Posts tagged ‘problem of miracles’

April 28th, 2012

The Problem of Multireligious Miracles

by Max Andrews

The claim is that all religions have their miracles, so what makes Christianity’s miracles true and other religions’ false?

  • Not all religious teach miracles and the Jewish-Christian religions are the only traditions that claim to prove its teachings through miracles.
  • In all cases of miracles, no miracles have the historical evidence like the gospel miracles.
  • Christianity’s miracles are religiously significant.  Jesus’ miracles occurred at the climax of his unparalleled life.
  • Religio-historical context distinguishes miracles from physical anomalies.  When a scientific anomaly occurs it is usually assumed that some unknown natural factors are interfering, so that the law is neither violated nor revised.
April 26th, 2012

The Historical Challenge to Miracles

by Max Andrews

Sociologist Ernst Troelstsch’s objection to miracles:  the principle of historical analogy.  In essence this principle states the historian has no right to accept as historical fact the account of a past event for which he has no analogy in the present.  For example, if one were to read of a great battle in ancient times in which one army massacres another without suffering a single casualty itself, one would be suspect of its authenticity.  To quote Troelstsch, “God never does miracles today, at least I’ve never seen one.  Therefore, I have no reason to believe that he did them in the past.”

April 26th, 2012

Theology Thursday: Rudolph Bultmann

by Max Andrews

Theologian: Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976)

General summary of his theology: Bultmann’s theology is quite faceted but for this Theology Thursday I’m just going to focus on his view on miracles. The early and mid 20th century theologian Rudolph Bultmann argued that “man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world… the modern conception of human nature as a self-subsistent unity immune from the interference of supernatural powers must take its place.” According to Bultmann God is the Wholly Other, there are no points of contact between us and him.  God is, but we cannot know him objectively.  God is hidden and thus neither God nor his actions are open to verification.  This world is a closed system of cause and effect; we can never find God by empirical processes. There are no breaks in the links of causation; thus, there are no miracles. No event can ever be ascribed to God; all are natural causes.  There is an infinite qualitative difference between God and the world, which makes it impossible for God to objectively act in the world.  Paradoxically, the hidden God reaches down to finite humanity and reaches himself (via the kerygma).  Miracles would be intrusions of God into the natural realm.

June 20th, 2011

The Problem of Miracles

by Max Andrews

Why must the possibility of miracles be so foundational? Because it’s the crux of the gospel message, the resurrection of Jesus.  If Jesus did not rise from the dead then our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15.17).

Undoubtedly, one of the major stumbling blocks to becoming a Christian for many people today is that Christianity is a religion of miracles.  It asserts that God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, being born of a virgin, that he performed various miracles, exorcised demonic beings, and that, having died by crucifixion, he rose from the dead.  But the problem is that these sorts of miraculous events seem to belong to a worldview foreign to modern man—a pre-scientific, superstitious worldview belonging to the ancient and Middle Ages.[1]

Miracle def.: A divine intervention into, or an interruption of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event that would not have occurred otherwise.

  • Wondrous natural events do not qualify as miracles.
  • Supernatural events that do not interrupt the regular course of the world do not qualify as miracles.
  • “Laws of Nature” are not fixed laws; they are descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • Miracles are not violations of laws of causality, but are simply unusually effects produced by the introduction of a supernatural cause.

David Hume was an 18th century skeptic from Scotland who is considered an authority by many philosophers in challenging miracles.  Consider his take in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding,

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience as can be imagined… It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed, in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.

Hume’s idea of “extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence” is pictured in a scale.  On one side is full proof and the other side is the evidence from all people in all the ages for the regularity of the laws of nature, which also amounts to full proof.  Thus, proof stands against proof and does not incline in either direction, the wise man cannot hold to a miracle with any degree of certainty.  According to Hume, miracles are violations of the “laws of nature” that “firm and unalterable” experience has solidly established.[2]  Only a superior testimony of experience may override this proposition, but, unfortunately, there cannot be such a testimony, for if there were, miracles would no longer merit their name.[3]  For clarification:

  • Hume is not arguing that miracles are impossible, just that there can never be enough evidence to believe in them.
  • The entire fund of human experience has established the laws of nature and one would need a greater amount of evidence than all of mankind’s experience to believe in miracles.
  • Hume’s argument is based on probability:  It will always be more probable that a person will be in error (deceiving or being deceived) than an entire experience of mankind is wrong.

Keeping Hume’s criteria and experiential background information in the back of your mind, with respects to the resurrection, let’s consider witness credibility.  What about the contention that the disciples were guilty of fraud?

Easter is not primarily a comfort, but a challenge. Its message is either the supreme fact in history or else a gigantic hoax… If it is true, then it is the supreme fact of history; and to fail to adjust one’s life to its implications means irreparable loss. But if it is not true, if Christ be not risen, then the whole of Christianity is a fraud, foisted on the world by a company of consummate liars, or, at best, deluded simpletons. St. Paul himself realized this when he wrote: If Christ be not risen, then our preaching is meaningless, and your faith worthless. More, we are found to be false witnesses. [4]

What about the cause of the rise of Christianity?

If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with? … the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church… remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself. [5]

So, how should we answer the Humean objection?

  • Hume begs the question:  “Firm and unalterable experience”; He assumes that miracles have never occurred in order to prove that miracles have never occurred.  CS Lewis notes,

“Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they have 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 know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact we are arguing in a circle.”[6]

  • Hume presupposes naturalism.  Yet if God exists then surely miracles are possible.
  • Hume misuses probability:  1) Highly improbable events do occur; 2) probability cannot tell what actually happened in the past.
  • Miracles appear as sense perception and therefore can be supported by testimony; if miracles are possible then claims should be investigated rather than just ruled out a priori.

How about a more scientific challenge? Early and mid 20th century theologian Rudolph Bultmann argues that “man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world… the modern conception of human nature as a self-subsistent unity immune from the interference of supernatural powers must take its place.” According to Bultmann God is the Wholly Other, there are no points of contact between us and him.  God is, but we cannot know him objectively.  God is hidden and thus neither God nor his actions are open to verification.  This world is a closed system of cause and effect; we can never find God by empirical processes. There are no breaks in the links of causation; thus, there are no miracles. No event can ever be ascribed to God; all are natural causes.  There is an infinite qualitative difference between God and the world, which makes it impossible for God to objectively act in the world.  Paradoxically, the hidden God reaches down to finite humanity and reaches himself (via the kerygma).  Miracles would be intrusions of God into the natural realm.

What is quite interesting about Bultmann is that he was a contemporary with the rise of Einsteinian physics and relativity.  Bultmann was still shaping his theology and philosophy to a Newtonian system.  It’s not so much that God wouldn’t cause miracles; rather, it’s that he can’t. It would be morally wrong if he interfered with his creation.

How should we respond to objections based on science?

  • The closed-universe view, which says that the universe contains all of reality, is now being either questions or flat-out rejected by many scientists.  Many cosmologists are adopting the view of the multiverse, which is an open-system.  This is quite interesting, though I’m not using it argumentatively, if God were to create, wouldn’t you expect him to create an open-system such as the multiverse given is infinite creativity?
  • Physical science cannot account for all events purely on natural laws.
  • Probability applies even to the field of physics.
  • Some physical events are unpredictable and do not conform to laws (depending on which interpretation of quantum mechanics one ascribes to, particularly concerning wave collapse).
  • Causal agents (agents with libertarian freedom) create several events, which are unpredictable and cannot be ruled out.
  • Investigating an event to see if it actually occurred is valid apart from science and is regularly practiced in other fields (particularly the historical sciences).
  • All we need to establish by this method is that miracles cannot be ruled out a priori.
  • See more from John Lennox on philosophical and scientific objections.

How about a historical challenge?  Sociologist Ernst Troelstsch’s objection to miracles:  the principle of historical analogy.  In essence this principle states the historian has no right to accept as historical fact the account of a past event for which he has no analogy in the present.  For example, if one were to read of a great battle in ancient times in which one army massacres another without suffering a single casualty itself, one would be suspect of its authenticity.  To quote Troelstsch, “God never does miracles today, at least I’ve never seen one.  Therefore, I have no reason to believe that he did them in the past.”

Responding to Troelstsch’s historical challenge:

  • There are positive reasons to believe that the miraculous may be occurring today.  There is a growing awareness in the world of the paranormal—events that cannot be explained by natural causes.  (E.g. near death experiences).
  • It is impossible to argue that miracles do not occur merely because one has not experienced a miracle.  Miracles may be occurring beyond the scope of one’s awareness.  This is confusing an epistemological issue [knowledge based] with an ontological issue [a nature of being].
  • There is no reason a priori to reject the testimony of others who have experienced the miraculous.  As stated above, while one may be justified in requiring evidence for miracle claims, miracles are objective events that can be verified like any other event.

How about multireligious miracles?  The claim is that all religions have their miracles, so what makes Christianity’s miracles true and other religions’ false?

  • Not all religious teach miracles and the Jewish-Christian religions are the only traditions that claim to prove its teachings through miracles.
  • In all cases of miracles, no miracles have the historical evidence like the gospel miracles.
  • Christianity’s miracles are religiously significant.  Jesus’ miracles occurred at the climax of his unparalleled life.
  • Religio-historical context distinguishes miracles from physical anomalies.  When a scientific anomaly occurs it is usually assumed that some unknown natural factors are interfering, so that the law is neither violated nor revised.

It has been shown that miracles are not irrational, unscientific, or non-historical.  They can be rationally shown to be possible, are completely compatible with science, and because they are events in history, can be argued as historically have taken place.  If God exists then miracles are not only certainly possible, but one would expect them to take place as a sign of God’s presence.  Miracles are not beyond logic, logical absurdities, or contradictory.  No one is punting to the “God of the gaps”.

Miracles shape the crux of the Christian worldview.  The Jesus Seminar presupposes the impossibility of miracles, “The contemporary religious controversy turns on whether the worldview reflected in the Bible can be carried forward into this scientific age and retained as an article of faith… the Christ of creed and dogma… can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope.”[7]  Miracles are a stumbling block for naturalists.  The use of miracles as an apologetic method is known as evidential apologetics.  Evidentialists will appeal to miracles to argue for theism:  1) historical evidence shows miracles occurred, 2) a theistic context is necessary for a miracle; 3) therefore, God must exist.  One of the most prominent proponents of this method is Gary Habermas.  This is what he calls “one step apologetics”.  Classical apologists also use the resurrection and miracles as arguments for the existence of God; however, they use it in conjunction with other arguments for the existence of God to set up a theistic context prior to arguing for miracles.

This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle.” –AW Tozer


[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, ed. 3 (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway, 2008), 247.

[2] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 2nd ed., Eric Steinberg, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1993), Sec. X, Part I, 76.

[3] Ibid., 77.

[4] Sir Norman Anderson, The Evidence for the Resurrection (Leicestyer:  Inter Varisty Press, 1990), 1.

[5] C.F.D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London:  SCM, 1967) 3, 13.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), 102.

[7] R.W. Funk, R.W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, “Introduction” to The Five Gospels (New York:  Macmillan, 1993), 2. For more on miracles, arguments for them, and applications see William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith ed. 3, a source for much of the included information.