Concept of Miracles

Criticisms made by Hume

  • He maintained that sense experience (empiricism) is the only reliable guide to reality
  • He is a sceptic because he argues that we cannot reason accurately beyond what we see as this requires us to make assumptions
  • He contended that miracles are impossible
  • We establish cause and effect relationships based on our experience of the world which leads us to making predictions about what will happen in similar cases in the future
  • The most experience we have of an event, the less likely it is that the opposite will occur and so, miracles are less likely each time we experience a ‘normal event’
  • Other people’s testimonies are the only way to disprove/prove miracles and so he would postulate whether it is more likely that a miracle occurred or, that the accounts are mistaken
  • He does not believe in chance/supernatural intervention
  • “No evidence is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavours to establish”

His practical argument

Hume believes that, practically speaking, miracles cannot happen

1. Witnesses – miracles generally do not have many sane and educated witnesses

2. Psychology – we have a natural interest in the unusual and religious people exploit this. Religious people know that the stories they recount are false but continue to spread them as a good cause

3. Barbarous people – miracles are usually reported by people of ‘ignorant and barbarous’ nations. Such occurrences do not seem to happen with such regularity in modern times

4. Different religions – almost all religions have miracle stories however, they cannot all be right. Therefore, their different testimonies would cancel each other out

Objections to Hume’s arguments against miracles

  • His definition of miracle is often criticised as he fails to recognise that the ‘laws of nature’ are descriptive, rather than prescriptive – they tell us what has been observed rather than telling nature what it may or may not do
  • So, if something goes against the rules of nature, it just is different from events that have previously been observed; it does not break a rule which must be obeyed and thus a ‘transgression of the laws of nature’ is not an impossibility – it is just unusual
  • His practical arguments are sweeping generalisations
  • How many witnesses would he deem sufficient? He has not stated
  • He assumes that testimonies are second hand but what about first hand encounters?
  • He begins by contending that no reasonable person could believe in miracles and thus it was inevitable that he would consider those who report miracles to be ignorant
  • Who are the ‘barbarous and ignorant’ nations? He has not defined them
  • Miracles are reported in modern western societies, contrary to what he states
  • Swinburne notes that testimonies are not the only form of evidence – what about physical evidence such as dry clothes, no boat or bridge – all signs maybe pointing to someone walking on water
  • Hume’s arguments against miracles do not therefore mean that miracles could not occur and leaves to pertinent questions (1) do miracles in fact occur (2) if they occur, then what exactly do they prove?

Modern thinkers respond to Hume:

CS Lewis (1898-1963) FOR

Converted to Christianity in 1929 – had been an atheist

Defended miracles  - he believed we had two options about how we view the world

  • (1) We are either naturalists and believe that reality is physical and there is nothing else
  • (2) We are supernaturalists and we believe that non-physical things such as God and the soul exist

He saw naturalism are self defeating because if we are just physical beings who are subjected to the laws of cause and effect then our decision to believe in naturalism is physically caused and we have no choice about what we believe. It is caused by physical factors

  • However, if we accept the possibility of God, then we can accept the possibility of miracles
  • In rejecting this, the naturalist is making assumptions that the world is purely physical

Anthony Flew (1923-) AGAINST

  • Accepts that Hume is technically correct to say that miracles cannot be proved and agrees that the wise man should go with the evidence and reject miracles.
  • He argues that we do not have direct experience of miracles – we have to rely on indirect accounts passed on from others.
  • When presented with an account of resurrection from the dead or water being turned into wine, historically we have to reject this as our tested experience tells us that dead people stay dead and water does not suddenly become wine. These are the only conclusions that we can make based on the evidence available to us

John Polkinghorne (1929-) FOR

  • Defends miracles particularly Jesus’ resurrection
  • He contends that all science can tell us is that a given event is against normal experience but is cannot completely disprove its occurrence
  • He believes that the key theological question is whether it makes sense to say that God has acted in a new way as it might be perfectly possible for God to act in new and unexpected ways when circumstances change
  • The laws of nature do not change yet the consequences of these laws can change when one moves into a ‘new regime’
  • The consequences may change when God begins to deal with humans in a new way  and Jesus’ resurrection is crucial as it brings a new age of God’s dealing with people

Richard Swinburne (1934-) FOR

  • Defends miracles but argues that it is important to know what the laws of nature are as he contended that they weren’t necessarily fixed truths
  • He believed that many of the scientific laws that we adapt are merely statistical laws – they tell us what will almost certainly happen
  • “One must distinguish between a formula being a law and a formula being (universally) true, being a law which holds without exception”
  • Perhaps God can suspend laws on occasions in the way that a parent sometimes relaxes the boundaries they give to their children
  • If God is benevolent, he would want to interact with his creation and may do so via occasional miracles
  • He believes that miracles are by their nature occasional events and that if they were more regular, we would not know whether laws such as gravity were going to operate
  • He also believes that it encourages humans to be active in trying to make progress because for example, if we knew that God regularly healed cancer, humans would not actively seek a cure

Maurice Wiles on miracles (1923-2005) AGAINST

  • He rejects the idea of any interventions by God into the created universe
  • He does not reject them on the grounds of logic or science and in fact he does not see anything logically wrong with the idea that God could choose if he wanted to, to create miracles. He rejected them from a moral perspective
  • He argues that the Universe is part of a single, ongoing act of creation by God but denies God the ability to intervene specifically in the world
  • God could perform miracles and suspend the laws of nature if he wanted to however, it would be impossible as we would not be able to have laws of nature at all and could not lead normal lives

A moral rejection

  • If God could act to cure a child at Lourdes or to make statues weep or the blood of saints not to clot or to help some individual in relatively trivial ways then this would, Wiles maintains, mean that God would not be worthy of worship as if God could intervene and failed to do so in cases like the Holocaust, the Rwanda and Kosovo massacres or earthquakes
  • God would have to be rejected as not being worthy of worship because a God that chooses to help someone and not another and who often ignores those in need, would not be morally good
  • Wiles concluded that it is better theologically, to believe in a God that does not do any miracles than one that was not morally good
  • “...even so it would seem strange that no miraculous intervention prevented Auschwitz or Hiroshima while the purposes apparently forwarded by some of the miracles acclaimed in traditional Christian faith seem trivial by comparison” (Wiles, God’s Action in the World)
  • Wiles targets the story of the water being turned into wine and argues that the event is done to prevent the embarrassment of the hosts. However, in a world where suffering occurs on such a large scale, this would seem to be an arbitrary whim on God’s part
  • Wiles sees such Biblical accounts, including the resurrection, as having important symbolic value as they teach believers about God’s nature

Wiles contends that miracles do not happen because

  • 1. If they are violations of the laws of nature, they must occur infrequently so that laws of nature are not meaningless
  • 2. The pattern of miracle occurrences is strange
  • 3. The large number of evil events not prevented by God raises questions about his omnipotence and goodness

Objections

  • His beliefs do not accord with traditional teachings about God by stating that believers have misunderstood miracles for almost 2000 years
  • You cannot suggest that miracles show God’s love and power if you also say that God cannot intervene in the world
  • We cannot make God conform to human rationality as God acts in ways beyond our human reasoning. God’s actions would never conform to human understanding
  • God cannot even be limited to what is rationally possible and his purposes remain beyond our human understanding
  • Christian tradition clearly depicts God acting in a more direct way than Wiles suggests i.e. through miracle stories so his views do not fully reflect the nature of God
  • Wiles’ views, suggests John Polkinghorne, does not reflect Christian experiences of God through petitionary prayer
  • Polkinghorne also contends that many Christian scientists have not yet rejected the possibility that God acts in the world

Strengths of Wiles

  • It allows theists to reinterpret prayer as not something which wills God to act but which allows an individual to connect to God
  • It may solve the problem of evil as God does not intervene because he cannot OR because he is bound by the laws of nature
  • Appeals to educated believers as it allows believe in God and the upholding of scientific laws

General criticisms of miracles

Coincidences

Mel Thompson: ‘In July 1995, a Roman Catholic priest suffered a severe stroke and was not expected to live. A fellow priest took the 300 year old mummified hand of an English martyr and placed it on his forehead while he was in hospital. The hand, apparently hacked from his body in 1679 when he was hanged, drawn and quartered, has long been regarded as able to bring about miracles. The Priest recovered’

However there is no guarantee that the recovery of the priest was an exceptionally remarkable coincidence because of

  • (a) the chances of the hand having miraculous powers
  • (b) the chances of the hand actually belonging to an English Martyr

Pointless in their nature

Mel Thompson: ‘In Naples, three times a year, people gather at St Clare’s Basilica for a ceremony during which it is hoped that dried blood, believed to be that of St Gerrano who died in 305, will spontaneously liquefy. This ‘miracle’ is anticipated on a regular basis, and is seen as a good omen’

There is no apparent value to miracles such as these

Rejected on moral grounds

In Judaism- Can it be that all those who were rescued in Exodus (people who are portrayed in the Bible as sinful) were morally superior to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust? This raises problems for theists about the nature of God? Why would He act on one occasion and not another?

This argument is particularly strong when used against miracles of a trivial nature; involving, for example, minor healings i.e. claims from the TACF of ‘dental miracles’ in which God ‘blessed’ 300 people with gold fillings

Senior pastor David Markee, who has invested in a dental mirror to look at "miracles", said: "Our God is big enough to do anything He wants but I have still been taken by surprise at this phenomenon.

  • Does it show that God favours only certain followers? If so, what does this say for his benevolence?
  • Why does he choose to intervene by answering the prayers of some, yet not of others?
  • Unless it can be proved that miracles are only affected for the benefit of the righteous, God would seem to be acting irrationally. This proposal is, to say the least, improbable, as it goes against the God of Classical Theism
  • Therefore, many miracles are incompatible with the justice and love of God - If God is all- loving and just, however, He would wish to help His followers equally

Lack of evidence

  • Miracles are not supported with sufficient evidence
  • We can be sceptical if they are only witnesses by one person

Thinking point: The principle of Ockham’s razor states that where a simple and expected cause is the likely explanation for a certain event, it is not justifiable to invent a more complex one, even if it is a possible alterative.

Other points

  • A miracle-working God does not help us to solve the problem
  • Miracles compromise God’s goodness; unfair to select those to help
  • Theodicy-type argument: evil helps us to develop/grow/progress
  • Would God’s intervention harm this?
  • Impact on humans? Lazy attitude/blame God and ask God for constant help

Strengths of miracles

  • It could be argued that miracles such as Christ’s resurrection, the delivery of the Qur’an to Muhammad, are exempted from the criticisms, since they are well supported within their respective faith traditions, and they have a purpose of propounding God’s teachings to the world.
  • They may be considered to break natural laws but they do not, in themselves, bestow favours directly upon the individual
  • They offer believers proof that God works within the world to answer prayers and to reveal he is active within his creation
  • God gives people freedom to choose to believe in him/love him
  • Miracles are signs that encourage belief in God
  • God may make miracles happen randomly
  • Jn 2: 11 – This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him”- Biblical example of miracles being signs

Miracles are significant for religious believers for the following reasons:

  • 1. They support God’s existence
  • 2. They are signs that God continues to be active in the world (i.e. through healing miracles)
  • 3. Miracles show that prayers are answered (shows God as benevolent and that He acts in the world)
  • 4. The miracle of the resurrection (important foundational event for Christianity as explained by St Paul)
  • 5. Miracles show that Jesus is from God (Jesus preaches and accompanies this usually with a miracle)
  • 6. Miracles show God’s providence (divine intervention) (God is revealed to people through creation or through acts such as responding to prayers)

Aquinas on miracles

He defined miracle as: “That which has a divine cause, not that whose cause a human person fails to understand” (from Summa Contra Gentiles).

Highlights a fundamental point for theists: miracles are events caused by God. Miracle comes from Latin ‘miraculum’ meaning an object of wonder.

The point of miracle stories is the wondrous event of the curing of someone and how God worked through Jesus. Aquinas and Aristotle believe that everything that exists has a nature – a statement about what the thing is able to do.

A miracle has a ‘divine cause’- the event is not a normal part of the nature of things and it is something intrinsically wonderful – not subjective

He believed miracles could be placed in rank order from

  • 1)those in which something is done by God that nature can never do’ (Biblical examples)
  • 2) those in which God does something nature can do
  •  3) miracles where God by-passes the normal order of things

Many Christians today develop this by saying that miracles are not only caused by God but also reveal something about him to people

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