Episode 32 - Bad Examples of Miracles
A large reason people struggle to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is that they simply don't believe in miracles. In this episode, we look at the examples of miracles that aren't impressive, and see if this gives us reason to disbelieve in miracles in general.
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Hello, and welcome once again to the Ultimate Questions podcast.
For a long time now we’ve been looking at the argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Last episode we began to look at arguments against the resurrection, by talking about a popular counter that skeptics will give, which is that they simply deny the existence of the supernatural, or miracles. I’ve found this sort of mentality among many people, where they will be impressed by the evidence, but simply say something like, “it’s just so outrageous, it couldn’t possibly be true”, or, “there has to be some other kind of explanation”. As we discussed last episode, in most of these cases, the skeptic is merely admitting they have a bias against miracles. They refuse to believe the resurrection actually occurred, because that would be a miracle, and they simply don’t believe in miracles. However, there are also many people that will disbelieve in miracles because they believe science has disproven things like miracles, angels, gods, and everything else that’s supernatural. They believe that, because of science, humanity has gotten past our primitive beliefs in mystical things, and that science can explain all the things that were previously explained using religion. So, for this episode, we’re going to dive into a bunch of the different scientific arguments that people make against the supernatural.
To begin, I want to look at a few points that skeptics make that are actually quite good. A first point that skeptics will commonly bring up against miracles is that some of the miraculous claims just aren’t true, and others aren’t worth considering. As we discussed last time, there are religions that have used drugs to bring on visions and dreams. At times a similar effect is brought on by sleep deprivation, or forms of hypnotism. As I said before, these sorts of experiences aren’t worth much, because it’s merely a subjective experience brought on deliberately by some physical situation. It has absolutely nothing to do with the supernatural realm, and wouldn’t be classed as a “miracle”. These events do not legitimize the religions that practice these sorts of things.
We could say the same thing about really unimpressive miracles, where they wouldn’t be worth considering either. For example, when someone says God gave them a parking spot after they prayed for one. It may very well be that God provided a parking space for them, but it may also be just random chance. After all, parking lots are meant to provide parking for cars, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when you’re able to find a spot. In other cases, Christians will pray for healing for a very long time, and the person eventually gets better, either because of time, or medical intervention, and the Christians claim it as a “healing”. These sorts of stories just aren’t convincing in any way to a skeptic, and I can completely understand why. God may actually be at work, but it’s not at all obvious, and wouldn’t work as evidence for the miraculous. We also see cases like this where someone is healed, but it’s a very minor or temporary healing. For example, if someone has a headache, and while at church everyone prays for them, and they feel better, some will act as though it’s a miracle. However, a minor healing like this could easily just be a matter of a chemical reaction in the person’s body; the placebo effect does happen after all, where someone will “think” they’re getting medication, but it’s just a sugar pill, and yet, they get better. There are ways that the human body naturally takes care of itself, and in the case of praying for the headache, the skeptic can easily appeal to things like human physiology fixing its own problems. Additionally, in some of these sorts of cases, the person will be healed during the service, but when the service is over, the healing ends with it, and they go back to feeling how they did before. In these cases, I can completely understand why the skeptic wouldn’t appreciate these as “healings”.
Now, in these sorts of cases, I say that I can completely understand why a skeptic would remain skeptical. However, not all miracle stories are like these cases. In fact, I’d argue the majority of cases are nothing like what I’ve just described. The mere fact that there are contrived experiences, unimpressive stories, and temporary healings, does absolutely nothing to delegitimize cases that do not look like that. For example, I’ve known people that have literally watched the sight come into a blind man’s eyes, immediately after they pray in the name of Jesus. I’ve known people that have had dramatic healings, where the doctors couldn’t explain the miraculous recovery. My own dad audibly heard the voice of God telling him to do something, and when he did what he was told, it worked out perfectly. In these cases, they weren’t temporary, they weren’t imaginings brought on by drugs, and they weren’t things that could have happened naturally. While I definitely can understand why these sorts of fake or unimpressive miracles won’t be convincing to a skeptic, it doesn’t really matter, because these many other miracle claims that don’t fit into those categories, and that actually do deserve the skeptic’s consideration.
Another argument from skeptics against miracles is that, psychologically, humans do have a bias to notice what they expect. While this is in the softer sciences, it’s still an interesting point, where, if you’re religious, you will have a bias towards the supernatural. So for example, if you pray very often, every now and then one of the prayers is bound to be fulfilled, if by nothing else other than random chance. In that moment, the religious person will ascribe the fulfillment of the prayer to God, rather than just a random occurrence. They’ll feel that, because they prayed for it, and it happened, it must be a fulfillment of the prayer. However, they’re completely ignoring all the cases where they prayed, and nothing happened. In response to this, there are many cases of miracles that cannot fall prey to this kind of argument. For example, I remember years ago when my family was strapped for cash, and my mom was walking to the mailbox with our neighbor, complaining that we were short $333 dollars this month. The neighbor sarcastically replied, “why don’t you pray to your God about it?” So my mom did. When they got to the mailbox, there was a cheque in the mail for exactly $333. This cannot merely be a case where luck pulled through, and all the other unanswered prayers somehow delegitimize this as being miraculous. This was the exact amount of money needed, in the exact moment it was asked for. Yes, we do at times receive unexpected money, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as we would like. To randomly receive money in the exact moment you ask God for it is incredibly bad odds. For it to be for the exact amount you needed is astronomically bad odds. It stops being about odds at that point, where all the unanswered prayers outweigh it; this is a miraculously improbable event. For another case like this, when I was a child, my dad and I were hiking. My dad was trying to teach me Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” As a typical young boy, I was incredibly distracted, not really listening to him, and just running around bashing things with sticks. Out of nowhere, I told my dad that I had always wanted a jack knife. My dear dad, trying to bring it back to Scripture, said, “well son, you delight yourself in God, and this Scripture we’re reading says that if you delight in God, He’ll give you the desires of your heart!” In that moment, right there in front of us, was a jack knife on the ground. I still have that knife today. I can definitely understand the psychological argument that you will only notice the times when prayer works, and I can even admit that, at least at times, some of our miracle stories might be cases of that, but in cases like this, it’s just far too profoundly improbable to be a case like that. To receive exactly what you asked for, in the exact moment you asked for it, isn’t just a case of probability working itself out. When we look at cases like praying for healing, where we see someone get completely healed from something in that moment, and doctors can’t explain it, again, this sort of psychological argument doesn’t work very well.
So far we’ve looked at skeptical arguments against specific types of examples of miracles, like miracles that seem fake, or unimpressive, or that we only pay attention to positive cases. Scientifically, this is a decent method, because these cases would work as counter examples to disprove the miracle hypothesis. However, these all work off the bad examples of miracles, and don’t take into account all the other cases where miracles seem far more obvious.
Outside of the skeptic merely critiquing bad examples of miracles, there’s also an approach that focuses more on the scientific methodology to try and disprove miracles. In this approach, the skeptic will ask follow-up questions to verify these sorts of events as being miracles from God. How do we know that some event is actually a miracle? What sorts of tests can we do to prove this? The problem with this sort of thinking is that it’s begging the question, or circular reasoning, which we talked about last time. For the skeptic to demand that the cases of miracles be scientifically provable is to demand that they be natural. The skeptic wants miracles to be testable, repeatable, and observable. While miracles are definitely observable, where people do witness the events, they’re not the sorts of events that you can replicate; after all, they’re miraculous, which in some way would imply they’re outside of the natural order of things, and don’t normally happen. They’re not the sorts of things you could repeat on cue, no matter how desperately you wanted to. Demanding miraculous events be scientifically provable is to presume a standard that begs the question in favor of a natural explanation. You’ll notice that a lot of the scientific arguments against miracles will still commit this fallacy.
There’s another way that skeptics will use scientific methodology to try and discredit miracles. This idea is called the “God of the gaps” objection. Many, if not most people today will say that science is slowly explaining all the things we previously thought were mysterious. In ages past, many phenomena were explained by appealing to the gods, or supernatural beings like angels, spirits, ancestors, or what have you. For example, people thought storms and lightning were caused by the anger of the gods. However, as humanity has advanced in our scientific understanding, we have rid ourselves of these childish ideas, and have begun to understand how the natural world works. Instead of appealing to supernatural entities, we have found natural explanations for most of the things we see in the world. So, from the skeptic’s point of view, any time humanity didn’t understand something, they would throw supernatural entities in as an explanation for these mysteries. In this sense, God “filled in the gaps” of our understanding. However, as we learn more about the natural world, God is slowly being squeezed out of those gaps, to the points He becomes more and more irrelevant. The skeptic would then argue that, eventually, all the gaps will be filled, and there will be no place for God.
This “God of the gaps” objection is very popular today, and is probably the most prevalent argument against miracles. While I do agree that there have been many times in history where the supernatural has been inferred when there was a perfectly natural explanation, that isn’t what we find in all miracle claims. Yes, there are times when there’s a natural explanation for why something seemingly miraculous happens, but there are also many times when there doesn’t seem like there could even possibly be a natural explanation. In many cases of claimed miracles, the religious person isn’t merely saying, “I don’t understand this, therefore it must be supernatural”, instead, they are looking at the data, and saying the best explanation looks like it’s a supernatural event. A few big examples of this would be the arguments for God’s existence, which we will eventually get to in this podcast. In these cases, we don’t just find strange things that we can’t explain and then infer God; instead, we find things that seem to imply God directly, not through a lack of explanation, but because God actually makes the most sense. As a quick example, when we find principles of engineering in life, it would seem to imply that these living creatures have been engineered. We imply a creative and intelligent mind behind these aspects of life, because engineering and creativity don’t typically come about naturally. We aren’t inferring God to explain something mysterious; we’re inferring God where He seems like the best explanation. In the case of my mom receiving $333 in the exact moment she asked God for it, it doesn’t seem like there ever could, even possibly, ever be a naturalistic explanation. It’s not the sort of thing that laws of the universe are going to be able to explain. We also see this with cases like the blind being dramatically healed of their blindness, right in the moment they are being prayed for. In these sorts of cases, we’re not greeted with something mysterious that we can’t explain, and we then toss God in to fill the gap. Instead, we are presented with an event that seems directly tied to God’s action. After all, we’re praying for something that seems impossible, and receiving it in the exact moment we prayed for it. Everyone present is baffled by the turn of events. We’re not using God as a way to explain things, we’re naturally inferring God’s action in cases that directly imply the supernatural.
So far we’ve evaluated bad examples of miracles, that fail when applying a scientific mindset to them, and then we’ve looked at the “God of the gaps” argument against miracles. The basic point against all this being that, even if there are bad examples of miracle stories, that doesn’t somehow defeat the stronger cases of miracle claims. Next time, we’ll continue this evaluation of miracles by scientific methodology. We’ll look at the “Sagan standard”, which says that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Then we’ll evaluate the general claim that science has defeated God and miracles. We’ll also look at how miracles actually work in a way that is counter to the scientific process. So I hope you’ll join me next time, as we look at how scientific reasoning claims to defeat miracles, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast.