon, others who are strictly bound to their naturalistic biases simply dismiss this empirical manifestation as not sitting comfortable within their "enlightened" and "scientific" minds. Their agenda is to give a naturalistic explanation based on their naturalistic presuppositions, which often just end up being an elaborate conspiracy theory which requires more faith to believe in than the much simpler and coherent supernatural explanation.

The witness and testimony of the Holy Light miracle lacks clarity and is compromised by witnesses polarized at the extreme ends of a spectrum from belief to disbelief. While there is a remarkable similarity in reports with regard to the miraculous properties of the Holy Light, the vast majority of sources attribute the phenomenon to deceit and trickery. It is these latter accounts that I will analyze here to determine their reliability and validity in the discussion about the facts of the Holy Light.

An Evaluation of Skepticism and Human Knowledge

A skeptic is one who doubts. The standard dictionary definition of a skeptic is quite revealing when it describes them as those who hold to “the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain and who have doubts concerning basic religious principles.” In fact, skepticism “...confidently challenges not merely religious or metaphysical knowledge but all knowledge claims that venture beyond immediate experience” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1997, 26:569). The key words here are “immediate experience.”

Chet Raymo, in his book, Skeptics and True Believers, is forced to admit the following: "Skepticism offers only uncertainty and doubt.... Science cannot rule out heaven and hell because they are beyond the reach of empirical investigation" (1998, p. 5, 77). Thus, in the end the skeptic does not say he cannot know that God exists. Rather, he says he doubts that God exists because He cannot be seen, felt, measured, weighed, or probed by the scientific method.

Thirty-four years before Chet Raymo wrote Skeptics and True Believers, Harvard professor George G. Simpson wrote: “It is inherent in any definition of science that statements that cannot be checked by observation are not really saying anything....” (This View of Life, 1964, p. 769). Simply put, the point is this: If science cannot deal with something, that “something” either does not exist (worst-case scenario) or is completely unimportant (best-case scenario).

Welcome to the make-believe world of the skeptic in which science reigns supreme, and a cavalier attitude toward all things non-empirical rules the day.

But what about those concepts that, although non-empirical and therefore unobservable via the scientific method, nevertheless are recognized to exist, and are admitted to be of critical importance to the entire human race—concepts like love, sorrow, joy, altruism, etc.? Arlie Hoover accurately assessed the situation in which the skeptic finds himself in regard to the existence of such items when he wrote:

"Why does the scientific method reject subjective factors, emotions, feelings? Simply because it is not convenient! Because the method will not allow you to deal with the immense complexity of reality. The scientist, therefore, selects from the whole of experience only those elements that can be weighed, measured, numbered, or which lend themselves to mathematical treatment."

Skepticism Based on a Worldview

A worldview refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual interprets the world and interacts with it. For example, a skeptic determines knowledge through empirical proof and thus has a Naturalist worldview that does not allow for explanations beyond the natural world. A Christian, a Muslim and a Jew have Theistic worldviews, allowing for an explanation of things beyond empirical and reasonable proof that is supernatural, but they interpret their theism and supernatural beliefs in different ways. There are even differences within particular beliefs that help determine how they view the world, as for instance in Christianity which is broken up into its various bodies and denominations, so that, for example, an Orthodox Christian may have a different worldview from a Catholic or Protestant Christian.

What we find with the skeptical claims throughout history trying to disprove the Holy Light is that the skeptics making their arguments always do so in light of their worldview. Even theistic skeptics have put aside the supernatural claims of Orthodox Christians mainly because it contradicted the worldview which defines them. Such an interpretation of evidence is not only biased but it commits the logical fallacy of circular reasoning, which is committed when a proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof. In this type of argument, a conclusion masquerades as a premise. An example of circular reasoning is: "The Holy Light is not a miracle because there are no such things as miracles", or "The Holy Light is a false miracle because only Islam has true miracles", etc. To put it simply, a circular argument is used as a mechanism to prevent an assertion from being challenged or questioned, or to "win" a debate by sending it round and round in circles.

A History of Skepticism and the Holy Light

When we trace the history of skepticism towards the Holy Light, we see exactly how the reality of such skepticism is in fact based on the clash of worldviews.

In April 637, the Arabs, after a long siege captured Jerusalem, which was surrendered by Patriarch Sophronius. Early sources after the ninth century indicate that Muslims generally believed in the miraculous nature of the Holy Light, being eye-witnesses of the event. If anything, at certain times they tried to prevent the ceremony of the Holy Light from taking place because it was converting so many Muslims to Christianity, though this was in vain. In the eleventh century we start to see reports of Muslims trying to undermine the miracle, but this was done to justify persecution of Christians. For the most part, for Muslims the miracle was undeniable and they gave many stories to give alternate explanations, but all without any substantial proof. And this was done because it contradicted their worldview.

During the Latin occupation of the twelfth century, we begin to receive accounts of the miracle of the Holy Light given from Western perspectives. As eye-witnesses of the event, again they could not deny what they observed. However on March 9, 1238 Pope Gregory the IX issued a Bull forbidding participation in the ceremony of the Holy Light with the Greeks on grounds that it was a fraud. It should be noted that this Bull was issued after never having observed the ceremony nor explaining what deceitful means were employed in obtaining the Holy Light. This condemnation in general ended any sympathetic Western reactions to the Holy Light. In 1524 Fra Francesco Suriano wrote a treatise on the Holy Land and in describing the Holy Light indicates why he refused to believe it: "The said fire, however, does not descend in truth...I think that the privation of such a grace is due to the sins and heresy of these nations." In other words, because the miraculous properties of the Holy Light didn't fit in their worldview (and political motivations), the miracle must not be true.

It wasn't until 1696 when the English chaplain Henry Maundrell approached the ceremony of the Holy Light with a skepticism that became standard during the Renaissance and through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet Maundrell's purpose was to beforehand was to rid the ceremony of its "superstition" by describing it as a ceremony performed with a "pagan frenzy". With the rise of Humanism coupled with the condemnation of the Pope, the ceremony of the Holy Light was viewed with increasingly negative Western assessments not necessarily based on any evidence, but because the phenomenon clashed with their worldviews and tastes. Even Greek thinkers after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and educated in the West slowly began to be skeptical of the supernatural character of the Holy Light, not based on personal experience, but it conformed to the prevailing attitude of the age of scientific realism and skepticism. Even many religious skeptics began to doubt, like Adamantios Koraes, because they believed that religion must be viewed through the "prism" of the scientific discoveries of their age. The miracle of the Holy Light, therefore, was an effrontery to one's systematic approach to religious phenomena.

All of these approaches persist in all the arguments against the miraculous nature of the Holy Light till this day in the twenty-first century and there is nothing new under the sun. All challenges to the authenticity of the miracle are based on nothing more than an opposing worldview. For some it is more of a critique of Orthodoxy than it is a critique of the Holy Light, while for others it is more of a critique of Christianity or God in general, or even such things as the exact location of the Holy Sepulchre (as Protestants later argued). I have yet to read an honest critique of the Holy Light given with an open mind to the possibility of its authenticity.

Contradictions Among Skeptics

When we examine the historical records of Muslims, Heterodox, Skeptics, and Non-Believers, one of the more interesting facts we find is that all of the challenges against the authenticity of the Holy Light contradict each other. In classical logic, a contradiction consists of a logical incompatibility between two or more propositions. In reference to the Holy Light, what we find among the skeptics is the contradictory "observations" which demonstrate how the "fraud" of the Orthodox clergy is pulled off to deceive the people. One finds similar contradictory theories among scholars today who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Because there are so many accounts which try to explain naturalistically how the miracle occurs, and because there are contradictory problems with all of them due to their hearsay origins, I will narrow the critique to four Muslim critics of the Holy Light to give a sample of the contradictions found.

I. Krachkovsky was an Orientalist who wrote a piece in Russian titled "The Holy Fire According to the Story of al-Biruni and Other Muslim writers of the 10th-13th Centuries" (The Christian East, Petrograd, 1915) in which he provides the accounts of these Muslim writers concerning the Holy Light. From him the skeptics have used these sources to show that the Holy Light is a "fraud". What the skeptics fail or ignore to do however is read the commentary of the scholar who compiled them - I. Krachkovsky. He explains the contradictory nature of these accounts when he writes: "The very diversity of these accounts, and the way they contradict each other, indicate that here also it is hardly possible to expect a basis in fact." In other words, since the accounts which explain how the "fraud" takes place are contradictory, then the possibility these accounts are true are pretty much impossible.

Here are some samples of contradictions that I. Krachkovsky points out, which obviously cannot all be true, yet all the authors seem so sure of themselves that they have uncovered the "plot". Ibn al-Qalanisi (d. 1160), Yakut (d. 1229), al-Jawhari (d. 1242), and Mudjir ad-din (d. c. 1496) were four Muslim writers who attempted to explain naturally how the "fraudulent" Holy Light miracle took place. Yet what we find is that their "explanations" in fact contradict each other. Ibn al-Qalanisi and Mudjir ad-din, for example, say that a thin iron thread is attached to all the oil lamp wicks by which the "trickery" is performed, but Yakut and al-Jawhari say it was attached to only one oil lamp wick. Furthermore, according to Yakut, the thread is said to be simply lit by someone, yet according to al-Jawhari the wick bursts into a flame from a complex, hidden apparatus containing sulfur which is calculated to an exact time for it to light. Al-Jawhari even contradicts himself when he writes in the beginning of his account that all the Christians are participants in the conspiracy regarding this "sham" miracle, and yet at the end of the same account he reveals that the secret is only known to one monk who sets up the apparatus. These contradictions are just one of many problems with these accounts that we will further examine later.

It should also be noted that the elaborate and fanciful tales of the Muslims are not held by later critics and non-believers, thus discrediting them. The issue of deception performed by the Orthodox clergy and monks became much more simplistic and conspiratorial especially after the Latins were no longer allowed to participate in the ceremony. And whenever pilgrims from the West would visit the Holy Land having heard about the miracle, the Latins would make it a point to inform them that the miracle was "in fact" deceit on the part of the clergy, and gullibility coupled with superstitious naivete on the part of the believers. In light of this, one wonders where the real conspiracy was to be found, by the Orthodox or by the Latins trying to discredit the whole thing.

Thus are the accounts of Western authors fueled by the Latin's jealousy and intrigues, insisting without proof that the ceremony was a hoax. The contradictions this developed range from J. Doubdan writing in 1651 that the Patriarch uses a "flint" inside the tomb to ignite the flame, to Dr. Johann Nepomuk Sepp explaining in 1863 that the Patriarch "rubbed his hands with some kind of phosphorous-like substance" to ignite it. In the twentieth century the range of explanations go from the simplistic accusation of the Patriarch using "a cigarette lighter" by a pilgrim in 1988, to the more complex and ridiculous theory of Carl-Martin Edsman who wrote in 1955 that a light flashes inside the tomb when it is ignited by "spreading alcoholic spirit about the Tomb" (Bishop Auxentios of Photike, The Paschal Fire In Jerusalem, ch. 1). It seems that with all the contradictions of the critics, the only thing they agree on is that they are very sure of their opinions which are based on pure speculation and grounded in absolutely no facts.

Pseudo-Witnesses and Pseudo-Evidence

The fact that critics of the miraculous properties of the Holy Light base their critique on the presuppositions of their worldview and present contradictory explanations for the phenomenon, it naturally follows that their testimony is based on pseudo-witnesses and their proofs are based on pseudo-evidence. Let us examine how this is so.

In order to have sufficient evidence even to doubt the miraculous properties of the Holy Light, one would need at least one of the following:

A. Someone who has personally witnessed or taken part in the fraudulent act and can sufficiently explain away the entire experience naturalistically.

B. Sufficient evidence that completely undermines the witnesses of this phenomenon who testify to the miraculous properties of the Holy Light.

Based on these criteria, no one since the time this phenomenon began centuries ago has presented a sufficient witness or sufficient evidence even to justify why any doubts exist outside of personal choice. They have certainly tried and have had many reasons to do so, but it has all been unsuccessful. Such reasoning confirms for us that there are other factors at play in the assault against the evidence in favor of the Holy Light being a supernatural phenomenon. To further add to the propaganda to discredit the Holy Light as a miracle, skeptics throughout the centuries until today present pseudo-witnesses and pseudo-evidence in their efforts to undermine the miracle.

Because skeptics often make use of the concepts of "eye-witnesses" and "personal testimony", it is important to turn to the field of Law, or Jurisprudence, as a branch of learning, because centuries-old international legal custom and established legal practices have worked out clear, well-defined criteria which precisely determine who can be admitted as a witness and what evidence can be submitted in a court case. In all systems of law, and even in everyday use of the word "witness", a reliable witness is a person who was personally present at a given event, that is, they saw it with their own eyes, they were eye-witnesses.

Skeptics of the Holy Light use as "witnesses" people who were not participants nor present in any way at the described event, except maybe at a disassociated distance. We can again bring forward the Muslim writers presented by Iosif Evstafevich Krachkovsky (1854-1914). In his analysis of these accounts, Krachkovsky observes the following:

“In the above-given survey, it is easy to see the main thing distinguishing Muslim stories about the miracle from Christian [reports about it]. The Muslim stories are all understandably brief, sometimes coming down to a simple mentioning (al-Djakhiz, Ali-al-Kherevi); none of them is based on personal observation. The one exception is Ibn-al-Djawzi and its source, al-Biruni, analysis of which we will defer for the time being. The fact that these are transmissions of a third-hand account explains such immediately obvious mistakes, as the date in al-Mac’udi, or Ibn-al-Qalanisi’s report of the belief of Christians about the place of the birth and ascension of Jesus Christ [as supposedly being the same place as His Resurrection]. In these stories, the factual side comes down to very little; from them we can sift out only that, during the whole time relating to the lives of the above-mentioned authors, the miracle took place every year and was a well-known, regularly-occurring event. Description of the miracle itself and of the whole rite is found solely in Ibn-al-Djawsi [this is the eyewitness-account reported by al Biruni which will be analyzed below]. All the remaining elements of the other reports should be regarded not as legitimate, historical accounts but as legendary stories. In one of them, with complete obviousness, are the telling effects of literary editing and reworking of the plot; this is the story [not quoted in this article] about the conversation of the high-ranking person with the monk concerning the 'real' cause of the miracle. This story may have arisen as an attempt to give meaning to the destruction by al-Hakim [the mad caliph] of the Jerusalem church through [the literary technique of] his possible conversation with someone in his retinue, as presented originally by Ibn-al-Qalanisi and al-Hariri [spelling?]. All the subsequent versions clearly represent reworkings of the storyline and details, where instead of al-Hakim is a ruler (in Yakut = Al-Kasvini) or al-Melik al-Mu’assam (in al-Jawharī’s story) or, finally, Saladdin himself (in Ibn-al_Djawzi; and instead of someone in his retinue — a monk (in-al-Jawharī), a priest (in Yakut = al-Kasvini) or [even] the patriarch (in Ibn-al-Djawzi)."

The trend by the Muslim writers highlighted above by Krachkovsky is the same exact trend which has continued among non-believers over the centuries until our times, with the only difference that they are done by people with different backgrounds that fit their biases and presuppositions. Because of this, the simple facts are discarded and the most absurd stories are spun to discredit the miracle.

Skepticism Based on Speculation Rather Than Empirical Evidence

In recent decades skeptics have arisen who are trying to bring to public awareness that the Holy Light is a natural phenomenon which can be scientifically explained and recreated. What do we mean by science and what do we mean by speculation? Solid science deals with areas where we have definite knowledge, good evidence. Speculation deals with areas where we have too little knowledge and information to make definite statements which are confirmable. So is the scientific evidence of the skeptics solid science or speculation?

It is true that the skeptics present a certain level of evidence for recreating certain aspects of the Holy Light, but the facts are that a great deal of speculation is required to piece the theory together as a valid explanation for the Holy Light miracle which occurs. For example, there is the case of the well-known skeptic in Greece Mr. Michael Kalopoulos, who enjoys being condescending to believers in the Holy Light on Greek TV. His whole argument rests on a dazzling spectacle in which he dips the wick of a candle in liquid phosphorus, and within minutes ignites on its own. Those who are naive of basic chemistry are indeed dazzled, not knowing what to think, some even dismissing the miraculous properties of the Holy Light immediately, as if the Patriarch uses such a concoction to simulate a miracle. Though the science he presents is correct in itself, it presents such an unsatisfactory answer to account for the miracle that any reasonable person must immediately dismiss it as a non-explanation. If the miracle occurred in a strictly scientifically controlled environment, then maybe it may have some value, but the fact is that his brief experiment explains nothing and recreates little when compared to the evidence: flashes of lightning, the self-ignition of individual candles among the crowd, the non-burning properties of the fire. It also presents certain problems, such as the fact that burning phosphorous is poisonous, yet there are no health problems in the crowded church of people holding these candles, and the fact that the phosphorous takes a matter of minutes to ignite when the wicks are drenched, but people purchase their candles well in advance of the ceremony. Let alone the fact that he would have to account for a wild conspiracy theory for the Patriarchs of Jerusalem using such tactics to deceive the faithful over the centuries. We will examine all this "evidence" presented by Kalopoulos in much more detail later.

This is pretty much the extent of the scientific evidence presented by skeptics, which is quite pathetic considering the extent they go to to dismiss the miracle. Presuppositions play a much greater role, as we examined earlier. As far as Kalopoulos is concerned, his agenda presented in his publications is to restore the ancient Greek religion among the Greek people and expose Christianity as false. He therefore uses a dazzling spectacle to shock the sensibilities of the audience, then offers a bunch of speculation to explain away the entire phenomenon of the Holy Light, and this comes from a man who has never witnessed the miracle in person nor accounts for all the evidence that supports the miracle.


Based on the above information, we have reason to be skeptical of the skeptics of the Holy Light of Jerusalem. Skepticism has always been associated with the Holy Light, however, and almost every year new claims are made through articles and books that try to prove that the Holy Light is a hoax. So far, all these claims have not proven the Holy Light to be a hoax. Instead, hoax claims seem to favor the authenticity of the miracle.