Know Why You Believe: Chapter 8 Are miracles possible?

Source: Know Why You Believe Book by Paul Little

First edition published in 1968 by Scripture Press Publications, Inc.

“Do you really believe Jonah was swallowed by a whale? And do you seriously think that Christ actually fed 5,000 persons from five loaves of bread and two fish?” So goes the trend and tone of many modern questioners. Surely, they say, these “miracle” stories in the Bible must be quaint ways of conveying spiritual truth, but they are not meant to be taken literally.

With many questions, it is more important to discern the root problem than to become involved in discussing a twig on a branch. This is especially true of questions about miracles. The problem is generally not with a particular miracle, but with a whole principle. To establish the miracle in question would not answer the question. The controversy is with the whole principle of the possibility of miracles.

One who has problems with miracles often also has difficulty with the validity of predictive prophecy. These problems stem from a weak view of God. The real problem, then, is not with miracles or prophecy but with the whole concept of God. Once we assume the existence of God, there is no problem with miracles, because God is by definition all-powerful. In the absence of such a God, however, the concept of miracles is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to entertain.

The question really is, “Does an all-powerful God, who created the universe, exist?” If so, we shall have little difficulty with miracles in which he transcends the natural law of which he is the author. It is important to keep this fundamental question in mind in discussing miracles.

The existence of God has already been discussed in chapter 2.

David Hume and others have defined a miracle as a violation of natural law. To take such a position, however, is practically to deify natural law, to capitalize it in such a way that whatever god there may be becomes the prisoner of natural law and, in effect, ceases to be God.

In this modern scientific age, men tend to personify science and natural law. They fail to realize that these are merely the impersonal results of observation. A Christian believes in natural law – i.e., that things behave in a certain cause-and-effect way almost all the time. But in maintaining this the Christian does not restrict God’s right and power to intervene when and how he chooses. God is over, above, and outside natural law, and is not bound by it.

Laws do not cause anything in the sense that God causes things. They are merely descriptions of what happens.

What, in fact, is a miracle? We use the term rather loosely today. If a scared student passes an exam he says, “It was a miracle!” Or if an old jalopy makes a successful trip from one city to another, we say, “It’s a miracle the thing ran!” We use the term to mean anything that is unusual or unexpected. We do not necessarily mean that the hand of God has been at work.

In discussing miracles as they are thought of in the Bible, however, the word is used in an entirely different sense. Here is meant an act of God breaking into, changing, or interrupting the ordinary course of things.

To be sure, the Bible records various kinds of miracles, and some of them could have a “natural” explanation. For instance, the parting of the Red Sea was accomplished by the “natural” cause of the high winds which drove the waters back. Perhaps this could have happened apart from God’s intervention. The miraculous part was the timing. That the waters should part just as the Israelites reached the shore, and should close on the Egyptians as they were in hot pursuit and after every Israelite was safely on dry land, indicates the miraculous intervention of God.

On the other hand, there are many miracles for which there are no “natural” explanations. The resurrection of Lazarus from the dead and the resurrection of Jesus Christ involved forces unknown to us and outside the realm of so-called natural law. The same is true with many of the miraculous healings. It has been fashionable to explain these in terms of psychosomatic response. We know today that many illnesses, rather than having an organic origin, originate in the mind. If the mental condition is corrected, the physical condition rights itself. Some medical authorities estimate that upwards of 80 percent of the illnesses in our pressurized society are psychosomatic.

Undoubtedly there was an element of this dimension in Jesus’ healings, but some were clearly outside this category. Take, for instance, the healings of leprosy. Obviously these did not have a psychosomatic base. Lepers who were made well experienced the direct power of God. Then there are the clear cases of healing of congenital disease, such as the man born blind (John 9). Since this man was born with his blindness, it could obviously not be accounted for on a psychosomatic basis, and for the same reasons, neither could his receiving his sight.

This case illustrates the fallacy of another notion common among modern thinkers. It is said that people in ancient times were exceedingly ignorant, gullible, and superstitious. They thought many things were miracles that we now know, with the benefit of modern science, were not miracles at all but simply phenomena which people didn’t understand. For instance, if we were to fly a modern jet over a primitive tribe today, they would probably fall to the ground in worship of this Silver Bird God of the sky. They would think that the sight they observed was a miraculous phenomenon. We, however, know that the plane is simply a result of the applied principles of aerodynamics, and we realize there is nothing miraculous about it at all.

The problem with this thesis, which sounds so plausible at first, is that many of the miracles are not of this order. In the case of the blind man, the people observed that since the beginning of time it had not been known for a man born blind to receive his sight. There is no more “natural” explanation of this miracle now than was available then. And who, today, has any more explanation, in a natural sense, of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead than was available when it happened? No one! We simply cannot get away from the supernatural aspects of the biblical record.

It is important to note, however, that miracles are not in conflict with natural law. Rather, “Miracles are unusual events caused by God. The laws of nature are generalizations about ordinary events caused by Him.”1

There are two views as to the relationship of miracles to natural law. Some suggest that miracles employ a “higher” natural law, which at present is unknown to us. It is quite obvious that despite all of the impressive discoveries of modern science, we are still standing at the edge of an ocean of ignorance. When we have increased our knowledge sufficiently, this thesis says, we will realize that the things we today thought were miracles were merely the working out of higher laws of the universe, of which we were not aware at the time.

But a “law,” in the modern scientific sense, is that which is regular and acts uniformly. To say that a miracle is the result of a higher “law,” then, is to use the term in away that is different from its customary usage and meaning.

On the other hand, there are those who view miracles as an act of creation – a sovereign, transcendent act of God’s supernatural power. It would seem that this is the more appropriate view.

Biblical miracles, in contrast to miracle stories in pagan literature and those of other religions, were not capricious or fantastic. They were not scattered helter-skelter through the record without rhyme or reason. There was always clear order and purpose to them. They clustered around three periods of biblical history; the Exodus, the prophets who led Israel, and the time of Christ and the early Church. They always had as their purpose to confirm faith by authenticating the message and the messenger, or to demonstrate God’s love by relieving suffering.

Miracles in the Bible were never performed for personal prestige or to gain money or power. Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness to use his miracle power in just this way, but he steadfastly refused and rebuked Satan. As an evidence of the truth of the Christian message, however, Jesus referred to miracles frequently. In answer to the direct request of the Jews to tell them plainly if he was the Messiah, he said, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me” (John 10:25). Again he says that if they had any hesitation in believing his claims they should believe him “for the sake of the works themselves” (14:11).

God confirmed the message of the apostles in the fledgling Church with signs and wonders.

The question is often raised, “If God performed miracles then, why does he not do them now? If I saw a miracle I could believe!”

This question was answered by Jesus himself as he told of a rich man, who in the torment of hell, lifted up his eyes and pleaded with Abraham that someone should warn his five brothers lest they, too, should come into the awful place. He was told that his brothers had the Scriptures. But the rich man protested that if one should rise from the dead, they would be shaken by the miracle and would take heed. The reply given applies as much today as then: “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham said, “…If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:29, 31). And so it is today. Many have made a rationalistic presupposition which rules out the very possibility of miracles. Since they know miracles are impossible, no amount of evidence would ever persuade them one had taken place. There would always be an alternate naturalistic explanation for them to advance.

Miracles are not necessary today because reliable records are available of those miracles which have occurred. As Ramm observes, “If miracles are capable of sensory perception, they can be made matters of testimony. If they are adequately testified to, then the recorded testimony has the same validity for evidence as the experience of beholding the event.”2

Every court in the world operates on the basis of reliable testimony by word of mouth or in writing. “If the raising of Lazarus was actually witnessed by John and recorded faithfully by him when still in soundness of faculties and memory, for purposes of evidence it is the same as if we were there and saw it.”3

Ramm lists reasons why we may know that the miracles have adequate and reliable testimony. We summarize:

First, many miracles. were done in public. They were not performed in secret before only one or two people, who announced them to the world. There was every opportunity to investigate the miracles on the spot. It is very impressive that the opponents of Jesus never denied the fact of the miracles he performed. They either attributed them to the power of Satan or else tried to suppress the evidence, as with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. They said, “Let’s kill him before the people realize what is happening and the whole world goes after him!”

Second, some miracles were performed in the presence of unbelievers. It is significant that the miracles claimed by cults and off-beat groups seldom happen when the skeptic is present to observe. It was not so with Jesus.

Third, the miracles of Jesus were performed over a period of time and involved a great variety of powers. He demonstrated power over nature, as when he turned the water to wine; power over disease, as when he healed the lepers and the blind; power over demons, as was shown by his casting them out; supernatural powers of knowledge, as in his knowing that Nathaniel was under a fig tree; power of creation when he fed 5,000 people from a few loaves and fish; and he exhibited power over death itself in the raising of Lazarus and others.

Fourth, there is the testimony of the cured. As noted earlier, we have it from those, like Lazarus, whose healings could not possibly have been psychosomatic or the result of inaccurate diagnosis.

Fifth, the miracles cannot be discounted because of the extravagant claim of pagan miracles. “Miracles are believed in non-Christian religions because the religion is already believed, but in the biblical religion, miracles are part of the means of establishing the true religion. This distinction is of immense importance. Israel was brought into existence by a series of miracles, the Law was given surrounded by supernatural wonders, and many of the prophets were identified as God’s spokesmen by their power to perform miracles. Jesus came not only preaching but performing miracles, and the apostles from time to time worked wonders. It was the miracle authenticating the religion at every point.”4

As C. S. Lewis writes, “All the essentials of Hinduism would, I think, remain unimpaired if you subtracted the miraculous, and the same is almost true of Mohammedanism, but you cannot do that with Christianity. It is precisely the story of a great Miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian.”5

Miracles recorded outside the Bible do not display the same order, dignity and motive as those in Scripture. But what is more important, they do not have the same solid authentication as the biblical miracles. We have discussed at some length the historical reliability of Bible records. Similar investigations into pagan records of miracles would soon show there is no basis for comparison. The same could be said of many so-called miracles and alleged healings of our own time. They do not stand the full weight of investigation. But to take some ancient pagan miracle, or a contemporary claim, and to show their great improbability is not fair to biblical miracles. The fact that some miracles are counterfeits is no proof that all are spurious, any more than the discovery of some counterfeit currency would prove all currency spurious.

Some attempts have been made to explain miracles on the basis of exaggerated reporting. It has been demonstrated that people are notoriously inaccurate in reporting events and impressions. Playing the simple parlor game of Rumor is enough to confirm this fact. In the light of this tendency, we are told, it is obvious that the reliability of a human being as an observer may be severely questioned. Consequently, the Gospel accounts of miracles can be discounted as the mistaken observations of inaccurate observers.

It may be answered that despite this tendency, law courts have not ceased functioning, and eyewitnesses are still considered able to provide highly useful information. And though there may be some question about such details of an accident as the time, speed of the cars, etc., the accident cannot be said not to have happened because of discrepancies in witnesses’ stories. As Ramm observes, the smashed cars and the injured people are irrefutable evidence on which all agreed.6 We must be careful to see the limitations of arguments such as the unreliability of witnesses. It will help to see that some of these arguments, pressed to their outer limits, refute the very assertions they set out to make. For instance, those conducting the experiments to establish the unreliability of human witnesses must assume their own reliability or they will have to throw out their own conclusions as being the result of human observation, which is unreliable!

Another idea sometimes advanced is that the miracle stories must be discarded because they are told by believing disciples and are therefore not “objective.” But the disciples were the ones on the scene who saw the miracles. The fact that they were disciples is neither here nor there. The question is, Did they tell the truth? As has been seen, eyewitness testimony is the best we can get, and most of the disciples faced the test of death as the test of their veracity.

We would not say today in a court of law that, in order to guarantee objectivity on the part of witnesses, we will listen only to those who were not at the scene of an accident and had nothing to do with it. Nor would we say that testimony would not be acceptable from eyewitnesses, including the victims, because they would be “prejudiced.” The crucial question in each case is truthfulness, not proximity or relationship to the events.

The question of whether miracles are possible is not scientific, but philosophical. Science can only say miracles do not occur in the ordinary course of nature. Science cannot “forbid” miracles because natural laws do not cause, and therefore cannot forbid, anything. They are merely descriptions of what happens. The Christian embraces the concept of natural law. “It is essential to the theistic doctrine of miracles that nature be uniform in her daily routine. If nature were utterly spontaneous, miracles would be as impossible of detection as it would be to establish a natural law.”7

It is “scientism,” rather than science, which says miracles cannot happen. The scientist, like anyone else, can only ask, “Are the records of miracles historically reliable?”

Further, the miracles in the Bible are an inherent part of God’s  communication – not a mere appendage of little significance. The whole question ultimately depends on the existence of God. Settle that question and miracles cease to be a problem. The very uniformity against which a miracle stands in stark contrast depends on an omnipotent author of natural law who is also capable of transcending it to accomplish his sovereign ends.

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