The Case Against Miracles
Many modernists have claimed that miracles are impossible, given the clear teachings of science. Claimed miracles are dismissed in several ways. Some say the observers of alleged miracles are just mistaken. Others argue that simply because we don’t have a present explanation for some inexplicable event does not mean the supernatural was involved; as we grow in our understanding of the natural processes, we may come to a new natural understanding regarding what many previously thought were miraculous events. Almost all critics of miracles hold that the statistical consistency of natural law—or “laws of nature”—is such that supernatural events are impossible.
Sometimes we come across references to the “miracles of modern technology.” Some argue if our ancestors witnessed some of the advances we have today—the airplane, telephone, television, laser, for example—they would surely have considered such things miraculous. The lesson we learn here is that the more scientific understanding we have, the less necessary to believe in the supernatural.
Christians respond that the events described in the Bible are truly miraculous. No matter how much science one knows, the physical resurrection of a person who has been dead and decomposing for three days will never be naturally explainable. The supernatural is clearly involved in such an event.
In the present chapter, my goal will be to briefly examine some of the significant objections to miracles and then respond to these objections from a Christian perspective. We will see that the Christian need not commit “intellectual suicide” in maintaining a commitment to belief in supernatural miracles.
The Deist Denial of Miracles
Deism is a school of thought that grew popular in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It sets forth a belief in a God who created the world out of nothing but is now wholly uninvolved with the world or its events. He governs the world through unchangeable, eternal natural laws, and is not imminent in creation. God created the world and the natural laws that govern the world—but since that time, He has been utterly detached from the affairs of the world.
The universe is viewed as a well-ordered machine, and there is thus no need for any direct supernatural intervention in its affairs. Some deists suggested God is like someone who winds up a clock and then lets it run on its own without interference. In their thinking, miracles would imply that God’s original creation was defective and needed intervention.
Voltaire, a French deist, believed that God oversees the natural laws by which the universe functions, but thought it was absurd to believe that God was providentially involved in individual people’s lives. Thomas Paine, another deist, considered God a “Great Mechanic” of creation, and wrote of that “system of principles as fixed and unalterable as those by which the universe is regulated and governed.” Paine emphasized that “we have never seen in our time nature go out of her course.” Indeed, the universe operates according to inviolable natural laws.
A rather famous deist was Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence (AD 1776). Jefferson cut out all the miracles of Christ in the four Gospels, and following his death, this truncated version was published as The Jefferson Bible. This “Bible” ends with no reference to the resurrection of Jesus Christ: “Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.”
David Hume and the Denial of Miracles
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “If you begin by ruling out the supernatural, you will perceive no miracles.” He was right. The philosophy of naturalism asserts that the universe operates according to uniform natural causes—and that it is impossible for any force outside the universe to intervene in the cosmos. This is an anti-supernatural assumption that prohibits any possibility of miracles.
David Hume was a British empiricist (meaning he believed all knowledge comes from the five senses) and a skeptic of the Enlightenment period. In a chapter entitled “On Miracles” in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he argued that, given the general experience of the uniformity of nature, miracles are highly improbable and that the evidence in their favor is far from convincing. He wrote: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”
In his thinking, since all of one’s knowledge is derived from experience, and since this experience conveys the absolute regularity of nature, any report of a miracle is much more likely to be a false report than a true interruption in the uniform course of nature. Hence, a report of a resurrection from the dead (for example) is, in all probability, a deceptive report.
Since Hume’s time, the case against miracles has continued to grow. Many have argued that science disproves the miracles of the Bible. Others have held that the gospel writers were biased and therefore their testimony cannot be trusted. Still others have argued that the miracles recorded in the Bible are the fantasies of ignorant people in biblical times who did not understand the laws of nature. Christians believe such objections are easily answered.
A Defense of Miracles
Christians offer a reasoned response to the so-called case against miracles depicted above. The place to begin is to properly understand the laws of nature.
Uniformity in the Present Cosmos
Christians do not argue against the idea that there is general uniformity in the present cosmos. As theologian John Witmer puts it,
The Christian position is not that the universe is capricious and erratic. Christians expect the sun to rise in the east tomorrow as it always has, just as everyone else does. Christians recognize that this world is a cosmos, an orderly system, not chaos. More than that, Christians agree that the regularity of the universe is observable by men and expressible in principles or laws. As a result, Christians do not deny the existence of what are called the laws of nature. Nor do they think that the occurrence of miracles destroys these laws or makes them inoperative.
Christians take exception to the notion that the universe is a self-contained closed system with absolute laws that are inviolable. Such a position would rule out any involvement of God in the world He created.
Christians believe that the reason there is regularity in the universe—the reason there are “laws” that are observable in the world of nature—is because God designed it that way. It is essential to keep in mind, however, that the laws of nature are merely observations of uniformity or constancy in nature. They are not forces that initiate action. They simply describe how nature behaves when its course is not affected by a superior power. But God is not prohibited from taking action in the world if He so desires.
Scripture tells us that God is the Sustainer and Governor of the universe (Acts 14:16–17; 17:24–28). Jesus is described in Scripture as “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3) and the one in whom “all things consist” (Colossians 1:17). From a human vantage point, that which is called the “laws of nature” is, in reality, nothing more than God’s normal cosmos-sustaining power at work! As reformed scholar Louis Berkhof put it, these laws of nature are…
God’s usual method of working in nature. It is His good pleasure to work in an orderly way and through secondary causes. But this does not mean that He cannot depart from the established order, and cannot produce an extraordinary effect, which does not result from natural causes, by a single volition, if He deems it desirable for the end in view. When God works miracles, He produces extraordinary effects in a supernatural way.
Miracles Do Not “Violate” the Laws of Nature
If one defines a miracle as a violation of the “absolute” laws of nature, as Hume did, then the possibility of miracles occurring seems slim. However, as theologian Charles Ryrie notes, a miracle does not contradict nature because “nature is not a self-contained whole; it is only a partial system within total reality, and a miracle is consistent within that greater system which includes the supernatural.”
When a miracle occurs, the laws of nature are not violated, but are rather superseded by a higher (supernatural) manifestation of the will of God. The forces of nature are not obliterated or suspended, but are only counteracted at a particular point by a force superior to the powers of nature. 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.” In other words, miracles do not go against the regular laws of cause and effect, they simply have a cause that transcends nature.
Apologists Ken Boa and Larry Moody explain it this way:
Since miracles, if they occur, are empowered by something higher than nature, they must supersede the ordinary processes or laws of nature. If you took a flying leap off the edge of a sheer cliff, the phenomenon that we call the law of gravity would surely bring you to an untimely end. But if you leaped off the same cliff in a hang glider, the results would (hopefully!) be quite different. The principle of aerodynamics in this case overcomes the pull of gravity as long as the glider is in the air. In a similar way, the occurrence of a miracle means that a higher (supernatural) principle has overcome a lower (natural) principle for the duration of the miracle. To claim that miracles violate or contradict natural laws is just as improper as to say that the principle of aerodynamics violates the law of gravity.
Boa and Moody further illustrate their point with the fictional story of a Martian who lands his spacecraft atop a building in Chicago. The Martian looks over the edge of the building and observes how people respond to traffic lights. Green lights cause people to go; yellow lights cause people to slow down; red lights cause people to stop. He observes this consistent pattern for a solid hour. All of the sudden, the Martian witnesses a vehicle with flashing red lights and a siren, and against all that he has thus far observed, the vehicle goes straight through the red light. “‘Aha!’ he said, ‘there must be a higher law! When you have a flashing light and a loud sound, you can go through the crossing regardless of what color the light may be.’”
This brief story intends to illustrate that the natural laws of the universe can be (and are, on occasion) overruled by a higher law. The universe is not a closed system that prevents God from breaking in miraculously. God does not violate the laws of nature, but rather supersedes them with a higher law. God is over, above, and outside natural law, and is not bound by it.
What about scientists who claim that if such miracles were possible, it would disrupt any possibility of doing genuine science, since there would no longer be uniformity in the world? We respond that there is uniformity in the world because God created the world that way. Miracles are unusual events that involve only a brief superseding of the natural laws. By definition, they are out of the norm. And unless there were a “norm” to begin with, then miracles wouldn’t be possible. As apologists Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli put it, “Unless there are regularities, there can be no exceptions to them.” Miracles are unusual, not commonplace events. A miracle is a unique event that stands out against the background of ordinary and regular occurrences. Hence, the possibility of miracles does not disrupt the possibility of doing genuine science.
The Problem with Hume
As noted previously, Hume argued that a “miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”
The big problem with Hume’s conclusion is that there is no way that all possible “experiences” can confirm his naturalistic viewpoint unless he has access to all experiences in the universe, including those of the past and of the future. And since finite Hume does not have access to this much broader (infinite) body of knowledge, his conclusion is baseless.
Theologian Henry Clarence Thiessen makes this point forcefully with an illustration based on geology:
The… proposition that miracles are incredible because they contradict human experience, wrongly assumes that one must base all his beliefs on present human experience. Geologists tell of great glacial activities in the past and of the formation of seas and bays by these activities; we did not see this in our experience, but we do accept it…. Miracles do not contradict human experience unless they contradict all human experience, that in the past as well as that in the present. This fact leaves the door wide open for well-supported evidence as to what did happen.
We could trust very little history if we were to believe only those things which we have personally observed and experienced! Sadly, this is the method modernistic critics still hold on to when it comes to the issue of miracles.
Apologists Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks have noted that Hume essentially equates probability with evidence. Since people who die typically stay dead, a so-called miracle of resurrection is impossible. Geisler and Brooks counter, “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.” A miracle may be a “long shot,” but long shots make good sense when God is involved in the picture. What is impossible with man is possible with God (Matthew 19:26).
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Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demerest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 75. ↑
Lewis and Demerest, p. 75. ↑
Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), pp. 68-69. ↑
Jodie Berndt, Celebration of Miracles (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), p. 20. ↑
“Religious Doctrines and Dogmas: In the 18th and early 19th centuries,” Encyclopedia Britannica, electronic media. ↑
Cited in R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 33. ↑
John A. Witmer, “The Doctrine of Miracles,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Logos Bible Software, electronic media. ↑
One must recognize that the “laws” of science are generalizations based on repeated, testable experience. They are provisional to the extent that they are open to modification and correction in the light of further understanding. ↑
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 177. ↑
Charles Ryrie, Survey of Bible Doctrine, QuickVerse Library, electronic media. ↑
Berkhof, p. 177. ↑
Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, IL: Victor Press, 1989), p. 76. ↑
Geisler and Brooks, p. 76. ↑
Ken Boa and Larry Moody, I’m Glad You Asked (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1994), pp. 50-51. ↑
Boa and Moody, p. 53. ↑
Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 109. ↑
Cited in Geivett and Habermas, p. 33. ↑
Norman Geisler, cited in Geivett and Habermas, p. 78. ↑
Henry Clarence Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 12. ↑
Geisler and Brooks, pp. 79-80. ↑