One should expect any non-deistic God to have some active involvement in His creation, not just winding up a universe-clock then heading off on a journey. And the Bible is clear that God is actively involved. Whether it is Jesus performing those many nice healings, or that much more uncomfortable story of the kids getting mauled by bears (2 Kings 2:23-25), there is a continual narrative of God’s involvement in the world. And the term applied to some of this involvement is – miracles. In today’s session we will try to define, examine and make better sense out of this somewhat elusive topic.
Miracle: an event believed to be caused by Divine intervention during which the ordinary operation of nature is overruled, suspended or modified. This action is presumably to provide benefit to an individual or group who has sought God’s assistance.
Miracles vs. Fortune
We can have many good and bad things happen to us during the course of our lives. We might, for example, survive a plane crash or be cured of cancer. Many would be quick to label such examples of extraordinarily good fortune as miracles. But if we are willing to equate very good fortune with a miracle shouldn’t we be equally prepared to label very bad fortune as a miracle as well? How is it we are quick to give God credit for the good but He doesn’t have to take the ‘rap’ for the bad also? Have you ever experienced someone in church praising God for a ‘miraculous’ [fill-in the blank with something good] while God’s presumed failure to intervene in some other negative event is passed over in silence? It is slippery business to conflate the miraculous with good or bad fortune – just read Job.
So I would suggest we might profitably begin by trying to get some better definitional separation on this idea of what is miraculous and what isn’t.
I'll first suggest segregating miracles into two broad (and perhaps somewhat overlapping) categories:
strong miracle: this would be a perceived violation of the laws of nature that has no presently conceivable natural explanation. Examples:
- creation of the universe (ex nihlo)
- Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:2)
- The Nile turning to blood red (Exodus 7:20-21)
- Lazarus’ and Jesus’ resurrection (John 11:1-44, Matthew 28:8-20)
weak (or circumstantial) miracle – an extraordinarily improbable event, but one that might be rooted in a natural cause. Possible examples:
- Red Sea crossing (Ex: 14:21). Here the Bible states “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided.”
- Dream of warning (Matt. 2:13) “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him”.
- Fulfilled prophecy (Mark 13:1-37) ‘And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Weaker miracles are characterized by the employment of naturalistic means for their execution. And it is not always easy to determine whether a strong or weak miracle has occurred.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That is, we humans are often in a poor position to differentiate natural from supernatural means. So we might attribute an act to God that, years later after knowledge has advanced, would seem to be attributable to natural causes after all.
But – however true this might be – one need not discount the reality of miracles simply because the method employed might have involved coincidence or natural means.
To illustrate this, consider an article written by Brian Bull and Fritz Guy entitled Then A Miracle Occurs . Here the authors reconsider the ‘miracle’ of God’s displeasure and divine punishment in the consumption of quail – a story found in Numbers 11:31-34. I think we formerly would have assigned this story to a ‘category 1 (strong) miracle’. But the authors make at least a plausible case that what really happened was an example of ‘a category 2 (weak) miracle’, where timing of the event and the seasonal feeding habits of the quail caused their flesh to be poisonous when the Israelites ate them. Either way one could label this a miracle, but the circumstantial case for a weaker miracle is, at least, now worth some consideration. But does this really diminish God’s role and intervention?
The Problem of Verification
One might think that verification or non-verification of miracles would be an enterprise reserved mostly for skeptics. But within the ethical monotheistic traditions (Islam, Judaism, Christianity) it is also especially important for believers to take miracle verification seriously. Charlatans abound and God is not honored if a purported miracle turns out to be fake. The Catholic Church has even systematized this examination, using a committee known as The Congregation for the Causes of Saints .
David Hume’s Criticism
Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) argued that we should not believe in miracles, because they are always more improbable than not. The odds are better that there is a naturalistic explanation – or perhaps the reporter is just plain lying. Given the inherent improbability of miracles it’s no wonder he would be skeptical, but Hume’s views are extreme. He writes:
no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish. ... When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. 
Hume’s problem here is that his argument slides silently from improbable to impossible. And that position is not defensible.
This is a principle – attributed to William of Ockham (1288-1348) which states “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem’, which roughly translates as “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”.
The term ‘razor’ was never employed by Ockham. But the metaphor is that this principle ‘cuts’ like a sharp razor through hypotheses that are unnecessarily (and probably inappropriately) complex. Basically a simple hypothesis is likely to be superior to a more complex one. One humorous way to remember this principle is the aphorism (sometimes called ‘Hanlon’s Razor’) which states ‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.’
Let me exemplify. Let’s say you’re driving down the freeway and see a deer carcass on the side of the road. Most likely you would presume some car struck it – and would think no further about alternate explanations. You would likely be right. But there are infinite alternate explanations totally consistent with the evidence. Perhaps some wild teenage extra-terrestrials were zooming around in their spaceship and, seeing the deer, set their phasers to ‘stun’ and shot the deer. The deer died and the delivered blow appears consistent with the impact of a car grill. Then, fearing parental wrath, they zoomed away leaving us just a dead deer as evidence. All these additionally complex and unlikely possibilities violate Ockham’s Razor. We typically don’t waste much (if any) time considering them. However, please note that such crazy scenarios are still consistent with the facts. But there are also numerous real examples one could find and cite where the actual cause turned out to be more complex than the simplest imaginable scenario.
So how does this relate to miracles? Ockham’s Razor is an excellent pragmatic principle. It provides common-sense skepticism that avoids wild imaginative leaps to usually unwarranted conclusions. But – it is not some sort of law. And miracles, should they occur, will always violate Ockam’s Razor.
God of the Gaps
This is the idea that God’s action is presumed to be the cause of an otherwise unexplainable event . We human’s are pretty ignorant and when we cannot explain a phenomenon there is a temptation (especially among the most gullible) to give God the credit – or blame. But, as we know from history, many things once thought to be ‘Acts of God’ have subsequently been adequately explained based on natural causes alone (e.g. thunder was once attributed to the pounding of Thor’s hammer). So as time progresses the gaps in our knowledge, once attributed to God, shrink as we develop natural explanations. And some would, optimistically (or perhaps hubristically), assert that eventually knowledge will advance to always eliminate God as a hypothesis .
The God of the Gaps argument is an example of the fallacious Argument from Ignorance where the premise is presumed true because it hasn’t been proved false – or vice-versa. But the Argument from Ignorance can cut both ways:
- Event X cannot be conclusively proven to be a miracle because of our ignorance. Some day science might demonstrate that what we thought was from God actually occurred naturalistically.
- Event X cannot be conclusively disproved as a miracle as there is no natural explanation because X turns out to be rooted in God’s action and done in some way that inherently exceeds human understanding.
Any single act involving design by an intelligent being (not just God), making choices from free-will, can be implausible (and may be unfalsifiable), just like miracles. It should be fairly evident from what I’ve written here, as well as in Session 3 (Science or Revelation), that I see Intelligent Design – by definition – as outside the boundary of science. Some organizations however, such as the Discovery Institute , would disagree with this assessment, using ideas like Irreducible Complexity  and the Anthropic Principle , as arguments.
I think the controversy contains a strong fear-based reaction by Christians who worry that failure to consider design in a science class will implicitly infer that the cause of creation was by purely naturalistic means. And no doubt some science teachers intend this inference, so the fear is not totally unfounded. The other side fears the intrusion of religion into science. This concern was strongly evident in the 2005 court case Kitzmiller vs. Dover Board of Education . Another motivator for inclusion of Intelligent Design in science curriculums is the argument for fairness, i.e. without inclusion only one possibility is being considered. This is understandable, but at the end of the day inclusion/exclusion should be based on whether the candidate subject is within the recognized boundaries of science or not. The Kitzmiller suit resulted in a judgment against the Board of Education (which wanted to include Intelligent Design). For an interesting account of the entire Dover controversy consider reading the book Monkey Girl .
Assessing Miracles – Joan of Arc
For those who take the possibility of miracles seriously there remains the important question of assessing whether something miraculous has occurred. This is especially relevant to Adventists as observers of Ellen White’s visions definitely reported evidences of the supernatural (e.g. holding up a heavy Bible in vision ). And for them and subsequent generations these events helped legitimize her prophetic gift.
So evaluating reports of the supernatural can contribute to either faith or skepticism. Since there are many bogus claims, and in light of the above-discussed concepts (e.g. Ockham’s Razor), caution is advised. Yet skepticism as extreme as Hume’s above-quoted position would seem to preclude finding any legitimate evidence of God’s interaction with the world.
Let’s consider this question of evaluation in context of an example at some distance from Adventism – the case of Joan of Arc. For those unfamiliar with the story here is a brief overview (abundant additional information  is easily accessed on the web). She was born a peasant in eastern France in 1412 during what is known as the Hundred Years War – a protracted conflict between France and England over ownership of lands in what is now western France. She was a pious child who, at the age of 13 1/2, began to hear voices, later visions, who she understood to be the Archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine. Gradually, but by May 1428, she understood she was being commanded by God to go aid the yet-uncrowned king Charles VII of France in his war against the English. The military situation was deteriorating for the French with possible defeat imminent. Amid much skepticism she eventually obtained an audience with Charles in March 1429. The king had disguised himself to test her, but she immediately picked him out from a group. She was eventually examined favorably by a committee of high-ranking clergy. While not vouching for the legitimacy of her visions they were willing to allow further testing. Multiple evidences then occurred to satisfy enough skepticism so eventually she led an army to Orléans and the English siege of the town was lifted. Further victories followed opening the way for Charles to reach the city of Reims – the traditional place for a king to be crowned – which took place in July 1429. French morale increased. Further sporadic fighting continued through the winter and in May 1430 she was captured by the English. What the French could accept as visions from God the English declared heretical. Politics and propaganda dominated religion on both sides. The English cause had suffered reversals and Joan was instrumental. They placed her on trial for heresy. The transcript has been preserved and Joan defended herself admirably, winning much sympathy. But the verdict was a foregone conclusion. She was convicted of heresy and eventually burned at the stake in May 1431, refusing to recant. But her involvement turned the tide of the war and the French consider her a national heroine. Twenty-four years later a ‘process of rehabilitation’ inquest was convened with Papal consent and the heresy judgment was reversed. She was eventually canonized a saint in 1920.
So how might one evaluate the miraculous in this interesting bit of history? Were the visions from God? Historical distance and political factors cloud the question. But consider the following matrix:
The root-cause of the visions could be natural or supernatural. If natural then one might argue she could either be deluded or a deceiver, depending on her character. Obviously historical distance makes it difficult to determine anything clearly but the available evidence seems to strongly argue against bad character. That would seem to increase the probability of either ‘Sincere but deluded’ or ‘From God’. If the visions were naturally-grounded the delusion might be physiological. Adventists recognize this sort of argument has been made in the case of Ellen White who was seriously injured by a rock as a child. Such assignment of cause is convenient if you have a bias favoring naturalism. In Joan’s case there was a series of events between her initial meeting of the king and first military action where she either knew things she supposedly couldn’t have or events happened as predicted. Such ‘evidences’ slowly removed the skepticism. But, if the evidences have any credibility, they are the sort of thing that is not explained well by appealing to a physiologically-grounded delusion. They would seem to argue for either some supernatural involvement or duplicity by Joan. Another potential problem – at least for a non-Catholic – is Joan’s attribution of some of the voices to Catholic saints. Adventist doctrine – presumably Biblically defensible – precludes this. ‘Saints’ Margaret and Catherine would be sleeping until the resurrection, hence unable to be the actual source if we attribute cause to be supernatural. So would that argue for Satanic origin? Or might God work within the parameters of Joan’s theological literacy. Here also we might ask what was the net-result of Joan’s actions? Did they produce good or bad? If good why would Satan be behind this? Her intervention helped to end the war and contributed to French nationhood. Would God intervene to promote such goals?
Well, conclusions in this case are not my point. I use this concrete example only to help our mining for general principles. So, some take-aways might be …
- Assess the character of the one to whom the miraculous reportedly occurred.
- Test consistency with Biblical doctrine. If it does not seem to be consistent does that matter or could God be at work anyway, due to the limitations of the person involved?
- Assess results. Does effect of the (possibly) miraculous occurrence(s) eventually produce good fruit? Or Bad?
- Consider the credibility of the sources on which we base the evidence used for evaluation.
The Video Conversation [7 minutes, 30 seconds] – Transcript
Some Questions to Consider:
Q: If you believe in miracles on what basis do you ground that belief? If you reject all miracles on what basis do you reject?
Q: To what extent is belief in the miraculous mandatory for accepting Christianity?
Q: How central is the miraculous to a robust Christianity?
|1||Bull, Brian and Guy, Fritz, “Then a Miracle Occurs”, Understanding Genesis: Contemporary Adventist Perspectives (Adventist Today Foundation, 2006).|
|2||Time Magazine, April 10, 1995. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,982807,00.html|
|3||Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), pp. 114-116.|
Pierre LaPlace (1749-1827), famously, is supposed to have had the following exchange:
Napolean: “ Monsieur LaPlace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.”
Laplace: "I had no need of that hypothesis."
|10||Humes, Edward, Monkey Girl, Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America’s Soul, (Harper Collins, 2007).|
|12||For example: http://archive.joan-of-arc.org/|
Links to the other essays in this series:
5) Why Believe?
11) Suffering and Death