A recent survey revealed that 79 percent of Americans say they believe in miracles. Even among those who seldom or never attend church, 70 percent believe miracles occur.
Nearly everyone has a personal story which he or she considers to be miraculous, but our scientific worldview makes it difficult to tell our stories to each other.
Our reluctance says less about miracles than it does about us. As C. S. Lewis observed, the man who denies the sunrise does not harm the sun—he only proves himself foolish.
What can we learn about our culture from its views of the miraculous? And about ourselves?
Mad at miracles
Most dictionaries consider a “miracle” to be an event or action that apparently contradicts scientific laws as we understand them.
Sometimes we experience a miracle of coincidence, where highly improbable but not impossible events occur, e.g., a friend calls you unexpectedly, just when you most needed to hear from her.
Other miracles are an actual violation of physical laws, e.g., a friend calls you on a disconnected telephone.
Both kinds occurred often in the biblical record.
Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul all experienced and initiated them. And Jesus’ miracles were crucial to his ministry. They validated his Messiahship (Matthew 11:4–5), showed that he was from God (John 5:36; 14:11), and were intended to lead to saving faith (John 20:30-31).
Yet miracles themselves may not convince those who witness them (cf. John 15:24; Luke 16:31).
At issue is our worldview.
As J. S. Mill said in 1843, “If we do not already believe in supernatural agencies, no miracle can prove to us their existence.” Either we didn’t see what we thought we saw, or there’s another explanation than the miraculous.
Many have taken such skeptical positions:
- Benedict Spinoza (died 1677) argued that it is impossible for natural laws to be changed. If an event appears to be a miracle, this is only because we have not yet found the natural explanation.
- Isaac Newton agreed that time and space have an absolute fixed character so that miracles by definition are impossible.
- David Hume added that we cannot prove any cause and effect, much less the cause of so-called miracles. He believed that we should test all reported events in light of our personal experience. If you have not experienced the miraculous, you cannot trust the testimony of another to its veracity.
- Ernst Troelsch, the famous historian, took Hume’s position a step further: no writer of history should include a reported experience that does not occur today. If people no longer walk on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus didn’t, either.
- Karl Marx added the conviction that miracles are supernaturalistic wishes and nothing more.
You may be surprised to find that some Christians are likewise skeptical of the miraculous, though for different reasons. Some believe that miracles ended with the early church. Others maintain that miracles no longer occur, as the need for them in establishing revelation is now past.
The logic of the miraculous
Are there answers to the above skeptics?
Most critics decide that the miraculous is by definition impossible, though they have no empirical or rational reasons to do so. Many point to their own lack of experience with miracles as a reason to debunk the category itself.
But could a man living in a warm climate believe in ice? Should we trust the experience of a person who denies that such experience is possible?
Science works with probability, not absolute logical proof. Those who seek incontrovertible evidence for the miraculous demand a standard they could not fulfill with their own truth claims.
For instance, when experimenters measure light in one way, they determine that it travels as waves. Measured in other ways, it appears to travel as particles. Both cannot be true, but neither can be disproved or proved. Niels Bohr called this phenomenon the “principle of complementarity.” Aristotle would call it a contradiction.
Newton saw the universe as a machine incapable of behavior outside the parameters of natural laws. After Einstein, this analytical era in science has come to an end. We now know that to observe or measure something is to alter it. Predictability is less possible, and antisupernaturalistic presuppositions are less defensible. Even Einstein stated, “I think of the comprehensibility of the world as a miracle.”
It all comes to worldview.
If God created and designed the universe, he possesses the freedom to alter it as he wishes. He may act according to “laws” we discern within its operations, or he may not. What is a miracle to us is not to him.
The laptop on which I am writing these words obeys none of the laws within which my father’s manual typewriter operated. But its “miraculous” abilities are nonetheless obvious.
How should we judge a claim to the miraculous today?
First, we accept the biblical worldview with its insistence that God created all that exists and is free to act within his creation as he pleases.
Second, we determine that the event in question cannot be explained on the basis of natural causes alone.
Third, we test the reliability of the sources claiming that a miracle has occurred.
Fourth, we use probability theory: given the evidence at hand, is it more probable on objective grounds that a miracle has occurred or that it has not?
Finally, we approach faith as a personal relationship. All relationships must be experienced to be “proven” and are self-validating. You cannot explain a sunset to a blind person. Or your salvation to someone who refuses the faith. To either, such is a miracle.
And they’re right.