Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

11/11/2009 (4:39 pm)

I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Are Miracles Possible? Part III

In previous installments I’ve established

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here);
  • that using the Cosmological Argument, the scientific fact that our universe had a beginning establishes that something like a Theistic God must exist (see the post here);
  • that using the Teleological Argument, the anthropic principle establishes that the universe was designed for life, which requires a designer something like a Theistic God (see the post here);
  • that using the Moral Argument, the fact that we all recognize that some things are more morally acceptable than others requires that a universal moral standard exists outside of ourselves, requiring a moral God (see the post here);
  • that the summation of the Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments gives us a composite picture of what the theistic God must be like, and that that composite picture is remarkably similar to the God of the Christian Bible, but not quite similar enough for a positive ID (see the post here);
  • that if God exists, then miracles are neither impossible nor disproved nor violations of nature (see the post here);
  • that Hume’s objection that we can never accept any event as a miracle proves too much, and leaves us questioning every event in history (see the post here.)

This installment will discuss under what conditions we ought to call an event a miracle, and consider why miracles occur.

When Are Miracles Credible?

So, are miracles credible, then? Not so fast.

We cannot dismiss miracles out of hand simply because they are rare. Moreover, there is no particular reason to refrain from calling events “miracles” just because Naturalists, who discount the possibility of miracles a priori, will not accept that label. However, we also cannot accept every miracle claim as equally probable.

We have already met a couple of reasons why a report of a miracle might not be credible: the reporters might be untrustworthy, or the scientific principles surrounding the event might not be understood. We can add to this that some followers of great men seem painfully eager to attribute astounding acts to them in order to justify their devotion, or to draw attention to themselves, or just because they like a good story. So, certain types of claims automatically raise our suspicions. (We should also note, though, that some opponents of great men seem painfully eager to discredit them, a characteristic of modern skeptics to which far too little attention has been paid.)

Examples of these occur among all of the world’s religions, including Christianity. Today, some Buddhists associate miracles with the Buddha’s birth and parts of his life. In one such story, after his own enlightenment, Gautama rose into the air, shooting out flames from the upper part of his body, and streams of water from the lower part his body, and walking in the sky.(1) However, since Gautama’s own teachings argue that craving the power to perform miracles constitutes entrapment in meaningless, temporal matters, it seems unlikely that he would have used such displays of power to impress his followers. Furthermore, since Gautama never claimed either deity or any special connection to deity, it is difficult to understand how “enlightenment” produces power to perform such feats. The most likely explanation for these stories is that later disciples added them to embellish their own devotion, although it is not impossible that something unusual occurred (more about this in a moment).

Some Muslims, likewise, report miracles associated with Mohammed; for instance, some haddith (tradition) suggests that Mohammed split the moon to convince some unbelieving people to believe in him. The problem with a report like this one is that many, many people from Mohammed’s day watched astronomical events, some of them from the same part of the world, and they would have recorded a remarkable event like the moon splitting if it had occurred. Also, the Qur’an reports Mohammed himself claiming to perform no miracles, saying “Signs are with Allah only, and I am only a plain warner.”(2) Consequently, the best explanation for the moon-splitting is that later disciples added the account to enhance Mohammed’s reputation.

And to be fair, there are many, many similar stories within Christianity. One such tale claims that a volcanic eruption ceased miraculously when several pagans ran to the Sepulchre of St. Agatha and held up the burial cloth that covered her tomb.(3) It may be impossible to verify this account, but the best explanation seems to be a combination of superstition and coincidence. The Catholic Church, understanding the eagerness of some to attribute miracles, sets a very high standard of proof before actually calling an event a miracle (however, not as high as Naturalists set it.)

Winfried Corduan, in his article “Recognizing a Miracle,” explains how certain stories have greater explanatory power than others depending on the context.(4) For example, he considers a cup of coffee sitting next to him as he writes. How did the cup get there? He offers several theories:

  1. His wife set it there next to him;
  2. A Boy Scout, doing his good deed for the day, sneaked into the house and placed it there;
  3. A scientist on the other side of town, who is experimenting with teleportation, transferred the cup from his own laboratory;
  4. Aliens placed it there, laced with a drug that will cause him to be transported to their ship;

…and so forth. The first explanation obviously has better standing than the others (Anthony Flew would like this explanation). However, what if Corduan is a bachelor? Suddenly, the “wife” explanation has no better standing than the others. The standing of an explanation varies depending on the context.

When establishing that a miracle has occurred, then, context is everything. For example, if I were to receive an unexpected check in the mail in the amount of $4,395.16 from the estate of a relative I did not know I had, I would be mystified and pleased, but I would not call it a miracle. But what if I were doing volunteer work at an orphanage, and the orphanage had defaulted on several months’ worth of mortgage payments, to the effect that they were facing foreclosure due to arrears of precisely $4,395.16? And what if I had been praying to Jesus, along with the rest of the staff at the orphanage, for that specific amount of money? Suddenly the explanation “Jesus answered our prayers” gains a great deal of credibility. I would not call this proof that a miracle had occurred; however, I would call the “answered prayer” hypothesis the best-fit explanation. In a case like this, the explanation that says “Jesus answered our prayers” possesses what Corduan calls “prima facie presumption.”

Prima facie presumption for a miracle only occurs in contexts where people have reason to expect a miracle. This might include instances where a prophet is making unusual declarations, and the miracle would confirm his authority to make that declaration. It might include instances where people who are identified with a God have needs that only that God can meet. And, it might certainly occur when someone claiming to be the real God appears among men as one of them, and makes claims that He has authority to perform miracles and to raise Himself from the dead. In those circumstances, if an event occurs that lacks a sound explanation, “miracle” is an explanation that holds great explanatory power. In some settings, “miracle” has to be the prima facie presumption when no immediately obvious explanation can be found.

However, even when we have established that an unusual event has occurred, it might not be of a type that we should call miraculous. If a horse mysteriously appears in my living room, it would be very strange, but I would not call it a miracle – unless I had specifically been praying for a horse. Reports of Hindu shamans capable of remarkable works of power are common. Some claim to be able to walk on water, while others walk barefoot over hot coals without being burned, and still others lie on beds of sharp nails but suffer no puncture wounds. These feats have been performed on camera. Interestingly, these men do not regard their own feats as miraculous; they claim to achieve them by their own concentration, and would be dismissive of claims that they are using any power other than what is inherent in themselves. Assessing what these might be is beyond the scope of this essay, but it should be enough to say that if the people performing these acts do not claim that God is involved, we have no reason to claim it, either. The occurrence of such events should be confirmable, but might not be considered miraculous, just inexplicable. If the practitioner is not claiming deity or any particular authority, and there is no reason to infer the presence of deity, “miracle” should not be the prima facie presumption.

So, now we have come back to the question of what constitutes a miracle. Just saying “unusual event, not conforming to the pattern of nature” will not do. There has to be some connection to God, or at least to something holy, before we would ordinarily call an event a miracle. And in order to assess that connection, we need a sound understanding of the character of God, in order to assess whether “God” is even plausible in the picture. However, once we have established the connection to God, confirmed that we are in conformity to His character, established that the event actually occurred, and confirmed that we know enough of the natural circumstances to rule out natural causes, we have sufficient basis to call an event a miracle.

So, let’s revise our definition of a miracle in the light of that more complete understanding:

miracle: an event in nature for which the willful intervention of God is the best-fit explanation, the occurrence of which does not conform to the expected and well-understood pattern of events in nature, and which produces an effect that is consistent with the understood character of God.

There, that’s better. We do not have to call ghost stories, levitation of shaman, or every healing of a farmer’s goat in response to prayers to the Blessed Virgin, miraculous. We do have to call Jesus rising from the dead miraculous, if the evidence is sufficient to establish that he did, in fact, rise from the dead. The particulars of that claim are examined in the writings of Gary Habermas and other Christian apologists.

And if that miracle occurred, there might be others – including the healing of certain goats, perhaps. We just have to examine the circumstances and the evidence.

Why Do Miracles Occur?

Miracles in the New Testament are referred to using the Greek word semeion, meaning “signs” (from semaino, “to give a sign,” “to make known.”)(5) So, at least one of the major reasons why God performs miracles is as a sign; that is, to confirm the authority of a person or group of people, to indicate something that He is doing. In particular, we notice that the Apostle Paul claimed that Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:4) Paul assigned to himself the authority of an Apostle by reminding the Corinthian church, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.” (II Corinthians 12:12) By these, we confirm that at the very least, miracles served the role of identifying God’s appointed messengers in the early church. We should keep this in mind when, later in this series, I post material confirming the accuracy of Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah, for instance, or the evidence supporting the claim that Jesus’ tomb held his corpse at one point, but later was empty.

However, to say that miracles occur solely as signs is incorrect. The Incarnation was miraculous. The primary purpose of the Incarnation was that someone of sufficient worth could atone for the sins of all men, which cannot be called a sign of anything. The Incarnation also gave us an example of what sort of people we are supposed to be – again, not a sign, an example. Also, the resurrection, while it certainly did occur as a sign of Jesus’ deity, also serves as the means by which converted believers are separated from their sins (see Romans 6:1-13). Consequently, we have to add that miracles may achieve God’s purposes, whatever those happen to be. Consider:

… God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16

If the basic purpose of the miracle we call the Incarnation was for God to express His love by redeeming us from destruction and making us eternal, then it follows that God may perform whatever miracle He needs to perform in order to fully effect our redemption. (Paul actually says something very similar to this in Romans 8:32.) That would include signs that convince us, but might also include healings that restore us, prophecies that encourage us, or really, any other act we may or may not be able to imagine, so long as it effects our redemption.

A difficulty occurs when we admit that God may in fact do anything He likes, any time He likes, so long as it is consistent with His goal of redeeming us. The question becomes not, why does God perform miracles, but rather why does He not perform more of them? There is not one of us who might not benefit from a miracle at some time or other. We don’t want Mom to die so soon, or we don’t want to die ourselves. We don’t have the money to replace the car, so we don’t want it to break down, even though we have not maintained it so well. We haven’t earned enough to pay for the home of our dreams, but there it is, the home of our dreams; can God do a miracle and let us have it?

An immediately obvious answer is that our convenience does not necessarily effect our redemption. Perhaps letting Mom go is the outcome that will produce the most holiness for the largest number of people; if the goal is the redemption and maximum holiness of as much of humanity as possible, then we must defer our particular needs to the sovereignty of God, who sees everything and works all things according to His will.

The revealed pattern in history is not so full of miracles as we suppose. The miracles in the Old Testament occur in clusters, one group surrounding the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Palestine, another other surrounding the ministries of Elijah and Elisha in the Northern kingdom of Israel, and yet another surrounding the ministries of the prophets. There are certain miracles that occur in isolated places and times – a donkey rebuking a prophet in human speech, a city destroyed by fire from heaven, a battle prolonged by the sun being suspended in the sky – but these are rare and episodic.

However, this is not the way of the New Testament, which is full of miraculous events, and limiting the miraculous seems inconsistent with the character of God, who longs to draw all men into fellowship with Himself, and who created nature ready and waiting for God Himself, nature’s husband and master, to implant it with miracles, like a bride’s womb.

Another way of asking why there are not more miracles might be this: if redemption is the goal, why does God not perform such miracles as to convince even the most hardened atheist, so that all of them will be redeemed?

The correct answer to this conundrum is that miracles may not be the best way to convince the unbelieving. Miracles are impressive, true; but in practice, the miracles God performed in Egypt, as documented in the book of Exodus, did not convert Pharoah or the Egyptians. They were impressed, but they were not saved. Nor did those miracles bring any of the nations that heard of them into obedience to God. The surrounding peoples heard of the events, but among them, only Rahab and the Gibeonites approached Israel asking for mercy and inclusion; the rest resisted, and perished.

Human beings are stubborn creatures, and unbelievably adept at self-delusion. Every event in our natural world is either directly or indirectly an act of God, but it is not just atheists, it is Christians who wonder why we cannot see God. One might answer, where might you look that you cannot see Him? But we go on refusing to see. And if we cannot see God in the expected events of nature, what makes us think we would we see Him any better in unexpected events like miracles? Does the mere fact that the event is unexpected, necessarily mean that we will see what we choose not to see?

It does not. In fact, the previous installment in this series discusses the philosophical works of David Hume and Anthony Flew, to the effect of establishing what they consider credible reasons to look directly at any miracle of God and declare, “I do not see the hand of God here.” Miracles truly only convince those who are already available to be convinced, which makes a further point: redemption is for those who are willing to be redeemed, and those who are condemned, are condemned because they have chosen condemnation. God does not overrule free will, even the will to be damned.

Jesus establishes that the choice to refuse to see the miraculous constitutes a basis for judgment against people in some cases:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Matthew 11:21

Some imagine that Jesus is condemning them for failing to recognize the Son of God, but that is not what He says; He says the miracles would have been enough to produce repentance. God pronounced judgment on those who did not recognize the miracles and respond to them. If the appearance of miracles prefaces a possible judgment, and people actually deceive themselves in such a manner as to make them impervious to miracles, then perhaps God withholds miracles in order to give people more time to repent.

Many people say they would like to see a miracle. It would probably be closer to the truth to say that many people would like confirmation that their lives matter to God, but that these same people are terrified beyond words that God will demand something of them they are not willing to give. They are correct, but not in the way they think; God does not demand, but the circumstances of our world are such that unless they repent, they will perish, just as a natural consequence of their condition. It takes grace to change, and grace is available for the asking, but most will not ask – and probably, most will never see a miracle, either.

Miracles are possible. Nature is designed to receive them, and God is able and willing to produce them. None of the reasons suggested by skeptics are sufficient to dissuade Christians from calling events “miracles” that fit the proper definition of a miracle. Not every claim of a miracle is believable, but in some contexts “miracle” is simply the best fit to the facts. We might have more of them if we were more holy, ourselves, but ultimately, God is the one who decides when a miracle fits His plan of redemption, and uses neither our curiosity nor our convenience as the criterion to determine when a miracle is called for. He performs miracles to point to authentic messengers, but ultimately, He performs whatever acts will best achieve our redemption, including, if necessary, miracles.

We’ve arrived at the end of the theoretical arguments about God. Next, it will be time to consider whether the God that we’ve proved to exist has actually performed miracles in our world, in such a way that we can use them to determine which of the various theistic positions is the most correct.

Next time, we begin examining the question, “Is the New Testament true?”


(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha.
(2) Surah 29:50.
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Legend#Miracle_tales_of_relics.
(4) Corduan, Wilfried, “Recognizing a Miracle,” in In Defense of Miracles, Geivett & Habermas, eds., InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 1997, chapter 6, pp. 108-109.
(5) Online Bible Greek Lexicon, http://www.onlinebible.net/, copyright 2009, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, CA.

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