Do Miracles Happen? – A Rational Defense

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Nobody likes to be treated like an idiot; I certainly don’t, but Christians—and the religiously inclined—are often labeled as stupid, gullible, and “…a barbarous and ignorant people”1 for believing in miracles. We are often told that “science” has filled the gaps in our knowledge precluding the need to appeal to the gods to explain natural phenomena. There is no need to believe that Thor creates thunder—we now know through science that a thunder is the crashing noise after lightning due to the expansion of rapidly heated air. This argument may seem to disprove Christianity: if miracles don’t happen then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead.2 In this short post I will argue that belief in miracles is a rational endeavor.

Let’s first properly understand what we mean by “miracle.” According to philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature”3 and “A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”4 For our purposes, we will define a Hume miracle as a

“violation of an apparent law of nature, or as Hume later says, of ‘the most established’ laws of nature.”5

But to claim that only the stupid and ignorant believe in miracles is nothing but an ad hominem fallacy. The skeptics here assume naturalism a priori or that God does not act in nature. They are committed to the idea—as Hume—that even if a miracle did occur, we are not justified to believe it.

 Since, for example, “death occurs over and over and resurrections only on rare occasions, he simply adds up all the deaths against the very few alleged resurrections and rejects the latter.”6 Here, Normal Geisler correctly points out that the skeptics have committed the consensus gentium7 fallacy.

If God exists, then miracles are possible —even if improbable—and the evidence for each has to be analyzed even if the skeptic may, a-priori, discard any miraculous claim as nonsensical purely on philosophical grounds or personal bias. Furthermore, any argument against miracles based on probabilities can only provide “a rule of thumb that tells us how the plausibility of one explanation compares with another, it surely cannot provide an absolute guarantee of where the truth lies.”8

The fact is, most of the arguments against miracles either assume the nonexistence of God (naturalism) or rely of fallacious and/or circular logic.9 If the skeptic is to assume that God does not exist, he has the burden of proof to show the truth of such inference. Otherwise, we would have to agree with atheist philosopher John Earman when he writes:

I acknowledge that the opinion is of the kind whose substantiation requires no philosophical argumentation and pompous solemnities about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proofs, but rather difficult and delicate empirical investigations…into the details of particular cases.10

Events of this kind are better left in the hands of historians. We need to shed philosophical presuppositions and bias to focus on the facts. If God exists, he can act if he wants to, and all alleged miracles can be sifted through a historical mesh. Furthermore, legal defeaters can come in handy in miracle-claim analysis.

We need to shed philosophical presuppositions and bias to focus on the facts.  If God exists, he can act if he wants to, and all alleged miracles can be sifted through a historical mesh.

In our legal system, when witnesses provide conflicting testimony, lawyers do not simply throw up their hands and go home. They try to overpower the opponents’ testimony—known as a rebutting defeater—or to sabotage and raise doubts on the rival’s evidence—known as undercutting defeater. Both of these defeaters are relevant in miracle assessment and can be used actively in historical research.11 Ancient documents claiming miracles can also be subjected to textual criticism, dating, archeology and general reliability as potential defeaters.

Hume’s arguments against miracles are still in use today, but as we have seen they have been refuted even by atheist philosophers like John Earman. Earman called humean arguments not only a failure, but an “abject failure.” If the skeptic wants to show that miracles don’t happen, he needs to mount a compelling case against the existence of God or show that no miracle in the history of mankind could possibly have happened. These are very heavy burdens to bear.

  1.  David Hume. “Of Miracles,” in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, of The Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. Adam and Charles Black, vol. IV (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1854), 125.
  2.  I Cor. 15:17: “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
  3.  Hume, Of Miracles, 130.
  4.  Ibid., 150.
  5.  David Johnson, Hume, holism and miracles (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999), 17.
  6.  Normal L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind: A defense of Biblical Miracles (Matthews, NC: Bastion Books, 2012), 24.
  7.  Something is true because most people believe it.
  8.  Nicholas Humprey, Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation (New York: Copernicus, 1999), 77 (emphasis added).
  9.  “Now of course we have to agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they 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 can know all the reports to be false only if we already know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in circle.” C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 162.
  10.  John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 61 (emphasis added).
  11.  Paraphrased from R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, ed., “Miracles in the World Religions”, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 200.

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