GI-11: MIRACLES: FACT OR FICTION

The Bible is filled with miracles. From the creation to the second coming, from Moses at the burning bush to Daniel in the lions’ den to the Virgin Birth and the resurrection, miraculous happenings seem to fill the pages of Scripture. To the believer, these are a wonderful confirmation of the power and message of God, but to the unbeliever, miracles are a stumbling block—a proof that religion is just a bunch of fairy tales after all. In the world that he lives in, there is no divine intervention, no interruptions to the normal order; there is only natural law. Fire consumes when it burns; lions eat whatever is available; pregnancy only happens when male sperm unite with female ova, and the dead stay dead. As far as they are concerned, the miracles of the Bible could no more be true than Mother Goose.

WHAT ARE MIRACLES?

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

According to this definition, natural laws are understood to be the normal, regular way the world operates. But a miracle is a specific act which occurs as an unusual, irregular, intervention or interruption by a God who is beyond the universe. This does not mean that miracles are violations of natural law or even opposed to them. The 19th century physicist, mathematician, and Cambridge professor, Sir George Stokes said, “It may be that the event which we call a miracle was brought on not by a suspension of the law as in ordinary operation, but by the super addition of something not ordinarily in operation.” In other words, miracles don’t violate the regular laws of cause and effect, they simply have a cause that transcends nature. That cause is God.

TWO QUESTIONS ABOUT MIRACLES

From a philosophical perspective, ARE MIRACLES POSSIBLE? From the historical perspective, ARE MIRACLES REAL? Philosophers and apologists alike have debated and argued the first question for centuries. Those who argue against miracles typically do so from a philosophical point of view. But that perspective usually begins with the presupposition that God does not exist. If God does not exist there is no miracle-worker; no miracle-worker, no miracles.

1.  Are Miracles Possible?

From the naturalistic philosophical perspective there are a number of objections to examine.

Objection #1: Miracles violate the natural laws

Remember, we have already seen in the definition of a miracle, that…a miracle is divine intervention into, or interruption of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event that would not have occurred otherwise. I would add that the purpose of that event is to authenticate the message and/or the messenger as coming from God.

We also learned that a natural law is to be understood as the normal, regular way the world operates.

So, is a miracle really the violation of a natural law? If I dropped an apple and you caught it before it hit the floor, by catching the apple did you violate the law of gravity? Of course not. If miracles occur as unusual, irregular, and specific intervening acts of a God who is beyond the universe, beyond nature, who in fact created the laws of nature, then the occurrence of a miracle does not mean that miracles violate natural laws or are even opposed to them. It means that what we call a miracle is the temporary suspension, interruption or intervention into the regular course of how the world normally operates. That intervention produces a purposeful but unusual event, which is the authentication of God’s message and/or God’s messenger. So, miracles don’t violate natural laws, they simply have a cause that transcends, or rises above, nature. That cause is God, the Author of nature’s laws.

Objection #2: Natural laws are immutable.

How do we know natural laws are immutable? How was that conclusion arrived at? The argument goes that firm and unalterable “experience” has established these laws and it is impossible for immutable laws to be violated. Therefore, miracles are not possible. Let’s break this down into smaller bites.

  • Answer to the 1st part of the objection:

This objection has built into it the view that nothing exists beyond the laws of nature and that those laws are permanently fixed or immutable. So, from the very outset the argument begins with an anti-supernatural bias, thus stacking the deck against miracles.

If natural laws are, in fact, immutable, then they certainly cannot be violated. But are they actually immutable? On the one hand, if there is nothing beyond nature and nature’s laws, then the answer is ‘yes.’ And under such a system, even if a god did exist, he/it would be limited or confined to the laws of nature, which, in effect, would make nature god, then certainly not even he/it could violate them. If nature is god and god is nature, then miracles are impossible.

On the other hand, based on the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments, which I discussed in previous articles, God exists and is not limited by anything. So, if God is transcendent above and beyond His creation and if He is omnipotent (all-powerful) over all of creation then He is also transcendent and all-powerful over the natural laws which He created and is, therefore, not and cannot be bound by the laws of nature any more than an architect is bound by the building which she designed. As the author of those laws God can add to or interrupt them temporarily any time He chooses without violating them.

Dr. Norman Geisler points out, “today scientists understand that natural laws don’t tell us what must happen, but only describe what usually does happen. They are statistical probabilities, not unchangeable facts. So, we can’t rule out the possibility of miracles by definition.” Therefore, natural laws cannot tell us one way or the other whether miracles happen or not. At best the only thing they tell us is that if they do happen, they are rare. The Bible would agree with that. There are only about 260 miracles recorded in the Bible which was written over a 1,500-year period. That’s an average of about one miracle every 5.8 years. And we know that there was at least one period of about 400 years when there were no recorded miracles. I would say that makes miracles pretty rare.

  • Answer to the 2nd part of the objection:

Skeptics claim that human experience proves that nature’s laws are fixed or immutable? But does it?

Imagine a sheet of white paper that stretches out in all directions as far as the eye can see and beyond. Now on that sheet of paper, using a fine-tip, black marker to draw with, place a very teeny tiny dot on the paper. That represents you. Now draw a teeny tiny circle around that dot representing how much knowledge of the past, present and future that you possess. Given the immense size of the paper, can we agree that your dot and your circle would be very small, even microscopic?

If you were to add the knowledge and experience of everyone who has ever lived, the mark would not even come close to significantly altering the surface of the paper. There would still be a huge amount of white space representing what you, or we as the human race, do not know.

Has any one person or group of people ever possessed all knowledge when it comes to what all humans experience or have experienced for all time past, present and future? Given the limited amount of knowledge or experience that one person, or even a group of people may have, is it possible their “experience” may not be the best indicator of what is or is not possible? How can they possibly presume to know what people have experienced everywhere throughout the history of human existence? Is it reasonable then to automatically disregard anyone who claims to have either witnessed or experienced a miracle, or to simply write off their claim as impossible because a majority of people have never shared that experience? I hope not. That doesn’t seem very scientific. Which leads us to our next objection.

Objection #3: “I’ve never seen a miracle.”

I’ve never personally seen the center of the earth or the dark side of the moon, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not real. Miracles should be, and are, rare events by their very nature (which I explained before). The fact that you or I may have never witnessed one should not make us doubt their existence. When it comes to miracles, we should weigh the testimony of those who claim to have experienced one and not simply ignore it just because we weren’t there. We should use whatever investigative techniques and tools available to either validate or invalidate the claim as best as possible and form our conclusions based on the evidence.

We spend much of our lives accepting the testimony of other people about events or facts that we cannot verify ourselves. I did not personally see the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or witness Columbus discovering the Americas. Does that mean those events never happened? Of course not! If a claim seems unusual or extraordinary, that should naturally make us cautious before accepting it. But if the evidence is sound, even though circumstantial, we should at least seriously consider it.

Objection #4: There’s no evidence for miracles.

What it all comes down to is that if God exists then miracles must not only be possible, but even probable. So how do we determine in a given situation if a miracle has occurred; specifically, how should a sincere non-believer investigate the miracle claims of the Bible?

If we are going to explore the possibility of miracles, then closely related to this is the authority and reliability of the Bible. Rather than asking an unbeliever to accept the Bible as the written Word of God (which it is), it’s better to take a couple of steps back and start by asking them to treat the Bible as if it is a highly reliable source of ancient history. By approaching the Bible as, first, a historically reliable source, we can then point out that to reject or doubt the Bible on historical grounds would lead to rejecting virtually all ancient historical documents, since the Bible (especially the New Testament) has far better manuscripts and supporting evidence than any other comparable ancient document. Once the Bible is accepted as historically trustworthy, then the evidence can be examined fairly. (In articles GI-9 and GI-10 , I outlined compelling reasons to believe the authority and reliability of the Bible.)

2. Are Miracles Real?

Now we turn to the historical perspective. There are several points that we should deal with here:

  • Miracles in the Bible have always had a purpose. God is not in the business of performing cheap “magic tricks” simply to amaze and astound people. Jesus refused to perform miracles to satisfy the people’s curiosity. Rather, miracles serve to confirm the authenticity of God’s message and His messenger. They testify to the truthfulness of the revelation they bring. God is real, He’s alive and He has something He wants to communicate.
  • God is usually behind miraculous events. However, supernatural agents other than God can perform miracles (i.e. angels). Even Satan has the power to perform apparent miracles in order to lead people astray. If a miracle is performed that encourages people to abandon biblical truth and the gospel, we must reject it, because it is not from God.
  • In Scripture, we seem to notice that miracles increase during periods when a new period of God’s revelation is about to be unveiled. Consider Moses and the miracles which occurred surrounding the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and journey to their promised land. The miracles surrounding Elijah came at a time when God reminded them of who He was versus who the pagan priests of Baal were. He called them to repent and turn back to Him. Then there were all the miracles surrounding Jesus and later the apostles. God clearly was authenticating Jesus as His Messiah and Jesus’ message as the Word of God and the apostles as His messengers to spread Jesus’ message throughout the world.

Although miracles did not cease during other periods of biblical history, they were much less frequent. This is a good reason why a lack of observed miracles today should “not” lead anyone to the conclusion that since we don’t see miracles today, particularly in Western culture, that they do not now or never have existed. The greatest miracle ever performed by God is the beginning of the universe and life itself.

Barbara Snyder: A Case For Miracles

Atheist turned Christian evangelist and author, Lee Strobel, formerly was the legal affairs editor for the Chicago Tribune before embarking on a quest to try and disprove Christianity — an effort that ironically led him to embrace faith in Jesus as Messiah, Lord and Savior.

Strobel set out to investigate miracles. He sought out facts, conducted numerous interviews with both skeptics and believers. His conclusions were published in his book, “The Case For Miracles.”
Strobel said that he has long believed that Jesus performed the miracles described in the Gospels but was “ambivalent” about whether these miracles still happen today. Adding to that, he had some skepticism about some of the charlatans who have been exposed for making false claims about healings and the like.

He encountered scores of healings and other claims of the miraculous along the way, but there was one case that truly blew his mind: the case of Barbara Snyder.

Synder’s miraculous healing, which unfolded more than 30 years ago, was apparently so shocking that even her doctors have written about her seemingly impossible medical turn-around.

“Barbara Snyder was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic with multiple sclerosis. She deteriorated over a period of many years, several operations, many hospitalizations,” Strobel explained. “It got to the point where she was dying. And, in fact, one doctor described her as being one of the most hopelessly ill patients he’d ever encountered.”

Synder ended up in hospice care with a DNR order; do not resuscitate. Nearly blind, her hands and body were curled and she had a tube in her throat to help her breath as well as a tube in her stomach to ensure proper nourishment. Meanwhile, her muscles were atrophied. The situation was pretty hopeless — until something quite shocking happened.

“One day, one of her friends called WMBI radio station and said, ‘Pray for Barbara. She’s on her deathbed,’” Strobel explained. “We know that at least 450 Christians began praying for her, because they wrote letters saying, ‘We’re praying for you.’”

Then, on Pentecost Sunday, two of Synder’s friends read to her letters from those praying for her. Snyder explained that as she listened them, she heard a male voice coming from the corner of the room — a voice she now believes was God.

“This male voice coming from the corner of the room, [where there was nobody], said, ‘Get up my child and walk,’” Strobel described. “So, she basically pulls the tube out of her throat, says, ‘Go find my parents’ [and] jumps out of bed.”

Inexplicably, her calves were inflated and her once-atrophied muscles worked again. Her feet and fingers were suddenly straight and normal again. Her blindness, too, had been instantaneously healed. 31 years later she’s completely healthy,” Strobel said.

The modern western mindset mocks the idea of rational people believing in miracles. But if we claim to be Christians then we can neither escape nor deny the miraculous; nor should we wish to. In accepting the existence of a personal creator who wishes to reveal Himself to us, we should affirm that miracles are a natural and logical way for Him to do that.

In the next article I will begin examining one of the greatest miracles in the Bible: the virgin birth of Jesus.

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