One of the best books I’ve ever encountered on the topic of miracles is simply called Miracles, and is written by Craig Keener. A professor of New Testament Studies, Keener started his book as a footnote in another work on the book of Acts where he explained why he didn’t rule out the possibility that the miracles described there actually happened, and when his footnote had grown to a couple of hundred pages he decided to make a book out of it (and it’s pretty clear that this guy likes footnotes, there’s such an insane amout of them that the book had to be published in two volumes!)
Keener covers a various of fields such as exegesis, history, philosophy, natural science and journalism as he provides hundreds of testimonies about miracles, most of them from recent times and several of them medically and scientifically verified. It’s a very good read. And I would like to share with you the essense of his philosophical argument, which also can be viewed in this video:
It is common to hear, especially in the Western world, that miracles “clearly” don’t exist, that belief in miracles is a medieval relic, that “modern” people can’t believe in supernatural superstition etc. Quite often this is simply viewed as an axiom, a self-evident premise that does not have to be proven; it is often believe that science has already denied the existence of miracles so arguments for the premise is not necessary. However, science has not proven that miracles don’t exist, science is agnostic on such matters just as science has not proven that God does or doesn’t exist. I’ll come back to that shortly.
Claiming that miracles cannot happen, that supernatural phenomena are nonexistent, is a philosophical statement known as naturalism. The idea was popularized by European philosophers during the 18th century Enlightenment; and interestingly, many of them were theists, though not Christian. The arguments they provided were for example that God could not possibly alter the natural laws he had created, or that God was nature and doing something supernatural would thus be impossible for him (Voltaire, who was a pantheist, argued like this). Niels Christian Hvidt has written about this in his book, which is also titled Miracles.
Later on came David Hume who was an atheist and provided other kinds of arguments for naturalism in his treatise Of Miracles. To sum it up, Hume argued that events described as miracles are, per definition, uncommon and extraordinary, while what we view as laws of nature rest on the experiences of countless people that can be analyzed with scientific methods. It is thus much more likely that a perceived miracle was misinterpreted as a supernatural event even though it was natural, or that it was simply made up. To support the latter claim he argued that religious people where often naïve and that many testimonies come from “ignorant and barbarous nations”.
Keener’s criticism of Hume, and he is far from being the first who point this out, is first of all that experiences of miracles aren’t that uncommon as Hume thought, at least not today. He refers to a Pew study that has shown that 200 million Pentecostals and charismatics in ten countries alone claim to have witnessed divine healing. He isn’t saying that this is evidence that these miracles happened, but it does show that miracles to a large extent is part of the experiences of countless people all around the world (and notably, many claim to have become Christian due to the miracle). To exclude them as naïve and barbarious is begging the question, a circular argument. Furthermore, the existence of an event is not dependent on how rare or common it is.
As for science, there are thousands upon thousands of scientifically inexplicable events, not the least when it comes to healing. Again, Keener provides several references to this in his book and the video above, and on this blog I ave written about eleven medically verified healings, science and healing and medically unexplained healing from neurological disorder. Now, science is agnostic on whether God did that, or any other spiritual being, or a natural force that we haven’t discovered yet. The atheist will always pick the last one (or argue that it was exaggerated or made up) while a Christian holds all three possibilities open. That’s why belief in miracles really is a philosophical question. And it is defenitely not proven, and in my opinion even reasonable, that miracles cannot happen.
For more about this, check out my essay Are Miracles Real!