The Impossibility Of Miracles

Supernatural events are central to the discussion of the truth of religious claims.  Whether supernatural events —  miracles — are possible affects whether claims made by religions can be trusted.  For example, if miracles are not possible, Jesus did not rise from the dead, and therefore the claims made about Jesus can be dismissed, and Christianity is  false.  Even the Apostle Paul recognized this when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:13-17:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.  Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless…

Miracle

Copyright 2006 by Sidney Harris

I find this subject (the possibility of miracles) especially difficult to discuss with skeptics, particularly Naturalists.  Naturalism generally speaking, affirms that only the physical realm exists, and that science is adequate to explain all phenomena without any need to invoke a supernatural explanation for any event.  Herein lies the difficulty.  According to the definition of the worldview, miracles are impossible.  Miracles are as nonsensical as square-circles.  How can an honest inquiry into the subject can be had if even the possibility has been eliminated from the outset before any inquiry is made?

It is an exorcise in futility for the Naturalist who demands or expects evidence for miracle claims.  For the Naturalist, there is no evidence.  Not because none exists, but again, according to the worldview, no evidence is possible.  Evidence in favor of a miracle claim is dismissed using any possible alternate explanation no matter how unlikely or implausible, since of course, any alternate explanation is more plausible than the possibility of a miracle given the naturalistic worldview.

The Naturalist’s argument could be summed up as follows:

  1. An out-of-the-ordinary event has been reported by a witness or witnesses
  2. Some people infer a supernatural explanation as the cause for the event
  3. No one is justified in concluding a supernatural cause for the event unless every possible natural explanation has been exhausted
  4. We are never justified in concluding every natural cause has been exhausted even if at this point we have no natural explanation
  5. Therefore no conclusion of a supernatural cause is ever justified for an out-of-the-ordinary event

Of course it doesn’t help to have believers (of the possibility of miracles) attribute Divine intervention to every out-of-the-ordinary event.  In fact by definition, miracles are very rare*.  All too often believers are quick to assign a supernatural cause to every out-of-the-ordinary event, which  in my opinion dilutes true evidence for — and reduces the ability to recognize truly miraculous events .

Nevertheless, Naturalists have essentially rigged the game in such a way so that they can never conclude a supernatural cause for anything.  I find it suspect that Naturalists on one hand demand evidence for miracle claims, and on the other omit any possibility of positive evidence in favor of miracle claims.

__________________________

I was debating miracle claims with another Christian who actually claimed that human reproduction (child-birth) was a miracle.  I pointed out that miracles are by definition rare and therefore child-birth wouldn’t actually count.  He replied, “yes, well, miracles are rare but common, you know?”.

Comments

  1. I don’t think honest skeptics would be so disingenuous as to disregard a ‘miracle’ by the simple reasoning of ‘miracles do not occur’. We say “miracles do not occur” because we have not observed any miracles to have occurred. Of course, if there was a proven case of a miracle, it would render the whole field of science as pointless, but that is besides the point. If we take the resurrection miracle, for instance, I think that many skeptics would say it was a miracle (this is, of course, assuming that all the scientific explanations have been examined and rebutted). I think the main issue with accepting the miracles found in the Bible is that it is intellectually foolish to believe a miracle occurred by simple here-say. No amount of textual evidence would be able to support that claim. If we were to further take the resurrection account, the proof of occurrence would actually be pretty simple:

    show that he was actually dead at one point
    days later, he lived
    rule out common attributions (Lazarus syndrome, etc.)
    voila

    of course, over-simplification, but still, you get my point.

    • But Oscar, this: “We say “miracles do not occur” because we have not observed any miracles to have occurred” is my point. The Naturalist worldview does not allow for miracles and anything even resembling a miracle is considered an anomaly. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe miracles happen every day, as I said, they are very rare. So it is no surprise that you or I have never witnessed an actual miracle.

      Historical inquiry is significantly different than lab testing. History is irrepeatable, and of course skeptics know this, it is an easy objection to hide behind. There are recorded witness accounts, but thats not enough. There is the genesis of the Christian church in a lethally hostile environment, but thats not enough. There is the empty tomb, but thats not enough. etc. etc. You know as well as anyone who is a thinker and not a sloganeer knows history can only be investigated through written attestation.

      The thing with the miracles recorded in what is now the Bible fulfill the historicity requirements for any historical event…except it is a religious text and therefore endures insurmountable scrutiny. It is held to an even higher standard, and I think it’s fair to say, an impossible standard by skeptics.

      The skeptic, playing the skeptic, places himself in a position where everything can be dismissed, and no evidence will ever count. If it weren’t a religious issue, would the amount of skepticism ever be countenanced in any other arena?

  2. I’d be interested to see you elaborate on what you mean by supernatural, John. If God is real, isn’t he part of the “natural” world? If God performs miracles on occasion, isn’t that a “natural” phenomenon? It seems to me that even from a naturalist perspective we certainly *could* observe that these things are the case and refine our “laws of nature” to include things like, “unless God decides to switch it up at the last minute.”

    Also, while you’re right that it’s conceivable that miracles might happen, you’re missing and/or misinterpreting the part of the argument about likelihood. It’s conceivable that miracles would only manifest to ancient tribesmen, little children, and otherwise uneducated people at times and places when they had no means of recording it in a reliable fashion for later investigators. But that’s a whole lot of special pleading. Doesn’t it strike you as more likely that these people were simply mistaken, or that the stories are fictional legends in the first place? (Even you yourself admit that there are way more miracle claims than there are legitimate miracles. Doesn’t this weaken the trust we ought to place in miracle claims, just from a probability standpoint? There are miracle claims by non-Christian religions, too, which makes this issue even more important.)

    Finally, I’m curious if you acknowledge as miraculous any other claims besides Jesus’ resurrection. The Miracle of the Sun at Fatima? The miracle of Lanciano? Only the miracles described within the Bible?

    • God’s interaction would not make him part of the natural world (panentheism), God’s interaction with the natural world would mean the resulting interaction would be measurable by natural means. However as with every event in history, very little is open for empiracle examination. For example, and I realize this is a silly example, but suppose God were to levitate a car you happened to be walking past in front of you spin it 3 times and place it back down. It would be a miracle but the event itself does not lend itself to empiracle testing of any kind.

      What we should understand is the miracles recorded in the Bible were not spontaneous events, like the car example above. Biblical miracles had a religious context, they were used to confirm a prophet was truly of God and as a confirmation that the message was true. For example, in Luke 7 where John the Baptist had people ask Jesus if He was the Messiah or should he (John) be waiting for someone else? Jesus responded: “And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. jesus made a direct reference that his miracles were OT references to God in Isaiah 35:5, and Isaiah 61:1. Jesus used miracles to confirm He was the awaited Messiah, God incarnate.

      Same with the OT, for example, in 1 Kings 18 where Elijah proved to the prophets of Baal that Elijah was a prophet of the true God. They both placed oxen on wood and they would both petition their God, if fire was lit, then who’s ever fire did light was confirmation that prophet’s God was the true God.

      So the presence of miracles would have been necessary in a point of history where there was no 24hr news cycle. News did not travel like it does today. The word of the establishment of Judaism (the true God’s chosen people) would have needed to be announced and confirmed in multiple regions over a period of time. In Jesus’ time it would have been necessary to confirm that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, God incarnate. Thus the need for His miracles. Even his skeptics and enemies witnessed the miracles but attributed them to demons. So if miracles are happening today, they would be in regions where Christianity is unknown or highly suppressed. They would be done in the context of validating Christianity to people groups (I cannot think of a place in the Bible where a miracle was witnessed by only one person).

      As much as modern skeptics think ancient people were simpletons, keep in mind they might not have understood the weather cycle, but they werent idiots. There have always been skeptics, and there will always be skeptics.

      I would not classify Fatima or Lanciano as miracles, but that would take a drawn out theological discussion, which this really isn’t the place for–and you are not inclined to accept theological assessments of why as valid.

  3. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe miracles happen every day, as I said, they are very rare. So it is no surprise that you or I have never witnessed an actual miracle.”

    I think there is something telling in this statement. As NFQ pointed out, does it not cause you to speculate why there was such a preponderance of miracles in Biblical times (pre-science)? I think it is safe to say that there are actually more claimed miracles now then in Biblical times. If we take Sai Baba, for instance, he has millions of followers, yet you and I know that he’s just an ordinary man. Why, then, do you give so much credence to ancient texts in a time in which superstition was the norm, when there are millions of people that are fooled into believing in miracles in this age of scientific inquiry? Furthermore, I think it is safe to say that you believe that the miracles occurred because of the direct intervention of God, correct? Is it still not true, then, that science can explain how the universe functions, unless there is supernatural intervention? Again, this is why I say that intelligent skeptics do not normally say that miracles are impossible. Miracles simply give no indication of how the universe normally functions and, so, they should be dismissed with regards to furthering our understanding of the universe.

    “There is the genesis of the Christian church in a lethally hostile environment, but thats not enough. There is the empty tomb, but thats not enough. etc. etc. You know as well as anyone who is a thinker and not a sloganeer knows history can only be investigated through written attestation. The thing with the miracles recorded in what is now the Bible fulfill the historicity requirements for any historical event…except it is a religious text and therefore endures insurmountable scrutiny. It is held to an even higher standard, and I think it’s fair to say, an impossible standard by skeptics.”

    While I would say that the propagation of the church was mainly predicated on the ascension of Constantine, I think that’s a bit off topic. While it is true that the Bible passes with flying colors the criteria necessary for historical texts, this merely means that this is what the authors believed to be true. For instance, while Hesiod also passes the criteria, we do not regard his claims to be accurate. More to the point, it would be disingenuous of me to say that I think Hesiod’s claims were false simply because we have copies centuries after the date of original composition. We say that his claims are false because they do not coalesce with what we now know to be true. I, honestly, see no difference with the ‘eyewitness’ accounts of the Bible, with the ‘eyewitness’ accounts of Sai Baba. To be really honest, I would give more credence to Sai Baba actually, but then we would have to go into the historicity of the Bible which is off topic, also.

    I think my main contention with merely believing the Biblical miracles purely on faith (which is what one is forced to to) is that, if the purpose of this Scripture was to convert the lost, then an omniscient deity would have known that textual claims would not have been enough to support His mission, at least not to a skeptic. Why, then, would this omniscient deity make it so difficult for skeptics to believe? Does it not stand to reason that, if He wanted us to be saved from the pits of despair, that He would have made it a bit easier to believe? I know this is all mere speculation and completely tangential.

  4. rautakyy says:

    John Barron Jr, you are absolutely right about ancient people not being simpletons. However, they had wery different resources for interpreting the surrounding world than modern educated people today. Correct?

    While the Icelandic parliament, the allting was debating wether to embrace christianity as sole religion in the country a lightning struck close by. This was wittnessed by many and thought to be a miracle. It was interpreted so, that just to be sure also the asatru of the ancestors would be held side by side whith christianity.

    Lightnings are natural phenomenon that can be explained. Yes? Yet, a lightning was a true miracle to those people. It presented itself at a crucial point of history. Was it a spontaneous event?

    Was it a coincidence that the allpowerfull and benevolent god just allowed to happen, so more people would end up in Hell? Was it Thor showing his anger on radical icelanders loosing the faith of their forefathers and turning their backs on the more conservative ones who were not ready for the cultural change? Or could it be, it was just a weather phenomenon that had nothing to do with desicions human beings were debating over?

    The question on the “Impossibility of Miracles” has not been “rigged” by naturalists or skeptics. This is how it seems to be. If you think otherwise, you are free do so, but also free to prove your suspicion to be correct. By your article, your suspicion is based on a gutfeeling, not on logical conclusive thinking.

    Once again I have to refer to the fact that according to the gospels Jesus did not hang on the cross for wery long, while that method of execution was meant to last for days. He was beaten and he was stabbed, but as he was stabbed he bled. Dead men do not bleed, and not all who are beaten, stabbed or bleed die. There were no doctors present at his burial, none the gospels tell of anyway. Sometimes people who have been determined dead by doctors wake up. Are those equal miracles as Jesus resurrecting, or are they not infact miracles at all, because the reasons for these “resurrections” can be measured by natural science? If they are miracles, however, why are these events so random? It is a matter of leap of faith to think Jesus died. It is perfectly OK to believe he did, but it is not the most logical explanation to the events described in the gospes just because it is the “eyewittness” account alltough it was logical enough for the wittnesses. Yes, the romans were good at killing people, but according to the gospels their local commander, had allready “washed his hands” on the execution of Jesus. Likewise the officer overseeing the execution was reported to comment on the divinity of Jesus. Jews did not make it to officer class of the roman army, so the man was a pantheist, and evaluated the situation from that point of view, so it is wery likely the romans were being cautious, not to anger a local god. “Jews are so poor they only have one god.” But as we have been told, it is a vengeful god.

  5. @John

    I’m not sure if your latest reply was a response to my comment or NFQs lol.

  6. Well, I don’t think you addressed my main concern, though. Why are you more inclined to believe the miracles of the Bible happened, then the miracles performed by Sai Babe, given all the reasons I had previously mentioned?

    Also, to your response of “As much as modern skeptics think ancient people were simpletons, keep in mind they might not have understood the weather cycle, but they werent idiots. There have always been skeptics, and there will always be skeptics.”

    I grant you that they may have been intelligent (ancient Athens anyone?), but their lack of understanding of science would have caused them to attribute apparent miracles to a deity.

    • Perhaps you could cite the available evidence and sources for the miracles of Sai Babe and we could go through them as to why I might accept or reject the claims, I’m game. I don’t rule out the possibility of legitimate miracles in other religious contexts, after all 1 Cor 11:13-14; Matt 24:24; 2 Thess 2:8-9.

      I don’t discount any miracle which is not found in the Bible for that reason alone. Each instence must be evaluated by the evidence for it, some have very weak credible attestation.

    • DUDE!!! Are you seriously going to ask why I would reject these miracles of Sai Baba?!?! Listen, I will if you want, but your integrity had better acknowledge that the miracles recorded in the Bible are nothing like these! Let’s just say there seems to be doing an awful lot of “materializing” of very small coin sized objects and dust.

  7. HAHAHAHA I never said they were compelling! To be honest, the only reason why I originally thought of Sai Baba was because Harris uses him and I have an intellectual man-crush on him. More to the point, though, the fact remains that millions of people believe in these miracles. Why do you take the Bible with more credence than these people?

    Also, if you want a better example, I urge you to check out Derren Brown. The great thing about him is that he admits that he uses completely secular methods for his ‘miracles’ yet they wholly compelling (I’m pretty sure he is an atheist, also). Actually:


    • I’ll. Watch it when I get home, but I’m not saying you thought they were compelling, I’m saying you should be able to admit these recorded miracles are different in nature than those recorded in the Bible.

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