Why believe in God? Maybe the best reason is miracles. Debates about the truth of Christianity often revolve around the reality of the most famous miracle in human history, the resurrection of Jesus. In this era in which Christianity has spread rapidly beyond its old borders, Christians around the world also often explain their conversion by some event in which God seemed to step into their lives in an amazing way. Two chapters of my new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, tell such stories.
But this brings up a lot of questions. Wwhat is a miracle? Are miracles possible? Does science disprove them? If Christians believe the resurrection, does that oblige us to admit Joseph Smith really received the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, or that Mohammed rode a white horse to heaven? Do miracles provide good evidence for Christianity?
I think they do. But we can't tackle all these questions in one post, so let's start with the first, which is foundational to all the others.
The word "miracle" is given at least three different meanings:
(1) People often use the word to refer to "an amazing event." "We have all benefited from the miracle of science." "We'll be telling our grandkids about that miraculous fourth-quarter comback!" "I held her hand as the baby emerged, and witnessed the miracle of new life."
Language is a set of mostly arbitrary signs that we use to communicate. So there is nothing "wrong" about using the word miracle this, or any other, way. If you like, you define "rose" as "a large mammal that lives in the swamps on Yoda's home planet." You can write a science-fiction novel using the word that way, and your readers will get used to the term quickly enough. But then if your neighbor tells you, "I'm putting in roses in my yard next spring," don't criticize him for harboring dangerous animals: his use of the word is more in agreement with convention, than your own.
So there is nothing "wrong" with using "miracle" to mean "an amazing event." But it is irrelevant to the debate between skeptics and theists, and its frequent use tends to confuse that issue. An atheist can see miracles around him all day long, in this sense, without upsetting his atheism. So let us bracket this common meaning of the word "miracle."
(2) Miracle is also commonly taken to mean, "An event in the material world that violates the laws of Nature." In a post article at The Secular Outpost, the philosopher Brad Owen argued, "In order for an event to be a miracle, it must satisfy at least the following two conditions: 1. The event must involve the violation of a law of nature. 2. The event must be brought about by God."
The first part of this definition seems to have been popularized by 17th Century Scottish philosopher, David Hume:
"A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature."
Hume went on to explain:
"Sometimes an event may not, in itself, seem to be contrary to the laws of nature, and yet, if it were real, it might, by reason of some circumstances, be denominated a miracle; because, in fact, it is contrary to these laws. Thus if a person, claiming a divine authority, should command a sick person to be well, a healthful man to fall down dead, the clouds to pour rain, the winds to follow upon his command; these may justly be esteemed miracles . . . "
I responded to the word "violation" that both Owen and Hume use, as follows:
"One reason I object to the word 'violation,' is that it seems to imply a discontinuity between the 'laws' of nature and miracles. But there is actually a deeper continuity. Miracles are not like random street noise that interrupts a concert (magic). They are like the symbols that dramatically break up the horn soliquy with a sudden 'crash,' but were written into the music by the composer to climax the piece."
C. S. Lewis offers a similar explanation in his book, Miracles.
Brad responded by citing the Christian historian Gary Habermas, and softening his language, to say miracles must involve a "suspension" of natural law.
That helps, but I also see two larger problems with this assumption.
First, what are miracles like, in the Bible, or as people experience them today?
Some do seem to involve suspension of natural law. For example, the first "sign" John reports, is when Jesus changes water into wine at a wedding feast in the lakeside village of Cana. This is a chemically impossible reaction: alcohol contains carbon, for instance, while water does not. Nor does Jesus appear to have acted on the water to stimulate any kind of reaction.
On the other hand, a few chapters later, mere words at a well in Samaria, and then in a village nearby, convince some Samaritans that Jesus is "the Savior of the world." No laws of physics or chemistry are obviously "suspended" in the process. But the people are convinced, and the reasons are good.
The same is often true of "miracles," today. I have never seen the laws of physics suspended or violated. But several times, I have seen what looked like "miraculous" answers to prayer.
Once when I was working as a missionary in Taiwan, I ran out of money. I went to a park in Taipei and prayed, "God, why don't I just go home! I don't even have enough money to buy a hamburger! The hymn says, 'Great is thy faithfulness,' but I just don't see that faithfulness!"
On my way out of the park, I stopped to talk with a Chinese girl reading an English newspaper. (The paper was an excuse. "At least she answers!" I told God.) As I was getting up to leave, the girl asked me my name. "Ma De Wei," I said. "Ma Dewei? You're Ma Dewei! Really?"
I soon learned why she was so surprised. Years before, I had found a wallet some miles away, and taken it to the Taiwan University Lost and Found. I put my Chinese name in the wallet, and wrote, "God loves you." In a city of four million, this girl turned out to be the owner of that wallet.
She took me to McDonalds for lunch. Eating a cheeseburger, I remembered the jibe about money for hamburgers.
My other needs were met in almost equally surprising ways.
None, however, involved the suspension of any natural laws. But they did give me reason to think God had not forgotten me.
An opposite phenomena from the one Hume mentioned is often cited by modern skeptics: when a natural explanation (either "folk" or "scientific") is later found for events that at first seem supernatural. Maybe Jesus was a "psychic," in other words exploited some little-known physical powers to read the Samaritan woman's mind. Maybe his disciples did good research on her. Either way, the "sign," while compelling to those who converted, need not involve God (skeptics may reply), nor need it clearly violate known laws of science.
Some miracles in the gospels are like that: Peter's catch of the fish with the gold coin in its mouth, the disciples' big catches of fish under Jesus' instruction, occasions when Jesus seemed to know things without being told. Some of his healing might be explained away as psychosomatic.
Even the toughest miracles might, in theory, be explained in terms of quantum physics. The philosopher Michael Martin, for example, suggests that even the resurrection might theoretically be explained by a random quantum fluctuation. So might Jesus walking on water, or multiplying the loaves and fishes, or healing anyone of anything.
So there are two problems with the definition Brad Owen and David Hume (among others, both skeptics and Christians) use.
First, the Bible uses another term, "sign," which seems to put the stress on the probative value of the event in persuading those who experience it to trust God, and act on that trust. Some "signs" seem to involve what we would ordinarily call "violations of natural law," others do not.
Second, given quantum physics and modern technology, it is increasingly difficult to absolutely differentiate between what physical laws do or do not allow. One might also explain Jesus' healings, for instance, as those of a medical doctor from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, Dr. McCoy in Palestine.
Of course there are all kinds of problems with these counter-claims. The odds such an enormous quantum flux, for example, are greater than the number of fundamental particles in a universe the size ours would be, if every particle in it became a universe of its own. But it has become more difficult, now, to draw a clear line between the "improbable" and what is genuinely impossible in the course of nature.
It seems, then, that we need a definition of "miracle" that includes both how the Bible actually uses the word, the root meaning of the word, and in terms of probilities rather than mere possibilities.
So here's the definition I prefer:
(3) "A miracle is an event in the natural world that points probatively to God's work, and gives us compelling reasons to trust Him."
The most common Greek word is σημειoν, or sign, the root for semiotics. A miracle does not need to violate a law of nature, but should give good reasons for faith.
In Jesus and the Religions of Man, chapter 10 and 11, I give an in-depth description of what a miracle in this sense involves, and compare miracles to magic. Briefly, miracles in the biblical sense tend to share five characteristics (one of which Brad Owen has already mentioned):
(1) "Miracles ask to be verified; magic insults the intelligence." This is related to their root meaning of "signs," and to their purpose in guiding us to God.
(2) "Miracles tend to be practical; magic is often showy."
(3) "Miracles enhance human dignity; magic makes us more or less than human."
(4) "Miracles point to God; magic points elsewhere."
(5) "Miracles come in response to requests; magic to demands." One consequence of this quality is that it is often difficult to test miracles scientifically, but may be possible to check them historically. God, being our Lord, not our servant, will act when and where, and in whatever way, He chooses. Therefore miracles are not "repeatable," but they can be rationally deduced.
These five qualities not only help define Christian miracles, they also help differentiate true miracles from faked or even demonic supernatural acts. That's what I'm doing in Jesus and the Religions of Man.