F.A.Q.: What about Miracles? (A Reasonable, Rational Faith Part II)

In my last post, I very briefly sketched the logical arguments in favor of the existence of God, hopefully showing Christianity (or at least a belief in God) to be logically coherent. One objection some people have at this point runs something like this: “Alright. I believe your God may exist, and it’s even possible Jesus might have lived. But what about all those miracles? Surely you can’t rationally believe such supernatural . . . whatevers . . . actually happened.”

Well, yes. Yes I can. And do. And believe they still happen today (which is in itself a highly contentious belief even within Christian circles today).

First, I want to define the word “miracle” itself. Most people understand miracles as supernatural occurrences with break or suspend the functioning of natural law. We all know dead people stay dead, for example, so for a deceased person to come back to life is a violation of natural law. You can only slice a pizza so many times before you’re giving out zero pizza, and so using a single slice of pepperoni to feed a few thousand teenagers is a violation of natural law. (I haven’t seen that one happen yet, but youth pastors around the world remain hopeful.)

But what if that’s not really all there is to it? What if, instead of breaking the law of the universe, a miracle is actually the enforcement of the law in the universe to come? Theologians talk about the in-breaking kingdom of God. Aspects of redemption are everywhere, and the Church Universal is God’s chosen vessel for bringing about the kingdom of heaven on earth. We see it in unconditional love, in selfless sacrifice, in the salvation of souls. By this train of thought, then, a miracle is simply God’s kingdom breaking into the world and making all things new. Miracles never affect the perfect, after all; they only make adjustments to the evils of this world. Cancer is an evil; being spontaneously made tumor-free is a great good, a sign of the redeemed world to come.

Whatever your definition of miracle, however, you’re still forced to pick a side. Will you believe in miracle claims, or will you believe such things impossible?

To understand a DISbelief in miracles, we turn back the pages of history to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought about great advances in science and philosophical thought, but with it came the underpinnings for today’s insistence upon empirical data, science as a sort of religion (scientism), and a deep skepticism concerning things which didn’t prima facie match up with what science said was true. (I’m not anti-science by any means, folks. I just don’t think it’s capable of answering every question in the history of the universe.) A philosopher named David Hume could easily be titled the Father of All Skeptics. For Hume, only our senses could be trusted; anything which lay outside of empirical data could not rightly be thought to exist. So why should we trust in something our senses haven’t registered?

Hume’s argument against miracles ran along similar lines. The overwhelming majority of people throughout history had never witnessed a miracle, he said, and so it could be rightly concluded miracles never happen. If they did, we would have seen them. But wait, his detractors said, people have seen them. Just look at all these written accounts. Impossible, replies Hume. Those accounts can’t be trusted. After all, miracles never happen because people never see them. How can you trust people who say they do?

Not exactly the soundest of arguments, is it? “Miracles don’t exist because I’ve never seen one because they don’t exist because I’ve never seen one because . . .”

Hume’s thought influenced the way we think about knowing things for centuries (including this one). Not many people still buy into his total skepticism about reality itself, but his empiricism/positivism is certainly the dominant epistemology of our popular culture here in the West. Most skeptics will say they need verifiable proof of a miracle in order to believe — and some of them go a step further, dogmatically following the “religion” of scientism, stating that even if something is verifiably scientifically inexplicable now, just wait until we know more things, and then science will definitely be able to give us an explanation. (Sounds a bit like . . . faith.)

We’ll probably never be able to convince the latter about the existence of miracles; such a paradigm/epistemology is hard to change. But for those who will believe current scientific reports concerning miracles, I invite you to consider the Roman Catholic Church — specifically the process of canonization.

Canonization is the official name for how saints are declared. To become a saint, you must meet three simple criteria: be dead, have two miracles attributed to you postmortem, and be officially named a saint by the current pope.  One miracle results in beatification (the Blessed So-and-So), and two gets sainthood (Saint That-One-Guy). In order for those miracles to be properly attributed to you, however, the Church launches an incredibly rigorous and laborious process of investigation. Medical evidence, preferably verified by multiple physicians (specialists are even better), must clearly document your condition both before and after the said miracle. You must demonstrate your prayers to the person up for sainthood which specifically requested intervention in this matter. You must have physicians swear no current medical treatment would have resulted in the change — and hopefully it will have been scientifically impossible for the change to have occurred at all. Finally, the Vatican’s teams of doctors and theologians review all the evidence and make a decision. Spoiler alert: the vast majority of miracle claims are never officially declared miracles, even if they meet all the necessary criteria. But assuming you do meet the prerequisites and you bought coffee and wine for the entire review panel and you were wearing your “I Love the Pope” t-shirt and gravity still works on penguins and a dove alit on the balcony of the chief medical officer’s hotel window at 11:38am on the previous Tuesday, you just might get yourself declared the bona fide recipient of divine intervention.

Reams and reams of medical documents, diaries, and other paperwork exists to account for thousands of miracle claims, even if they’re never officially recognized by the church. And I’m not talking “Lassie got Timmy out of the well! It’s a miracle!” kind of stuff, either. We’re talking limbs growing several inches right before your eyes. The dead being raised hours, even days after being declared dead. Tumors disappearing in minutes. Goiters fading in the presence of onlookers. People known to be blind and deaf for decades suddenly seeing and hearing. All of it having no medical or otherwise-scientific explanations whatsoever. All of them being completely impossible unless we rewrite some of the most fundamentals laws governing the behavior of the universe.

And so we have the evidence. The question is if we are willing to accept it or not.

If Hume’s legacy is the only reason to disbelieve, then there’s not a reason. If there are other reasons, then perhaps they can be revisited to see which is easier to revise, personal theories or the empirical scientific evidence of the miraculous (which, I might add, either meets or exceeds the requirements of most other accepted empirical data, right down to being repeatable in the cases of known faith healers/evangelists). Of course, not everyone will change his or her worldview to allow miracles, data or not. And not everyone will believe such a thing to even be possible. At the very least, however, it shouldn’t be thought illogical or superstitious or downright silly to believe God still directly intervenes in the lives of human beings. Once we agree to that, then we can talk specifics with each other without condescension and arrogance.

For a much fuller treatment of the question and numerous personal testimonies of miracle claims, I highly, highly recommend Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts by Dr. Craig Keener, available here.

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