Miracles-What Do You Expect Me To Believe? (Part 2)

Posted: January 28, 2011 in Historical apologetics, Philosophy
Tags: , , , , ,

by Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on miracles. Please see Part 1 if you have not read it yet.

The case for miracles-What is a miracle?

Before one can say too much about whether miracles are possible or not and whether they have occurred or not, it is important to know just what we are talking about when we say “miracle”.  Hume offered his definition of a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature, providing the example of a healthy man dying unexpectedly as unusual, though not miraculous, since it has been observed.  He contrasts this with a dead man coming to life, which is a miracle because it has never been observed.  This is a question begging argument (one that assumes what is supposed to be proved), as C.S. Lewis, among others (including modern defenders of Hume), has pointed out:

“He first answers, “Yes,” to the question whether Nature is absolutely uniform: and then uses this “Yes” as a ground for answering, “No,” to the question, “Do miracles occur?” The single real question which he set out to answer is never discussed at all. He gets the answer to one form of the question by assuming the answer to the other form of the same question.” (Miracles, p.106)

Richard Purtill makes note of this and adds that the definition of a miracle as something against uniform experience is not helpful either, for it also applies to any unique event that has not happened.

“We would not argue that it is impossible to land a person on Mars “because there is uniform experience against it.” (In Defense of Miracles, p.65)

In response, Purtill offers a definition of a miracle as an event brought about by the power of God that is a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history (In Defense of Miracles, p.72).  It is this definition of a miracle, as opposed to Hume’s, that I will be defending.

An event brought about by the power of God

A very important, if not the most important, consideration in deciding the possibility of miracles is the existence of God.  I do not go so far as to say that this is the single determining factor on the question of miracles, because deists (to whose fire Hume seems to have added much fuel) might grant the existence of God, while denying the reality of God’s action in history after His initial creation.  Also, such a distinction is not conclusive, because people could still attribute miracles to other supernatural or alien forces without considering God to be the source.  However, it does go without saying that given the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Being (the God of Christian belief), miracles are significantly more likely than in a world where no such Being exists.  It is not my purpose here to discuss the various arguments for the existence of God, but to simply point out an important difference in two opposing worldviews, naturalism and theism.

Naturalism says that this universe, matter and energy, is all there is and there is nothing outside.  It is easy to see why this view opposes miracles, because if there is nothing outside of nature, there is nothing to intervene in nature.  However, taking this worldview to its logical conclusion, it ends up either in defending a view contrary to some of the latest advances in modern science or in defending a view of the greatest miracle of all having happened without a miracle worker.  What I am referring to is the very origin of the universe itself!  It was long believed that the universe was eternal, but philosophical problems (postulating an actual infinite number of things) and scientific problems (denying big bang cosmology, that there was a singular beginning of the universe) brought the predicament I described above.  Alexander Vilenkin said it best when he stated

“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” (Many Worlds in One, p.176)

If this is the case, a naturalist might be forced into the position of saying that the universe came into existence out of nothing by nothing, or equally absurd, the universe brought itself into existence!  If ever there were miracles, this would certainly be on the list; not to mention the fact that we might expect things to pop into existence out of nothing for no reason if such was the nature of the universe in which we live.  Another option is to plead ignorance and hope for a future naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe.  Richard Dawkins has done this in his debate with John Lennox, confessing, as described by Lennox, that “he does not know what caused the origin of the universe, but he believes (yes, faith) that there will one day be a naturalistic explanation of it.” (God’s Undertaker, p.194).  It is here as much as anywhere that I see the emptiness of the claim that science and faith are at war, for I see a belief (naturalism) masquerading in scientific clothing, denying another belief (theism) and thereby denying good science.

In theism, distinct from deism, the universe, matter and energy, still exist just as in naturalism, but transcendent to this physical realm is a Being, like the One I described above, called God.  In deism, this Being created everything like winding up a clock, and just let it go, not to be interfered with.  However, in theism, God interacts with the world in addition to having created it; He is sovereign over it and has even revealed Himself in it.  Once I was talking with a deist, from Saudi Arabia of all places, who said that He believed that God created the world through science and did no miracles.  To me, it is quite incredible to think that people would attribute to God such an amazing miracle as the creation of the world out of nothing and then think that He would not be interested in doing anything else, but maybe that is just it.  If God is not sovereign and has not revealed Himself, then no one is responsible to submit to Him.  In any case, I contend that in a universe which is created by God, a universe to which the laws of nature belong, God is not limited by His creation.  What I mean by this is that the kind of Being that could create the entire universe would certainly not be limited by the same restrictions of you or I or a potato for that matter.  The Being theists call Creator would be capable of anything not apparently absurd or self-contradictory.  For a Being who created water molecules, grape molecules, and fermentation, it is certainly not too much to think He could turn water into wine faster than usual.  In the words of Craig Blomberg:

“If persons can change the physical world, how much more ought God to be able to do so!” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p.107)

This is a point I will return to in the subsequent sections, but suffice it to say here that if creativity be in question, just as Shakespeare could rewrite part of a play, it is surely in God’s power to change His creation.

Click here to see part 3 of the article

  1. Åsa says:

    This was great! I got some really useful input for an article I was asked to write. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Åsa. I have finished the other parts if you want them. I am not sure what your article is going to be about, but it could be useful. Let me know if you would like to read them soon.

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