By Winfried Corduan –
Let me begin by asking naively: Where is the problem with miracles?1 A miracle seems to be a fairly straightforward event, the occurrence of something so unusual that the most likely explanation is that God intervened directly. The event could be considered unusual because it seems to go contrary to nature or because it resulted from a highly improbable combination of other events. Together with a setting that makes it plausible that God himself has acted, it seems to make sense to say that there was a miracle. Specifically, Christians believe that there are miraculous events recorded in the Bible, and they fit nicely into this pattern.2
Obviously, there are questions left. We might want to clarify more of what makes an event sufficiently unusual, and when it makes sense to invoke God as agent. People who believe in miracles still may disagree concerning the interpretation of specific events.
Nevertheless, critics3 are raising far more fundamental issues. They are denying that:
- miracles are possible,
- we can know that miracles have occurred, or
- we would ever be able to recognize a specific event as a miracle.
Maintaining my naive stance a little longer, I could respond by saying that:
- given an omnipotent God, miracles are certainly possible,
- we can know that miracles have occurred if we ourselves have seen them or have been provided plausible testimony to them, and
- we can recognize a miracle if the circumstances are sufficiently unusual and it makes sense to infer that God was the agent.
Please note that I’m not making the mistake of using God to establish the reality of miracles and then using miracles to establish the existence of God. Belief in God is already a part of my worldview, and if challenged on it I would refer to some other grounds, say, the cosmological argument, but not to any miracles.
But enough of the naïveté. If things were that simple, there would not be any critics. They must know something to which simple believers are not privy, so let us try to pinpoint how the critic may have an edge on the believer in miracles. We shall begin with a supposition that seems to be somewhat peculiar.
1. THE CRITIC IS OMNISCIENT, AND HE KNOWS INFALLIBLY THAT MIRACLES ARE IMPOSSIBLE.
If this were a genuine possibility, it would certainly clinch the issue on the side of the critic once and for all. I must confess that sometimes when I read objections to miracles, I get the feeling that this mindset is really behind what a critic is writing. Even though he may engage in apparent argumentation, the arguments are so unrealistic that it seems as though the critic is only attempting to illustrate the absurdity of something that he already knows apart from any evidence. And in order for him to know this fact a priori, he must be omniscient.
I’m thinking here, for example, of Evan Fales4, who has stated that he would be willing to accept the reality of a miracle if all of the stars in the sky arranged themselves into the apparent writing “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin,” or if some other, equally stupendous, event would occur. (Apparently the resurrection of Christ is not sufficient.) Such a requirement is surely quite unreasonable, and he is apparently picking an absurd example because he already knows that neither this, nor any other event sufficiently acceptable to him, will ever happen.
Still, I’m quite sure that, if pressed on the matter, Fales would vehemently deny any claims to omniscience, and I suspect the same thing is true for other critics. So, how else can the critic know that miracles are impossible?
2. A CRITIC KNOWS FROM SCIENCE THAT MIRACLES ARE IMPOSSIBLE.
A number of people believe that somehow science has established the impossibility of miracles. As an example, the 20th-century New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann declared that in the age of electric light bulbs, the radio, and modern medical knowledge, it is no longer possible to accept a supernatural worldview. 5 He must be referring to a scientific discovery that makes it possible to determine retroactively that historical miracles either did not happen or that provides an alternative, non supernatural explanation of the events.
But what could that scientific discovery be? For example, assuming the truth of the biblical accounts, there is no scientific way of explaining how Jesus turned water into wine. If there are medical explanations for how Jesus restored a blind man’s sight or how he resurrected Lazarus, we do not have such information now any more than people did in the first century A. D. Of course, writers who take this line would not accept these stories as true, precisely because they include miracles. But what does that have to do with science? The notion of our being able to listen to the radio today somehow invalidating the possibility of miracles is as big a mystery to me as the supernatural may be to others.
Perhaps I am missing the point by looking at specific examples rather than the possibility of miracles in general. Have there been decisive experiments to prove that miracles are impossible? There have not been any, nor is it conceivable that there could be any. Ironically, there is an asymmetry here by which a scientist could very well conclude that a given event was a miracle. As we defined a miracle above, it is a free act by a personal being, namely God, and there is no formula to predict that, if we bring certain circumstances together, we can expect to see a miracle. The miracles that concern us the most, the biblical miracles, are ones that no human being could coerce or predict. Thus, the critic who takes this line already knows scientific conclusions apart from sciencetifi evidence. This is quite a feat – unless he is omniscient. But since that is not an option, we must look further.
3. THE CRITIC KNOWS THAT IT IS CONTRARY TO GOD’S NATURE FOR HIM TO PERFORM MIRACLES.
This line of argumentation was particularly popular among the deists of a few centuries ago.6 They reason that God is a rational being, who created a rational universe, which includes rational law; therefore, if God were to override any of the laws that he had created, he would be contradicting himself.
There are two problems with this particular supposition. First, it ignores that fact that by stipulating God as Creator of the universe, the critic is already acknowledgeing a very profound miracle. Few laws of nature are as foundational as the notion; therefore, when God created the world ex nihilo, he was already superseding one of the most basic laws of all of reality. Of course, the deistic critic may claim that God did this one and only miracle, but that it would be contradictory for him to perform any further miracles.7 However, how did the critic come by that insight? It certainly cannot be derived from revealed Scriptures, because revelation would be considered supernatural, and furthermore, the Scriptures portray a miracle-working God. Thus, the critic who follows this deistic line against miracles must have direct insight into the mind of God apart from revelation. But in order for the critic for the critic to have that kind of a mind meld with the omniscient God, he would again need to be omniscient himself, and, once more, this is not an option.
4. THE CRITIC KNOWS THAT ONE CANNOT KNOW THAT A MIRACLE HAS OCCURRED.
This objection does not completely deny the possibility of miracles, but it claims that, even if by a remote chance a mircale had happened, we should never be able to know that it did happen.
This line of thought was advocated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume who argued that no rational person could ever give credence to accounts of miracles becuase of their low probability of being true.8 Hume claimed that the highest probability of truth goes to statements affirming the laws of nature. We have never observed the laws of nature to fail, and, since miracles would be violations of these laws, the truth probability of a statement narrating a miracle would be at the lowest level.
Being low on probability is not devastating until Hume has us establish a contrast: Which is more likely-that a law of nature has been violated or that a human being made an error in judgment? Any rational person, hearing the account of a miracle, will have to choose between these two alternatives. We know that human beings often make mistakes, even people of high character and great virtue. But we ourselves have never experienced an exception to the laws of nature. Consequently, a rational person, choosing between whether a miracle really has happened or whether the alleged witness may be mistakes, will have to go with the second option. No matter how trustworthy the testimony of a witness may be per se, rationality still demands that we assume human error rather than forfeit our confidence in the uniformity of the laws of nature. Therefore, even if a miracle had occurred, a rational person should never be able to believe an alleged witness to a miracle.
But how rational is Hume’s supposedly rational person who cannot bring himself to believe miracle reports? He has to bring a whole lot more to the table than just incredulity concerning highly improbable events. After all, a believer in miracles does not claim that a miracle just happened; he beleives that God, the infinite Creator and Sustainer of the universe, has intervened directly in the course of events. Thus, for the believer, the probability of events occurring on an everyday basis has nothing to do with the probability of a miracle occurring when God decides to bring one about. Miracles are done by God, and they supposed to be highly unusual events that defy our common experiences in the world. When Hume adds up his probabilities, he has to leave God out of the equation, and in doing so, he has to redefine what a believer means by a miracle.
The critic who wants to pursue this line of argumentation has to be certain that there is no God, and, more specifically, that there is no deity of any description who performs miracles. Furthermore, this critic must be absolutely certain that no evidence can ever be so strong as to override the probability of a person having made a mistake. He has to be totally confident that he himself will never be a witness to a miracle or, if he did think that he saw one, he must dismiss the trustworthiness of his own observations because he knows a priori that it could not have happened. Once again, we see the critic giving himself privileged knowledge that exceeds the capacity of normal human beings. In other words, to be completely confident of Hume’s argument against the know ability of miracles, one has to be omniscient. But we have already agreed that the critic would not claim omniscience for himself. Therefore, Hume’s argument is not really viable, and once again, we need to consider another option.
5. THE CRITIC KNOWS THAT UNUSUAL EVENTS CAN NEVER BE EXPLAINED SCIENTIFICALLY As MIRACLES.
This supposition is different from the earlier one because it does not deny that events happen which untutored folks could label as miraculous, but claims that science, the objective method of attaining knowledge, would never allow such labeling. Let us proceed even more carefully, then, and stipulate that highly unusual events can occur, that these events may even be inexplicable on scientific grounds, but that such occurrences still do not legitimize our thinking of them as miracles. This is the approach taken by Antony Flew, who argued that it is simply contrary to the nature of science to allow for the intrusion of the super natural into the natural world. 9 Science is by its very nature committed to confining itself to natural explanations. If scientists could bring in supernatural explanations whenever they were stumped, scientific research would not likely make much progress. To invoke the “god of-the-gaps” is all-too-easy. Consequently, if we do run across unusual events, even ones that other people may label as miracles, and even if we have no scientific explanation for them right now, science forces us to stipulate that there must be a natural explanation, and that we simply have not found it yet.
It is certainly the case that science would be utterly trivialized if, whenever things got too difficult, we immediately invoked the super natural. However, the ultimate purpose of science is to describe reality, not just reality as presupposed by the scientist. If reality includes God and his actions in the universe, then science needs to be prepared to take that factor into account. Of course, a scientist should never stray from relying on evidence, and if he concludes that an event is a miracle, he must have firm grounds on which to base this judgment. But to say that all events in the universe must be natural and to exclude miracles from scientific conclusions a priori is an arbitrary pre-judgment of the data. Sometimes the most reasonable explanation is that a miracle has occurred.
Please note that in saying this, I am not relegating miracles to the category of the last option when all other explanations have failed. There may be events that are so obviously the result of God’s action that calling them miracles would be among the most likely explanations. Take for example Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth!” and Lazarus came out of his tomb, the most reasonable explanation was that Christ had just performed a miracle. Everything in this scenario points us to the idea that Jesus performed a stupendous miracle here, and the onus of contriving a naturalistic explanation would be on the critic. Rather than a “God- in-the- gaps” theory, the critic would be holding to a “nature in the gaps” theory.
Thus, this entire position is based, not on a given reality, but on a choice made by its advocate. You can decide that by its very nature science cannot accommodate miracles, but you cannot learn that by scientific means. And why would anyone decide to hold this position other than as an arbitrary assertion? The only possible grounds would be that the critic of this stripe already knows that there cannot be events that are most amenable to scientific explanation as miracles. In shor t, if it is not an arbitrary presupposition, then this supposition, too, must, once again, be based on the critic’s omniscience.
6. THE CRITIC KNOWS THAT CALLING AN EVENT A MIRACLE IS NOT TO PROVIDE AN EXPLANATION OF THE EVENT.
Our last example seeks to empty the concept of “miracle” of any meaning. Patrick Nowell-Smith 10 claims that, given the nature of what it means to explain an event, calling an event a miracle can never be considered as a meaningful explanation. The whole point of giving an explanation for anything is that we take an unfamiliar phenomenon and align it with a rule for similar, familiar phenomena. For example, we can explain why steam is coming out of a kettle right now by clarifying that this is just one instance of water being brought to a boil, and whenever water is brought to a boil, and then it releases steam. But if we try to explain an event as a miracle, we find ourselves caught in a dilemma. Either there is a general rule, in which case the miracle is actually just an ordinary event, or there is no general rule, in which case calling the event a “miracle” provides no explanation. To explain an event as “miracle,” we must be able to show a uniform pattern according to which, whenever certain events come together, a miracle occurs. Consequently, explaining an event as a miracle would require a certain amount of predict ability, just as creating steam with boiling water is a predictable process. However, Nowell-Smith contends that it is not possible to predict the occurrence of miracles since by their very nature miracles are unique events that defy the regularity of the natural world and cannot be predicted to happen. Even if someone were to pray right now, and God would send a miracle, there is no guarantee that the same prayer under similar circum stances would yield the identical miracle. Thus, still following Nowell-Smith’s line of argument, miracles are cognitively meaningless. To say of any event that it constitutes a miracle, may look grammatically as though we are providing an explanation for the event, but, given the nature of explanation, we are really not explaining anything.
This supposition demonstrates that Nowell·Smith has not grasped how believers understand miracles. We have here a confusion between miracles and magic. In the language of comparative religion, magic consists of manipulating spiritual forces in order to bring about a certain result. If one follows the correct technique, magical results will follow. However, there certainly is no overlap between miracles and magic when it comes to the historical miracles that are the object of our discussion. It is neither nature, nor the human person, nor a specific technique used by the person that causes a miracle to happen. In the believer’s view of miracles, a miracle i s always a free act of God to supersede the laws of nature or the expectations of probability in his good time for his own reasons. How predictable can free acts on the part of a free being be? Even for human beings, determinism regarding their actions is more likely ex postfacto than predictive. Perhaps for a human agent it is possible to say that, if we knew everything relevant about that person, and all of the circumstances of a particular action, then we could have predicted what the person was going to do. For example, a person who knows me well enough would probably be right in predicting that on Wednesdays during the fall semester I’m going to teach my logic class. However, it’s going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get more specific, and we’re still only talking about the ordinary actions of an ordinary human being.
However, if miracles are the actions of a free God, then there is no predictability. God has given certain promises (John 1: 13) and even certain prophecies (2 Timothy 1:14), which we can trust. However, in order to be able to predict when and how God is going to do a miracle, we would need to be thoroughly acquainted with God’s mind. The whole point of a miracle is that God has broken with the uniformity of nature and that his actions supersede the so-called laws of nature. Thus, a miracle is always a singularity, and there are no grounds for prediction or for providing an explanation by means of a general rule. But this doesn’t mean that they are not explanatory.
Just as we may meaningfully appeal to the action of a finite human agent in explaining some event, it i s meaningful to appeal to the actions of an infinite agent.
Nowell-Smith’s target is not a believer’s understanding of miracles, but a straw man, which believers in miracles should reject out of hand. Given his definition of miracles, Nowell Smith must be able to do what no person has done before, namely, to predict in precise detail all of the actions of a free agent, and to do this not just for a finite human being, but for the infinite, omniscient, and omnipotent creator of the universe. Once more, we find a critic seeking to understand an omniscient being’s mind, which is only possible if the critic himself is omniscient.
As should be apparent now, the critic of miracles finds himself in a quandary. He cannot just claim that miracles are i impossible because to do so would require him to be omniscient. So, he must find some specific reason why miracles, even if they were possible, could not be known to have happened or recognized as such by rational persons. Unfortunately, any of the options proposed ultimately still come down to the assumption that the critic must know more than a human being is actually able to know.
To conclude, a believer in miracles makes a very simple claim, namely, that an omnipotent God has acted directly inside of the world that he created. Whether there actually are instances of such divine actions depends on the evidence and on what God has revealed to us. However, the critic who denies the possibility of miracles needs to go beyond the evidence and make claims to which he would be entitled only if he actually were omniscient. It seems more reasonable to say that, since we’re not omniscient, we should retain an open mind to what God may have done in the world he created.
Winfried Corduan, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana.
1 For some solid defenses of miracles see: Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984); Norman L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1992); R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas,eds., In Defense of Miracles (Downers Grove, Ill.: lnterVarsity Press, 1997); C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Collier, 1947).
2 I have previously addressed the issue of miracles in several places. Reasonable Faith (recently retitled: No Doubt About It; Nashville: Broadman-Holman, 1993), 146-164; “Recognizing a Miracle” in Geivett and Habermas, In Defense of Miracles, 99-111; “Miracles” in Beckwith, Craig and Moreland, To Everyone an Answer (Downers Grove, Ill: intervVarsity, 2004),160-179.
3 By “critic” I mean someone who takes a negative stance towards the reality of miracles. As we shall see, there are a variety of different ways in which this can occur. What it comes down to is that a critic is someone who denies the reality of the historical miracles as recorded in the Bible on philosophical grounds.
4 Evan Fales, “Successful Defense? A Review of In Defense of Miracles.” Philosophia Christi Series 2, 3: 1(2001):13.
5 Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper& Row, 1961; orig. 1953), 5.
6 £.g. Peter Annet, who wrote: “God has settled the laws of nature by His wisdom and power, and therefore cannot alter them consistently with His Perfections.” Supernatural Examined, 1747, 44, cited in Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 54.
7 Please note that this is a very different position from saying that God has simply chosen not to perform any further miracles. That idea would not be contradictory, but it is also not what deistic critics are claiming.
8 David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human
Understanding (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955, orig. 1748), 117-41.
9 Antony Flew, God and Philosophy (New York: Delta, 1966), pp. 140-58, and Flew, “Miracles” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967):346-53.
10 Patrick Nowell-Smith, “Miracles” in Antony Flew and Alasdair Macintyre, New Essays in Philosophical Theology (London: SCM, 1955), 243-53.