Miracles – Jonathan Rowe


Jonathan Rowe

What is a miracle?

The word miracle comes from the Latin word for a wonderful thing. For the purpose of the religious philosopher, it will be understood as an unusual event which has religious significance.

Therefore, a miracle is not simply the occurrence of an unusual event. As Brian Davies remarks: “those who believe that miracles have actually occurred normally hold that they are events of some religious significance”. We would only conclude that something was a miracle if the event had some meaning or purpose, such as healing somebody or preventing an injury of some sort. If your desk suddenly turned into an elephant and then back again, it would not be seen as religiously significant.

What we are looking at here is the idea that “miracles” can happen. This theme is related to other parts of the course, for example, in the conversion of St Paul, the accounts in Acts of the Apostles depict a clear breach of the laws of nature. The voice of God, the light from heaven which was “brighter than the sun” convinces Paul that he is witnessing a miracle of some sort. Now in this instance there can be various interpretations. God may well have “violated” natural law, or it may well have been an inward vision, (although in fact this is a public revelation since the soldiers travelling with Paul heard the voice as well) or it may have simply been a psychological phenomenon which we will be looking at later. Are miracles such as this possible?

We can divide miracles into two basic types:

  1. A miracle changes the person for the better due to an event which is not a breach of natural law – this can include “happy coincidences”.
  2. A miracle which clearly violates the known laws of nature.

Miracles that don’t violate natural laws

George Schlesinger, in his article on miracles, states:

“It is important to realize that in spite of the widespread belief to the contrary, an event may be the source of marvel and elicit genuine religious response, not only without violating any natural law, but even if all its details may be explained by known laws. As long as an event is genuinely startling and its timing constitutes a mind-boggling coincidence, in that it occurs precisely when there is a distinct call for it to promote some obvious divine objective, then that amounts to a miracle.”

There are countless examples of this in William James’ book Varieties of Religious Experience. Many of these types of experience take the form of an encounter or realisation which brings about a turn-around in someone’s life. It can be either a religious person experiencing an event which fits in with their religion, or that the person becomes religious due to the event. Such an experience does not require a breach of natural law. It is possible that it is a miracle in the sense that God works through individuals in order to bring others to the conversion itself. However, such a “miracle” can also be interpreted as either psychological or as being without any religious significance. The religious significance will depend upon the interpretation of the person who experiences the event.

Some miracles come about through seemingly natural processes. An example of this type of miracle is given in Peter Vardy’s Puzzle of God. A train stops just inches before killing a child who is attempting to retrieve a toy from some train tracks. The mother exclaims that this must be a miracle. However, it turns out that the driver had fainted just before reaching the child. In this event, no breach of natural law has occurred, but God has used natural processes to bring about the stopping of the train. Again, as in the first example, the situation is open to different interpretations. “It was mere coincidence” or “it was a miracle brought about by God” are two possible interpretations.

Life Magazine (27 March 1950) reported that all 15 members of a church choir in Beatrice, Nebraska, came at least 10 minutes late for their weekly choir practice. They were astonishingly fortunate since the building was destroyed by an explosion just before their arrival; if they had arrived on time they would have been killed. The reasons for their lateness were fairly commonplace, but it was extremely unlikely, and it was certainly the first time, that all 15 had been late at once.

Miracles that violate natural laws

This type of event is closer to how most people view a miracle. An occasion suggests that the natural law has been broken in some form. David Hume defines a miracle as:

“A transgression of a law of nature brought about by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”

(Hume’s definition covers God’s actions in the world and also the influences of angels, demons or spirits.)

Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine and – more extraordinary – raising and being raised from the dead. These types of events, Richard Swinburne thinks, would count as permanently unexplainable events. That is, they are unlikely to be explained in future generations by means of perfectly normal scientific occurrences. Margaret Boden argues that if scientists did in future generations prove that this was a normal occurrence, then it would make scientific laws very fragile indeed, and therefore the scientist would have to concede that if such an event occurred, then it would have to remain inexplicable. Or put another way, it would be unreasonable to expect scientists to revise our understanding of a natural law because of a single reported instance of someone walking on water.

The shrine at Lourdes is an example where many miracles have apparently taken place; these miracles are ones which are thoroughly tested, and many take years to be acknowledged. Since 1 March 1858, the Church has recognised 67 miracles at Lourdes. Approximately 5,000 inexplicable healings have also taken place, although these may be coincidental rather than miraculous. Perhaps more significant, though, are the moral and spiritual healings that pilgrims experience each year at Lourdes – lives filled with hope, purpose, joy and renewal. You might consider these to be the greatest miracles.

Miracles and science

Science involves two things: observation and repetition. No scientific law emerges unless there has been some observation of natural phenomena. Science is so firmly based in regular repeatable events in the present that even when an odd event occurs scientists do not consider it part of a scientific explanation. That’s why experiments that cannot be repeated are given little or no validity. Unrepeatable events are never made the basis for a law of science.

In an article on miracles George Chryssides argued that:

  1. No event can be attributed to a rational agent unless its occurrence is regular and repeatable.
  2. Miracles are by nature not regular or repeatable.
  3. Therefore, no miracle can be attributed to any rational agent (eg, to God).

The crux of the argument is what he called the REPEATABILITY REQUIREMENT. Unless an event can be repeated over and over again we have no right to claim we know who (or what) caused it. For example, one should not make a causal connection between the golfer’s type of swing and a once-in-a-life-time-hole-in-one shot. We would consider it a lucky shot. And scientific analysis is not based on fluke relations but on repeated relations. So whether we are dealing with non-intelligent or intelligent causes, there must be a relationship repeatedly observed before one can consider the connection scientifically based. But this repeated relation is precisely what we do not have with miracles because they are one-time events. So singularities such as miracles would seem to be ruled out of the realm of science.

A believer in miracles could simply admit that there is no scientific basis for belief in miracles. Simply because miracles are not subject to repetition does not mean they do not occur. After all, a hole-in-one has happened; desperation shots have gone through the hoop, and some have won at the lottery on the first ticket. So all the theist needs to admit is that singular events (such as miracles) are not subject to scientific analysis. In this sense, what the sceptic would call a “fluke” the religious believer may choose to see as the “hand of God”. Thus the theist could admit that there is no scientific way to differentiate between a natural statistical improbability and a miracle.

Of course, if the theist admits this then the sceptic has won a major victory. For the sceptic could press his argument that there are no rational grounds for belief in miracles either. Since the religious believer admits there is no regularly observed phenomena as a basis for miracles, then he has given up any basis for knowing they have happened. It has become simply a matter of unjustifiable faith in believing they have happened. This would not differ in principle from someone who claims his watch works because a little invisible green gremlin changes the time each second. But are there no rational grounds for believing in miracles?

Activities 1

  • Read St Paul’s account of his miraculous conversion in the Bible. The events are described in the New Testament at Acts 9:3-9; Acts 22: 6-21; Acts 26: 12-18.
  • What are the similarities and differences between the three accounts? Can you explain them? How can Paul’s vision be accounted for?
  • If God can intervene in the world, what are the implications for the problem of suffering and the three theodicies which address it? Make reference to the Lourdes healings and/or the Beatrice, Nebraska news story in your response.
  • Research one of Jesus’ miracles; either walking on water (John 6: 16-21; Matthew 14: 22-33; Mark 6: 45-52), turning water into wine (John 2: 1-11) or raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11).
  • What features of the account make the miracle seem plausible or unlikely? What naturalistic (scientific, non-supernatural) explanations could be given? How could the miracle be interpreted symbolically rather than literally?

Argument: miracles can’t happen

Can natural laws be violated? If God has made the laws of the universe as they are, and they are therefore “natural”, ie that they go along certain lines, then how can God change them?

Alastair McKinnon suggests that natural laws are, by definition, a description of how things work. A violation of natural laws is a suspension of these events, which would mean the natural laws in fact DIDN’T describe how things work. If any event appears miraculous, it must, since it is an event, be part of the natural law. It is just that when the event takes place, what we previously thought was the natural law, was no such thing, and would therefore mean that we should revise that particular law.

For example, if Jesus turned water into wine then, according to McKinnon, there must be circumstances and processes by which water can in fact become wine. If we understood this chemical change better, we would have to change the laws of chemistry to fit in with the miracle.

This is in fact questionable, because natural laws only describe what David Hume calls “firm and unalterable experience”. A natural law only tells us what happens GENERALLY, assuming there is no outside interference. A miracle claims to be precisely that sort of outside interference. For example, to use an example posed by CS Lewis, the laws of physics will tell you where a snooker ball is going to roll if you know the mass of the ball and the force and angle with which it was struck. If an onlooker reaches out and snatches up the ball as it rolls across table, that is certainly an unpredictable event but it doesn’t make the laws of physics wrong. To predict whether an onlooker will grab your snooker ball, it’s useless to appeal to the laws of physics – you might try the laws of psychology instead. Similarly, the laws of nature tell us how things will occur unless God or another supernatural being interferes.

In fact, modern quantum science casts a lot of doubt on how uniform the laws of nature actually are. On a quantum level, it would seem that events are quite “fuzzy” and uncertainty is the norm. The idea of fixed and unalterable laws of nature doesn’t seem to stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Argument: miracles can’t be proved

We know enough about David Hume by now to establish that his main criteria for real knowledge is going to be based upon the evaluation of the evidence. According to Hume, you should not go beyond the data provided:

“The wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”

And further on, Hume writes:

“Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less a proof; and that, even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed by another proof; derived from the very nature of the fact, which it would endeavour to establish.”

Therefore, a thinking individual will not believe an account from another, since it is more likely that they will testify incorrectly than tell a truth about a miracle.

“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 any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”

It is important to note from the outset that Hume’s arguments against miracles are not that there can’t be such things, but rather it is impossible that they can be proved. His concern, as is often the case for Hume, is epistemological, that is, dealing with the limits of          human knowledge. Note also that Hume is only looking at second-hand accounts, ie is it good proof of belief if someone tells you that a miracle has occurred, or that the overwhelming evidence from numerous individuals is that miracles do occur? Hume may well believe a miracle if it happened to himself, although he would not believe others’ accounts of miracles.

“There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.”

The basic idea here is that no evidence given by other people of a miracle is so compelling that it leaves no doubt whatsoever that the miracle has in fact occurred. However, it is certainly not self-evident that there has never been sufficient testimony from people of good-sense and education (whatever this could mean). In Lourdes for example, in 1848, when St Bernadette was having apparitions, literally thousands were observing her, even a doctor was by her side during the apparitions, (she didn’t feel pain when the candle she was holding dripped wax and was burning close to her hand), and many were there when she discovered the spring. These events, including the witnesses of “miracles” at Lourdes since the apparitions, were not received by the people of Lourdes without some questioning, but it still seems that there was enough room for doubt for those who did not believe. In any case, Hume’s argument is not completely successful here.

Hume argues that we have a tendency, due to the emotions derived from an account of an experience, to want to believe in them, and therefore this makes miracles less credible:

“A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere with it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause.”

Hume argues that due to the nature of a religious believer, their testimony must be rejected, since they want to believe. It is not the case, as we will see later, that religious believers have to believe in miracles, and therefore not all religious believers would want to believe in miracles. It is also a non sequitur to say that if some religious believers want to believe instantly in a miracle, that all will. Again, we may note that for a miracle to be officially recognised in the Catholic Church for instance, there is a lot of research and examination carried out to ascertain the truth of such a claim.

“It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people ever gave admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors.”

Hume also states that the further we become enlightened, the less we see as truly mysterious. However, one could argue that miracles are accepted in the modern-day period, when people are naturally more sceptical, and they are part of a civilised society.

Hume believes, that since all religious are attempting to use miracles to establish their own religion, it follows that all religions cancel each other out, since they each try to show that all the other religions are false thereby. This is simply not true. There is no reason why more than one religion can hold that a miracle has occurred, without it implying that it gives support for that particular religion rather than another. Both miracles may be true, but why is the conclusion that both religions are false? Why can’t both religions be true or partially true? If Islam is the true religion, then what is to prevent the God of Islam from performing miracles to benefit Christians or Hindus? Hence Hume concludes:

“I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion.”

Peter Vardy makes a relevant point here; he states that no religion is founded upon miracles, which is what Hume is saying. “Neither Christianity, Islam nor Judaism has ever claimed that someone should believe on the basis of miracles. Jesus himself rejected any appeal to signs and wonders as evidence for his status. He rejected the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness.” Brian Davies makes a similar point. Both authors could have also added the fact that Catholicism is very wary of any claims of miracles, and there is usually a thorough look at any such claim before it is said to be a miracle.

Both of these writers seem to miss out one very important element of Christianity, and that is the resurrection. Surely this must be counted as a miracle – through God’s intervention, a dead person comes to life. It would appear that there can be few more extraordinary, unnatural events than this. To add to this, it is also the very basis of Christianity, as St Paul says, “if Christ was not raised then your faith is in vain”. So it may well be that for Christianity, we would need to establish whether in fact miracles are at least possible.

Activities 2

  • Read Luke’s account of Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest: Luke 22: 41-45.
  • There is a rare medical condition called hematohidrosis, in which blood vessels near the sweat glands burst, causing a person to produce a mixture of blood and sweat on their skin. Does this scientific knowledge add to or detract from Luke’s story? Explain your answer. You might consider that the writer, Luke, is traditionally identified as a doctor.
  • Is Hume right that “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”? Think of a circumstance where this is true but also a situation where a wise man might be right to believe in something that goes against the evidence.
  • Create a mind map showing Hume’s objections to miracles and the debates surrounding these.

Miracles viewed in context

The philosopher John Locke lived a generation before David Hume but took a similar empirical view. However, his Discourse On Miracles came to a different conclusion. Locke argued that miracles need to be seen in a broader context than just freakish and unnatural occurrences. Miracles bear witness to a miracle-worker who is on a mission from God:

“Miracles must testify to truths relating to the glory of God and the great concern of men.”

In other words, miracles are acts of great religious and moral significance.

Locke is saying that, in order to judge whether a miracle has really happened, we need to take into account the person who performed it; whether they are sent by God as a messenger. We need to look at the miracle-worker’s sayings and deeds. If his life is lived as a someone with a message from God, then “he cannot be refused belief if he vouches his mission by a miracle, because his credentials have a right to it”. Many Christians would agree, pointing out that Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels were acts of healing and authority over nature that fit in perfectly with his claim to be someone who reveals the truth of God to everyone round him. They would say that it’s irrational to doubt the miracles without first addressing the claim that Jesus was the Son of God (or at least, a great prophet). Your view on who or what Jesus was makes an immense difference to how probable you find the miracles attributed to him.

Critics might reply that this is a circular argument. How do you judge that somebody is a messenger of God? Well, by the miracles they perform! How do you determine whether the miracles actually happened? Well, by whether the person was a messenger of God … Nonetheless, Locke’s contribution to the debate is important – even if we believe in miracles, we don’t believe in every miracle story. The face of Jesus that appeaed in a tortilla being cooked by Mario Rubio in 1978 can be dismissed as a coincidence or a hoax because we expect a convincing miracle-worker to be a person of high moral character and dedication to a holy life.

This argument was developed by CS Lewis in his book, Miracles. Lewis argues that the miracles of Jesus have an inner unity and consistency; they are not magical or fairytale events, but each one tells us something about Jesus or God (or both). Lewis writes:

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

What Lewis means is that the miracles of Jesus are dramatic demonstrations of God’s power over nature, the power to heal or destroy, multiply and control natural forces, know the future or the past. They have a distinctive “style” which makes them more believable than if they were a random and fantastical collection of superpowers. In fact, Lewis goes so far as to say: “Miracles do not,          in fact, break the laws of nature.” He claims that, instead of being violations of natural laws, Jesus’ miracles suggest that the God who CREATED those natural laws is at work. For example, everyone who ever recovers from an illness is, in a sense, healed by God, working through the natural laws God has created: Jesus just does suddenly and dramatically what the laws of nature ordinarily do slowly and in a commonplace way.

These arguments don’t really defeat Hume’s sceptical position. After all, the Gospels that report Jesus’ miracles were written 50 years or more after the events and a lot of exaggeration or outright fabrication might have gone into them. Despite this, Locke and Lewis both show that you cannot consider the probability of miracles without taking account of who performed them, and why, and how.

One way of thinking about this was popularised by CS Lewis in his radio lectures in the 1940s and it is known as “Lewis’ Trilemma”.

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

This argument is often summarised as “Liar, Lunatic or Lord”, or more simply “Bad, Mad or God”. If it is a successful argument, it provides a basis for believing in Jesus’ authority as a miracle-worker, and therefore for believing in Jesus’ miracles.

Argument: does God act in the world?

Why does God help some and not others? Why isn’t it the case that every handicapped person travelling to Lourdes is healed? There is a clear moral tension here. We may respond that, as in the problem of evil, God has good reasons, or that God’s ways are not ours. But for a religious believer, surely it’s more morally acceptable to believe that God doesn’t intervene in order to bring about miracles, since it shows a crude favouritism to think that God helps some people but not others.

Some philosophers reject the whole idea of an interventionist God. Maurice Wiles writing in God’s Action in the World believes that the world is a single act of God – a once-and-for-all creation at which point God stepped back (this belief in a non-interventionist God is called Deism). Wiles is arguing that God never intervenes in the world with individual acts; God did everything all at once in the act of creation and it would be beneath God to keep on “propping the world up” with piecemeal miracles that go against the laws He had already designed. Wiles says that the idea of an interventionist God is “both implausible and full of difficulty for a reasoned Christian faith”. Peter Vardy echoes Wiles’ argument when he says:

“A God who intervenes at Lourdes to cure an old man from terminal cancer but does not act to save starving millions in Ethiopia; who helps the individual believer by giving him or her personal guidance about whether to take a new job or sell his or her house, but does not prevent the mass murder of the Jews at Auschwitz, such a God needs, at the least, to face some hard moral questioning. Some may hold that this God is not worthy of worship.”

A different objection to miracles comes from the idea that if God intervenes in the world he is detracting from human free will. The Free Will Defence argues that human beings need a stable, predictable environment in which to grow and develop and make meaningful moral choices. If God intervenes to make the environment unpredictable or abolish the consequences of our actions, then He makes our freewill unimportant. Some religious philosophers claim God would never do this, since our free choices are the sole purpose of human life on Earth and our freedom is the only thing that justifies God allowing evil to exist.

This leads to a wider question of whether God can act in the world at all. This might sound odd, but it is based on which model of God a person believes in:

  • The timeless, wholly simple God suggested by Plato and Aquinas exists outside of time and space and has no past or future – He lives in an eternal present. It is impossible for a timeless Being to carry out actions that are “in” time. This idea is put very persuasively by Nelson Pike in his book God and Timelessness. However, writers like Augustine and Aquinas write instead about God acting TIMELESSLY to bring about events. Acting “timelessly” means carrying out all your actions simultaneously. The timeless God makes a miracle happen for the choir in Beatrice, Nebraska at the same time as He is raising Jesus from the dead and at the same time as He is creating the universe. This is a very awe-inspiring idea, but is it logically possible?
  • The everlasting, suffering God suggested by Protestant Christians and the Old Testament of the Bible exists within time and has a future and a past. It is much easier to understand this sort of God making miracles happen. If God is aware of a believer in need at time X1 and miraculously heals them at time X2, where’s the problem? There are many difficulties with believing in an everlasting God – for example, how can you fit in the idea of the Trinity? Can a God who is within time really be omnipotent? Can such a God know what will happen in the future and, if He does, will that take away human free will? – but one of the advantages is that some of the philosophical problems with miracles disappear.

Activities 3

  • Are Locke and Lewis right that you cannot judge the veracity of a miracle without first deciding on the character of the miracle-worker? How would you go about deciding on the character of Jesus without taking his alleged miracles into account? Does Lewis’ trilemma settle this debate?
  • Which view of God do you find most persuasive: timeless/wholly simple or everlasting/suffering? Explain your answer and consider what are the implications of this for:
    • The problem of suffering and the three theodicies?
    • The teleological arguments (design and cosmological)?
    • Traditional religious activities like prayer, worship and sacraments?

Exam practice

Examine one philosopher’s understanding of the term “miracle”. Examine the arguments used to discredit miracles. (21) To what extent are these arguments successful? (9)







Past Questions

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