Arguments from miracles to show the existence of the divine have been used almost since the dawn of religion. In the New Testament, miracles are used to form arguments for Israel’s God being with Jesus (John 3:2), being involved in contemporary life (Luke 7:16) and existing (Acts 17:31). Throughout church history, arguments from miracles have been frequently used to defend truth claims of Christianity or certain sects of Christianity, not the least on the mission field.
In modern apologetics, one particular argument from miracles is widely discussed and defended, namely the resurrection of Jesus. Apologists try to show that this is a historical event, since the truth claims of Christianity rests on this miracle according to 1 Corinthians 15. But many of them are hesitant to base an argument for God’s existence on modern-day miracles, even though that would cast increasing doubts on the metaphysical naturalism that many opponents of the resurrection’s historicity base their reasoning on.
In fact, well-known apologist William Lane Craig has said “I don’t appeal to miraculous healings as arguments for God’s existence […] I think that there are weightier arguments for the existence of God than pointing to miracles.” Timothy McGrew concludes in his well-written article on miracles in the Stanford Encyclopedia on Philosophy that arguments from miracles are interesting but can’t stand on their own. Justin Brierley, host of the apologetic debating program Unbelievable at Premier Christian Radio, have had a few shows on contemporary miracles, but has admitted that they don’t talk about it very often and gives the following explanation for this:
This is kind of unusual for me […] we’re tending to deal with the kind of philosophical arguments for God, can we trust Scripture, those kinds of bariny, intellectual issues if you like. And in the field of apologetics, as it’s sometimes called, the sort of miracles stuff is sort of considered a bit like, “out there”. It’s very difficult to verify, it’s not objective in the way that we can talk about evidence for God and the Bible and that kind of thing. So in my view I think a lot of apologists tend to steer away from it.
The apparent contrast between a weak, miraculous argument on the one hand and strong, philosophical and scientific arguments on the other that these men express, is probably due to a lack of a formulation of a standard miracle-based argument. When Christians refer to miracles as evidence for their truth claims — something that is very common both historically and today — they seldom have put a lot of thought behind it to formulate a deductive or inductive reasoning that can withstand examination. Thus, when someone asks ”What about miracles in other religions?” or ”Have can you ever know that there wasn’t a natural cause you’re unaware of?”, they many times can’t offer a proper defence.
It is also sensible to think that the lack of a standard formulation of an argument from contemporary miracles is due to many apologists simply not believing in contemporary miracles, or at least being unaccustomed or unfamiliar with them. While Pentecostals historically have avoided academia, academic Protestant Christians have often been reformed which traditionally hold to cessationism, the theological idea that miraculous gifts ceased with the apostles.
However, this might be about to change. Craig Keener’s work Miracles, consisting of over 1000 pages in two volumes, have helped putting contemporary miracle claims as a supporting argument for Christianity. As a New Testament scholar, Keener frequently encountered the Humean idea that the miracles of the Bible can’t be historical events since we ”know” today that miracles don’t happen. By providing hundreds of miracle claims from around the world, Keener shows that David Hume was wrong in asserting that miracles aren’t part of universal human experience, and he also suggests that the best explanation for at least some of the miracle claims — especially those attested by multiple witnesses and supported by medical examination — is supernatural.
Apologist Gary Habermas has suggested that Keener’s work can be used in an argument from contemporary miracles for the existence of God, and I agree. Similarly to the argument from the resurrection of Christ, we can argue that the best explanation for the wealth of well-attested miracle claims is that miracles actually happen, and from that we can argue that God exists. In fact, with thousands of case studies on our side, the atheist must really somehow show that miracles are impossible, otherwise inference to the best explanation will have to lead us to the conclusion that God exists.
Deductively, the argument can simply be formulated as such:
- If miracles are possible, they most certainly occur.
- If miracles most certainly occur, God most certainly exists.
- Miracles are possible.
- Therefore, miracles most certainly occur.
- Therefore, God most certainly exists.
My definition of miracle is a supernatural act impacting nature as demanded by human beings. As this is a deductive argument, the conclusions (4 and 5) are necessarily true if it can be shown that the premises (1-3) are true. A book that I am writing will deal extensively with defending each of the premises, but let me here briefly sketch why I think that they all are true.
1. If miracles are possible, they most certainly occur
Let me give you a few examples of what some of the best attested modern miracle claims look like.
Dr. Richard Casdorph reports in his book on miracles that in 1972, Ray Jackson had a kidney removed in the Duke University Medical Center because of cancer. He recovered well, but two years later doctors had to remove a finger because they found cancer had spread there. However shortly after, they found cancer in his spine, pelvis, breastbone and leg, and this time surgery was out of the question. (Two bone scans are reproduced in the book.) He was booked in for radiation treatment, but advised he could expect to live no more than a year.
Many friends were praying for his healing, and before he began the radiation treatment, he woke in the night to hear a voice tell him he would be healed. The next day he attended a ‘Kathryn Kuhlman miracle service’, during which the pain disappeared instantly. Tests the next day still showed the lesions, but subsequent tests showed that healthy new bone had filled in where the lesions had been. Numerous medical data from Duke university confirmed the healing.
Craig Keener writes in his book:
A young medical trainee in North Wales was dying of meningitis in the hospital, but those praying for her felt that she would recover, against medical opinion. X-ray films of her chest initially revealed “extensive left-sided pneumonia with collapse of the middle lobe.” Two days later, however, X-rays showed “a normal chest.” Because of scarring on her eye, the ophthalmologist assured her that she would have “permanent blindness in that eye”, despite her confidence that she would be healed. Clearly some patients who insist they will recover are in denial, but such was not the case here. Her eye recovered completely, for which the ophthalmologist could offer no explanation. “The four consultants who saw her on admission to hospital remain confident of their initial diagnosis. She is shown at post-graduate medical meetings as ‘The one that got away.’”
Physicians and medical experts have reported several medically inexplicable cures taking place as people have visited the Catholic shrine of Lourdes. The latest case officially recognised as a miracle by the Catholic Church concerns Italian lady Danila Castelli. The Italian Local reports:
[Danila] Castelli is reported to have started suffering from hypertension – sudden, brutal rises in blood pressure – when she was 34.
Further tests also revealed a tumour in her urogenital system. She was operated on several times, but without success.
After the trip to Lourdes in May 1989, she reported her apparent cure to the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations.
After five meetings between 1989 and 2010, the office concluded that “Mrs Castelli was cured, in a complete and lasting way, from the date of her pilgrimage to Lourdes – 21 years ago – of the syndrome she had suffered and without any relation to the treatments and the surgeries she underwent.”
The case was passed on to the Lourdes International Medical Committee, which counts some 20 doctors and which certified that the way she healed remains “unexplained according to current scientific knowledge”.
Case studies like this can be multiplied by the thousands. A person becomes ill, is confirmed ill by medical expertise, asks God for healing, is suddenly healthy again which is also confirmed by medical expertise, and current medical knowledge can’t explain why the cure occurred. I think it’s safe to say that the person who denies that this procedure has ever happened is simply uninformed.
Some confuses these inexplicable cures from what’s typically being studied in “prayer studies”. The latter often try to see how prayer effects successful surgeries or natural cures, and have achieved mixed results. But when a naturally impossible event happens in response to prayer, it can’t be explained by the fact that other prayers don’t produce anything.
What prevents us then from calling these events miracles? There are three common counterarguments proposed by sceptics. First, that physicians are as fallible as anyone else and so the diagnosis of the illness or the proclamation of the cure might be errors. Second, there might be natural explanations to the cures that we simply don’t know about yet. Third, there are miracle claims in other religions than Christianity with equal medical support, and so if Christians reject those they ought to reject the Christian miracle claims as well.
The first objection commits what the third objections claim that Christians coomit, namely special pleading. Of course, it is theoretically possible that every single inexplicable cure is due to errors on the physicians’ part, but that is extremely unlikely and if such a sceptical attitude is to be taken towards doctors’ reports without special pleading, all of medical science needs to be rejected (since every diagnosis theoretically can have been a mistake).
The second objection has more force. But if miracles are possible, as this premise presupposes, supernatural causation has to be an available option when inferring to the best explanation. And while an unknown natural cause might be viewed as a plausible competitor in one case, the likelihood of that being true in all cases where inexplicable things happen in relation to prayer becomes extremely tiny.
What the raiser of this objection then often do is to put forward a variant of David Hume’s classic argument against believing in miracles. Hume basically argued that miracles, as “violations of the laws of nature” per definition always are more uncommon than natural events, and so we should never believe a miracle claim no matter what support it has because the likelihood that a natural explanation is hiding somewhere is always greater. However, more and more philosophers recognise that Hume uses a circular argument, presupposing naturalism, and that his definition of a miracle is far from self-evident. The greatest problem with Hume’s reasoning is that he basically says that we shouldn’t believe in miracles even if they occur, which is nothing short of special pleading not used when describing other uncommon events. Furthermore, Hume argued that miracles aren’t part of “universal human experience” when formulating his argument, something Keener has effectively disproved (showing that at least 200 million people, possibly billions, claim to have witnessed a miracle in recent times).
In fact, if miracles are possible, there does not seem to be any reason to why they should be a less likely candidate for valid explanations to inexplicable cures than unknown natural explanations. Unknown natural explanations suffers from the disadvantage of being unknown, whereas the existence of miracles has been proposed for millennia of human thought when trying to make sense of the world. Even though some alleged miraculous processes have eventually turned out to be natural processes in the past, this isn’t a guarantee for science discovering natural explanations for everything. When we consider that many of these cures are not just inexplicable but seem to occur exactly when prayer is offered, it’s easy to see how the quest for providing natural explanations to them all is ridiculously hard, which strengthens the truth claim of premise 1 drastically.
The third objection is not very effective against the truth claim – stacking even more examples of inexplicable cures and events just strengthen its truth claim, no matter in what religious context they occur. But isn’t it a powerful argument against these miracles being used to show the existence of any particular god, since that god would make sure prayers to other supernatural beings than itself goes unanswered? This brings us to the second premise.
2. If miracles most certainly occur, God most certainly exists
Similarly to the most common forms of cosmological, teleological and moral arguments for God’s existence used in Christian apologetics, this miraculous argument is religiously neutral in the sense that it doesn’t show that it is the Christian God that exists, just that a God exists. In other words, it aims to refute atheism rather than showing which particular religion is true. Thus, even if the miracles within Christianity is performed by a deceiving demon, and it turns out that the Islamic God of Allah is the true one, the argument still holds as a refutation of atheism.
But what if no god is responsible for any miracle, but all are the work of “lesser” spiritual beings like angels, jinns and demons? This is theoretically possible (and in that case these beings simply bypass human ignorance referring to them as gods), but I would argue that even such a scenario, the very existence of such supernatural beings shows that there is at least one God.
Think about it, what difference is there between such beings and God? They’re all spiritual, immaterial beings, that can hear and possibly communicate with humans and change the physical world in response to prayer. In fact, the “lesser” spirits are only lesser if there’s a God or multiple gods “above” them, otherwise they are what humans have typically referred to as gods. Not the all-powerful God with a capital G of theism, but gods nonetheless.
But here we encounter the multiple problems with polytheism. Even Socrates acknowledged that there is a big problem with multiple ultimate authorities when it comes for example to morality. If one of the gods has more authority and power than the others (like Zeus or Vishnu), is that not God with a capital G while the other gods are less powerful angels? And if all the gods are equal in power and authority, what happens when they disagree? If they’re always in agreement, then what’s wrong with calling the collective mind of theirs “God”?
Even if one would insist though that it is theoretically possible that a pantheon of gods would be responsible for the miracles going on rather than one supreme God, atheism is still refuted. The argument can easily be changed to “at least one god” exist in (2) and (5). As this argument does not try to show which religion is true but simply show why atheism is wrong, it still would have accomplished its goal. But since polytheism is plagued with so many philosophical problems (most contemporary polytheistic religions reject logic as understood in the West anyways) and since it is seldom a serious alternative to atheists, I let the formulation of the argument stand as it is.
3. Miracles are possible
This premise, I would say, is easiest to defend. For something to be denied as possible, it has to be shown that it is impossible. Everything is possible until proven otherwise. Before I have shown that it is impossible that a galaxy exists out in the universe containing exactly one million stars, I cannot deny the proposition “it is possible that a galaxy exists containing exactly one million stars”. Similarly, one must show that miracles are impossible to deny the truth of premise 3.
But how could one possibly do that? As mentioned above, a careful reading of David Hume’s famous essay against belief in miracles does not state that miracles are impossible. He thinks that they are very improbable, due to premises that are questionable, but not impossible. This is because in order to demonstrate that miracles are impossible, we must not only be omniscient concerning everything that has ever happened within nature, but we have to step out of nature into supernature in order to conclude that miracles can’t potentially happen in the future. This is impossible, and thus we cannot conclude that miracles are impossible.
If the three premises are true, it follows logically that God most likely exists. Will this argument be able to convert atheists to theists? Many apologists might fear that especially its first premise breaks one of the founding principles of natural theology, namely that one should depart from commonly held knowledge when arguing for example for the existence of God. However, I think that idea needs to be qualified.
A popular teleological argument is the argument from fine tuning, which states that the fine tuning of the constants that provides the foundation for natural laws is most likely designed rather than randomly specified by a non-intelligent mechanism. Now, most people are not very familiar with what these constants are and how narrow the life-permitting range is. Even several physicists aren’t well-aware of this. When presenting the argument, apologists therefore often needs to introduce the concept of fine-tuning and refer to the scientific evidence for its existence. Even though the fine tuning is not commonly known, it can easily be demonstrated.
Similarly, I think that even though the existence scientifically unexplained cures demanded in prayer isn’t common knowledge, the one who denies their existence is simply not aware of the evidence for it. That these things happen isn’t a belief, but a fact, and the apologist simply need to give a few examples. Taking the next step from describing these events as simply scientifically inexplicable to being actual miracles, requires a simple philosophical reasoning with an inference to the best explanation, assuming that miracles are possible. As I’ve shown above, the idea that miracles would always be less probable than the most ludicrous, unlikely natural explanation, is nothing but assuming naturalism a priori, which we have no reason to do.
Still, I expect atheists to object to the argument, just as they object to all other theistic arguments that I along with other apologists consider very good. What I have hoped to demonstrate here is that the miraculous argument has the same legitimacy as the more common arguments for God’s existence. Especially if we use the argument from the resurrection, we should not be hesitant to use the existence of contemporary supernatural events as a tool in our toolbox for apologetic evangelism.