Are miracles even possible? And what are the implications if miracles are a reality?
We will look at miracles under five topics:
- What is a miracle, what is meant by the word ‘miracle’?
- In a strict materialistic world, miracles are impossible.
- But what if we are more than atoms, that there is more than the physical world, that God exists? And the evidence for a world more than the physical.
- What is the evidence for miracles?
- How do we approach miracles?
- What is meant by the term ‘miracles’ and do miracles indeed happen? Can miracles be proved if they indeed occur? When would a ‘miracle’ be truly a miracle?
The meaning of the word is often misunderstood and loosely used for anything that might be unlikely or even just surprising. The specific definition however is that ‘a miracle is an event that seems inexplicable by natural or scientific laws and accordingly gets attributed to some supernatural cause.’
In general people, especially in religious settings, tend to distinguish between two main groups of miracles, one, the intervention by the supernatural, and two, the distinctive circumstantial occurrences related to a specific place, time, and setting of the moment – the timing coinciding with circumstances constitutes the miracle. In both groups, it is seen that the supernatural is involved. The controversy is really about ‘intervention by the supernatural’ type of miracle and this will be the focus of this talk and fits the definition above for miracles. In the second group, it is not really possible to give satisfactory evidence that the supernatural was involved.
- Science often tries to disprove the possibility of miracles, i.e., intervention by the supernatural. Science provides explanations that make sense of our world. We gain predictive power of our physical environment by way of these scientific explanations. So-called miracles events can neither be explained nor predicted and are, therefore, not scientific. Are scientific ideals then at cross-purposes with religious belief, with belief in miracles? Here we have to raise the question, is there perhaps more than just the material world? Something beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience, a transcended reality perhaps, that makes miracles a possibility?
The skeptic materialist tends to use the term ‘miracles’ when one does not know how to explain something by science but hopes to explain it one day, and probably will. There is certainly a widespread anti-supernatural attitude in the materialistic world and miracles are usually written off without good reasons.
- To argue the credibility of miracles one would need real good reasons to believe that miracles have happened, and/or that God exists, that miracles are reasonable to believe, and one can even base other beliefs on the reality of the truth of miracles. But can miracles be proved?
In 1979 astronomer Carl Sagan popularized the aphorism “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (ECREE). But Sagan never defined the term “extraordinary.” Ambiguity and vagueness constituted this “extraordinary”
The meaning of the word “proof” depends on context. There are legal proofs, mathematical proofs, and logical proofs. The essence of these is that the concept of proof in various contexts is concerned with “evidence or argument establishing a fact or the truth of anything” (Oxford English Dictionary 2016).
The concept of proof in a legal context may require no more than a probability, a preponderance of the evidence. But when the word proof is invoked in a philosophical sense, it usually connotes absolute certainty. A “proof” in natural philosophy is what the ancient Greeks would have called a “demonstration,” a deductive conclusion derived by analogy from the technique employed in geometry (Deming 2010: 17). The word “proof” is usually not employed in a scientific context because there can be no certainty in an empirical system of knowledge. This was established by presocratic Greek philosophers as early as the fifth or sixth century BC.
For more than a thousand years in Christian Europe the reality of miracles was unquestioned. The miracles of Jesus Christ were taken as substantive proof of His divinity. Among other feats recorded in the Gospels, Jesus turned water into wine (John 2.1–2.11), walked on water (Mark 6.45–6.52), and raised the dead from the tomb (John 11.1–11.44).
The most influential of the Fathers of the Western Christian Church was St Augustine of Hippo (354–430). In ‘City of God’, St Augustine affirmed that miracles were not limited to the time of Jesus but were commonplace in his own time: “even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ” (Augustine 1899: 485). Prodigies recorded by Augustine included miraculous cures of blindness, breast cancer, gout, paralysis, and demonic possession (1899: 485–487). Augustine even listed multiple instances of the dead being restored to life (1899: 488–489).
Atheist philosopher David Hume explained that there must be “a contest of two opposite experiences” (Hume 1748: 179). Miracles required extraordinary proof or evidence because, by definition, a miracle was “a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and inalterable 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” (Hume 1748: 180).
Thus, Hume defined precisely what is meant by “extraordinary” evidence or proof. “Extraordinary” means numerous. “Extraordinary” evidence is not a separate category or type of evidence, it is an extraordinarily large number of observations. “Extraordinary” evidence is only required when it must be balanced against a very large number of contrary observations.
- Miracles are not “a violation of the laws of nature” as Hume saw it, but rather a unique event that God feeds into a specific situation, and most often a once-off event. A miracle is recognized as a miracle by the fact that we know the laws of nature, know what is normal and that the event of a miracle falls outside of the known, of what is expected. How do we prove a miracle? Through evidence. And evidence can be on many different levels, eyewitness evidence and circumstantial evidence. As mentioned, there are three types of proofs: legal proofs, mathematical proofs, and logical proofs. Miracle proofs are similar to legal proofs and as with legal proofs, the event cannot be repeated. Legal proof is the establishment of a fact by the use of evidence. Anything that can make a person believe that a fact or proposition is true or false. Circumstantial and witness evidence plays a major role in legal proof. Hard evidence could seal the case but is not essential e.g., in the absence of DNA or other hard physical evidence, circumstantial and witness evidence will in many cases suffice. Even so for the evidence of a miracle, circumstantial and witness evidence, and also at times, hard evidence can be put forward.
It is important to realize that God will not do miracles as a sign to unbelievers to prove Himself – never to please or to convince people who do not trust Him or sincerely seek Him.
Jesus responded to the people who asked Him for a sign:
Matthew 12:38-40 ‘38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign, an attesting miracle, from You proving that You are what You claim to be.” 39 But He replied and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation, that is morally unfaithful to God, craves and demands a miraculous sign; but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah; 40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ The reality of the resurrection.
God will not do miracles at our demand for our purposes. You have to believe that He exists, and He will reveal Himself in His own time and purpose. Trust Him and you will get to know Him. (as in any relationship, the more you trust someone, the closer you will get to him/her and the more you will get to know the person)
Hebrews 11:6 ‘And it is impossible to please God without faith – trusting Him. Anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that God exists and that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him.’
We focus on miracles that have occurred, and not the ones that might or will happen. The focus is on events that have happened but are not explainable by natural means/laws.
For the strict materialist, miracles are impossible as the likelihood of a transcendent agent is not a possibility. Nevertheless, if miracles can be proved it should provoke the materialist to some serious thinking.
- There are two approaches in support of the reality of miracles: 1. The argument from the occurrence of miracles to God’s existence. By providing evidence that miracles have happened, of which the most important would be the resurrection of Christ, it would be strong evidence for God’s existence. If the resurrection is true, then God exists, and other miracles are possible. There is strong evidence for the resurrection and God’s purpose with it. Historically the resurrection is well attested. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are some of the best attested facts of ancient history, if not the best. Here’s why, see Facts about the Resurrection.
Are there religious beliefs that are supported by the evidence for miracles? The resurrection is directly associated with God’s alleged solution to the human predicament – the central narrative of the Bible, and the climax and fulfillment of the Gospel message.
If the evidence for the resurrection is strong enough, we have good reasons to believe in God’s existence since miracles are acts of God. The narrative of the resurrection of Christ is an incredibly strong anomaly. Anomaly: “nomos” means law in Greek, so a-nomos means “not law” In science, an anomaly is an event that does not conform to natural laws. Usually, in science, such events are treated as being provisionally anomalous (we lack understanding for now). Scientific theories might need revision. Science seeks to solve anomalies, so they welcome them as they expand scientific explanation. This indicates a strong anti-supernatural bias in modern science. Weak anomaly: reasonable to expect we can solve it by scientific explanation. Strong anomaly: so puzzling and recalcitrant to scientific explanation, we have serious doubts about ever having a scientific explanation. Most skeptics acknowledge that Jesus’ resurrection, if actual, would be a miracle (i.e., most would grant it would be a strong anomaly). In turn, most deny the strength of the historical evidence of His resurrection than try to explain it scientifically. Is the historical evidence strong enough to support the belief that it did happen? It would have to be very strong, and if used alone, it shoulders a lot of weight to argue for God’s existence. The evidence is so strong that people ought to believe, yet why rest so much of the case for God’s existence on historical evidence? Because Christianity stands or falls on the facts of the resurrection. As pointed out, the resurrection of Christ is one of the best attested facts of ancient history. If Christ was raised from the dead, Christianity is true, God exists, and other miracles are possible.
2. The argument is to demonstrate that God exists and therefore miracles are possible. In this approach, the argument starts with the independent reasons for God’s existence. What are the arguments for the existence of God? 1. Necessity of a First Cause (Cosmological Argument). Arguments for the Existence of God Designed Creation (Teleological Argument). 3. Objective Morality (Moral Argument). 4. Necessary Being (Ontological Argument). 5. Explanation for Data (Information Argument). 6. Science and Mathematics. See God and Mathematics 7. The historicity of Jesus’s Resurrection. Facts about the Resurrection. 8. Miracles and Spiritual Encounters. 9. Near-Death Experiences and Consciousness. 10. Purpose and Meaning. A Life without God.
So, when we encounter a strong anomaly, maybe God had something to do with it. If an event could be a miracle (since it seems it cannot be explained by natural law), it could have been caused by God. because if God exists, miracles are possible (which undercuts the prejudice against miracles). Thus, we can come to believe in the authority of the miracle worker (Jesus Christ), and thus that He is God – the creator of the universe for whom miracles would not be of any difficulty. This approach still needs historical evidence for the claimed miracles per se but does not need to be overturned by the naturalistic prejudice against miracles if the argument for God’s existence is strong enough.
Just as the resurrection of Christ is pivotal to Christianity, the stand or fall of the truth of Christianity, even so, is the resurrection of Christ the final evidence for the reality of miracles. No resurrection, then no divine Christ, no Christian God and no miracles.
And to conclude this discussion.
What are the specific purposes for miracles in the Bible i.e., in the Old Testament, the New Testament and today? One might notice that in most cases it is about God giving evidence to His people to trust Him, to have faith in Him, and not to believe in Him blindly but to have good reasons. Here are some examples.
- Proof of God’s existence – in the present moment and referring to the past e.g., “Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.” Genesis 21:2
- To demonstrate the deity of Christ John 20:30,31 they give reasons to believe in Jesus ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in His Name. Mark 2: 1-12, the paralyzed man; He heals to demonstrate His authority to forgive sins. Verse 9 Is it easier to say to the paralyzed man ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk’? 10 So I will prove to you that the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then Jesus turned to the paralyzed man and said, 11 “Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home!”
- God shows compassion for the weak, needy, and oppressed through Jesus’ miracles. Matthew 4:23 And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.
- The authenticity of the disciples and the spread of the Gospel. Acts 3: 1-14 7 Then Peter took the lame man by the right hand and helped him up. And as he did, the man’s feet and ankles were instantly healed and strengthened. 8 He jumped up, stood on his feet, and began to walk! Then, walking, leaping, and praising God, he went into the Temple with them.
- Care and concern for people. Acts 14:8-10 8 In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
- All miracles serve to strengthen believers’ faith
Miracles are events inexplicable by natural or scientific laws and attributed to some supernatural cause. Miracles are not acknowledged as a possibility in a strict materialistic world. However, the proof that miracles do happen is based on evidential proof and on the evidence for the existence of God.Follow us >>