The Nature of Miracles

This is a continuation of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin, further installments will be published on this blog. The entire response is also available here.

Miracles and Nature

Martin begins his detailed discussion on the improbability of miracles with the assertion that a miracle is "traditionally" defined as a violation of a law of nature. This is possibly traditional in skeptical circles, but not in Christian ones; a fair review of the subject of miracles – especially in an article about Jesus’ resurrection – calls for a look at Christian views as well.

The great majority of the recorded miracles of Jesus are miracles of healing. A miralce of this type is better classified not as a violation of nature but as a restoration of nature. When we consider blindness, deafness, lameness, or being crippled, these are not in fact the normal state of nature but a problem afflicting nature. When Jesus is recorded to have healed and made whole, the result was a return to the normal and healthy state of nature. Christian writers from Athanasius to C.S. Lewis have noted this.

Miracles, Signs, and God's Intervention

Martin mentions that there may be non-interventionist miracles in that God may have set up the world from the beginning in such a way as to produce a certain effect at a certain time, noting as an example the wind that parted the Red Sea in the days of Moses. He notes that such an occurrence might serve as a message or sign. I’d like to mention that whether a miracle requires direct intervention and whether a miracle serves as a sign are two separate questions. A miracle in which God actively works in nature can serve as a sign just as easily as a miracle in which God may have set up the world so that certain events would occur without any (further) intervention. The fact that God is actively working in a miracle does not preclude its value as a sign.

Mr. Martin claims that God has good reasons never to perform miracles to achieve his purposes, asserting that miracles are "an impediment to a scientific understanding of the world." This seems an unlikely argument. Given how rarely miracles occur, they are not likely to interfere with understanding the world. In actual fact many of the great scientists of the world have believed in miracles, including Jesus’ resurrection. Also consider that miracles could not be recognized as miracles unless people already had realized the regularity of nature’s workings. If nobody had ever noticed the natural order, they could not possibly recognize anything as a variation from that order. So on the contrary, recognizing a miracle presumes an understanding of the normal workings of nature. Martin also asserts that the "difficulties and controversies" in recognizing miracles constitute an argument that God should not perform miracles. By that argument, God should not do a miracle because it affords argumentative people a chance to argue. But "difficulties" are such a normal part of human experience, and "controversies" such a normal part of human behavior that there does not seem to be a reason why God should exclude miracles in particular of all the things which can be the subject of argument. The difficulties and controversies surrounding miracles show that people are interested in being careful and thorough in evaluating miracle claims.

Martin asserts that miracles "impede, mislead, and confuse", but this seems to be the opposite of the case. If a miracle has value as a sign, that means that it communicates a message and gives understanding. It does not impede, mislead, or confuse, but instead leads and clarifies; otherwise it would have no value as a sign. When Mr. Martin acknowledges that a "sign" is a valid view of a miracle, and when he argues that the reason or purpose of the resurrection is a factor in deciding whether to believe it occurred, he unintentionally acknowledges that miracles do not necessarily impede, mislead, and confuse but may in fact be significant and purposeful.

In contrast to Mr. Martin’s views that God has good reasons never to perform miracles to achieve his purposes, it is worth noting this: if God’s purposes include letting people know that there is something beyond the natural law, then he has near-compelling reasons to perform miracles that demonstrate something beyond the natural law. It is difficult to imagine how God would cause us to recognize the reality of something beyond natural law without showing us an example; this would be seen as a miracle by definition.

Miracles, Providence, and Natural Knowledge of God

Mr. Martin, continuing to couple "signs" with only non-interventionist miracles, returns to the topic of non-interventionist miracles to mention that, on the non-interventionist interpretation, it can be claimed that miracles are actually probable if it were also claimed that most natural events are signs from God. On that view, miracle claims would be initially probable. Martin notes that this view trivializes the idea of miracles; he also asserts that this view is not held by most noninterventionists. While I would not want to over-labor the topic of which views are more typical of non-interventionists, I’d like to mention that Mr. Martin does not address the topic of providence. It is common for Christians to have an understanding of God’s providence, in which nature and certain human events are arranged for our benefit and are signs of God’s good will towards humanity. The question becomes how to distinguish miracles from simple providence, or whether there is a need to distinguish. The possibility remains, for non-interventionists, that "providence" simply gets called by the different name of "miracle" when the event in question is rare.

Mr. Martin also does not address the topic of natural knowledge of God, a common Christian doctrine about how nature and the laws of nature are themselves a sign of God’s existence and goodness. The common Christian views on providence and natural knowledge stand in contrast to Mr. Martin’s assertion that most non-interventionists do not understand most events to be arranged by God. It also seems odd, given Mr. Martin’s persistent coupling of “signs” with non-interventionist miracles, that his assessment as to whether an event is a miracle does not include any assessment of the event’s value as a sign. On both the interventionist and non-interventionist senses of miracles, both rareness and sign-value have a place in evaluating miracles. The concept of providence – that God arranges certain things for our benefit – will be useful to recall when we discuss some of the reasons for the resurrection.

Summary of discussion on miracles in general

At the end of discussion of miracles in general, I am in agreement with Mr. Martin on one point: that miracles in general are initially improbable. But in assessing his arguments, there are instances in which Mr. Martin has left aside important aspects of miracles, such as the theme of restoring nature and the sign value of miracles that involve God actively. These omissions of Martin’s greatly affect the upcoming discussion of Jesus’ resurrection in particular. I have also included background knowledge relative to the unique strength of Jesus’ miracle claims that is required to make an accurate assessment of probability relative to that background knowledge. Even though Martin acknowledges that our background knowledge is essential in a correct evaluation of the probability of miracle claims, he does not address the unique strength of Jesus’ prior miracle claims at any point in discussing background knowledge. These points of difference cause us to come to completely different assessments of Jesus’ resurrection.

The response to Mr. Martin will be continued here. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is also available here.


Lurchling said…
It should be pointed out that "laws" of nature are created by men to make comprehension of existence easier. Laws can be changed or limited or even thrown out in certain observed situations when there is evidence to the contrary. One should not see miracles as breaking the laws of nature. What science book records the laws of nature as 1. There is no God 2. People can't raise from the dead or 3. Miracles can't happen? What experiment could prove any of these bogus "laws"? Miracles expand our understanding of the laws of nature or what is possible in nature. In no way does it break these made up "laws" of nature, they just re-tool them.

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