By David P. Diaz, Ed.D.
[Note: The following article served as the first draft of a chapter in the book: The Genesis Labyrinth (2nd ed., 2020).]
Miracles represent a significant stumbling block to those who ponder the historical reliability of the Bible and the validity of the Christian message. Because many people think miracles are impossible, they extend this disbelief to the reliability of the rest of the biblical narrative—even in the face of significant evidence substantiating its historical authenticity.1 In this article, I want to place biblical miracles in their proper context by addressing the following key questions: “What role do miracles play in the Bible?”; “Are miracles impossible?”; and, “How can the existence of miracles be defended?”
Definition of Miracles
C. S. Lewis (1947, 5)2 defined miracles as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.” From the biblical perspective, miracles are not a “violation” of natural laws, but are rather God’s intervention into the laws He created. The only way that God could violate natural laws is if He was somehow subject to the laws. But the Creator cannot be held hostage by His creation. Therefore, God can, and does, intercede into the natural world whenever He so chooses.
The late professor emeritus of Philosophy at Western Washington University, Richard L. Purtill, added another definition: “A miracle is an event that is brought about by the power of God that is a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God is acting in history” (as cited in Strobel 2018, 49).
So, for the purpose of this article, a miracle can be defined as a periodic and temporary interference with the laws of nature so that God’s presence, power, and/or purpose might be understood.
Purpose of Miracles
While the authenticity of miracles has often been intensely debated, it may surprise some to learn that the mention of miracles in the Bible is a rarity. Though a number of miracles have been cited throughout the Old and New Testaments, there is good reason to suggest that miracles were uncommon in biblical times. Indeed, as philosopher Richard Howe (2014, 633) has noted: “in the vast millennia of biblical history, miracles are not that common and occur in clusters… there is a purpose of miracles surrounding God’s working His revelation and will with mankind.” Most of the 126+ miraculous events recounted in the Bible were centered around certain people like Moses, the prophets of Israel, and Jesus. The miracles wrought through these spokespersons marked important events in the history of God’s people, but they were not, by any means, frequent occurrences.
Thus, when the Bible is carefully examined, it becomes evident that miracles were (1) sparse, (2) clustered around certain people, and (3) used specifically to authenticate the divine commission of the messengers of God. Howe explained the purpose of miracles as follows: “I contend that, strictly speaking, miracles are given by God to vindicate His messenger and confirm the message” (Ibid., 634, italics added). In the midst of the pantheon of so-called gods in the ancient Near East, Yahweh—the sovereign Creator-God of the Hebrews—sometimes elected to confirm His supremacy and will through the outworking of miracles.
Defense of Miracles
In Christian doctrine, the existence of miracles obviously hinges on the existence of God.3 If there is no God, then natural laws become the ultimate determinants of everything. But if God exists and created the universe, including the laws of nature, then it is not a stretch to believe that He can intervene in the operation of those laws when He so chooses. Ultimately, the only way to prove the impossibility of miracles is to prove the impossibility of the existence of God.
But can the existence of miracles be defended without resorting to arguments for the existence of God? In a word, yes. Read on.
Are Miracles Impossible?
There are some people for whom miracles will never be an acceptable belief because they are not willing to admit even the possibility of the supernatural. No matter what experiences are encountered and no matter how the claims of others are perceived, true skeptics never seem to regard these experiences or claims as pointing to actual miracles. Such people appear to be close-minded, lacking the objectivity and discipline needed to study individual cases of miraculous events.
Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677), a Jewish-Dutch philosopher, attacked miracles head on and, in the process, put forth his own brand of pantheism.4 He did not believe in a theistic God, but instead equated God with nature. Spinoza understood miracles as a violation of natural law. He considered any claim that God could intervene in the natural course of events to be absurd: “I have taken miracles and ignorance as equivalent terms” (Spinoza 1996).
Spinoza’s argument against miracles can be summarized as follows: (1) The laws of nature flow from the necessity and perfection of the divine nature (i.e., the divine nature = the laws of nature). (2) Nothing can violate the laws of nature since nature is immutable (i.e., fixed, set, unchanging). (3) A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. (4) Therefore, purported biblical ‘miracles’ are, in reality, impossible.
The problem here is that Spinoza patently begs the question!5 The key premise is number 2: “Nothing can violate the laws of nature since nature is immutable.” If Spinoza knew in advance that natural laws are immutable then, of course, miracles would be impossible. But, there was no way for Spinoza to prove this premise unless he already knew that miracles were impossible. And to know miracles are impossible, one must assume that natural laws are immutable. The only clear thing that Spinoza demonstrated was that he assumed the very thing in his premise that he was attempting to prove in his conclusion. Thus, he argued in a circle.
David Hume (1711–1776) was perhaps best known for his philosophical skepticism, and he was especially skeptical of miracles. Following the naturalistic determinism of Spinoza, Hume reasoned as follows (In Keener 2012, Kindle location 3631):
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
While Spinoza tried to show that miracles were actually impossible, Hume most likely thought them to be merely incredible (i.e., difficult, or nearly impossible, to believe). This particular argument was an argument from experience. According to Hume, purported miracles represent a contradiction to our uniform experience against them. Thus, any claim of a miracle must be mistaken. For Hume, a uniform experience against miracles acts as a kind of proof that they do not occur.
It is not always clear exactly how Hume meant his argument against miracles to be understood. Either he was arguing that he already knew that all human experiences were uniform against miracles, or he knew that the experiences of some people were uniform against miracles. If it’s the former, then he begs the question. For unless Hume knows all things, he cannot know with certainty that all human experiences are uniform against miracles. And, if he cannot know that all human experience is uniform against miracles, then Hume cannot know that the laws of nature cannot be violated, based solely on uniform experience. Further, the claim that all humans have “unalterable experience” against miracles is the very point at issue. Accordingly, one cannot use as proof the very assertion that is being questioned.
If, on the other hand, Hume is referring to the experiences of some humans (i.e., those who have not experienced miracles), then he errs by special pleading.6 In other words, since there are many who have claimed to have experienced miracles, the claimed experience of a skeptic is not sufficient to cancel out the claimed experience of a believer. Indeed, “hundreds of millions of people in today’s world claim to have witnessed supernatural healings” (Keener 2012, Kindle location 5068). Thus, each and every miracle claim, whether found in the Bible or in today’s modern world, cannot be dismissed outright, but must be considered separately and the evidence assessed appropriately.
Was Gullibility or Ignorance a Critical Factor in Accepting Miracles by Ancient Peoples?
There are some who would have us believe that people in biblical times were more apt to trust in the existence of miracles simply because they were ignorant of the laws of nature. That is, had they understood natural laws, they would have correctly attributed all the supposed supernatural events to natural causes. I can understand why some would think this, and I can even agree that it may be true, in some instances. Just as non-believers will often not believe in miracles because of their predisposition against the supernatural, believers may read miracles into natural events because of wishful thinking or perhaps simply because of their subjective belief in miracles. Nevertheless, while one’s belief in miracles is not proof that they exist, neither does such belief serve as evidence against miracles. The fact that someone believes in something doesn’t mean it’s not true: Just because I believe the sun will rise tomorrow doesn’t mean it won’t. The key point is that, neither belief nor unbelief necessarily establishes the truth (or falsity) of miracle claims. So, what does this mean? Once again, it means that each miracle claim must be considered separately and assessed critically and comprehensively to shed light on its authenticity.
It seems abundantly clear to me that people in ancient times did understand the natural order and could see the difference between regularly occurring patterns of nature and exceptions to such patterns. It is only because of the regularity of nature that miracles can be understood for what they are: interventions by God into the natural laws that He created. Any claim of a “miracle” would have no relevance outside of the consistency, regularity, pattern, and structure of the laws that operate in the world. The point here is, a miracle claim presupposes the knowledge of a natural order.
Miracle claims are strengthened when the events are witnessed by many people simultaneously. Because a good number of the miracles recorded in the Bible7 were witnessed by many people at the same time, it is doubtful that all were mistaken in believing a genuine miracle took place when it didn’t. For example, what led people to believe that Lazarus (Jn. 11:1–46)—who had died, been body-wrapped and entombed for four days—was resurrected to life by Jesus? Was it gullibility or wishful thinking that influenced all those people to believe? Or, could it have simply been that four days earlier Lazarus was dead and buried, but when Jesus called him forth from the tomb he rose from the dead? In another example, could Jesus’ instantaneous healing of a man who was born blind (Jn. 9:1–7) have been misunderstood by the people who witnessed the event? Was nobody familiar with this man’s history? Did he not have friends and family who could verify that he had been blind his entire life? It blurs the lines of believability to think that ancient people, no matter how little their knowledge of the natural world, could have mistaken such clear examples as these.
The same is true of modern-day miracles.8 Is it reasonable to think that a person of average intelligence cannot see the cause and effect relationship between prayer and spontaneous cures? I would think not. The vast majority of people living today have enough understanding of the natural world to assess the veracity of claims of spontaneous healings. Especially when there are reliable witnesses of such events. Indeed, there are numerous examples of such spontaneous healings. As noted by Keener (2012, 5925–5931):
Among the many persons healed of deafness and muteness was a young woman deaf and mute for twelve years, and on another occasion ‘an old man who had been deaf in both ears since he was a young man was instantly healed.’ Instant healing through prayer also came to a twenty-eight-year- old who had been deaf and mute all his life and was instantly healed.
These, as well as thousands of other spontaneous healings have been carefully documented by a number of writers. For more examples of documented miracle claims, refer to Keener 2012 and Strobel 2018 in the bibliography. So, while it is one thing to claim that some people in ancient times read miracles into natural events, it’s quite another to claim that every miracle witnessed in the Bible and elsewhere can be attributed to mistaken notions about natural laws or to wishful thinking.
Suspension of Disbelief
What would happen if a skeptic were to temporarily suspend her disbelief in miracles? Or even better, if she suspended her disbelief in God? Once the existence of God has been accepted, even for the sake of argument, then there is no security against miracles. As C. S. Lewis (1947, 109) pointed out: “That is the bargain. Theology says to you in effect, ‘Admit God and with Him the risk of a few miracles, and I in return will ratify your faith in uniformity as regards the overwhelming majority of events.’” What Lewis was saying is that God’s existence makes sense out of the numerous seemingly inexplicable phenomena in the universe;9 including miracles.
If one’s assumptions eliminate the supernatural by definition, then, of course, one would never agree that a miracle has happened in the world. However, if one accepts, even provisionally, a deity who acts purposefully in history, then it would seem unreasonable not to, at very least, accept reliable eyewitness testimony to count in favor of miracles. In other words, a rational and fair-minded person should take the accounts of miracles seriously, especially when those claims are put forth by reliable eyewitnesses.
Tales of miracles would have had little or no impact in any ancient culture unless there was some credibility to the accounts. While some incidents may have been embellished or wrongly credited, it doesn’t seem plausible that every purported miracle could have been attributable to natural laws or a lack of sophistication of the witnesses. Therefore, the doubter of miracles ultimately has to look somewhere other than ancient man’s gullibility and/or lack of understanding for an answer to the accounts of miracles in the Bible.
Though early man’s knowledge of the laws of nature was, no doubt, incomplete, he nevertheless knew enough to understand that there were regular, recurring patterns in nature and that an interruption of these patterns was not normal. While it may be true that, on occasion, people in biblical times mistakenly understood a natural event to be a miracle, it is highly unlikely that they could have been fooled in every instance.
As a counterpoint, one should keep in mind that it may be the skeptic who is mistaken. That is, perhaps it is the doubter of miracles who on occasion mistakingly concludes that a miraculous event is a natural one simply because of wishful thinking or a sincere desire for it to be so.
If miracles are possible—and this is undeniable—then simply rejecting them without examining the evidence is tantamount to rational suicide. Indeed, according to Keener (2012, Kindle location 3685):
As events, phenomena that people interpret as miracles can be examined scientifically and historically…. Regardless of causation, a person either did recover from a disease or did not, although we quite often lack access to information that makes the initial diagnosis certain.
Keener further notes: “To exclude the possibility of some sort of suprahuman and possibly supernatural intelligent causation is to a priori rule out what may be a very plausible explanation of some evidence—yet many Western intellectuals do just this” (2012, Kindle location 3705).
Ultimately, miracles must be judged on their own merits. On one hand, if reports of miracles are found in the biblical text, then they can be assessed using the tools of forensic science, including clues from circumstantial evidence and historical analysis, to determine the plausibility of such claims. On the other hand, purported modern-day miracles can be examined by incorporating many of the same principles and practices used in empirical science (i.e., observation, testing, interviews, descriptive statistics, etc.). One does not have to assume the existence of God to defend a hypothesis of miracles, one simply need not rule out the hypothesis beforehand by assuming that God, and/or the supernatural realm, doesn’t exist.
In summary, the Bible purports a natural order that was created by God (Gen. 1:14–18) and which can be controlled by Him. Such interventions are called miracles, and said miracles are described in various places in the Bible. It is only by disproving the existence of God that one can disprove miracles. But, if such a God exists, He most certainly can suspend the laws He created to produce miracles.
About the Author
David P. Diaz, Ed.D. is the publisher and owner of Things I Believe Project. An educator and author, Dr. Diaz has a lifelong love of learning. His pen name (aka “Don Quixote”) comes from his love of chasing windmills (i.e., truth and other ideals) and his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor: “Don Quixote was developing his arguments in such an orderly and lucid way that for the time being none of those listening could believe he was a madman.”
Howe, R. G. “A Defense of the Supernatural.” In The Jesus Quest: The Danger from Within edited by N. L. Geisler and F. D. Farnell, 621–672. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2014.
Geisler, Norman. Miracles and the Modern Mind: A Defense of Biblical Miracles. Kindle Ed. Matthews, NC: Bastion Books, 2012.
Keener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Kindle ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.
Lewis, C. S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1947.
Spinoza, Baruch. Letters to Friend and Foe. New York, NY: Philosophical Libriary, 1996.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural: Student Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018.
- For more information on the reliability of the Old Testament, see the following TIBP article: “Is the Old Testament Historically Reliable?”
- C. S. Lewis’ book, Miracles (1947), is an interesting and insightful theological and philosophical discussion of miracles. This brief but important work is a classic in the field by a significant figure in Christian apologetics. That it is still in print after all these years is a testament to its popularity.
- For more information on the existence of God, see these TIBP articles: (1) “A Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God” http://thingsibelieveproject.net/a-cosmological-argument-for-the-existence-of-god/ (2) “God v. Matter As the Cause of the Universe – Part 1” http://thingsibelieveproject.net/god-v-matter-as-the-cause-of-the-universe-part-1/ and (3) “God v. Matter as the Cause of the Universe – Part 2” http://thingsibelieveproject.net/god-v-matter-as-the-cause-of-the-universe-part-2/
- Pantheism is a belief that god is impersonal and tends to identify god with nature (the universe).
- The fallacy of begging the question (petitio principii) occurs when the proposition one is trying to establish is unwittingly assumed. This is evident when the general premise could not be known to be true unless the conclusion is known to be true; so, in making the argument, the conclusion is assumed true from the beginning (From Hansen, Hans, “Fallacies”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/fallacies/>.
- Special pleading is used here to refer to any argument in which the speakers deliberately ignore aspects that are unfavorable to their point of view.
- Appealing to the Bible for evidence of miracles, of course, brings up the question of the reliability and historical authenticity of the text. While this is an important topic, it is beyond the scope of this article to make a case for the reliability of the New Testament. However, I have written an article on the reliability of the Old Testament, which can be accessed here: http://thingsibelieveproject.net/is-the-old-testament-historically-reliable/.
- One of the most comprehensive discussions of the topic of miracles can be found in the book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011). Written by Craig S. Keener, this two-volume work not only establishes the credibility of miracles, but also thoroughly documents hundreds, if not thousands, of present-day miracles from around the globe.
- Examples of “seemingly inexplicable phenomena” include: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the mind-body problem, the problem of free will in a deterministic world, the appearance of mind from mindless matter, our sense of objective moral standards, etc.