GCengage: Do Miracles Happen?

Miracles matter a lot to followers of Christ.

The heart of our faith is the Resurrection.  That miracle must have occurred in order for our faith to be valid. For a Resurrection we need an Incarnation – and that’s a miracle.  For the world in which the Incarnation occurs, we need a Creation – and that’s a miracle.  For the new life the Christ offers to all of us – we need yet another miracle.

Christians embrace the supernatural as an explanation for many events throughout the history of the world. Skeptics often see this as a giving up too easily in a search for knowledge, or trying to find places for God to fit in a world where science makes God unnecessary. So how do we respond to those who are skeptical of miraculous claims?

As always, it will be important to define terms accurately. Merriam-Webster defines a miracle as "an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs." David Hume used a more pejorative definition: they are "a violation of the laws of nature." Christian theologians have phrased the definition in a number of ways, but the overall opinion is that a miracle is a supernatural interaction with the world in which an event that would not have otherwise occurred does occur.

There are at least three classic objections that have been raised in response to miracles.

Objection #1: The world as we see is defined by predictability, or “uniform experience.” Miracles are so unique, so unusual, so improbable, it is more probable that the testimony for miracles is false than that the event is true. It is more likely that the witnesses to a “miracle” lied than that the uniform experience of so many others is wrong. 

In other words, extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence. Miracles are extraordinary; therefore, they require extraordinary confirmation (in this case an amount that will never be achieved). There are several ways to respond.

First, if excessive evidence is the hallmark, miracles as a category have millions of people who claim to have experienced or seen them in some fashion. That seems like a lot of evidence. 

Second, it is by no means clear why extraordinary events require excessive evidence. Events merely need evidence, whether they are extraordinary or not. Uniform experiences are like an “average”; they tell us a lot about life in general, but not necessarily about life in detail. We don’t have to look farther than the front page of newspapers to find actual events that are incredibly improbable but are nonetheless true.

  • On December 24, 1971, Juliane Koepcke was flying on an airplane that was struck by lightning and exploded in mid-air.  Juliane fell into the Peruvian jungle from 10,000 feet while strapped to her seat. She suffered only a broken collarbone, a swollen eye and a cut on her arm. Though missing her glasses, she waded downstream for nine days before finding a canoe and paddling to civilization.
  • Betty Lou Oliver was in the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945, when a plane the building. She was thrown from her elevator on the 75th floor and severely burned by the fire resulting from the crash. When firefighters put her back on the elevator to send her down for medical attention, the cables promptly snapped, and she went into a free-fall for 75 stories. She was back at work 5 months later.

Third, there is something illogical in the argument itself:  “If there is absolutely “uniform experience” against miracles, 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 know all the reports are false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred.  In fact, we are arguing in a circle.”  C.S. Lewis

 Objections #2: Natural explanations can be provided for most miraculous claims. If not, it’s just because we don’t understand the natural world well enough yet (i.e., quantum physics).

 At the heart of this critique is the belief that science will eventually provide answers to all the mysteries around us. It’s a “God of the Gaps” argument with the god of science as the answer. However, this gap-filler reveals an unwarranted reluctance to consider that forces beyond the natural realm may be part of the furniture of our universe – and our lives. Science is great at studying the natural world; it’s simply not meant to weigh in on whether or not there is more to reality. Tim McGrew gives a great analogy (and I have paraphrased it slightly):

“Deep in the heart of a great forest, a bird who has never seen a human being lives in contentment at the top of a large and flourishing tree. One day he flies miles to the north and spends a day eating grubs in a marsh. The day is clear and fine, with scarcely a cloud. When the bird returns in the evening, the tree where he has lived lies flat upon the ground, neatly severed at the base. 

Our bird knows that trees with dead branches sometimes snap and fall in the wind or even collapse under their own weight. He knows that severe storms can split or knock down even an apparently healthy tree. But in his experience, without exception, healthy trees do not suddenly fall on sunny days. Yet there the tree lies. What is the bird to think, and what should his skeptical friends think of his testimony that the tree did, indeed, fall? 

In all of the bird’s experience up until now, man has never played a role. But now his world has been invaded by a higher order of being that can make things happen the bird has never experienced or imagined. The generalization he has formed — that healthy trees, left to themselves, do not fall down on sunny days — is true as far as it goes. But this tree was not left to itself.”

Christians are often accused of citing a “God of the Gaps” to explain things they don’t understand. But there are always gaps; everyone believes something (or someone) will fill them. If no natural criteria can explain an event, it’s at least worth considering that a non-natural explanation - something (or someone) beyond what we know - has interacted with our world. We have not been left to ourselves.

 Objections #3:  Miracles undermine the laws of nature. This makes the efforts of science useless, because science relies on a predictable, cause/effect universe.

 I’ve heard an analogy comparing God’s miraculous intervention in the world to the way events are influenced inside a fishbowl. If someone bumps a table supporting a fishbowl, the pebbles will shake and the water will ripple.  If the fish are committed to seeking an explanation only inside the fishbowl, because they do not believe anything exists outside the fishbowl, they will never find an adequate explanation for what happened.  Maybe they think believing otherwise allows for a “God” who violates the laws of the nature in the fishbowl.

 We, however, know that if the fishbowl hadn’t been effected, laws governing all of reality, not just the reality of the fishbowl, would have broken.  In other words, an orderly and predictable world absorbs and reacts to miracles.  Not responding would actually be the problem. As C.S. Lewis’s noted in Miracles: “Miracles, if they occur, must, like all events, be revelations of that total harmony of all that exists... In calling them miracles we do not mean that they are contradictions or outrages; we mean that, left to her [Nature] own resources, she could never produce them… there are rules behind the rules, and a unity which is deeper than uniformity."


 Recommended Resources:

  • “The Problem of Miracles: A Historical and Philosophical Perspective.”  William Lane Craig. www.leaderu.com
  • “The Natural as Supernatural.”  Ravi Zacharias, www.rzim.org
  •  Miracles.  C.S. Lewis.
  • Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Craig Keener.
  • Chapter 6, Reasonable Faith,  William Lane Craig
  • Chapter 3, Is God Just a Human Invention?  Sean McDowell
  • “Miracles: Is Belief in the Supernatural Irrational? “John Lennox at Harvard
  • “A Defense of the Rationality of Miracles,” Brett Kunkl
  • “Cultural Relativism and the Emasculation of Truth” (4 parts).  Ravi Zacharias
  • Blog Resources: Topical posts at The Poached Egg and Apologetics 315