Does it Make Sense to Believe in Miracles?
In the final chapter of my current book on providence, I address the issue of miracles. This book project is funded as part of a larger grant I received to explore what it means to believe God acts providentially in a world of randomness.
Much of my discussion in this last chapter revolves around various reasons many people today reject miracles. A major part of the problem is the definition given miracles.
It has become common in the past few centuries (since David Hume) to define miracles as supernatural violations of the laws of nature or divine interventions. But these definition are laden with problems.
1. The category of “laws of nature” is ill-defined and unnecessary. Besides those who witness miracles – whether the miracles reported in the Bible or witnessed today – rarely if ever say, “Wow! I just observed a law of nature violated!”
2. The idea of “intervention” suggests that God must come to a closed system of nature from the outside. But Christians ought to believe God is omnipresent. And that means God is always already present to the natural world, never needing to “inter–vene.”
3. The idea of “supernatural” leads implicitly to views in which God is thought to coerce, override, interfere, overpower, or in some way totally control a creature or situation. But if God has that kind of coercive power, the problem of evil is insuperable.
I believe in miracles. I don’t think they are simply “in the mind of the religious believer.” I think miracles are objective events that occur in the world.
Of course, I don’t think all claims about miracles are legitimate. Some are hoaxes, wishful thinking, the effects of hysteria, or coincidences. But I do think some miracles actually occur, and those of us who believe in God need to account for them if we are to witness well to hope that we have in God.We believers need to account for miracles if we are to witness well to hope that we have within us. Click To Tweet
In the concluding chapter of my current book on providence, I offer this definition of a miracle: a miracle is an unexpected and good event that occurs through God’s special action in relation to creation. This definition has three essential elements. Miracles 1) are unexpected events, 2) are good events, 3) involve God’s special action in relation to creation.Miracles are unexpected and events that involve God’s special action in relation to creation. Click To Tweet
The signs and wonders we read about in the Bible, in history, or encounter today are noteworthy, in part, because they are surprising. They are unusual or extraordinary. As Augustine put it, a miracle is an “unusual” event “beyond the expectation or ability of the one who marvels at it.”
Some unexpected events leave us awestruck and impressed by the power they display. But these occurrences are not positive, loving, or good. They cause harm, destruction, or evil. Sheer power is not miraculous, and some awe-filled events are awful.
We should reserve “miracle” to describe unexpected events, whether powerful or not, that we believe promote well-being in some way. Miracles are beneficial. Miracles are events we deem good.
In addition to being unexpected and good, miracles involve special divine action. I believe that the special divine action that makes miracles possible occurs when God provides new possibilities, forms, structures, or ways of being to creatures. These gifts for the miraculous may reflect dramatic or awesome ways of existing should they be embodied or incorporated.God makes miracles possible God provides to creatures new possibilities, forms, or ways of being. Click To Tweet
Miracles are possible when God provides good and unexpected forms of existence. God sometimes desires well-being through diverse forms and multifarious dimensions.
Of course, I go into all of these issues in much more detail in my book. I’m sending the completed book manuscript to Intervarsity Academic Press before Christmas. I’ve signed a contract, and I expect the book to be available in the fall of 2015.
If you have some comments on miracles that you think I should consider before submitting the manuscript, I’d love to hear from you. If I really like your comment, I’ll include your name in a footnote or in the book’s acknowledgement section!
I believe in miracles too. In my book on Chronic Pain I cite a world renowned cancer researcher who said of all the cases he has reviewed he determined four were miraculous healings. Not 400 or 4,000 just four. Miracles (by definition) don’t happen often. But they do happen.
What makes a miracle a miracle is as you stated: It is unexpected and good and from God.
Thanks Tom—looking forward to your book.
Thanks, Rob. Send me a copy of your book, and I may footnote it.
I really appreciated the read. Sometimes I do not know where to side when it comes to miracles. I want to believe in them but sometimes the actual evidence is usually not there hence why its a miracle in the first place. I believe in the miracle of hearts and minds being transformed and relationships being healed through the power of God but physical miracles are the ones that trip me up. My Dad had stage four cancer and it was quite bad and the doctors had no clue how he could survive it and he got over the cancer in six months. For this reason I cannot ignore that miracles in some regard do in fact happen.
Great write up, Tom
I had never thought of your first point and experienced something of an ah ha moment there. Well done!
Your definition of a miracle as something unexpected doesn’t say anything essential about a miracle.The centurion believed Jesus could, because of his authority, just say the word and heal the servant. He expected a miracle.Jesus seemed to expect people to be healed, yet we would still call his healings miraculous. That miracles are often unexpected says more about us than the miracles.
I think your emphasis on divine action is more helpful. But because God is omnipresent and continuously at work in creation, perhaps we should describe miracles as direct divine action.I don’t think we can say anything about natural law being violated because 1)we don’t know them all 2)the relation between energy, matter, and spirit is a mystery 3)even physicians can’t draw a clear line between mind and body. God may be invoking unknown or higher laws or maybe just accelerating natural processes.
A plane flying would have appeared miraculous in 1500 despite it using natural laws to get lift. It,also, would have been unexpected.
You say “I believe that the special divine action that makes miracles possible occurs when God provides new possibilities, forms, structures, or ways of being to creatures.” It strikes me that by this definition, the very act of salvation is a miracle – which is a profound thought. But, does it fit what you mean, or am I reading into your words?
Tom, working with your three-pronged definition of miracles, what is the relationship of prayer to the miraculous, specifically answered prayer? If a supplicant were to ask God to act in a way that was beneficial to himself/herself or to another, and then were to believe that this prayer would be answered in the affirmative, and then the requested miracle were to actually take place, would its occurrence still fit your definition of “unexpected”? If not, what, then, would be appropriate nomenclature for the benevolent, uncommon, but expected occurrence/action of God?
What about miraculous acts that we would perhaps not describe as ‘good’? Such as the plagues on Egypt, the Great Flood, angels killing rebellious people, etc.?
Tom, good stuff. Looking forward to the book!
Your three part definition is good, but 3 (and 1 to a lesser degree) seems really open to interpretation. You could certainly have 1 and 2 and not 3, but can you have 3 without 1 or 2? And what counts as special but not a breaking of a law?
To believe in miracles seems to imply that God acts in a way we cannot and would not have the power to accomplish without divine enablement. If God acts miraculously then is God responsible for not always acting? It always seems that the way we talk about miracles reveals our view of evil and power and justice and whether or not God can be trusted. Not everyone who saw a miracle performed by Jesus believed so miracles are not coercive and require a response. It would be hard to read John with a view of miracles that redefines Gods relation to creation or that miracles rarely happen when miracles lead one to a crisis of faith. I guess I am more comfortable with the problem of suffering than I am with reimagining God into something palatable philosophically. I guess miracles as defined in your blog post seems to be missing the Incarnate One whose fleshed arrival seems to be where God at work in the world is most fully defined. Just a few random thoughts from a Pastor who prays for more than I can see this side of eternity…….there is an eternity right? Right? Or did I miss the new definition?
Thanks for the great comments. Here area very brief responses:
Dakota – thanks for sharing. I think what I say in the book will be helpful to you.
Mark R. – Thanks!
Mark W. – Someone else talked about the inadequacy of “unexpected.” I may use another word, because what I meant by that word is not how you interpret it. As to your last point, I make it in the book.
Paul – I agree with your point, and I emphasize it in the book.
Cliff – You’re pointing out the issue of “unexpected,” and others have too. What I meant by “unexpected” was “surprising” or “unusual.” Thanks to your comments and others, I plan to use another word that is less misleading.
John – In my definition, dramatic acts or unusual acts or even acts by spiritual agents are not miraculous if they are not good. The Devil doesn’t to miracles, and the shock and awe of war is rarely if ever miraculous.
Curtis – I’m not entirely sure of your question, but I do agree that identifying miracles is a subjective activity and involves interpretation, even though miracles are objective events. But I think all objective events are perceived through subjective-laden interpretation, and I mention this in the book.
Jonathan – I answer your question directly in the book too. In fact, your question is a central one in the chapter. The issue of divine coercion (aka “total control”) is key. Additionally, I see the incarnation as miraculous, and I believe in life everlasting.
In light of the many examples in the Bible in which God is expressly stated as directly sending or mediately using men or angels to mete out divine judgement upon the wicked, it seems clear that restricting miracles to only ‘good’ events falls short. Unless one affirms that all God does is good/benevolent, sending both prosperity and calamity, weal and woe, making peace and evil, as Isaiah 45:7 says.
I have a couple questions: what about the miracle of Jesus casting out demons from the Gaderene Demoniac. Was that not forceful intervention? How does that fit into your definition of miracle?
And how do you understand the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead? Was that not a forceful intervention of God forcing every cell in lazarus’ body from death to life?
John E – In light of the broad biblical witness that speaks against God doing or endorsing wickedness, I interpret passages suggesting that God does so to be mistaken interpretations or mistakes in the passages themselves.
Wes – I can affirm exorcisms and resurrections. Neither require coercion, although they are, as you rightly point out, forceful. To coerce would be to entirely control.
Perhaps I’m just a bit confused by why you are trying to avoid miracles that are, at least on rare occasions, instances of “divine coercion (aka ‘total control’).” I can understand why this would want to be avoided when free creatures are involved—but why should we hesitate when it is purely a matter of physical material being dramatically and directly controlled to do something extraordinary?
For instance when the Red Sea was parted (or an axe head made of iron floated or Jesus walked on water) I suppose we could say God did not coerce, meaning entirely control, the substances involved—but I don’t see how we could rule it out either. Are you mainly concerned with coercion when it comes to overriding the freedom of choice-making creatures?Or are you also applying this criterion to miracles that are primarily—if not only—involving inorganic material?
Thank you for sharing such a great blog.
Should the definition also include A context or environment such as an identifiable need or does that go without saying? Does there have to be A prerequisite on our part? In other words, are prayer and faith required or does that interfere with you’re unexpected point? Also, does God’s glorification have to be part of the measurable outcome? It seems to me that with the miracles I am aware of, and that’s not many, God is always credited or glorified in the end.
Steven – Thanks for your comments. I’m concerned about God being said to coerce (control entirely) even non free will entities in the world. If God can do so, God should do so far more often to prevent genuine evil in ways that don’t violate free will. God should stop bullets in midflight, stop tsunamis, place barriers instantaneously between rapists and potential victims, etc. In my book, I say God’s steadfast love provides the law-like regularities of creation (aka laws of nature), and God cannot contradict steadfast divine love.
Paul – I think the context is HUGELY important, especially when taking into account various creaturely causes. However, I don’t want to say God’s glorification is a necessary (or measurable) outcome. This would mean, for instance, that 9 of the ten whom Jesus healed and sent to the temple for validation (only 1 of which returned) were not the recipients of a miracle, because they apparently didn’t glorify God.
Tom, you may find these remarks by John Cobb and me interesting: http://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/miracles.html
Tom: Thank you for your willingness to take on one of the most difficult and complex areas of our most holy faith. My question is this: what do we do with some spectacular non-miracles in Scripture? King David’s son of adultery died in spite of his prayer and fasting. John the Baptist was neither rescued from the executioner’s sword nor raised from the dead. Peter was miraculous delivered from the executioner’s sword, but James was not. Paul was not delivered from his thorn in the flesh. Isn’t it true that for many believers miracles are not the problem but non-miracles? Thoughts?
Jay – Thanks! I’ll check that out.
CS – That’s precisely the kind of questions I address! I think solving the non-miracles problem is the key. (I blame noncooperative creaturely forces and factors and also say God cannot coerce.)
Hume’s definition of miracle – a violation of a law of nature – sets up a lose-lose situation for believers. If we say God does not break his own laws, then we deny miracles and challenge the reliability of scripture. If we affirm that God does do miracles, we make God a law breaker – hence ethically a bit shady, or, at the very least, one who sets himself a double standard.
The only way out of this dilemma, I think, is to deny Hume’s definition of miracle, which you do. That is, most laws of nature are conservation laws of the form “In a closed system, such and such a quantity is conserved.” But if nature is not a closed system, God can interact with it without violating natural laws! So miracles are actions of God that are observable to us. It is quite reasonable to think that there are also many actions of God in the natural world that we do not see and which could also be regarded as “miracles.”
Maybe the bigger question is why SOME miracles take place while others do not? We pray for someone to be healed and they are healed, and the same thing with another person and they end up on their deathbed. Also it seems like miracles nowadays rarely happen, at least here in the United States. Why is that so? That might be a different conversation altogether. Thanks for the post Tom.
Jim – I entirely agree. The more I thought about Hume’s definition and did some reading, the more I realized it is a quagmire.
Scott – I address that issue directly in the chapter. I call it “the problem of selective miracles.” As for why miracles seem less common in the US, I think there are many reasons, from expectations, to what we consider unusual, to better healthcare, to theological views.
Paul – When Mary says “be it unto me” after being told she will have a child, I see that as cooperation.
Thank you for this; I find your formulation here helpful on a number of fronts. I find it especially useful as a way of framing evolutionary creation, because it hints at a new way of looking at random mutations and whether or not they are “supernatural.” Could beneficial “random mutations” be construed as “miraculous provisions” using your definition? After all, when a population of God’s creatures, who depend on Him for food and sustenance, spontaneously develop the ability to take advantage of a new source of nourishment and thus survive longer and thrive, this is indeed unexpected (or extraordinary), it is good, it is of divine origin (ultimately, we believe), and it is beyond the means of the creature itself. Even if from a scientific perspective the mutations arise through perfectly “natural” processes, we could still thank God for providing them to bless His creatures, as a sort of extension of the Psalmist’s praise in, for instance, Psalm 104.
There is no need for God to “intervene,” as if human reality is an organic machine set in motion by a clock-making doting God, who from a casual distance, lovingly observes all of our chaotic, yet beautifully ugly lives. Rather, God is a deeply relational, intergalactic biophilic. God has created and entered willingly and intimately into our lives, as well as all creation, doing what God does best: wooing, stirring, calling and breathing, in a non-coercive manner, all things into their optimally loving existence.
It is sad that the unexpected has become the expected. The everyday wooings, stirrings, callings and breathings whether from the tender smile of a child, the drinking of a cup of cold water or life-giving word from a random stranger are no longer considered good, special and miraculous. They have become dried-up mundane expectations in a world full of people who can no longer adequately hear, smell, taste, touch and see the thousands of special miracles a day set before/around/in-between us.
I’ve often wondered if miracles , like the speaking of tongues, are something only found biblical times and were expressly used to help establish a) the evidence of God living through Christ and b) the early church. Perhaps it’s just me – but I find it disconcerting to hear of people claiming, say, a miracle in being cured of cancer when in reality they were not dependent upon God but rather exercised sound judgement, medical wisdom and perhaps even some luck (that the cancer was caught early) by undergoing various treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Perhaps I’m too much of a Doubting Thomas, however, if nothing else charlatans such as Benny Hinn and Mike Murdock have helped create a basis for not believing in present day miracles.
My friend sent me this article and I thought it might be of interest since it humorously looks at how miracles might be explained with “more scientific” explanations. http://www.cracked.com/article_23910_6-famous-biblical-miracles-explained-by-science.html
Thank you for your courageous act of taking this on! I too am troubled by the exclusion of what you might want to call “anti-miracles:” like the Egyptian plagues. Were those acts, whether pure story telling device or historically based, not acts of deliverance in freeing the Hebrew slaves? What about the effect on the demons and on the pigs in the healing of the Gerasene demoniac? Surely the demons and the pigs would see those events as both negative and destructive, while the man set free experienced a miracle of deliverance. Every time a fox eats a rabbit, the grass is delivered from its oppressor and the rabbit is struck down with an evil fate, while the fox kits are fed for another day. Perhaps this dual nature is a part of creation too? The worms that would have devoured Lazarous’ flesh were deprived of their food. Maybe we have an overpowering need to over simplify in a world so big as to be overwhelming to a finite mind? Too big a question for me to answer I must admit. I’m just another confused wondering wanderer.
Great comments, Carlton.