The Problem of Miracles

A commenter in a previous post on the subject of faith and reason made the following observation:

The most Christian apologetics can accomplish is to show faith in Divine revelation to be a reasonable proposition. I would say the challenges presented by various content in the Holy Scriptures are significant. As you pointed out, “…we evaluate scriptures claiming to be revelation with the tools of archeology, linguistics, textual analysis for internal consistency and external verification, to validate, in some measure, the veracity of such claims.” This is all very good, but what of the more difficult propositions hidden in the texts: creation stories, Noah \'s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, a talking ass, sword wielding angelic messengers, chariots of fire swooping in to carry men to heaven, floating ax heads, the regeneration of limbs, a virgin birth, [or] Lazarus raised from the dead …

The subject raised here is a challenging one, and a common point put forward in any discussion about faith and reason: what about the miracles spoken about in Scripture? The events such as those mentioned above lie entirely outside the realm of our experience, and it appears utterly reasonable and rational to dismiss them as fabrications, myth, or at best allegorical tales intended for moral teaching. The belief in miracles by people of religious faith is perhaps the area most incomprehensible to the skeptic. Such events are logically and physically impossible, reside outside the laws of nature and science, and therefore no rational, intelligent person could or should believe such unadulterated nonsense. Even those of religious conviction often struggle with this aspect of their faith. Some will simply dodge the issue: “The Bible says it, I believe it.” End of discussion — and not terribly satisfying for those seeking more rational evidence for faith than mere assent to the truth of revelation alone.

For most who reject the possibility of miracles, their impossibility arises less from evidence found lacking — for they rarely objectively evaluate the evidence — than from the presuppositions fundamental to their view of the world. If the universe is purely material, randomly engendered and devoid of any possibility of divine existence, then miracles must, by necessity, be either mythical in origin or have other, naturalistic explanations. For those who believe in some sort of divine entity or power — especially one which is impersonal or abstract — the intimate intervention of a personal, supernatural Being into the natural world in any demonstrable way is inconceivable. Even for those who may believe in a personal God, the idea that the divine would intervene demonstrably in ways contravening the laws of nature and their daily experience of the world seems highly implausible and impossibly remote.

Yet the problem of miracles is central to the integrity of faith. If in fact miracles cannot occur, if in fact they are naught but myths and morality tales, then faith itself must be without substance or certainty, and becomes nothing more than a comfortable belief system without basis in reality, history, or objective truth. The problem of miracles must be met head-on if we are to have a faith grounded in reason rather than diaphanous desire.

It is not imperative that every miracle held by faith be provable — indeed, were such a thing possible, it would destroy the very essence of faith, for we do not believe in what we see, but rather in that which is unseen. Once the premise that the divine can intervene, and indeed has intervened in tangible ways superseding the dictates of logic and the constraints of the material universe, however, the largest hurdle to accepting their possibility has been bridged. Reason demands that faith be reasonable: that the injection of the divine and transcendent into the temporal and material ought not lie purely within the realm of the easily-deceptive determinations born of mere thought or mental theorems. If God has stepped into history, we should expect to see His footprints.

Christianity at its very heart is about just such an injection of the timeless into time, of the transcendent into the material. The ripples of this event radiate throughout history, with implications unspeakably vast and ever-widening. At the vortex of this widening gyre lies a miracle: the God-man come to earth, unjustly executed, and subsequently raised from the dead. That a man should claim to be God is hardly unique; that a man be unjustly tortured and killed, and esteemed thereafter as a martyr, is no rare event. That a man should make such claims, and meet such an end, and rise thenceforth from the grave, recasts preposterous claims as profound certainty and transforms his death into something transcendent and immensely powerful. If this event is but myth, Christianity becomes nothing more than platitudes and powerless moralizing; if true, no event in time is more significant, no aspect of life untouched by its enormity and seriousness.

If belief in this miracle be reasonable, if we may trace these long-traveled waves of faith back to their source, and in the inspection of their origins find evidence substantial and compelling, then the world becomes a vastly different place from that seen through a myopic focus on superficial pseudo-reality and all-too-comfortable denial of the divine.

By their very nature as supernatural phenomena, one cannot “prove” a miracle as one might prove a math theorem. Nor will mere facts or historical evidence of themselves be sufficient to document with unquestioned certainty those things upon which so much rests — for the human mind often proves stubbornly intransigent when new conclusions run counter to cherished beliefs or worldview conviction. Were such a point-by-point approach fail-safe, there would be no Holocaust deniers nor 9/11 conspiracists.

If God exists, if He intrudes in human history in ways unexplainable by mere reason and material experience, then such a manifestation has profound implications for all who encounter it. For a God who intervenes thus in time stands face-to-face thereby with each of us, wherever we may stand. We may thereby hate Him or bow down to Him, but we can no longer live comfortably in delusional denial about such a reality.

It is my hope over the following posts to lay out such evidence in some detail. I break no new ground here; this evidence has been garnered and sifted many times over, by many other far more qualified to present it than I. But it seems apropos to present it again in some measure at this time, in an age increasingly skeptical and cynical, in a culture dismissive of truth and obsessed with the glorious glitter of vacuous beauty, of knowledge without wisdom, at the pinnacle of civilization yet ignorant of its stories and the substance of its soul.

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7 thoughts on “The Problem of Miracles

  1. Dr. Bob … I will be watching this miracles series with great interest. Thank you for the work you’re doing.

  2. I came across your blog quite by accident–assuming that it was such. It have read thus far a couple of your posts and feel quite graced by the clarity and elegance of your thought and how you express it. So let me just offer your my thanks for using your gifts well and letting us all have the joy of reading your fine work.

  3. I wish discussers of miracles could be objective in dealing with the possibility that by word of mouth, miracles start out as normal events and “become” miracles through retelling. I think it is possible that as the circle of people repeating and hearing accounts expands, so does the repetition and expansion of the number and complexity of miracles. I think one or two “fabrications” might easily evolve into several dozen varied and even different apparently discrete accounts. I understand that the gospels were written many years after the lives of the various “christs” lived, and think that would give their respective followers and followers of followers time to tell and retell the stories. That miraculous events crept into their stories about a god messiah is not only possible, but likely. I would be utterly astounded if shuch were not the case. I understand that such accounts crept into the legends and stories of numerous other dieties that Christians happily and readily deonounce as obvious fabrications. The various writings about the various christs that lived between ~100BC and 100AD were gleaned by individuals who ultimately sorted out those that “agreed” with his specific doctinal belief. There are some writings that have been rejected as false that also give accounts of miracles we might consider ridiculous…such as making clay birds fly and a child striking people dumb because they spoke against the child to the parent. And while I also would concur that these sound ridiculous, it only shows that it is possible for people to fabricate and write down miracles Christians happily reject. Layer on top of this the fact that the specific books now accepted as part of the current bible were selected from a myraid of other writings by individuals such as Eusibius (whose character and honesty I understand has been questioned) based on how well each aligned with his own doctinal beliefs. On top of that, not only did these early arbiters of what’s right canonize writings of their choice, they and others sponsored efforts to destroy other writings they felt did not fit. And since by chance they may have selected the incorrect ones, and rejected the correct ones, we may never know the truth. That is why I am a skeptic and am reluctant to be impressed by individuals who fail to take into account the process by which religious texts are created, passed down generation to generation and ultimately selected for canonization. It has nothing to do with my willingness to “accept” that miracles could occur if there were a God or gods capable of manipulating the physical world…indeed such would be the role of these entities. Neither do I think they would be undesirous. It is my unwillingness to be deceived to believe that which might not be true. People are fully capable of fabricating numerous happenings…alien abductions, viewings of monsters (bigfoot), seeing images of religious icons (Mary, Jesus, etc.) in inanimate objects (even though the true images of these icons have never been captured). I believe that the very same Christians that happily reject these have become accustomed by training and group confirmation to accept other miraculous and potential fabrications.

  4. Interestingly The Philosopher Hume said miracles violate the laws of Nature. Yet scientists don’t say something is impossible only improbable in terms of present knowledge. which is in contrast to Humes opinion
    eg of what i mean is under normal conditions lead is not a good electrical conductor. Yet today when immersed in liquid helium at minus 271C it becomes a super conductor and powerful electromagnet could have been seen by some as a miracle. Changes in state and complexity are the conditions described as miraculous.
    Miracles only need source of energy unused by scientists at present. With due respect and the age and longevity of God he can easily be described as a vastly superior scientist compared to man.
    Therefore Are we so eager to pronounce the death of the miracle by the entertaining comments of this blog.
    The reference to lead showed how examples of past knowledge was not being able to encompass the whole. Today we see on the Hubble or Nasa sites the destruction of many theories in the past.
    What can we learn “my opinion” attitude divides, it does not teach. A mature person can say my present experience will be changed by tomorrows findings so I will be prepared to learn.
    What we know of Jesus power over matter is not quantifiable. we were not there. If it came via God even more so.

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