Questions About Miracles – Part 1

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2000
What are miracles? Dr. Geisler begins a five-part series on miracles by defining what he means by the word “miracle,” then answering the questions: Are miracles possible? and Are Miracles Credible?

QUESTIONS ABOUT MIRACLES—PART ONE

(excerpted from When Skeptics Ask, Victor Books, 1990)

The Bible is laced with miracles. From the Creation to the Second Coming, from Moses at the burning bush to Daniel in the lions’ den, from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection, miracu­lous happenings seem to fill the pages of Scripture. To the believer, these are a wonderful confirmation of the power and message of God, but to the unbeliever, miracles are a stumbling block—a proof that religion is just a bunch of fairy tales after all. In the world that he lives in, there is no divine intervention, no interruptions to the normal order; there is only natural law. Fire consumes when it burns; lions eat whatever is available; pregnancy only happens when male sperm unite with female ova, and the dead stay dead. As far as they are concerned, the miracles of the Bible could no more be true than Mother Goose.

The purpose of this chapter is not to give a complete explanation of how each miracle occurred. Neither will we attempt to convince anyone that miracles should be considered part of the normal operations of the universe. Our objective is to convince people that the naturalistic attitude toward miracles which has been fostered for over 200 years goes against simple common sense. Rather, this naturalistic attitude is based on faulty logic and unsound thinking that has decided what it is going to find long before it finds anything. The chapter may be thought of as addressing three pairs of questions. The first two questions deal with the believability of miracles (possibility and credibility). The second pair show that miracles do not violate modern methods of study (scientific and historical). The third set answers the commonly asserted religious grounds for explaining miracles (namely, myth and pantheistic claims). The final section begins to establish grounds for accepting biblical miracles as actual events.

One naturalistic thinker said, “The first step in this, as in all other discussions, is to come to a clear understanding as to the meaning of the term employed. Argumentation about whether miracles are possible and, if possible, credible, is mere beating the air until the arguers have agreed what they mean by the word ‘miracle.’”[1] A miracle is divine intervention into, or interrup­tion of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event that would not have occurred otherwise. By this definition, then, natural laws are understood to be the normal, regular way the world operates. But a miracle occurs as an unusual, irregular, and specific act of a God who is beyond the universe. This does not mean that miracles are viola­tions of natural law or even opposed to them. As the famous physicist Sir George Stokes has said, “It may be that the event which we call a miracle was brought on not by a suspension of the laws in ordinary operation, but by the super addition of something not ordinarily in opera­tion.”[2] In other words, miracles don’t violate the regular laws of cause and effect, they simply have a cause that transcends nature.

ARE MIRACLES POSSIBLE?

The most basic question to ask about miracles is, “Are miracles possible?” If they are not possible, we can wrap up our discussion early and go home. If they are possible, then we need to address the argument that gave us the idea that they are absurd. We find the root of this argument in the writings of Benedict de Spinoza. He developed the following argument against miracles.

  1. Miracles are violations of natural laws.
  2. Natural laws are immutable.
  3. It is impossible for immutable laws to be violated.
  4. Therefore, miracles are not possible.

He was bold in his assertion that “nothing then, comes to pass in nature in contraven­tion to her universal laws, nay, nothing does not agree with them and follow from them, for… she keeps a fixed and immutable order.”[3]

Certainly we can’t argue with the third step in that argument, for what is immutable can’t be set aside. But are natural laws immutable? And does he have a correct definition of a miracle? It seems that Spinoza has stacked the deck. He built into his premises his own view that noth­ing exists beyond the universe (and that God is the universe). So once he has defined natural law as “fixed and immutable,” it is impossible for miracles to occur. He had gotten the idea that natural laws were fixed from the Newtonian physics that were the latest rage in his day. But today scientists understand that natural laws don’t tell us what must happen, but only describe what usually does happen. They are statistical probabilities, not unchangeable facts. So we can’t rule out the possibility of miracles by definition.

The definition he uses also carries his antisupernatural bias. It assumes that there is nothing beyond nature that could act in nature. This follows from Spinoza’s pantheism. As long as God is limited to staying inside nature’s boundaries, or is nonexistent, then a miracle can only be seen as a violation of order. The bottom line of the matter is that if God exists, then miracles are possible. If there is anything beyond the universe which might cause something to happen in the universe, then there is a chance that it will do so. Now most scientists will want some evidence to show them that God exists, and [we addressed that issue in another series]. But once we have established that a theistic God exists, miracles cannot be ruled out.

ARE MIRACLES CREDIBLE?

Some people don’t deny the possibility of miracles; they just can’t see any justification in believing in them. To these, the miraculous is not absurd; it is just incredible. The great English skeptic David Hume advanced this very famous argument against believing in miracles.

  1. A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
  2. Firm and unalterable experience has established these laws.
  3. A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.
  4. Therefore, a uniform experience amounts to a proof; there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle.[4]

Some see this argument as saying that miracles can’t occur, but that would easily be refuted by showing that he is begging the question when he defines miracles as impos­sible. It seems that his real point is that no one should believe in miracles because all of our experience suggests that they don’t happen. That is certainly the point that we all learned in school, even if we didn’t study Hume.

Instead of begging the question in his definition, Hume does so in his evidence. He presumes to know that all experience is uniformly against miracles before he looks at the evidence. How can he know that all possible past and future experience will support his naturalism? The only way to be sure is to know in advance that miracles do not occur. On the other hand, he might be saying that the uniform experience of some, or even most, people is against miracles. But what about the other people—the ones who have experi­enced miracles? Then he is selecting only the evidence that he likes and leaving out the rest. Either way, he has made a fundamental error in logic.

As to Hume’s first maxim, that “a wise man always proportions his belief to the evi­dence,” we would certainly agree. However, for Hume, “greater evidence” means that which is repeated more often.” So any rare event can never have as much evidence as common events. Hume has stacked the deck here too. That means that no miracle can ever have enough evidence for a reasonable person to believe it. Hume doesn’t really weigh the evidence at all; he just adds up the evidence against miracles. Since death happens to almost everyone and there are only a few stories about resurrections from the dead, he simply adds all the deaths and decides that those stories about resurrection must be false. Even if a few people really were raised from the dead, no one should believe it because the number of deaths overshadow them. That is like saying that you shouldn’t believe it if you won the lottery because of all the thousands of people who lost. It equates evidence with probability and says that you should never believe that long shots win. The odds of being dealt a perfect bridge hand (which has happened) are 1,635,013,559,600 to 1. But according to Hume, if you get it, you better fold your hand and ask for a re-deal because you should never believe that such an outrageous thing could happen.

It is odd that the scientist objects to miracles on such grounds as these, for his own study is not conducted in this way. If a scientist knew in advance how an experiment would turn out on the basis of known natural laws, he would not go to the trouble of doing the experiment. Hume even admitted that nothing can be known concerning the future just by looking at past experience. Likewise, the scientist is constantly trying to expand and refine our understanding of natural law by revising those laws as new evidence is found. Hume’s principles for miracles would make that kind of scientific progress impossible because the researcher would never believe his data. It could never overcome past uniform experience.

Notes

  1. Thomas Huxley, The Works of T.H. Huxley (New York: Appleton, 1896), p. 153.
  2. As quoted in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 2036.
  3. Benedict de Spinoza, Tracatus Theologico-Politicus, in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, trans. by R.H.M. Elwes (London: George Bell and Sons, 1883), 1:83.
  4. David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. by C.W. Hendel (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955), sec. 10, pt. 1, pp. 122, 118, 123.

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