Can We Still Believe in Miracles Today? Should We?
This post is adapted from K. Scott Oliphant’s new online course, Know Why You Believe.
How could you believe that an ax head could ever float on water?
How about a person? Could a person walk on water?
Can someone really rise from the dead?
Questions like these often come to Christians. Embedded in our belief in Christianity is a belief in the reality of miracles.
But why would we believe that miracles could happen?
The most famous objection to miracles
The most famous and influential denial of the possibility of miracles is given by the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume.
It’s important that we understand Hume. That’s because in understanding Hume’s argument against miracles, we also understand why many others want to deny miracles.
Before we dive into Hume, let’s first define two key terms that will be an important part of our discussion: empiricism and probability.
What empiricism means
The philosophy that David Hume promoted is called “empiricism.”
Empiricism simply says that we can know only what we experience. Experiences typically include things that we see, or hear, or touch.
For Hume, only those kinds of things are worthy of our beliefs and are able to be known.
Because Hume was so insistent that only things of experience could be known by us, his view is sometimes called “naturalism.” Naturalism is a view that says only “natural” things can be known. We can know only what we experience, and what we experience is the “natural” world. We can have knowledge of only the natural world; any other kind of knowledge that does not come from the natural world is mere illusion, according to Hume.
In thinking about the possibility of miracles, then, Hume lays out the basic empiricist principle that will guide him:
“A wise man . . . proportions his belief to the evidence.”
This statement defines empiricism. If there is no empirical evidence for a miracle, or if the “proportion” of evidence is only slight, the possibility of miracle has to be rejected.
What probability means
Most of us have some idea of what probability means. In general, it has to do with the likelihood of something happening or taking place. That is how Hume and others use the term, too.
What empiricism means for the likelihood of miracles occurring
In his work titled An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume ends with a stunning suggestion: Hume wants us to picture ourselves in a library. In that library, there are books that deal with Christianity. Take one of the books on Christianity in your hand and open it, says Hume. Now, ask yourself a couple of questions. Does this book on Christianity deal with the science of mathematics? Of course, the answer would be no. Then ask yourself if the book deals with natural things, things that you can experience (“experiential reasoning”) in this world. The answer, again, would be no.
Well, says Hume, if the book isn’t dealing with the certainties of mathematics (for example, 2 + 2 = 4), and it is not dealing with things that you see, smell, touch, or hear (for example, trees, flowers, rocks, and birds), then the book has no use.
This is the logical outcome of empiricism.
If this is Hume’s view, it should not surprise us that he also argues that miracles cannot happen. Any view that focuses only on the “natural” things of this world will not want to affirm anything that is supernatural.
Empiricism simply wants to “follow the evidence” and weigh that evidence against other claims that are made.
This is the way Hume will argue against the probability of a miracle happening. We can now state Hume’s definition of a miracle, and then show how he proposes to deny any possibility of such a thing:
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.
Is Hume right?
One of the reasons that Hume’s argument has gained so many followers is that his definition seems, at first glance, to be right on target.
After all, the world works in a fairly consistent way, and our lives are structured around the consistency of the laws that govern our world.
Most of these laws are not even things that we think about very much, or that we have to know in any detail in order for them to work. It is sufficient for us to see, or experience, them. And the more we see and experience them, the more we trust them.
Hume thinks that the mere fact that we experience these laws—and the consistency of the world—is enough evidence to prove that miracles cannot happen.
He puts it like this:
“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 really have happened.”
In other words, if someone says that he saw someone rise from the dead, we should ask ourselves which is more believable: that someone rose from the dead, or that someone has been deceived into thinking such a thing.
Which one is more likely, or probable?
If it is more probable that someone is deceived than that someone rose from the dead, then “wisdom” requires that we believe that someone is deceived, and not that someone rose from the dead.
Hume argues that whenever there is a report of a miracle, we always ask about its likelihood or its probability.
Is it more likely that people are sometimes deceived, or that someone rose from the dead? For Hume, the testimony about what is “normal” will always override testimony that something “abnormal,” like a miracle, has occurred.
Hume’s argument against miracles is thought by many people to be the definitive argument. For many who don’t believe in miracles, no other argument is needed.
A theistic argument against miracles
Now that we’ve covered Hume, let’s take a look at Spinoza.
Spinoza’s conclusion about miracles is somewhat surprising, especially since he moves through certain texts of the Old Testament to reach his conclusion. Whereas Hume’s starting point is the laws of nature, Spinoza’s starting point is the Old Testament.
In fact, Spinoza, who was a Jewish theist, not only affirms the existence of God, but he also recognizes that the God of the Old Testament is a God who is eternal and unchangeable.
So far, so good. Christianity, too, confesses that God is eternal and unchangeable.
But it is exactly this unchangeability that leads Spinoza to conclude that miracles cannot exist. They cannot exist, he says, because nature, like the God who made it, must operate according to unchangeable laws.
In other words, as we saw with Hume, so we see with Spinoza: the laws of nature cannot allow for any trespasses of those laws.
The difference between Hume and Spinoza, however, is that for Spinoza, the laws of nature are given by God in creation.
But since they are “laws,” and since God cannot change, the laws cannot be violated. If they were to be violated, they would have to be violated by God. Since God is unchangeable, he cannot insert himself into those laws and suspend them or make them operate differently. If he did that, he would have to be subject to change, and God’s “laws” would not be laws at all.
It looks like miracles are ruled out if, like Hume, one doesn’t believe in God, or if, as with Spinoza, one believes that an unchangeable God exists and that he created the world.
Whether a person believes in God or not, it doesn’t look like a belief in miracles can be supported. After these philosophers argue that there is no possibility of miracles, do we have any reason to continue to believe in miracles?
How should we respond to Hume and Spinoza?
What should we do with this?
Let’s take a step back and remind ourselves that:
- Hume denied miracles because he defined nature as a predictable, closed system.
- Spinoza denied miracles because he defined nature as invariably law-like.
The problem with both of these definitions is that nature is improperly defined.
Once we see that nature is what it is because God is working in and through it, it will be no stretch to recognize that the same God who is faithfully giving us seasons can also, if he sees fit, work things differently in order to accomplish his sovereign purposes in creation.
As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, Hume is simply arguing in a circle. He begins with a definition that he does not argue for, and then uses that definition to conclude that there can be no miracles.
For Spinoza, even though he affirms God as Creator, he still thinks the “laws” of nature move on their own and are not to be violated. He thinks that if God violated them, it would require him, and the laws, to change. And a “changing” God is not what Scripture teaches.
Let’s think first about the idea that “nature” moves on its own. This is a standard way to think about the world. Even Christians might be lulled into thinking that God simply set the universe in motion and then left it to itself to do its work.
But Christianity knows nothing of a universe that moves on its own.
Consider, for example, the way the psalmist describes the world:
“He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work” (Ps. 104:10–13).
The Bible never hesitates to affirm that the workings of nature are the workings of the God who created it all.
The “laws” of nature are actually the faithful activity of a faithful God.
Why would God break the “laws of nature”?
So if God could act, why should he? Why would he want to? What would his reasons be for changing his standard, “law-like” way of working in the world?
The answer to this question helps us to see the true meaning of miracles.
It is often thought that miracles are just grand “magic tricks.” But that’s not the right way of thinking about miracles. Miracles are not arbitrary displays of God’s power.
Instead, miracles are given in order to point to the redemption that God accomplishes in Jesus Christ. They are testimonies or acts that point to the fact of God’s redemption.
Jesus performed miraculous acts so that his followers might better understand his words to them. The acts supported the words.
This is the main point of the miracles of the Bible: they are acts to support God’s words.
Once we recognize that miracles have a redemptive purpose, we begin to “read” God’s acts in light of what God says in the context of those miracles.
Whenever you come across a miracle in the Bible, ask yourself, “What redemptive truth is God communicating through this miracle?”
When you read the miracles in Scripture with that question in mind, they take on an entirely new, and gloriously redemptive, meaning.
Learn more in K. Scott Oliphant’s new online course:
Know Why You Believe
2 objections to belief in God’s activity in the world
A couple of objections to our discussion of miracles might come to mind.
“Okay,” someone might say, “you accuse Hume of reasoning in a circle because he starts with the uniformity of nature and so rules out the possibility of miracle at the beginning. Aren’t you just reasoning in a circle when you start with God and so include the possibility of miracles at the beginning?”
That’s a fair objection.
But here is the main difference between why we believe in miracles and why Hume didn’t.
When Hume started with “nature” as a closed, law-like uniformity, he had no reason to assume its uniformity. Remember, Hume was an empiricist; only what one experienced could be known. Hume could affirm only what his senses would allow.
But Hume had not seen all of “nature,” nor had anyone else. He had no experience of it as an entire system. The best he had was his own experiences of nature, or the reports of others. To reason that there could be no miracles at all based on his (or anyone’s) limited experience of the world was nothing but speculation.
We, however, believe in miracles because we believe in the triune God.
Unlike Hume, our belief in God is not grounded in our experiences. Instead, our belief in God is grounded in what he has said and done.
And unlike Hume, we begin with God, not because we “sense” him, but because he has spoken, and when we trust Christ, we trust what he has said. We do not believe that we can know only what we experience. We believe that we can know because of who God is and what he has done.
“Well,” the objector might respond, “what about Spinoza? He believed in an unchangeable God, just like you do, and because of that he could not believe in miracles. How can an unchangeable God act in his world without changing?”
This question is actually one of the deepest questions that can be posed to Christians.
We have seen that, because God is three persons in one God, he is able, in the person of his Son, to come to this world by taking on a human nature, even while he remains fully and completely God.
So, even though we cannot comprehend how God can do this “Grand Miracle” (as C. S. Lewis calls it), that he does it is without question, and it is the center of all that we believe as Christians.
Spinoza didn’t read the Scriptures properly. If he had, he would have seen that the story of the Bible is the story of God acting in history to save a sinful people.
So, we could think of it this way: All the miracles in the Bible are meant to point to, explain, and testify to that great and glorious “Grand Miracle” of God coming to man by becoming man. All other miracles serve that one redemptive act of God.
Learn more in K. Scott Oliphant’s online course, Know Why You Believe. In addition to learning more about miracles, you’ll also learn:
- Why believe in the Bible?
- Why believe in God?
- Why believe in Jesus?
- Why believe Jesus rose from the dead?
- Why believe in salvation?
- Why believe in life after death?
- Why believe in God in the face of modern science?
- Why believe in God despite evil in the world?
- Why believe in Christianity alone?
Take a look at the FREE introductory video from Dr. Olilphant: