Miracles-What Do You Expect Me To Believe? (Part 3)

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Historical apologetics, Philosophy
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by Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on miracles. Please see Part 1, Part 2 if you have not read them yet.

A temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature

Hume defines a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature and points to uniform experience of the laws of nature going along as normal in support of the fact that miracles are not possible, or at least, not accessible through testimony.  However, what can this mean?  Certainly not that we are omniscient and can see the laws of nature being upheld everywhere, but even if we could, Hume’s own words would still speak against the uniformity of nature he used to argue against miracles!  Hume says in the same work as our feature essay on miracles, under the title “Cause and Effect” in Part I:

“That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood.”

Well, I think John Lennox rightly follows the implications of this line of thought to say that if you cannot predict the future on the basis of past experience, Hume in the same way cannot be sure that a dead man will not rise up tomorrow.  The same argument also works backwards in time, for even if there was uniformity for 300 years that kings of England are not decapitated, if someone said that Charles I was not decapitated, on the basis of uniformity, that person would be wrong.  “Uniformity is one thing; absolute uniformity is another.” (God’s Undertaker, p.196).  Norman Geisler also catches Hume making outlandish assertions by pointing out the fallacy of adding evidence instead of weighing it.  Based on the fact that deaths occur over and over again, but resurrections are rare at best, Hume rejects resurrections.  However, this does not involve examining the facts (say of whether Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead), for he is confusing “quantity of evidence with the quality of evidence.”  This practice of adding evidence could be applied to unusual or unique events that are not miracles, leading people to disbelieve them, or thinking that because something is highly improbable, it can never happen.  However, odds do not carry as much weight as facts, so evidence must be weighed.  Geisler finishes by saying “Hume’s argument seems to prove too much.  It proves that we should not believe in a miracle even if it happens!” (In Defense of Miracles, p.78-79).

So if absolute uniformity is out of our reach, what about the claim that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature?  Surely everyone can appreciate the role of gravity in keeping us from floating off into space, so it would likely be distressing to find out that these laws were not set.  But what does it mean that the laws of nature are violated by miracles?  Certainly not that one instance that does not conform to the normal course of events puts an end to the standard that governs the normal course of events.  Without the concept of the way events normally happen, there would be no way to recognize anything as miraculous.  So a miracle, by definition is something exceptional and temporary, not something that happens so naturally or normally that we do not think of it as miraculous.  In other words, a miracle does not change the laws of nature or set in motion a new way the world works.  The claim that Jesus was born of a virgin did not carry with it the assumption that babies would all of a sudden start growing in young women who had not had sexual intercourse with a man.  In fact, the opposite assumption came with it, that Jesus was unique in this way; the product of a divine miracle of God from birth.

By way of analogy, C.S. Lewis offers the following illustration:

“If this week I put a thousand pounds in the drawer of my desk, add two thousand next week and another thousand the week thereafter, the laws of arithmetic allow me to predict that the next time I come to my drawer, I shall find four thousand pounds.  But suppose when I next open the drawer, I find only one thousand pounds, what shall I conclude?  That the laws of arithmetic have been broken?  Certainly not!  I might more reasonably conclude that some thief has broken the laws of the State and stolen three thousand pounds out of my drawer.  Furthermore, it would be ludicrous to claim that the laws of arithmetic made it impossible to believe in the existence of such a thief or the possibility of his intervention.  On the contrary, it is the normal workings of those laws that have exposed the existence and activity of the thief.” (Miracles, p.62)

Laws do not prevent intervention, but only point out that intervention, in that something is not conforming to the usual way things happen.  Scientists often think of what is scientific in terms of what is repeatable, conforming to the laws of nature.  With a miracle, God intervenes into the natural order of things.  If the same circumstances arise as when the miracle took place and there is no intervention from God, the same event will not be repeated, but the laws of nature will turn the events according to their usual pattern.  If C.S. Lewis came to his drawer in a further few weeks, in the absence of a thief, there would still be the thousand pounds that the thief left after the initial theft.  In addition, there are naturalistic unrepeatabilities.  The Big Bang is the singular origin of the universe that many contemporary astronomers believe to be the best explanation of what happened (please see the cosmological argument for God’s existence), but it has not happened again, nor can it be repeated naturally.  I mentioned above that I think this to be a naturalistic miracle, but in actuality, it is.  It cannot be said that the big bang operated according to natural laws, for both space and time are believed to have come into existence at the beginning of the universe with the Big Bang.  Norman Geisler adds to this.

“And nearly all scientists believe that the origin of life on this planet also was a singular event that has never been repeated here.” (In Defense of Miracles, p.82)

People have tried to create life, imagining what the early conditions of the earth were like, but have been unsuccessful.  It seems like this again fits the category of miracle, for life is not being created out of non-life anywhere that we know of.  To bring the parallel to a miracle claim, dead men usually stay dead.  To say that certain persons were resurrected does not directly contradict this nor imply that dead people will start to randomly rise from the dead, because the claim is not that those resurrected were raised naturally.  There is no dead raising mechanism in the laws of nature, but the claim is that they were brought back to life by a supernatural power; a significant intervention into the natural course of events.  My brother-in-law likes to skydive.  Thinking in terms of what can be discovered scientifically about the laws of nature, after he jumps out of the plane, gravity will bring him toward the earth at a very rapid speed.  Should he hit the ground at that speed, the pressure exerted on his body would kill him.  You are probably thinking that I am forgetting about the parachute.  Well, nothing scientific says that according to the laws of nature the parachute must open before he hits the ground.  It must be his choice to intervene in the normal course of events that are taking place by pulling the cord to release his chute.  Again, I do not see how God would be unable to do something similar.  If He is indeed the One who first gave life to a human being, why could He not do it again to bring a dead man to life?

Click here to see part 4 of the article


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