It's a Miracle! (Part 1)

What are miracles? How have philosophers thought about them through the years? Can they still happen today?

In our last episode, we talked about superstition, an exaggerated focus on supernatural causes for phenomena in an attempt to explain, control and reduce fear of otherwise inexplicable happenings. I mentioned that most people can agree with the tangible or practical benefits of Christianity. However, the non-superstitious supernatural elements of Christianity are a matter of much debate.

Many Christian moral tenets are broadly accepted, like the condemnation of lying and stealing. Character virtues, relational improvements, and good stewardship of things like health, money and talent are also accepted, even if there’s debates around their origin or exclusivity to the Christian worldview. Even more debated are its non-superstitious supernatural claims. And that’s important, because they are centric to our worldview. Ideas like the universe being created by God and the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus’s death and resurrection are intrinsically miraculous.

I want to take a look at miracles in four broad dimensions: their definition, philosophical stances around them, miracles in the present day, and the epistemology of miracles in the Bible. This is too much for a single episode, so we’ll take a look at the first three today, and save the last one for next week, just in time for Easter.

What is a Miracle?

Our first order of business is defining precisely what is a miracle. As you’ll see later, this will be extremely important. Definitions matter a lot, and that applies to miracles too. Let me start by presenting five hypothetical situations:

  1. You live alone. Before you leave your house one morning, you notice that your fridge is completely empty. You go about your day, which doesn’t involve getting groceries. But when you get home and open your fridge, you find it fully stocked.
  2. A person fires a gun point blank at someone else. The person taking the bullet isn’t wearing any special armour. However, the bullet, fired at supersonic speed from the gun, simply falls to the ground without leaving as much as a dent on its intended victim.
  3. A friend has a problem at work, and the only way out seems to be a conspiracy – an extremely implausible argument that amounts to a blatant lie. To everyone’s surprise, all relevant parties buy into the conspiracy, and our friend emerges from the situation unscathed.
  4. A baseball team is losing a game by five runs in the ninth inning, with two outs and no runners on base. Frustrated, you decide to watch something else – only to learn two hours later that the team actually won the game.
  5. An angel of heaven appears to you, with such display of glory and power that you have no way to rationalize away or deny that it happened. The angel reveals something that you otherwise couldn’t possibly have known, and the revelation becomes true in a way that several people can attest to and no one can explain.

Which of these are miracles? In the first example, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious violation of any natural law. The most plausible explanation is that someone with access to your house, in knowledge of your predicament, went and grabbed groceries and stocked your fridge while you were gone.

In the second example, there clearly is a violation or exception of the laws of physics. Questions here will revolve around whether the gun was working as intended, whether the victim really wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest or similar armour, and other questions like this.

In the third example, there are two troubling concerns. First, the outcome of the situation is morally questionable. Second, the outcome is conceivable even with no supernatural intervention. In other words, there wasn’t anything evidently or intrinsically supernatural about this problem, although it was statistically improbable.

Statistical probability is also at the heart of the fourth example. It was very unlikely that the baseball team could win the game, but that alone doesn’t make the win supernatural. However, it’s interesting as an illustration of an informal use of the word ‘miracle’ in common speech from a purely cultural point of view.

The last example is one I think most people would readily accept as a miracle, at least from a definition standpoint. How to verify that it actually happened as described is a different issue. But hopefully this illustrates why the definition is critical. We can’t have a meaningful discussion about miracles if we don’t define them crisply. And I think we can do that in two ways. We can come up with a very specific, very comprehensive definition of miracles. Or we can come up with a simpler definition, and then qualify it with several criteria.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll choose option two. I like Norman Geisler’s definition of a miracle. Here it is: “a special act of God that interrupts the normal course of events.” What I like about this definition is that it covers a wide variety of scenarios, which I think is consistent with what the Bible has to say about miracles. Sometimes they will seem to defy natural laws; sometimes they will seem to work with those laws. Sometimes a divine actor will be clearly perceived, and sometimes it will remain invisible or implicit in the frame.

But like I said earlier, we’ll need some criteria to further qualify the definition, or we can run into trouble. Here are a few such candidate criteria. Miracles should be infallible and lasting. For example, if a person experienced complete and lasting healing from a disease considered incurable, that would be more likely to be considered a miracle than if they experienced incomplete or transient healing. This last scenario may partially fulfill my definition; it can be understood as an interruption to the expected course of events with this disease. But it doesn’t seem to reflect an act of an all-good, almighty God.

Actually, that last bit would be a good candidate criterion as well: miracles should glorify God and fit within biblical revelation. That’s a good criterion to differentiate godly miracles from ungodly supernatural interventions, or even from ascribing miraculous nature to an unlikely but purely human effort of questionable morality.

Should we add as a criterion that miracles must break natural laws? Imagine that a forest fire is weakened by a sudden downpour, or that someone misses a catastrophe due to what earlier seemed like an inconvenient delay. Are these miracles? Some think that God acting through natural means is better understood as a manifestation of His providence, and prefer to keep this separate from miracles.

And then there’s the question of the purpose of a miracle, and whether that imposes limits as well. For instance, like I said moments ago, miracles should glorify God. Along those lines, it’s not very wise to ask for a miracle to get results you didn’t work for, or that flat out violate clear biblical commandments. Some Christians think that a key element of a miracle is to seal an act or message is coming from God. This can be very important, as we’ll see later.

The reason we should wrestle carefully with these definitions and criteria is that they will make a big difference in the way we approach miracles from a philosophical standpoint.

Arguments For and Against Miracles

What is the goal when debating miracles? Is the debate centered on their rareness? Can they be proved impossible, or just impossible to verify? In other words – is the argument for verifiability, or is it for falsifiability?

Let’s start with the simple possibility of miracles, and more interestingly, whether that can be established outside the context of a specific religion. When you consider the question of origin – how did things begin? How did the universe or life start? It’s possible to articulate arguments for a supernatural Creator, external to the universe, who created it out of nothing, without referencing any particular religion or sacred text. Examples of such arguments include the Kalam argument, the cosmological argument, and the teleological argument. If your definition of miracles implies something outside of nature affecting nature, you could say that proving a supernatural origin for life or the universe itself proves that, by definition, miracles are possible. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “if we admit God, must we admit miracles? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain.”

One way to argue against miracles is by questioning their unusual or uncommon nature. British mathematician J.E. Littlewood argued that actually miracles are commonplace. Here’s his argument. Assume a common person is active 8 hours a day, and can perceive a new event every second. Over approximately 35 days, this average person will experience one million events. If we then define a miracle as an event with odds of one in a million, the average person could actually experience approximately one miracle a month. It’s an amusing argument, but ultimately, it’s clearly fallacious.

Fascinatingly, one of the most popular philosophical arguments against miracles comes at the problem from the exact opposite angle: the rarity of miracles. This argument was provided, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Enlightenment stalwart David Hume. The argument goes like this. Hume defined miracles as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity.” Therefore, by definition, miracles are rare, whereas the non-miraculous, the regular, is common. This entails that evidence for the regular is far more common than evidence for the miraculous. The regular is much more probable than the miraculous, and it is rational to believe what is more probable. Therefore, it is irrational to believe in miracles.

The argument has some additional nuances, and as it’s often the case with Hume, it’s very consistent with an empirical and skeptical worldview, and it’s interestingly worded. However, as it’s also often the case with Hume, it hides a philosophical presupposition within a supposedly objective or scientific truth claim. Hume says, “it is rational to believe that which is more probable.” But lower probability does not imply lower veracity. Consider historical events. Most days, no new nation is born or fallen, but that is no reason to doubt the historical record of these uncommon events. Hume attempted to explain this away through his definition of weight of evidence, but that has its own flaws. Thinkers like C.S. Lewis and George Campbell, among others, have pointed out the circular nature of Hume’s argument; the fact that, in formal logic terms, it begs the question; and that it belies a lack of understanding of the nuances of probability.

Have Miracles Stopped?

Coming to an end, I want to discuss a final dimension. A typical debate with miracles is whether they continue to happen today. There are many arguments to explain or disprove miracles in the past, but now that we have an unprecedented level of instrumentation – you know, that we’re able to capture, record, and communicate or share evidence of events in near real time – how come we don’t see clear miracles from God anymore?

One viewpoint on this, coming from within the ranks of Christianity, is the idea of cessationism – that miracles did occur, but no longer do. This sounds like skirting around the question, but bear with me for a second; it’s actually a pretty interesting argument, though not without controversy.

Recall that one candidate criterion for miracles is whether they seek to confirm that an act or message is from God. This would explain a certain biblical phenomenon pretty well. When you look at the biblical record, you don’t see a uniform, continuous stream of miracles. They seem to come in spurts, and those spurts correlate with new revelation – new deeds or new teachings that significantly advance the plan of God that unfolds throughout the Bible.

Correlation does not imply causation, but this pattern would seem to imply that the main purpose of miracles was to confirm the authority of apostles and prophets; and that once the biblical canon was closed – once the Bible was complete – these very visible, public miracles were no longer needed. The argument is not that God cannot do miracles anymore, or that He won’t do miracles anymore. The idea is that He has chosen not to. It’s just, again, that when it comes to publicly addressed revelation, all there was to say with that degree of authority is now said, and this type of miracles is no longer needed.

This doesn’t imply that God doesn’t speak today in a more personal and private sense. For one thing, the biblical concept of conversion requires a supernatural intervention with natural world consequences, which meets at least some of the criteria we set out earlier. We’ve discussed this idea before. No matter how much knowledge I gain on the subject of added sugars or insufficient exercise, nothing changes for me until my will changes. And it’s the same with faith. There is an active and trusting decision, not just knowledge. From a theological standpoint, all major Christian denominations agree that people can’t make that decision without an initial gift of grace from God. A supernatural gift impacting a natural life. A miracle. Cessationists agree to this. Also, some of them have experienced being told by God where did they leave their car keys, or more seriously, how to talk to someone else about their concealed sins.

Other Christians don’t limit miracles to seals of approval or confirmation, and don’t necessarily think that public supernatural and glorious miracles have ceased. Naturally, to assess those continuing present-day miracles would require careful review of the epistemic evidence on a per case basis.

We’ve covered a number of dimensions and ideas about miracles, and some arguments running the spectrum from, miracles can’t happen, to – miracles have happened, but no longer do, to miracles continue to happen today, at least some of them. But the real point of contention, and in a sense what matters most, is whether the miracles of the past are properly evidenced and attested. Did Jesus really die and resurrect? And if so, what are the implications? Like I said when we started, that’s the topic of our next episode.

Published: March 22, 2021