Miracles

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G.K. Chesterton once famously quipped, “The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.” A miracle can be defined simply as, ‘God intervening in the world in such a way that the normal course of nature is disrupted.’ Though Christians believe that God is always present, sustaining and upholding the cosmos, miracles would be God’s unusual activity in creation that tend to cluster around key moments in redemptive history, normally acting as signs authenticating His message and revealing His character and the nature of His Kingdom (The Exodus, ministry of the Prophets, Jesus, the first disciples, missionaries amongst people groups with no Gospel witness, revivals etc).

The Problem of Miracles

David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume (1711-1776) [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The brilliant skeptic, David Hume, penned an argument against miracles that has been persuasive for many. He wrote, “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

As mentioned briefly below, Hume has conveniently stacked the deck in his favor by making it impossible to believe in a miracle even if one occurs which should strike the reader as odd. But, regardless, there are several prongs to Hume’s argument that must be taken seriously and explored.

Before doing so, for the sake of clarity, we must understand that Hume’s argument is not against the theoretical possibility of miracles, but rather against the possibility of a rational (‘wise’) person believing in their occurrence (as evidenced in the above quote).

Hume’s Four Contentions

In this ‘brief’ article we examine some of Hume’s reasoning and provide a short refutation. Hume makes four claims against miracles that I have summarized:

(1) No alleged miracle has ever been supported with the testimony of a sufficiently large number of reliable witnesses who could not have been either deceived or deceivers.

(2) People in general crave the miraculous and believe fables more readily than they ought.

(3) Miracles only occur amongst barbarous peoples.

(4) Miracle stories occur in all religions and thereby cancel each other out since they support irreconcilable doctrines.

Hume then goes on to add that even if these four objections fail there is the uniform testimony observed in nature against the miraculous. As a result, the weight of evidence is always against the miraculous and since a wise person forms their beliefs in light of the empirical evidence, the wise person should never believe in miracles. Any natural explanation is always more likely, or probable, than a supernatural explanation. This segment of Hume’s argument, though touched on in this article, will be addressed more fully in a follow up post. For now we will content ourselves in responding to Hume’s four objections.

1. Hume claims that no alleged miracle is supported by testimony good enough to overturn the uniformity of natural laws.

In responding to this objection we must first establish if we have reliable eyewitness testimony surrounding a miraculous occurrence. Many scholars would point to 1st Corinthians 15:3-9, a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. In appealing to scripture we are not here assuming that it is the word of God and, therefore, infallible. Rather, we are noting that in this passage we have extremely early, eyewitness testimony regarding the resurrection of Jesus preserved in an early Christian creed that the Apostle Paul picked up from Jesus’ first key disciples, Peter and James, during his first visit to Jerusalem a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion (see. Galatians 1:18,19). The list of eyewitnesses mentioned includes 500 people at one time, a skeptic (James) and an enemy (Paul) who were not predisposed to believe in the resurrection without extremely convincing evidence.

These first followers were not likely to be deceived having every predisposition not to believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. 1My reason for stating this involves 1. The Jewish belief in the resurrection involved a general resurrection at the end of history, not a single, solitary individual rising bodily from the grave in the middle of history. 2. There was no concept of a dying and rising messiah in Judaism. 3. A crucified messiah was, by definition, a failed messiah in 1st century Judaism. Other reasons could be offered as well. But, for the sake of argument, if we grant that the first disciples had been initially duped it is the very nature of their claim that would have eventually robbed them of their deception. Their claim was, ‘Jesus rose bodily from the dead.’ If Jesus’ dead body was still in the tomb, or tossed in a common grave, the disciple’s deception would not have lasted long, nor would they have been able to convince any of the other locals in Jerusalem.

Were the disciple’s deceivers? Not likely. Some of these disciples died for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. People certainly die for things they believe to be true (cult suicides, martyrs etc) but no mentally sane and morally sound group of people die for something they know to be false. The disciples were in the position to know because they were near the scene of the Easter event and they were making empirically verifiable claims involving an empty tomb.

My point here is not to provide an, oft repeated, apologetic for the resurrection 2It should also be noted that the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus should be offered as a refutation of those who mockingly ask, ‘why doesn’t God heal amputees?’ The real gist behind the amputee question is, ‘why doesn’t God do miracles that can’t be explained naturalistically through various psychosomatic explanations, or a doctor’s misdiagnosis?’ Answer: God has done such a miracle; ‘God raised Jesus from the dead.’ I would include other miracles involving shriveled hands being healed, or scars disappearing in lieu of prayer etc. Another purpose of this common objection may be, ‘God could do a miracle that the skeptic couldn’t deny like causing an amputee’s arm to grow back in front of their eyes. Why doesn’t He? This question, however, makes some massive assumptions: it assumes that God is simply interested in us grudgingly admitting His existence. The Christian, of course, denies that this is God’s objective. God desires a loving, trusting relationship with His creatures, which means God can, in light of this overriding purpose, give enough evidence to convince with your consent but not enough to coerce without it. This question also assumes that if we witnessed a miracle we would believe as a result. I find this to be a highly dubious assumption. The Pharisees, for example, witnessed the miracles of Jesus, but offered another explanation. Skeptics still do the same today. of Jesus and many of my comments made in passing would require further argumentation. Rather, I am simply trying to show that in this early creed we have an example of many people claiming to witness a miracle, who were not likely to be deceived or deceivers.

Now, Hume might, at least for the sake of argument, admit the weight of this testimony, but over and opposed to this testimony he would stack up the weightier testimony of nature, which speaks uniformly regarding dead people staying dead – a fact, I might add, that the first disciples were just as aware of as Hume, though it didn’t stop them from claiming, to their own deaths, that Jesus rose from the grave. I guess the first disciples didn’t get Hume’s memo.

Silliness aside, C.S. Lewis responds to Hume’s approach here insightfully in his book Miracles. He writes:

Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle. (Miracles p. 162)

In other words, Hume, in relying on ‘firm an unalterable experience’ against the miraculous smuggles the conclusion of his argument into the premises. An analogy may help: you will never get dealt Aces in a game of cards, nor is it ever rational to believe that you will, if you always take all of the Aces out of the deck before you’ve even started the game; in other words, you’ve determined the result by your starting point. That is similar to what Hume has done with miracles and the result is a question begging, fallacious argument.

Or, on the other hand, if Hume is presupposing a probabilistic understanding of the uniformity of nature (which may be more likely) he is still advocating an epistemological approach to the question of the miraculous that doesn’t allow a rational person to believe in a miracle even if one occurred, which is surely problematic. Either way, his argument doesn’t work.

Lastly, in case one thinks that miracles are a thing of the past, before moving on I should mention that I am in a dialogue with a friend who was at a service where there was prayer for healing and a girl with ugly, purple scars on her arm from cutting was prayed for by a group of people, only to have the scars disappear before all of their eyes.

Debate all you want, it happened and their experience is not at the mercy of Hume’s argument. 3This story also gives the lie to Richard Dawkins suggestion that, “Usually when you hear a miracle story it’s not from an eye-witness, but from somebody who heard about it from somebody else, who heard about it from somebody else, who heard about it from somebody else’s wife’s friend’s cousin…and any story, passed on by enough people gets garbled.” p. 239

2. People Crave the Miraculous.

This is certainly true for some people. However, it should be pointed out that some people don’t crave the miraculous. Either way, what does this tell us other than an interesting fact about human psychology? It certainly doesn’t mean that we should never believe in miracles, but, rather, that we should be careful in concluding whether or not a miracle has occurred.

I think this objection may reveal the need for a Christian to have adequate criteria for assessing whether or not a miracle has taken place. For example, criteria like the following could be helpfully applied: ‘Is the testimony reliable, or does the person claiming a miraculous event give you any reason to distrust them?’ Or, ‘for any alleged miraculous event, do the naturalistic hypotheses fail to fully explain?’ Even the believer, to avoid superstition and appearing foolish, should prefer a natural explanation before concluding that God’s unusual activity is the only, or best, explanation for the remarkable, observed phenomena. This, of course, doesn’t undermine God because He can and does accomplish His sovereign purposes through secondary natural causes as well. This appears, in fact, to be God’s normal way of operating which is why miracles shouldn’t be a bother to scientists in the lab.

Other criteria could be offered: For example, the moral and religious context may also be relevant in assessing the validity of a miracle report. The application of these criteria, when stated more precisely and accompanied by the proper argumentation, would help curb the religious believer’s tendency to be overly zealous in appealing to God’s unusual activity to explain an extraordinary event.

3. Miracles only occur among barbarous people.

A child in Malaysia is covered from head to toe in eczema that is raw and oozing in places and, as a result, the child is in terrible discomfort.

Dr. White and his wife Lorrie lay hands on the child and pray for him. Within twenty minutes the oozing stops and the redness begins to fade. By the next morning, the child’s skin is totally restored. He is healed completely. Dr. White also tells the story of a bone actually changing under his hands while he prayed for someone with a deformity.

And Dr. White is a medical doctor and he has been an associate professor of psychiatry for over thirteen years. He knows the difference between organic illness and psychosomatic illness. He’s also written about hallucinations. He’s an honest, forthright man. Is Dr. White an uneducated, unenlightened, barbarous individual? I doubt it. 4These events are described in the book by Jack Deere, ‘Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit.’ Jack Deere was a Christian believer who did not believe that miracles still happen today. Until, of course, he began to witness miracles.

Hume’s objection is simply false.

4. Miracles occur among all religions that affirm contradictory claims.

This objection appears to be ignorant of the role that miracles play in the founding of the great world religions. Mohamed refused to do a miracle. He claimed that his only miracle was the Koran. Buddha also refused to do miracles because miracles would foster the illusion of the material world. Miracles were attributed to Mohamed and Buddha in much later, unreliable sources whereas Christianity was launched by a miracle recorded in our earliest, most reliable sources. And, unlike Christianity, the credibility of many other faith systems is not tethered that tightly to the miraculous. In Christianity, if Christ didn’t rise from the dead our faith is false and futile (see. 1st Corinthians 15).

Regardless, it appears that Hume’s last objection is not an argument against belief in miracles, it is an argument against claiming one’s religious perspective is true on the basis of miracles; an interesting objection that is easily responded to, but not, unfortunately, in the course of this article. When all is said and done, Hume has not given us any compelling reason to deny the reality of the miraculous.

Conclusion

If God exists, miracles are possible. As C.S. Lewis pointed out years ago, ‘that is the deal.’ We have no safe guard against Him; and He sometimes intrudes at that most surprising of times.

We may, of course, never experience a genuine, correctly defined, miracle in our lives, but the net of our experience is far too small to cast it over the whole of reality by making confident pronouncements about their inability to occur. It has always seemed odd to me that religious believers were labeled as narrow-minded by the skeptic who can’t even open her mind enough to admit the possibility of a ‘tiny’ miracle.

And we might never understand, this side of heaven, why some receive miracles and others don’t. If my memory serves me in Jesus’ ministry, and in the early church, there were people with faith who were healed and people with faith who weren’t; and on the other hand, there were people without faith who were healed and people without faith who weren’t. This is the way it has always been, even when Christ walked the earth. The only problem of miracles the believer faces is not one of occurrence, but one of consistency.

Miracles happen. But not always when we want them to. And this is really the same old problem of evil we have written on elsewhere. 5If one is interested in a more thorough interaction with these types of arguments for and against miracles see. C.S. Lewis, Miracles, David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (my edition has Hume’s essay on miracles at the back of it), Craig L. Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Norman Geisler’s Miracles and the Modern Mind, or In Defense of Miracles edited by Doug Geivett & Gary R. Habermas

Notes   [ + ]

1. My reason for stating this involves 1. The Jewish belief in the resurrection involved a general resurrection at the end of history, not a single, solitary individual rising bodily from the grave in the middle of history. 2. There was no concept of a dying and rising messiah in Judaism. 3. A crucified messiah was, by definition, a failed messiah in 1st century Judaism. Other reasons could be offered as well.
2. It should also be noted that the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus should be offered as a refutation of those who mockingly ask, ‘why doesn’t God heal amputees?’ The real gist behind the amputee question is, ‘why doesn’t God do miracles that can’t be explained naturalistically through various psychosomatic explanations, or a doctor’s misdiagnosis?’ Answer: God has done such a miracle; ‘God raised Jesus from the dead.’ I would include other miracles involving shriveled hands being healed, or scars disappearing in lieu of prayer etc. Another purpose of this common objection may be, ‘God could do a miracle that the skeptic couldn’t deny like causing an amputee’s arm to grow back in front of their eyes. Why doesn’t He? This question, however, makes some massive assumptions: it assumes that God is simply interested in us grudgingly admitting His existence. The Christian, of course, denies that this is God’s objective. God desires a loving, trusting relationship with His creatures, which means God can, in light of this overriding purpose, give enough evidence to convince with your consent but not enough to coerce without it. This question also assumes that if we witnessed a miracle we would believe as a result. I find this to be a highly dubious assumption. The Pharisees, for example, witnessed the miracles of Jesus, but offered another explanation. Skeptics still do the same today.
3. This story also gives the lie to Richard Dawkins suggestion that, “Usually when you hear a miracle story it’s not from an eye-witness, but from somebody who heard about it from somebody else, who heard about it from somebody else, who heard about it from somebody else’s wife’s friend’s cousin…and any story, passed on by enough people gets garbled.” p. 239
4. These events are described in the book by Jack Deere, ‘Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit.’ Jack Deere was a Christian believer who did not believe that miracles still happen today. Until, of course, he began to witness miracles.
5. If one is interested in a more thorough interaction with these types of arguments for and against miracles see. C.S. Lewis, Miracles, David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (my edition has Hume’s essay on miracles at the back of it), Craig L. Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Norman Geisler’s Miracles and the Modern Mind, or In Defense of Miracles edited by Doug Geivett & Gary R. Habermas

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