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Does it take a miracle to believe in the supernatural?14 min read

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Miracles have long been a stumbling block for many investigating Christianity and other religions. Why would a person living in the 21st century believe that the miraculous not only could happen, but did happen?

Much of the issues with doubting the miraculous comes from a limiting of types of evidence. Only allowing direct personally witness is to ignore many other types of evidence accepted in courts of law and philosophical debates. Rejecting those other types of evidence places an undue burden of proof on the miraculous. What other types of evidence should be accepted? The same as in other areas. Evidences such as testimony and the effects of such an event.

Do we place the same burden on other events? A hole-in-one is an extremely rare occurrence in golf. Do we have to personally witness one to believe someone achieved it? How about 10 hole-in-one's in a row? Surely, we would be justified in disbelieving such a story? Didn't everyone but the North Korean media laugh at Kim Jong Il's tale of several aces during his 38-under-par first ever round of golf? Surely, the miraculous is more far fetched than an insanely low golf score.

Well it depends on your presuppositions about the world. If you presume that the natural is all that exists, then it would absolutely be correct to doubt any claims of supernatural acts. Even more, all supernatural acts would be impossible since the supernatural is by definition impossible in an entirely natural world. But to know that we live in a totally natural world, one would have to be omniscient since the supernatural could theoretically exist in any of the parts of knowledge of which you were ignorant. Even at that point, if you were omniscient, you would in fact be supernatural, so you would be defeating your own argument. So since we cannot know that the world is entirely natural, let's assume the supernatural exists.

If there is a supernatural creator God, then the miraculous takes no more effort than the natural. It does not require an extra portion of God's strength to raise someone from the dead than it does for Him to simply exist. Richard Bube, graduate of Princeton and professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Stanford, concludes:

miracles pose no problem in the modern encounter between science and Christian faith when it is realized that God is always acting freely in both the natural occurrences of everyday life and in those special and unique occurrences of particular religious significance that we recognize as miracles. Thus, miracles are not some kind of interference by God in the normal course of events, as though events would go on in their own way without him if he didn't intervene, but a particular way in which God's unlimited free activity manifests itself.

Even though miracles would not only be possible, but entirely likely with the existence of a Creator God, should we still not doubt them as we doubt Jong Il's golf score? Let's take the golf game as an example. We could be skeptical, but how far should our skepticism go?

Would it be rational to believe the story more if it was a South Korea paper that reported it as fact instead of a government controlled North Korean news source? What if Jong Il predicted his score before he took the course and then shot the round in front of an audience of both his supporters and his doubters? What if the doubters did not doubt the actual unbelievable score, but rather tried to explain it away as coming from a different source? Would those things not lend more credence to the story?

There is a difference between simply being entirely skeptical of all miraculous claims beyond the ability to demonstrate their truthfulness and being skeptical of a specific individual claim and examining the evidence for such a claim. Partial skepticism can be healthy. We do not simply want to accept as fact everything we hear or read. In the age of the internet this could be very dangerous. However, skepticism ceases being helpful when it moves to complete skepticism. Besides being self-refuting (should I be skeptical about skepticism?), it prevents people from gaining knowledge through numerous other avenues.

But we have scores of these claims in numerous religions, would they not all cancel each other out? What about the claims of supernatural in various religions would make them count against the other? Would they not instead count as additional evidence in favor of the supernatural? Philosophy professor and author Richard Purtill explains that unless the miracles directly contradict one another (say a Muslim holy man raised from the dead to persuade Christians that Muhammed's revelation superseded Jesus'), then the claims are not threatening to each other.

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oxford, Richard Swinburne further explains:

Most alleged miracles, if they occurred as reported, would show at most the power of a god or gods and their concern for the needs of men, and little more specific in the way of doctrine. A miracle wrought in the context of the Hindu religion and one wrought in the context of the Christian religion will not in general tend to show that specific details of their systems are true, but, at most, that there is a god concerned with the needs of those who worship, which is a proposition accepted in both systems.

So if the supernatural is possible in various contexts, what would separate a miracle specific to the Christian context from the possibly miraculous in other religious contexts? For the sake of argument, let's say that every claim of a supernatural act in every religion is true, in that it happened and it has no possible natural explanation. How could Christianity explain those acts and say that only their religion is true?

Edward Carnell, a doctoral graduate of Boston College and Harvard and President of Fuller Theological Semianry defined a miracle, as opposed to other supernatural acts, as "an extraordinary visible act of divine power, wrought by the effective agency of the will of God, through secondary means accomplished by valid, covenantal revelation, and having as its final cause the vindication of the righteousness of the triune God."

By Christian definition, a miracle can only be done by God and must have religious significance that points back to its Originator. Therefore, other seemingly supernatural acts done would not be miracles. Wouldn't that, however, conflict with the earlier point that miraculous claims in religion do not automatically contradict one another – no, for at least two reasons.

First, the argument about the supposed contradiction brought about by supernatural acts in various religious contexts is first and foremost a philosophical argument, not one coming from reality. Theoretically, if the acts did occur in many religions they would not counter act each other by definition.

Secondly, by defining miracles as specifically Christian, the believer is not automatically discarding all other supernatural claims as automatically false. There are other explanations for the occurrence, some natural and some supernatural.

If God is not the source, what could be another supernatural explanation for a seemingly miraculous event. The Bible itself records instances of supernatural events and superhuman actions that are not attributed to God. In Exodus 7-8, the Egyptian sorcerers duplicate the first three signs that God had given Moses and Aaron (staffs turning into snakes, turning water to blood and causing frogs to infest the land). However, they were not able to reproduce God using Aaron to turn dust into gnats. Their power stopped at the ability to create life from non-life. That was a specific power of God.

Mark 5 records a man that demonstrated superhuman strength – ripping apart chains that were meant to hold him, overpowering anyone that came to him. His strength is credited to demons who had overtaken him. Acts 16 tells of a slave girl with a demon who was making money for her owners by predicting the future.

If we say the supernatural (God and miracles) are possible, would Satan and the demonic not also be possible? Nothing would preclude their existence and their presence would provide an explanation for many of the supernatural acts that do not reflect God. If they did exist, they would possess limited supernatural powers and would presumably use those powers to attempt to lead people away from the truth, as Pharaoh's sorcerers did.

But even with all this, that just means miracles are not impossible, that still makes them very improbable. So much so, why believe one happened?

Jerry Gill responds to that argument:

it must be noted that the degree of probability of an event does not, in the final analysis, settle its actuality. Many highly improbable events do actually occur, and it will hardly do for people to object that they could not have occurred because they were improbable. Whether or not a given event has occurred must be established on the basis of evidence including but going beyond antecedent probabilities.

As Lewis points out in his argument against Hume, it is circular reason to point to "uniform experience" against miracles, when that is essentially the question: "Is the evidence completely uniform?" Hume could only know the experience to be uniform is he has investigated every miraculous claim individually and has determined each claim to be impossible.

If the miraculous is possible, then each claim should meet with investigation. Obviously, the length of that investigation should be dependent on the seriousness of the claim, the trustworthiness of the spokesperson and other factors. If someone makes a ridiculous claim with no religious connotation (after all the supernatural should and would reinforce a spiritual view of the world), then the claim can be dismissed with little investigation. But if the claim is serious, by a trustworthy person and seems to speak toward some claim of God, then it should be investigated in a much more weighty manner. The investigation should look to as many objective tools as possible to determine the likelihood of the miraculous claim.

But could we not avoid all of this trouble if God just show us all a miracle so we can see and believe? There are three reasons why this is not an appropriate request which will most likely go unanswered.

For starters, It would not automatically work. In Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the dead unnamed rich man asks God to allow the also deceased Lazarus to go back to his brothers so they can avoid his fate in hell. God tells him that even if they saw someone come back from the dead they would not believe. The story foreshadows those who experienced Jesus raise someone from the dead, plus his own resurrection. People saw the miracle, some believed, some created alternate explanations for the event.

Seeing is not always believing. People who see the miraculous do not always believe it to be so. We have a tendency to see evidence and discard or accept it based on the preconceptions we already posses. I can witness a truly miraculous event, but if I reject God as possible or probable then more than likely I will interpret the event in a manner that suits my skepticism. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to see evidence from a neutral position when we have already came to a conclusion in advance.

Secondly, there is the question from God's perspective: would a giant miracle that proves to everyone He exists accomplish His plan? C.S. Lewis in Screwtape Letters has the elder demon Screwtape respond to a question by the younger Wormwood about why God wouldn't simply show Himself, through a miracle perhaps, and have everyone worship Him. "But now you see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo."

Thirdly, Scripture seems to basically confirm the miraculous as rare and basically confine it to three small windows of time. If we accept the Bible as historical, we have 250 miraculous events recorded. If we stretch that out over 4,000 years (the shortest possible time frame people give for the time recorded in the Bible), that equals one miracle every 16 years – not very frequent. However, if we examine it even closer we find that the Bible has essentially three periods where miracles are clustered together: time of Moses, emergence of the prophets (Elijah and Elisha), as well as Jesus and the disciples. What makes those time periods significant? They are when God was confirming new truth about Himself and new messengers with that truth.

Does that mean that the miraculous does not happen today? No, but it does mean that we should not expect to see miracles, especially in areas where Christianity is already established. This reflects the reality of current Christian testimony. We hear very few reports of genuine miracles in places like America, while missionaries in unreached areas like the Middle East and Southeast Asia often speak of God acting in a real, tangible miraculous way to confirm the new (to those people) message of His Son.

So back to our original question: does it take a miracle to believe in the supernatural? If so, then skeptics are already refuted because billions around the world accept them not only as possible, or even probably, but as factual.