Most people believe in miracles. Each of the major religions of the world believes in miracles, crediting God (or divine being) with a specific action or result. In his bestselling book “Reason for God,” Tim Keller defines a miracle as “the intervention of God into the natural order.” He sets out to show the reasonableness of believing in miracles, and most who believe in God would agree with his main points. Beyond people of faith, however, the situation changes dramatically.
There are people who have no faith in God, and yet if their favorite football team came back in the fourth quarter to win a game (say, on a 99-yard drive in the last two minutes), they might, in a moment of joyous celebration, yell, “My team won! It’s a miracle.” Others, however, have worked through the logic of miracles and determined that miracles do not happen. For example, David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher — so as to preclude their reasonableness — defines a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.” Notice the difference, by their choice of terms, in how Keller and Hume frame the discussion.
The question before us — “Do miracles really happen?” — seems simple and direct enough, but can only be answered if we dig a little deeper and first ask a few additional questions that rest just below the surface.
Consider this question and how it will help determine how we think about miracles: Can all events be explained using reason and the typical tools of historical inquiry and investigation? When we collect all of the evidence — gather physical clues, track down eyewitnesses, confirm alibis, compare notes — and then consider all of the plausible explanations for an event, should we also leave room for an it-was-a-miracle explanation? If the answer to that question is no, then the answer to our question on miracles is a clear, resounding “no.”
What I’m getting at is that answering a question on the possibility of miracles is more often about the person being asked than the data collected. There are two main answers to “Do miracles really happen?”: (1) no, never; (2) yes, or perhaps.
The first answer denies the possibility outright, while the second affirms miracles — or at least entertains the idea that miracles can happen. And the answers ultimately turn on the question of whether we are convinced or are open to the possibility that there is more to life and this world than we can detect, survey, examine and prove. Hume thinks not, while Keller thinks so.
In the second chapter of his book, “Miracles,” C.S. Lewis (along with many others who study the question) labels answers to these types of questions as “Naturalist” or “Supernaturalist.” The naturalist view holds that the physical world (the one that we can detect and experience using the five senses) is the only reality that exists, while the supernaturalist view holds that there is more than the physical world and that at times we detect and even experience something beyond explanation using the five senses. Indeed, Lewis, pressing his point even further in chapter 9, states that “only Supernaturalists really see Nature,” since naturalists forbid the possibility that there is more to what is real. These two groups have different views on what is real, and thus they also divide on another key point: the definition of what is reasonable.
Because the naturalist’s position requires explanations according only to the five senses, any answer that goes beyond them is, by definition, unreasonable. In fact, any such explanation would be ruled invalid as being not sensible — in line with his expectations. Likewise, the supernaturalist accepts answers beyond typical modes of investigation and, because he believes there is more to this world than what can be proven using the five senses, regards miracles (or at least their potentiality) as entirely reasonable and utterly sensible.
As a case study, let’s consider the life and ministry of Jesus. The current issue of The Baptist Courier is devoted to the birth of Christ, which definitely qualifies as a miracle, but here, as a test case, I want to put a spotlight on a miracle that happened in Jesus’ ministry.
The account of one of the most dramatic miracles in Jesus’ ministry is recorded in John 11. As opposed to the false accounts of Jesus (for example, the Gospel of Thomas), in the four Gospels in the New Testament, Jesus performs miracles precisely not to show off or to do a magic trick, but rather to provide testimony to His ministry. As recorded in John 11, Jesus knows He is about to perform a miracle, but before doing so, He first explains the reason behind it: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41-42). Then He says some of the most jarring words in history: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). To conclude the miracle narrative, John simply records what happens next, with this simple description: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face” (John 11:44).
Now, consider a few points and how they impact whether you accept John’s record of this miracle. Do you need more information? Do you need another account of it, perhaps from someone who was not a devoted follower? Sure, it would be nice to have another account or more details, but the odds are it wouldn’t change your answer to this question: Did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? It is very likely you had an instant acceptance or rejection of the account. Using the two choices referenced above, you likely answered “No, never” or “Yes, or perhaps.”
Christians affirm Jesus’ ministry and ability to raise the dead (first Lazarus, but, in the future, many more) because we believe that God has intervened decisively in our world by dwelling among us in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. What is real is beyond what we can detect with our senses. Based on that conviction, miracles are reasonable, and denying them is unreasonable.
Since there is more to this world than what can be investigated and proven, then all Christians can affirm that miracles do indeed happen, and, this Christmas season, we are reminded of God’s decisive intervention in our natural order.
— Ryan A. Neal is Honors Program director and associate professor of Christian studies at Anderson University.