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Showing posts with label miracles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label miracles. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why Believing in Miracles is Not Illogical

When Christians believe in miracles, are they being irrational? A recent Pew Research article entitled "Why America's 'nones' left religion behind" held this interesting quote:
About half of current religious "nones" who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention "science" as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said "I'm a scientist now, and I don't believe in miracles." Others reference "common sense," "logic" or a "lack of evidence" – or simply say they do not believe in God.1
There's a whole lot in that paragraph to unpack. However, the claim that faith is somehow against logic caught my eye. Just how would Christianity be illogical? One claim made by atheists is that believing in miracle accounts like those presented in the Bible is itself illogical.

The charge that believing in miracles is illogical as a long history, and most will point to David Hume's famous essay "On Miracles" in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, he makes this charge:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle.2

What is a Miracle?

I think Hume makes two mistakes in his assertion above. First, his definition of a miracle, while widely repeated, is simply wrong. It isn't what Christians believe. Miracles are not violations of the laws of nature, but God's direct interaction to suspend his natural laws, which is a big difference.

To clarify, one must understand what we mean when we use the term natural law to begin with. A natural law is simply the way certain portions of the material world work. For example, any two objects will be attracted to one another and that attraction multiplies based on how much mass the objects have and is inversely proportionate to how far away they are. The bigger the objects and the closer they are, the greater the attraction. This is what is known as the law of gravity. If I drop a rock, it will fall towards the earth, because the mass of the earth is so big it pulls on the rock more than the rock pulls on it.

To violate the law of gravity, one should see a rock not fall to the earth even though there is nothing impeding its fall. A violation means all things were the same, but the outcome is different. But that isn't what's happening in a miracle, because with miracles we have an additional actor: God. It isn't the case that all things are the same.

This is why miracles shouldn't be considered a violation of a natural law, but God suspending natural law by his power. God is in some way defeating the natural outcome by inserting himself into the mix, just as I can defeat the natural outcome of the falling rock by sticking out my hand and catching it before it hits the ground. Philosopher Richard Purtill agrees. He defines a miracle as "an event in which God temporarily makes an exception to the natural order of things."3 

Given that understanding of what a miracle is, we can create the following argument:

P1: Miracles are not violations of nature's law, but suspensions of nature's laws.
P2: If God created nature's laws, God can suspend nature's laws.
P3: God created nature's laws.

C1: Therefore, God can suspend nature's laws.
C2: Therefore, God can perform miracles.
So, miracles are not in themselves illogical if God exists and he created the universe with its natural laws. For miracles to be illogical, the premise that such a God exists must be shown to be false. That means those who reject God because of the illogic of miracles are actually begging the question! They are assuming God doesn't exist to prove God doesn't exist. That's the truly illogical position to take.


1. Lipka, Michael. "Why America's 'nones' Left Religion behind." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
2. Hume, David. "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding." The Harvard Classics: English Philosophers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. New York: P.F. Collier & Sons, 1910. 1909–14
3. Purtrill, Richard L. "Defining Miracles." In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History. By R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997. 62. Print.
Image courtesy Ghost of Kuji and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Is Methodological Naturalism Question-Begging?

Metaphysical naturalists may be inclined to suggest that they cannot be accused of question-begging in endorsing methodological naturalism, since this methodology is simply a logical extension of their metaphysical views. If one has good reason to believe there exist no nonnatural entities, then one can hardly be faulted for adopting a methodology which refuses to countenance nonnatural causes.

What this suggestion ignores is that metaphysical naturalists typically assert the truth of naturalism on the basis of Ockham's Razor. Very few naturalists are willing to argue that it can be demonstrated that the existence of nonnatural entities is logically impossible. Rather, they assert that there is insufficient evidence for the existence of such entities and that one should, therefore, refuse to posit them.

It seems, however, that the existence of physical events which are best explained on the hypothesis of a nonnatural cause would meet the requirements of Ockham's Razor and thus constitute evidence for a nonnatural entity. For the metaphysical naturalist to adopt a methodology which holds that it is never, even in principle, legitimate to posit a nonnatural cause for a physical event, is to guarantee that the requirements of Ockham's Razor will not be met. This begs the question of whether there exists sufficient evidence to justify belief in nonnatural entities and thus disbelief in metaphysical naturalism, since what is being proposed is a methodology that, by its refusal to countenance the legitimacy of ever postulating a nonnatural cause for a physical event, precludes any marshaling of evidence in favor of nonnatural causes.1

-Robert Larmer
Larmer, Robert A. "Is Methodological Naturalism Question-Begging?" Philosophia Christi 5.1 (2003): 113. Print.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Do Miracles Count as Evidence for God's Existence?

Are miracles evidence for God's existence? Ever since Hume, atheists have argued that miracle claims should not be considered evidence for God. While Hume focused on the rarity of miracles to propose that it is more rational to offer some other explanation, more modern arguments have claimed that arguing from miracles to God's existence is circular. After all, one must assume God exists in order to call an event a miracle. Then, the person points to the miracle to claim "only God could have done such a thing!" Is this question-begging?

Dr. Robert Larmer fleshes out the objection and shows why pointing to miracles is not as circular as one may think:
...To call an event a miracle, therefore, is to affirm the existence of God. It seems, then, that miraculous events cannot function as evidence for God, since this would involve a vicious circularity of presupposing that God exists in order to call such events miracles, but then arguing that God's existence can be confirmed on the basis of the occurrence of miracles.

The superficial attractiveness of this argument is belied by the fact that if one asks convinced sceptics what it would take to convince them of God's existence the frequent answer is the occurrence of a miracle. It seems strange to suggest that such an answer must be dismissed as irrational, the supposition being that its speaker would fail Critical Thinking 101. Perhaps a more charitable interpretation of the answer deserves a hearing.

Such an interpretation is not far from hand. What the sceptic is to be construed as requesting is good reason to believe in the occurrence of an event, the best explanation of which is that God, or perhaps a supernatural agent understood as acting in accordance with God's purposes, caused it. It is the event, not the subsequent description of it as a miracle, which functions as evidence for God. All that the sceptic need do is to entertain the hypothesis that God exists and ask whether that hypothesis provides the best explanation of the occurrence of the event, as compared to other hypotheses.

Thus, while it is true that once the event is described as a miracle one commits oneself to the existence of God, this in no way prevents the event from functioning as evidence for God, since it is on the basis that theism provides the best explanation of the event that one is prepared to call it a miracle. To claim otherwise, is analogous to claiming that a corpse, the existence of which is best explained on the hypothesis of a murderer, cannot function as evidence for the existence of a murderer. Once the corpse is described as a homicide victim one commits to the existence of a murderer, but this scarcely implies that the corpse cannot function as evidence of a murderer. Analogously, the fact that an event is described as a miracle scarcely implies that it cannot function as evidence for God. It is not, therefore, question-begging to claim that events best explained as acts of supernatural intervention by God can be taken as providing evidence for God.
Larmer has done a lot of incredible work on the subject, which he's published in his recent book The Legitimacy of Miracle. He has also published as series of supplemental papers extending the concepts in his book on the Evangelical Philosophical Society web site. You can find all seven of them here.


Larmer, Robert A. "Miracles as Evidence for God." Evangelical Philosophical Society. Evangelical Philosophical Society. 2015.Web.
Image courtesy Patrick Down and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) License.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why Doesn't God Provide More Proof He Exists?

It's an objection that has been thrown around for years; if God exists, why doesn't he make himself more obvious? Certainly a miracle would convince the hardened atheist, right? Not necessarily.

In this short video, Lenny tackles the question head on and shows that sometimes more proof is not better and maybe the problem lies with those who just don't want to see the evidence in front of them.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Miracles Don't Contradict The Laws of Nature

Miracles are a big topic. The skeptics dismiss then, faithful believe in them, many pray for them to occur in their lives. However, a lot of atheists seem to mis-define them. I was talking with an atheist friend who stated "By definition, a miracle violates natural law." By violate, I think he means "contradict." He isn't alone in that definition. The 18th century Scottish skeptic David Hume also sought to dismiss any claim of miracles as unreasonable in his Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding. He wrote:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle.1
That definition has become popular with hose seeking to debunk any miracle claims. However, Hume was wrong. A miracles doesn't violate the laws of nature, it suspends them. That's a big difference. The suspension of a law isn't a violation; it's simply an intervention. If you were in your kitchen and saw an egg rolling off the counter, you would know that gravity will pull that egg to the ground. However, you can intervene and catch the egg to keep it from falling to the ground. You've exercised your power to stop what would by the laws of nature produce a mess. So if God can intervene in our world to keep a man from falling into the sea, allowing him to walk on water, we would see it as a miracle.

Some may object that the example above isn't fair. After all, catching an egg is just as natural as letting it fall. While this is true, the concept of intervention holds if the one intervening is not limited to the natural world. As an example, think about computer programs. If you are a programmer, you write a computer program to perform certain tasks in a certain order. Perhaps you are creating a shopping site and you wish customers to enter their names, address, credit card number, expiration, and card verification value (that little three digit number on the back of the card) before you process the sale.

You've created these rules and any time the customer checks out, they will always follow this pattern. But, as the programmer you sometimes have to test certain portions of your code. When you are running sample transactions over and over, it becomes too time consuming to enter all that information each time. Yet, because you are the programmer, you can choose to initiate your code at any point. You can write a script that will bypass all these requirements and process a transaction with no data whatsoever. Then, when you are satisfied with the code, you remove the test script and allow the page to function as it normally does.

"Back-Door Code" to the Universe

There is nothing illogical about this kind of suspension of the computer program's rules. They weren't violated, they were bypassed. Similarly, God wrote the rules for how the world works. Therefore, he can write "back-door" code to bypass the normal systems and it is perfectly appropriate to do so. Just as a computer programmer can still not violate the operations of his programming language but suspend the laws of submit a blank transaction, so God can work within his own abilities and suspend the laws of nature to achieve his desired result.

Philosopher Richard Purtill defines a miracle as "an event in which God temporarily makes an exception to the natural order of things."2 That's a pretty good definition.
  1. A miracle is a temporary (the natural course of order will resume upon the miracle's completion)
  2. It is an exception to the ordinary course of nature
  3. It requires us to know what the limits of "ordinary course of nature" are.
A miracle is not God contradicting Himself or His laws.


1 Hume, David. "Of Miracles. Part I." An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding., 1993. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.
2   Purtrill, Richard L. "Defining Miracles." In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History. By R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997. 62. Print.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why Miracles May Be More Common Than You Think

"Why aren't there more miracles today?"

That's a question I hear quite often from atheists, skeptics, or even Christians questioning the accounts they read in the Bible with what they experience in their own lives. Reading through the Old and New Testaments, one can get the idea that miracles were a fairly common occurrence. Jesus would go from town to town healing people of their diseases and giving sight to the blind. Peter and John heal a lame man1 in the book of Acts while later Paul even raises a man who died after falling out a window when listening to him speak!2

With so many miraculous events recorded in the Bible, why do we never hear of miracles happening today? The question is actually more and cursory; it formed one of the objections offered by David Hume, the famous British skeptic philosopher, who held that it was illogical to believe in miracles at all. Hume writes:
A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance.

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle.3
To summarize, one of the ways Hume argues against miracle claims is that they cannot be believed simply because they occur so infrequently. (There are other arguments Hume offers, some of which I have dealt with elsewhere.)

As miracle accounts grow, what's considered unique?

However, miracle accounts may be reported and doctors may observe the results of miraculous healing more frequently than most people realize. Dr. Craig Keener, whose two volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts reports on hundreds of documented cases of miracle accounts around the world made an interesting point. In a Huffington Post article on miracles he writes "Today, however, when hundreds of millions of people from diverse cultures claim to have experienced miracles, it seems hardly courteous to presuppose a 'uniform' human experience on the subject. If any of these experiences constituted a genuine miracle, Hume's argument against miracles, which in some circles has hardened into an uncontested consensus, would fail."4

Some may say that Keener is uncritical or biased. Keener humbly understands that his capability in defining what counts as miraculous is limited. However, he doesn't rest solely on the accounts he has uncovered. He cites a fascinating 2004 survey of physicians conducted by HCD Research, a secular research company located in New Jersey. Keener states:
That some doctors would testify to miracles is not as surprising as one might suppose if one assumed that all intellectuals accepted Hume's view on miracles. In one 2004 national study of 1,100 physicians, 74 percent responded that they believed "that miracles have occurred in the past," while almost the same number, 73 percent, affirm that they "can occur today." The majority of physicians (59 percent) pray for their patients, and roughly 46 percent encourage patients to pray at least partly for God to answer their prayers. What might be the largest surprise in the survey, however, is that 55 percent of physicians claimed to "have seen treatment results in their patients that they would consider miraculous (emphasis added).5
The actual HCD Research press release with those findings may be found here. However, Keener's point is made. With the majority of physicians believing that they have seen a miraculous healing during their time of practicing medicine, I think Hume's argument is undermined. And those are only the miraculous interventions that physicians saw; it doesn't take into consideration all the miracles claims by people who didn't have the ability or didn't yet seek medical attention. Miracles may indeed be more common than you think!


1. See Acts 4:1-10.
2. Acts 20:9-10.
3. Hume, David. "On Miracles." In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History. By R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997. 30, 33. Print.
4. Keener, Craig S. "Are Miracles Real?" The Huffington Post., 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
5. Keener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. Print. 721.

Friday, December 05, 2014

History Testifies that Jesus Worked Miracles

It's becoming more and more popular to cast doubt on the existence of the biblical Jesus as a person of history and claim that he was more likely a mythical invention of Christians. However, those claims are not made by even the skeptical experts who study the Gospel accounts of Jesus. Craig Keener, a noted scholar and historian provides the detail:

Most scholars today working on the subject accept the claim that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. The evidence is stronger for this claim than for most other specific historical claims that we could make about Jesus or earliest Christianity. Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus's historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 31 percent of the verses in Mark's Gospel involve miracles in some way, or some 40 percent of his narrative! Very few critics would deny the presence of any miracles in the earliest material about Jesus.

If followers would preserve Jesus's teachings, how much more might they, and especially those who experienced recoveries, spread reports about his extraordinary acts of power? Because miracle claims attach to a relatively small number of figures in antiquity (itinerant or not), there is little reason to suppose that Jesus would have developed a reputation as a wonder worker if he did not engage in such activities. Jesus's ministry to the afflicted also coheres with his care for the marginalized in contrast to his frequent conflicts with the elite." As historical Jesus scholars Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz put it, "Just as the kingdom of God stands at the centre of Jesus's preaching, so healings and exorcisms form the centre of his activity."

Among non-Christian sources, the rabbis and Celsus are clear that Jesus performed miracles, although both sources are hostile to these miracles. (Many of these later non-Christian sources attribute the miraculous works to sorcery, which probably constitutes the earliest anti-Christian explanation for Christian miracles.) This unanimity is striking given the conversely unanimous silence in Christian, Jewish, and even Mandean tradition concerning any miracles of respected prophetic figures like John the Baptist. None of the ancient sources respond to claims of Jesus's miracles by trying to deny them.

More important, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus apparently claims that Jesus was a miracle worker. Jewish historian Geza Vermes, a noted expert on Jesus's era, has argued that this miracle claim in Josephus is authentic, based on Joshephus's style. In this report Josephus calls Jesus a wise man who also "worked startling deeds, “ a designation that Josephus also applies to miracles associated with the prophet Elisha.

It is thus not surprising that most scholars publishing historical research about Jesus today grant that Jesus was a miracle worker, regardless of their varying philosophic assumptions about divine activity in miracle claims.1 (Emphasis added.)

—Craig Keener


Keener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. Print. 23-25.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Debunking 'Bible Secrets' Television Shows

Every year before Christmas and Easter, the media turns to stories about religion to try and boost their audiences. Like clockwork, the History Channel has just begun a series titled "Bible Secrets Discovered". This is the latest in a genre (including "The Bible's Buried Secrets," "Jesus Family Tomb" and others) that seeks to publicize some novel scriptural understanding that undermines the Bible's credibility. Are their charges true?

Below is a four-part audio series plus a two page downloadable PDF outline where I show how these 'Bible Secrets' shows engage ins a bit of misdirection to achieve their goals. More P.T. Barnum than true scholarship, when examining the facts thoughtfully, one can quickly see why these shows present an emperor who has no clothes.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Answering 'God of the Gaps' Objections

There are many atheists who like to escape from arguments highlighting the difficulties in their worldview by claiming an appeal to God is the same as making a "God of the gaps" argument. For those who don't know, a "God of the gaps"  argument is when someone supposedly sees a process they cannot explain (say the rain falling) and instead of finding out the natural causes for rain, they simply say "God did it." Atheists say that all appeals to God for otherwise unexplained phenomena are just God of the gaps" arguments and as science advances, these "God of the gaps" explanations will become fewer and fewer and cover less and less ground. They reason that we will one day be able to explain everything in terms of modern scientific notions and God will become superfluous.

Image courtesy Victorvictori
While such a tale sounds plausible, it really isn't the case. There are certain things that fall outside the realm of science (such as the answer to "Why is there something rather than nothing at all?") There are other things, as Robert Larmer has written, that when scientific knowledge grows, so does the mystery behind the thing itself.

As an example, the theist will object to the atheists' claims of life coming from non-life or the appearance of consciousness from non-conscious material, stating that there is no such warrant for believing these things can happen. Such events have never been seen before in human history. But the atheist will say that positing God for them is making a "God of the gaps" argument. Larmer addresses this objection head on:
Claims regarding events traditionally described as miracles and claims regarding the origin and development of life are where "God of the gaps" arguments are most commonly met. In the case of events traditionally described as miracles, it seems very evident that our increased knowledge of how natural causes operate has not made it easier, but more difficult to explain such events naturalistically. The science underlying wine-making is considerably more advanced today than it was in first century Palestine, but our advances have made it even more difficult to explain in terms of natural causes how Jesus, without any technological aids, could, in a matter of minutes, turn water into high quality wine. Indeed, it is the difficulty of providing a naturalistic account of such events that leads many critics to deny that they ever occurred; though this looks suspiciously like begging the question in favour of naturalism. It is clear that if such events have occurred, the advance of science has made them more, rather than less, difficult to explain in terms of natural causes. Employing a 'God of the gaps' argument that the occurrence of such events would constitute good evidence for supernatural intervention within the natural order seems entirely legitimate."1


1. Larmer, Robert A. "Is there anything Wrong with 'God of the gaps' Reasoning?". International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 52. 129-42.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Top Ten Neglected Books for Apologists - #4 In Defense of Miracles

In Defense of Miracles
When undertaking a defense of the faith, it is inevitable that Christians will cross paths with all kinds of skeptics—those who doubt the veracity of the biblical accounts, those who question religious motivations, and those who even doubt that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived. The most influential skeptic to ever live, though,  is in all likelihood David Hume. Hume wasn't a skeptic like some of the Internet atheists we see; he was a skeptic of a broader sort, a philosophical skeptic. However, Hume did vigorously voice his skepticism about religion in his writings and one of his most famous objections is that people have no rational justification to believe that miracles happen. His argument is interesting and thoughtful, which is why it continues to be proposed by today's atheists as one more point in why Christians are being illogical in holding their beliefs.

To answer Hume, Christian philosophers Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas compiled the excellent In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History. Pulling together a collection of essays by top-notch apologists and philosophers, Geivett and Habermas have given Christians a real tool to use when engaging with skeptics on whether miracle accounts should be accepted as evidence. Not satisfied with only answering Hume's argument, the book uses Hume's essay as a springboard to discuss the various objections to miracles and the supernatural that are offered in their many modern permutations. Ronald Nash's article on the self-defeating claims of naturalism is great, as is J.P. Moreland's chapter on miracles and science. Of course, the book also contains entries by Habermas and William Lane Craig on the resurrection and why we can consider it an historical event.  I also liked Geivett's own contribution on why belief in miracles is considered reasonable for anyone with that theistic worldview.

The biggest contributors to the book, though, are the non-theists.  The authors included Hume's "On Miracles" in its entirety as the first chapter in order to lay the groundwork for what is to come.  But, not content to leave it there, they also asked Antony Flew, who was the leading expert on Hume to also contribute a chapter. Thus, we hear both Hume's argument and how it is understood in a modern context by non-theists today. This is important as no one can accuse the book of offering a straw man version of Hume.

While many discussions with online skeptics won't reach the level of sophistication of these articles, it is important that Christian apologists learn Hume's objection and the appropriate refutation of his arguments.  Hume continues to be a profound influence on atheists and skeptics. In Defense of Miracles is one book that covers the bases on the reasonableness of the resurrection and belief in a God who gets personally involved in His creation.
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