Believing in Miracles in an Age of Skepticism

3 Reasons to Believe that Miracles are Possible

In a few weeks, millions of Christians around the world will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For many of them, the resurrection has become more about commemorating a tradition than about affirming a doctrine. Nevertheless, as we saw last week, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead is central to the entire Christian faith. Historic Christianity does not just affirm a generic idea of resurrection, nor does it hold to a spiritualization of Jesus’ resurrection. Historic Christianity, that is Biblical Christianity, is founded on the miraculous event of Jesus Christ’s death by crucifixion and physical resurrection.

Yet, believing in such an astonishing miracle has become increasingly difficult in this age of skepticism. For some people, miracles are a deal breaker in terms of religious belief. Many adhere to Christian ideals and admire Christian contributions in the world. But, accepting a miracle as anything more than a symbolic myth seems too backward for the modern mind.

The late Christopher Hitchens, bestselling author and ardent atheist, frequently debated Christians in a formal setting. He often began his cross-examination by simply asking his opponent, “Do you really believe that Jesus rose from the dead?” When the Christian predictably answered yes, Hitches would turn to his audience and declare, “Ladies and gentlemen, my opponent has just demonstrated that science has done nothing for his worldview.”[1]

The accusation is straightforward, but it cuts deeply. Can a person appreciate modern science and at the same time believe Biblical Christianity with its insistence on the reality of miracles?

Here’s the thing…

I believe you can. The following are three reasons why.

Reason #1: Because chronological snobbery is as bad as it sounds.

Why should we believe the testimony of people who lived long before modern scientific understanding?

C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery”, describing his own disbelief as an atheist. Like so many today, he blindly accepted “the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”[2] The assumption is that first-century people, being the simpletons that they were, saw what appeared to be miraculous and, because they lacked the scientific prowess of the 21st century, they assumed that it was, in reality, a miracle.

However, we have to ask, were they that ignorant? Perhaps they did not know about quantum mechanics, but were they that unfamiliar with the difference between dead and alive? As philosophy professor Timothy McGrew asks, are we to assume “that Roman soldiers didn’t know how to kill an unarmed man…[or] that peasants in an agrarian society had seen enough death to know that in the natural course of things, men who are dead—completely dead, not just mostly dead—stay that way?”[3]

In other words, if those poor saps in the 1st century had our 21st-century scientific superiority, they would not have just assigned the term miracle to anything that seemed out of the ordinary. For example, they would have wanted to examine the scene of the event for themselves. But, didn’t Peter and John do that? They would not have believed until they saw the physical evidence. But, wasn’t that just what Thomas did? When they saw that Jesus was dead, they would have completely given up hope in something as outlandish as a resurrection and hidden, lest they be killed as well. When they saw Jesus was alive, they would have understood that his resurrection changed everything. But, that is what they did, because they knew exactly how big of a deal this was.

Just because we have more knowledge about the universe than they did, does not mean that they did not understand the extraordinary nature of what they were claiming to have seen.  

Reason #2: Because the laws of nature are descriptive, not prescriptive.

Why should we believe in miracles when science has proven them impossible?

It is difficult to believe in miracles in a culture that values scientific consensus so much. Nothing establishes your credibility in a conversation quite like throwing in “scientists have concluded” to support your point. Yet, believers are dismayed that “scientists have not concluded” the believability of miracles.

The widespread skepticism against miracles is largely due to a popular understanding of the laws of nature as just that—laws. The assumption is that these laws of nature are “dictates or edicts to the natural universe, edicts which–unlike moral laws or legislated ones–no one, and no thing, has the ability to violate.”[4] Such a view confuses the certitude we have in the laws of mathematics and logic. For example, the only alternative to “2+2=4” is an absurdity. These laws state what must be because anything else does not make sense. The laws of nature, on the other hand, which rely so heavily on limited observation, “do no more or less than correctly describe the world.”[5]

The point is, the laws of nature do not prescribe what must be, regardless of unforeseen variables. They describe what should be, all things being constant. Science is equipped to tell us all about the natural causes of natural events. But, what about supernatural causes? Are we to assume that because such possibilities sit outside the reach of science, supernatural events are impossible?

Alvin Plantiga compared this assumption to “the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there. In fact,” he continued, “it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.”[6]

Just because the laws of nature describe what should happen, all things being constant, does not mean that all things will remain constant.

Reason #3: Because miracles are interventions, not violations.

You cannot talk about the modern resistance against believing in miracles without mentioning the 18th-century philosopher David Hume. In one of his more famous works he defines a miracle as follows:

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 as can be imagined.

This has been the accepted definition ever since. As modern society crept closer to a science-driven secular age, the skepticism towards miracles became founded on this explanation. Because miracles “break” the laws of nature, they are as illogical as a square circle or a married bachelor.

However, is it accurate to think of a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature? C.S. Lewis’ illustrated the problem with the idea in his typical charming way. He suggested that if you were put to six pennies in a drawer on a Monday and then six more on a Tuesday, come Wednesday no one would be surprised to find twelve pennies. That is what is expected. But, if you open the drawer only to find two pennies, what would be your conclusion? “Something will have been broken,” he writes. “[T]he lock of the drawer or the laws of England, but the laws of arithmetic will not have been broken.”[7]

Were we in that situation, our assumption would be that someone opened the drawer and intervened. They disrupted our expectations, but they did not disrupt the laws of nature. So, when our expectations of natural events are disrupted, why would we assume that there must be either some natural explanation (“inside the drawer”, so to speak) or a violation of nature? Perhaps someone outside of nature intervened.

Oxford mathematician and professor emeritus John Lennox, recycles Lewis’ explanation here:

If a Creator God exists, there is nothing illogical about believing that this God would intervene with the natural order of things. Unexpected? Perhaps. Impossible? Not unless we can be certain that no such God exists and that our universe is a closed system. Both of these assertions, however, are definitively beyond the ability of science to demonstrate.

Just because science cannot account for supernatural causes, does not mean that a miracle must violate the laws of nature. 

_____________________

What you believe about the resurrection of Christ primarily depends on your assumptions about the possibility of miracles. If you assume that miracles are impossible violations of the laws of nature, no amount of evidence or argumentation would lead you to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. However, should that be the case?

In the same work that David Hume established his “violation” definition of miracles he states:

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should have really happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of the testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.[8]

Hume admits that if the evidence for a miracle is so thorough that alternate explanations require more of a miracle, then we are justified in our belief. The man that led generations to believe miracles are impossible leaves the door open for the possibility. So, as we consider the resurrection of Jesus, the question is not “how could anyone believe this?” The question is, what evidence do we have?

Next week we will take up Mr. Hume’s challenge and examine the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[1] Timothy McGrew, “Do Miracles Really Violate the Laws of Science?”. Retrieved March 6, 1018 from http://www.slate.com/bigideas/are-miracles-possible/essays-and-opinions/timothy-mcgrew-opinion

[2] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Chapter 13 “The New Look”. Retrieved March 4, 1018 from https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-surprisedbyjoy/lewiscs-surprisedbyjoy-01-h.html#chapter13

[3] Timothy McGrew, “Do Miracles Really Violate the Laws of Science?”. Retrieved March 6, 2018, from http://www.slate.com/bigideas/are-miracles-possible/essays-and-opinions/timothy-mcgrew-opinion

[4] Norman Swartz, “Laws of Nature”. Retrieved March 12, 2018, from https://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/#H5

[5] ibid.

[6] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000),p. 406.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978), p. 58.

[8] David Hume, “Of Miracles”. Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html


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3 thoughts on “Believing in Miracles in an Age of Skepticism

  1. I think the takeaway from Hume is that miraculous claims require good evidence. The question now is whether there is good evidence for the resurrection.

    Some like to interpret Hume as saying that there could never be sufficient reason to believe a miracle based on testimony alone. I don’t think that would be a charitable interpretation of Hume. Even it were true, there are certainly more plausible/similar arguments to be made (against miracles).

    1. Agreed. That’s why that final quote is so important. I believe he does leave that door open for the evidence, as should the skeptical today.
      Make sure to catch next week’s post examining the evidence!

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