Are Miracles Possible?

In criminal legal proceedings, the Exclusionary Rule prevents illegally obtained evidence from being introduced into a criminal trial. The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine “extends the exclusionary rule to make evidence inadmissible in court if it was derived from other evidence that was illegally obtained…if the evidential ‘tree’ is tainted, so is its fruit.”[1] Detectives must be careful as to how they obtain evidence from the very beginning of an investigation, or their case may be in jeopardy as their evidence will not be allowed to be heard by a judge or jury. Likewise, skeptics of Christianity may claim the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is poisoned “fruit” of the worldview that miracles are possible. By showing that miracle are not illogical and should not be ruled out before an investigation, the following will attempt to overcome the naturalist bias against miracles, which may be the key to enter the courtroom of the skeptic’s mind to present the evidence of the resurrection.

A Matter of Definition

What is meant by a miracle? Defining a miracle only as any sort of intervention by God that is out of the ordinary allows for extrinsic evidence to be presented that likely serves no purpose but to muddy the investigation. There are countless examples of claimed “miracles” that have been disproven. However, disproving one claim does not disprove allmiracles or their possibility, only that the evidence for the disproven miracle was not credible. If miracles are possible, then each claim should be evaluated upon the credibility of the witnesses as well as the evidence presented.

Our concern is miracles and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; therefore, we should examine what is meant by a miracle in terms of a Christian worldview.  Systematic theologian John Frame agrees when he writes, “…a biblical definition of miracle will go far to deal with problems that arise in connection with this topic, such as the relation of miracle to science and the credibility of miracle stories in Scripture.”[2]  Frame continues to then define a miracle “As displays of God’s control, authority, and presence, miracles may be defined as extraordinary manifestations of God’s lordship.[3] Miracles in Scripture serve a higher purpose to bring confirmation to God’s messengers as they testify to the authenticity of the message that accompanies the miracle. In the Old Testament, Moses and other prophets performed miracles to verify their authority and the words that would follow.

In the New Testament, it is the same with Jesus and the apostles. For example, while John the Baptist was in prison, he asked his followers if Jesus is the messiah. Jesus replied for his followers to tell John of all the signs and wonders they had witnessed (Luke 7:18 – 23). Of course, the word miracle is not in the Bible, and what is commonly referred to as a miracle would be known biblically as a sign, wonder, or act of God. If we consider the view of miracles as proposed by Frame, they are intentional acts of divine communication that reveal God’s glory and power; not magic tricks that we request on-demand and are needed to be updated regularly. We can then know that a statute “crying,” or Jesus’ face seen in a burnt piece of toast is not a miracle and not to be used to counter a supernatural worldview when they are proven false or if witnesses are deemed not credible.

However, philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632 – 1677) defined a miracle differently as he argued that God would not intervene in the affairs of the world by way of miracles.[4] Dr. Randal Heskett summarizes Spinoza’s argument as “God’s understanding and will are one and the same, both are unchanging and eternal, and laws of nature flow out from these. Thus, miracles defy the laws of nature, indicating some essential change in the nature of God, which is impossible.”[5] In other words, a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, which instituted by a perfect divine being, simply cannot be violated. Therefore, any examination of evidence which claims to be in support of a miracle is a non-starter. Miracles simply cannot be due to Spinoza’s logic that perfect God would not contradict his own nature and, if somehow a miracle was proved to be true, then it would only serve to disprove God. Spinoza agrees when he writes that if a miracle was proved, it would be “in contravention to God’s nature and laws, and consequently, belief in it would throw doubt upon everything, and lead to Atheism.”[6]

Spinoza’s definition that a miracle is a violation of nature has been accepted by most for half a millennium now. A legacy that was aided by Philosopher David Hume’s (1711 – 1776) famous work Of Miracles, in which  he argues that a miracle has to be a violation of the laws of nature and that a “…firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact….”[7] While modern-day critics may not share Spinoza’s deistic or pantheistic, reasoning to conclude that miracles violate natural laws, they certainly agree with the definition. Famed skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, while engaging in a debate with William Lane Craig, declared that miracles are a violation of nature.[8]  Arguing against the resurrection, philosopher Michael Martin writes “Traditionally a miracle is defined as a violation of a natural law of nature caused by the intervention of God.”[9] Martin then uses this definition to support his argument, which he calls “The Initial Improbability Argument” that using his definition rules out even the possibility of miracles because they would immediately be a violation of the laws of nature.[10]

Defining a miracle strictly as a “violation of nature,” as Spinoza, Hume, and many modern-day critics do, stacks the deck against any investigation into miracles. Their logic is first to declare the laws of nature are immutable and then define a miracle as a violation of immutable natural laws. However, the fair question is, are natural laws immutable? Norm Geisler and Ronald Brooks note that Spinoza would have had this notion of fixed natural laws from Newtonian physics. In the 17th century, such physics were the “latest rage,” but that “today scientist understand that natural laws don’t tell us what must happen, but only describe what usually does happen.”[11]

However, consider that if God was to act in a way as to change the natural course, it is not a violation but an interruption. Apologist Frank Turek continues this thought further with two observations. First, if God does exist, then a supreme intelligence overpowering the laws of nature would not be a violation anymore then an outfielder catching (interrupting) a fly ball which, left untouched, would have followed the ordinary course of gravity to the ground.[12]Second, he simply states that “Creation itself demonstrates that natural laws are not immutable. Something doesn’t naturally come from nothing. But here we are.”[13] That time, space, and matter are co-existent and seem to have had a beginning, commonly known as Big Bang Cosmology, is widely held as truth by secular scientist. Simply defining miracles as violations of nature is a misunderstanding of nature, confusing prescription with description, and immediately creates a false dichotomy between science and faith, allowing the skeptic to dismiss any evidence of a miracle a priori. However, if miracles are essentially divine communication, then the skeptic’s argument is to simply close their ears, as opposed to attempting to make the case that any reports of a divine communicator are not credible or there is no communicator.

A Matter of Credibility

Regarding the resurrection, the issue is a historical one regarding the reports of the resurrected Christ. Do we have credible eyewitness testimony that Jesus was alive, died, and was seen alive again? New Testament scholar and historian Gary Habermas has collected decades of research regarding the historical evidence of the resurrection, which Greg Koukl summarizes as such: “…in the last 50 years there has been a dramatic reversal in historical Jesus scholarship regarding the resurrection accounts. The vast majority of experts on the life of Jesus—including secular scholars who have no theological stake in the game—overwhelmingly agree to four facts of history.”[14] The four facts are: Jesus died by crucifixion, the tomb he was buried in was empty after three days, people believed they saw the resurrected Christ, and both Paul and James experienced radical conversions to Christianity.[15] These facts are agreed to by the majority of scholars and make their reports in the New Testament credible and worth examining.

However, the definition of a miracle is only one part of the skeptic’s argument against miracles. William Lane Craig writes, “If Spinoza attacked the occurrence of a miracle, Hume attacked the possibility of the identification of a miracle.”[16] Hume advanced a radical skepticism with his ideas of probability and that one should weigh the testimony of all human experience versus testimony of someone who claims a miracle occurred.

Hume’s argument gives the skeptic an “escape hatch,” that is, even if competent evidence is presented, the issue becomes credibility of the claim. It is just not credible to believe anyone who claims to have witnessed a miracle. “A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence,” writes Hume, and he continues that we should regard our “…past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event.”[17]  According to Hume’s logic, the evidence is irrelevant; miracles are rare, and we will never have enough experience of a miracle to counter the experience against them. In other words, even if we had substantial evidence Jesus did walk on water, since the overwhelming experience is that people do not walk on water, we must not believe the miracle.

Further, if attacking the credibility of a miracle was not enough, Hume continues to argue that miracles have been “observed chiefly…among ignorant and barbarous nations….”[18] Hume’s argument is not that miracles are impossible; it is just that they are so incredible a claim against our uniform experience, brought forth by unreliable witnesses, that only a fool would believe in them.

Regarding Hume’s argument that uniform experience forces us to not believe in miracles, there are two primary reasons not to comply with such a maxim. First, he is not weighing the evidence of a claimed miracle but adding evidence, leading him to mistake quantity with probability.[19] Imagine a criminal justice system that operated by Hume’s rules of evidence. If a forty-four-year-old person murdered someone on their forty-fifth birthday, could they argue no one should believe they are guilty? By Hume’s logic, could not the suspect argue that the consistent experience for past 16,000-plus days of their life that they did not murder anyone, versus the one day they did, and therefore, they are innocent? Moreover, the majority of people for the overwhelming majority of their lives do not commit homicide. Hume’s fallacy is that he dismisses the quality of evidence.

Second, how is Hume, or anyone, able to know all human experience? For example, consider John and his gospel. He records that Jesus did many other signs, “…which are not written in this book”[20]  and that if all were recorded, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”[21] If John is a reliable source, then Jesus performed many more miracles then have been recorded. At that time in history, could not the human experience have been much different than it was for Hume?

Scholar Michael Licona offers wise advice going forward in light of Hume’s credibility arguments. We need to simply evaluate any evidence for a miracle on a case-by-case basis and determine its credibility. He explains, “If the evidence for a miracle is credible and no plausible natural explanation exists, to reject it on the basis that other miracle-claims abound among the ignorant and uneducated is to be guilty of arguing ad hominem.”[22] The argument here is not to blindly accept the evidence, but it is to examine the evidence. There is little historical doubt that our New Testament today contains reliable testimony. What is debatable is what is the best explanation of those minimal facts concerning the resurrection; that a miracle occurred or a naturalist explanation?

A Matter of Worldview

A detective would fail to do their job if they believed, by way of bias or prejudice, that a suspect was guilty or innocent and refused to examine the evidence. It is only worth examining the evidence if one is willing to follow it no matter where it leads. When it comes to the resurrection, that starts with being open to the possibility of miracles. Could not the skeptic simply accuse the Christian of being biased towards believing in miracles? Possibly, if the over-arching argument was that the miracle proves God. However, the better argument is not a bottom-up one, but a top-down; that a belief in God is justified and, therefore, miracles are possible. As Licona observes, “…why should an atheist or agnostic worldview be awarded a default position, especially when good data exists for a theistic reality?”[23]

While outside the scope of this paper to unpack every argument of theism, specifically Christianity, there are good reasons to believe that God’s existence is possible.. If so, then a supernatural explanation of the resurrection must be examined based on the evidence. Traditionally, three main arguments have been used to show that God’s existence is more than reasonable.

Philosopher W. David Beck offers a summary of the premises and conclusions of the three main arguments for Christianity.[24] First, the Cosmological Argument states that every physical object that exists had a beginning and that the sequence of causally related objects which have a beginning cannot be infinite. Therefore, there must be a first cause of the universe. Second, the Teleological Argument notes that the entire universe has features that demonstrate a design that cannot be explained as pure products of chance by evolution. This is also commonly known as the fine-turning argument. Everything from the position of the earth, the perfect ratio of atmospheric gases, the complexity of DNA, reflect that an intelligent being must be the source of our universe and all that is in it. Third, the Moral Argumentrecognizes that objective morals exist and that naturalistic explanations have failed to explain why adequately. The best explanation of universal moral laws is that there is a universal moral lawgiver. Each one of these arguments is rich and complex and worthy of many studies, but the emphasis for this paper is that none of them begin by proving a miracle and assuming the supernatural; they work together to show that a theistic worldview is reasonable and most likely. Therefore, when examining the evidence of a miracle, one is justified in at least considering that miracles are possible.

Hume contributed significantly to the philosophy of the Enlightenment Era, which was marked by its emphasis on empiricism. Empiricism is the belief that knowledge can only be obtained by the five senses, and increasingly, philosophers ruled out the existence of anything outside the material world. This view is also known as naturalism. Almost a century after Hume, Charles Darwin would publish his Magnus opus “On the Origin of Species,” cementing a more public acceptance of naturalism. Divine revelation of any kind, whether it be a miracle or inherent moral knowledge, became less accepted for acute intellects.

Beginning with Spinoza, continuing through Hume and the Enlightenment Era, and now to the modern-day skeptics, what developed was not sound arguments against the evidence for miracles, but a bias of naturalism that, without investigation, declares miracles impossible. Skeptical scholar Heskett offers a stunning summary: “The tools of the Enlightenment including the microscope, telescope, historical-critical methods exposed how these pre-scientific notions of cosmology and conception are absurd. Science describes an entirely different cosmogony—namely the origins of the universe—pushing humankind out of the ‘dark ages’ into new horizons. In light of science, a wise person, whether atheist or theist, cannot read the Bible verbatim nor accept the miracles of creation because they are based on a flawed cosmology. Those who have drunk from the well of modernity cannot fail to recall science when considering biblical miracle stories.”[25].

Scholar Michael Goulder demonstrates the danger of this mindset while arguing for the hallucination theory as the explanation of Jesus’ resurrection, writes, “…even if speculative [meaning his theory], a natural explanation is preferred.”[26] Dr. Greg Bahnsen rightly argues that “unbelievers who reject the miracle accounts in the Bible are simply giving expression to their own philosophical prejudices – their presuppositional commitment to a solely naturalistic understanding of the world in which we live.”[27] How did it come to be that so many skeptics merely assume naturalism?

Spinoza’s argument that miracles violate nature began a trajectory that hundreds of years later, through poor philosophy in the Enlightenment Era and the Scientific Age, would create a false dichotomy between science and religion.  Koukl wisely notes that “…if you hold the belief that science is the only thing that is a measure of truth, then science is in hot water because science can’t justify itself.”[28] In other words, declaring science as the only way to know truth is itself a truth which cannot be known scientifically. As previously described, the case for theism is strong and does not omit science. The only thing that theism omits if true is naturalism. If God does exist, then it is not natural versus supernatural, as God’s providence operates both in the natural order of events as well as the supernatural. Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:29 that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without His permission.

The skeptics have offered no new arguments against the possibility of miracles. By defining miracles as violating nature, making the tests of credibility irrational, and assuming a naturalistic worldview, the skeptics have made the “rules of the game in such a way they cannot lose.”[29] It is naturalism that ultimately poisons the ability to examine evidence of a miracle, not supernaturalism.

If miracles are credible revelations of divine communication of a personal God, then attempting to disprove one miracle with the starting worldview miracles are not possible only works to reinforce a worldview that miracles are not possible. The naturalist’s universe is closed; no matter how good the evidence, a miracle can never be the answer. As opposed to first examining the evidence if the God of the Bible exists, and examining miracle claims in that light. As long as the existence of God is possible, which no skeptic has disproven, then miracles remain on the table, and a supernatural explanation for the resurrection of Christ demands credibility. The naturalist knows what is at stake here, as C.S. Lewis poetically wrote, “But if we admit God, must we admit Miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain. Theology says to you in effect, ‘Admit God and with Him the risk of a few miracles, and I in return will ratify your faith in uniformity as regards the overwhelming majority of events.’”[30]

 

 

Resources Cited

[1]           “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree,” Cornell Law School, accessed January 16, 2020, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/fruit_of_the_poisonous_tree.

[2]           John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 124.

[3]           Frame, Systematic Theology, 131.

[4]           Although Spinoza deemed natural laws come from God, he was not implying the God of the Bible. Spinoza’s religious views have been categorized as either deistic or pantheistic.

[5]           Randall Heskett, “Old Testament Miracle Genres as Folklore and Legend,” in The Case Against Miracles, ed. by John W. Loftus (Eugen, OR: Hypatia Press, 2019), Loc 6746-6747 Kindle.

[6]           Spinoza, Tractatus Tehologico-Politicus 1.6.

[7]           Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 10.1.

[8]           “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? The Craig-Ehrman Debate,” Reasonable Faith, March 2006, accessed February 18, 2020, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman/.

[9]           Michael Martin, “The Resurrection as Initially Improbable,” in The Empty Tomb, ed. Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), Loc 490 Kindle.

[10]         Martin, Reurrection as Initially Improbable, Loc 484 – 488 Kindle.

[11]         Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 71.

[12]         Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 192.

[13]         Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith, 192.

[14]         Greg Koukl, “Four Reasons a Dead Man Walked 2,000 Years Ago,” Str.org, accessed on February 14, 2020, https://www.str.org/article/four-reasons-dead-man-walked-2000-years-ago-mentoring-letter-april-2017#.Xll8MS3MzfY.

[15]         Gary R Habermas and Michael R Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 48 – 77. Habermas’ minimal fact argument is explained over two chapters.

[16]         William Lane Craig, “The Problem of Miracles: A Historical and Philosophical Perspective,” Reasonable Faith, accessed on January 28, 2020, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/scholarly-writings/historical-jesus/the-problem-of-miracles-a-historical-and-philosophical-perspective/.

[17]         Hume, 10.1.

[18]         Hume 10.2.

[19]         Norman L. Geisler, “Miracles and the Modern Mind,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 78 – 79.

[20]         John 20:30 (English Standard Version).

[21]         John 21:25 (English Standard Version).

[22]         Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 139.

[23]         Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 159.

[24]         W. David Beck, “God’s Existence,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 149 – 162.

[25]         Heskett, The Case Against Miracles, Loc 6457 – 6461 Kindle.

[26]         Michael Goulder, “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (London, England, Oneworld Publications, 1996), 53

[27]         Greg Bahnsen, Always Be Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), 227.

[28]         Greg Koukl, “Sagan and Scientism,” Str.org, accessed on February 23, 2020, https://www.str.org/articles/sagan-and-scientism#.Xlq0Ei2ZM3g.

[29]         Winfried Corduan, “Recognizing a Miracle,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 101.

[30]         C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1960), 169.

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