Are Miracles Rational?

Before we jump into this question, we need to define miracles.  In some ways, childbirth, the sun rising, and various other events in nature are “miraculous” in one sense or another.  However, for the sake of this discussion, we want to define miracles as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles).  Or, more specifically as “an event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God” (Baker’s Dictionary of the Bible ).  If God exists, then we may suggest that it is perfectly natural for Him to ‘interfere’ with nature in any way He pleases.  However, in order to properly address the question “are miracles rational?” we will stick with this definition without that caveat.

The long-standing skeptic of Miracles is David Hume, an Enlightenment philosopher whose arguments have been utilized in this discussion for centuries.  Hume, in his work On Miracles said this:

When any one 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.  I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle.  If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then till then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

As you read Hume’s essays, he suggests two primary reasons for thinking miracles are irrational to believe.  First, he suggests that the reporter is unreliable in some way (either due to being deceived or a deceiver).  Second, Hume suggests that it is more probable that an event can be explained through other means that are “natural” or typical. In other words, it’s more rational to believe something natural caused a supposed miracle than a god interceding into the natural events of the world.

Hume’s arguments have penetrated my soul.  I know that, when hearing report of a miracle, I am skeptical.  I question whether or not it actually happened primarily because I don’t have much experience with miracles.  And so, I wonder if miracles are exaggerated reports of enthusiastic followers of Christ, or if they are simply interpreting a perfectly natural event as being something miraculous.

This creates a worldview problem for me, though.  I am thoroughly convinced that Christianity is true.  The problem is that Jesus is authenticated through His resurrection (miracle) and it is that miracle that gives me any hope that I too will have eternal life.  Beyond that the early church spread through miraculous signs and wonders, and recent scholarly research shows that miracles are happening all over the world today (see the two volume work Miracles by Craig Keener).  All of this is reported by eye-witness testimony and there is no evidence that we should distrust that testimony.  So, is it rational for me to believe in the testimony of miracles?

Hume suggests that a reporter is either deceived or deceiving.  He asks the question, ‘what is more probable: that a miracle occurred or that a person is giving false testimony?’  Certainly we can agree that it is more probable that someone is giving false testimony.  But, is probability all that is to be considered?

Most reports of which we hear testimony are abnormal in nature, rather than normal.  Imagine if we turned on the news and only heard about “normal” events:   The weather man talks about the fact that the sun rose today, or the news covered how a neighborhood experienced no crimes over the week-end.  That would be strange because news, if it is going to be news must be ‘abnormal’ in one sense or another.

My wife works in the neuropsychology department of a hospital with brain injury patients.  When I ask my wife how her day was, she rarely reports the normal and common occurrences of the day.  She doesn’t bother recounting her getting stuck in traffic, eating lunch, breathing in and out, or her using the restroom.  She might report to me the fact that there was an unusually good meal served in the cafeteria.  She tells me this precisely because it is abnormal.  I know from my own experience that the normal status of the cafeteria food that is mediocre at best.

Imagine if one day I asked my wife how her day was and she told me of one of her patients who had such a severe brain injury that she was convinced, based on the medical evidence and his brain-functioning, he would likely never walk or talk again.  She tells me how sad it was because he is a very young man with a wife and four young children to raise.  She says that they had to remove part of his brain and that he was completely non-responsive.

Now, imagine that about one month later, I take my wife to lunch at the hospital (mediocre food this time) and as we were walking back to her office, we pass this same patient casually meandering past us in the hall with his wife.  “That’s the patient I told you about.”  I clarify, “the one that you said would likely never walk or talk again, with the four kids?”  “Yes!”, she replies.  It might be very hard to believe.  Based on the facts reported to me with the support of her educated opinion of the situation, it would be nothing short of miraculous and very improbable how much and how quickly this man recovered.

In Hume’s thinking, I am placed in a very precarious position for the following reasons:

1.  According to Hume, it is impossible to have full assurance in the testimony about this miracle.  But I know that my wife is truthful and that she would report the facts accurately to me.

2.  According to Hume, emotions distort memory and enthusiasts have much to gain from their existence.  In this circumstance, my wife would not be emotionally invested, nor have anything to gain from the existence of this apparent miracle.

3.  According to Hume, miracles come from the ignorant and men lie about things in all ages.  I know that my wife is quite educated in these matters and that she would report as candidly and honestly as is possible.

4.  According to Hume, miracles are always opposed by other testimonies which deny the miracle.  In this case, co-workers, doctors, and even family members regard this as nothing short of a miracle and there would be no opposing testimony.

Hume’s basis for denying the existence of a miracle is fine when there are spurious circumstances surrounding the situation; if the one giving testimony is unreliable.  But, there is more to consider in the case of miracles.  Trusting the testimony of our informers in common things is not much different than trusting their report on miracles.  Why? The reason that I believe my wife when she reports about an unusually good lunch, or not getting stuck in traffic on her way to work is not based on the probability/normality of the situation (since it is decidedly abnormal), but the veracity/trust-worthiness of the one giving testimony.  If it is rational to trust her testimony in the small abnormalities such as a good lunch or traffic, it is not irrational to believe them in the larger miracles as well.   I do so because of her trustworthiness, not because of the probability of the event.

Hume said himself “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish[1]”.  In this case, the trust I have in my wife always establishes enough evidence to believe the report, regardless of the probability.

Hume takes it a step further by arguing that, because miracles are unique events (as opposed to normal/natural events), it is improbable and irrational to think that they actually occur.  Hume runs into a logical problem here.  If someone dies and claims to come back from the dead, that would be a unique event.  Why?  Because the normal experience we have is that dead people stay dead.  So, we can, according to Hume, discount unique events as irrational and improbable.  Is it the case that we should dismiss all unique events as improbable?

Imagine no one has ever traveled into space (that time is not so distant).  Perhaps there have been several attempts, but every one has failed.  One day, NASA builds a space shuttle and successfully launches one man into space.  When he returns, we hear his testimony of stars, moons, darkness and how earth looks like a giant blue sphere floating in a sea of black nothingness.  Should we believe him?  After all, no one has ever traveled into space.  And, it seems more probable that this mission was a failure since we have countless examples of unsuccessful missions.  So, we dismiss the person as either deceived or deceiving.

Now, Imagine NASA sends a second person, now a woman) successfully into space and she reports all of the same things as the first man.  Should we trust her?  Well, it might seem like we can since we have two testimonies that corroborate.  The problem is that we have already dismissed the first testimony.  So, this testimony has to be taken on its own merit (since the first was found to be improbable).  Besides, we have more examples of failed missions than successful ones; and since we have dismissed the first successful one as improbable, we may use that as evidence that some supposed space travelers lie about having experiences in space.  Beyond that, a woman has never traveled into space, so this is a unique event which, according to Hume’s criteria, should be dismissed.

The point you should notice here is that all events are in some way unique.  If I travel into space, it will be the first time I, Jim Shultz, travel into space.  No other ME has traveled into space!  If we have dismissed every unique event, then the first time anything happens to any person should be dismissed.  That doesn’t seem logical at all!

It is the same way with the resurrection.  While it is improbable that someone should return from the dead, mere improbability is not enough to dismiss it completely.  We need a good reason for thinking that it may not have actually happened, particularly if we have trust-worthy reports that it did indeed happen.  In the case of Jesus, we have over 500 people giving testimony to this fact.  Aside from that, Jesus was not the only one to be resurrected (there are several Biblical examples, and even some contemporary ones[2]).  So, in one sense, Jesus’ resurrection is not an unique event.

The point of this is not to give a comprehensive defense of the resurrection, but simply to respond to a few of the charges (from Hume) as to why it would be irrational to believe in miracles.  I have shifted over the years on this.  For a long time I believed that miracles are NOT for today and had what I thought was a rational explanation for why that is.  However, I am now expanding my worldview to expect God to do miracles today and I do so based on very good reason.

1 Corinthians 4:20 reminds us that the Kingdom does not consist in talk, but in power.  Beyond that, the miracle-working Jesus assured us that we would do greater works than He did (John 14:12) and seemed to follow that up by giving His followers the ability to do the miraculous.  I have no good rational or theological reason to think that God could not and would not do the same in the life of my church.  If you are interested in joining me in this journey, here is a suggested “12-step” process for expanding your worldview to include miracles (adapted from Christianity with Power by Charles Kraft):

  1. Humble your heart before God; seek God rather than the miracle
  2. Open yourself intellectually to the possibility of miracles today
  3. Read the Scriptures with the assumption this can happen today (Gospels and Acts)
  4. Read books and stories with a prayerful yet discerning heart
  5. Reexamine prior doctrinal understandings to Scripture regarding miracles
  6. Expose yourself to experiences and observational opportunities
  7. Ask questions and interview those who have experience with miracles
  8. Give God permission to do anything he wants to do through you, even to the point of completely embarrassing you in front of others
  9. Try it out prayerfully and with a spirit of discernment
  10. Do not let a sense of spiritual inadequacy or doubts hinder you from trying; examine your heart
  11. Be patient with yourself and with God (God can do or not do what He wants)
  12. Find a person in your life with whom you can pray, process and practice trusting God for miracles

[1] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 77.

[2] Rutz, James. Megashift, (Empowerment Press, 2005), p. 46, n. 20.

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