by Professor Peter Kreeft

From a lecture series given in 2006, transcribed 2019

The supernatural, and God, and miracles all go together as a package deal. There might be a God without miracles, God might be able but not willing to do them, but there can't be miracles without a God, and miracles would be the most spectacular example of the supernatural. Also, miracles are crucial for Christianity. If miracles don't happen then the world's largest religion is false, for all of its main claims, its central doctrines, are miracles: creation, divine revelation and prophecy, Jesus' Incarnation and Resurrection, last judgment. If Jesus' bones were discovered today in some tomb in Israel, there would be no Christianity tomorrow. And, at least some of these miracles are also essential to religious Judaism and Islam — creation, divine revelation, prophets, last judgment. If it wasn't God but Moses who invented the Ten Commandments, or if it wasn't Allah but Mohammed who invented the Koran, well then the authority of Judaism and Islam would be undermined.

But miracles are not essential to eastern religions. For one thing, there is usually no transcendent God — no Creator — to work them, and for another thing there is no clear distinction between nature and super-nature, or even between the human soul at its depths and God.

One argument against miracles is that they're illogical. But I think that's a misunderstanding. What's illogical is contradictions. Miracles, whether they happen or not, are not contradictions. A corpse rising from the dead after four days is a miracle. A corpse both rising and not rising at the same time is a contradiction. But a second argument is historical — that belief in miracles stems from ignorance of the laws of nature. People believed in Zeus before the science of meteorology, and they believed in virgin births before gynecology. This argument has three weaknesses, I think. First, the fact that belief in Zeus did arise during ignorance of meteorology doesn't prove that it arose because of that ignorance. Second, a knowledge of principles like gynecology doesn't make a virgin birth any more or less believable or any more or less miraculous, it just supplies the details of how a baby develops once it's there, whether its cause is man or God. People who were ignorant of gynecology knew that women didn't get pregnant without men. Finally, belief in miracles can't stem from ignorance of the laws of nature because the very concept of a miracle presupposes a knowledge of the laws of nature. The very concept of an event whose cause is supernatural is a meaningless concept unless there is a natural order. Unless there are laws, there can be no exceptions to them.

A third argument against miracles, a stronger one, is that they would violate the laws of nature, and thus they would demean the laws of nature. But by analogy that's questionable. A presidential pardon would not violate or demean the laws of a court, or a school principal cancelling classes would not violate the laws of the school, because both act within their proper authority, and if there is a Creator presumably he would have authority over all his creation.

A fourth argument against miracles is that they would demean God. If God has to intervene and interfere in his creation, He looks like a bad architect patching up an imperfect house. But that presupposes that God designed a system in which He should never intervene with miracles, a world he originally wanted to be empty of prophecies or answered prayers or divine revelations. But the theist's claim is that those miracles were part of his original plan. Both sides are consistent so far.

A fifth argument, a famous one from David Hume, is that miracles are maximally improbable. It is always more probable that someone is lying or hallucinating because those things happen often, while miracles by definition are unrepeatable singularities. Of course, each person is also an unrepeatable singularity and so are many non-miraculous events in your life. Miracles are events whose cause is supposedly outside the universe, so how can any observation of events inside the universe, and how probable they are, determine how probable it is that God might add another event? Wouldn't that be like fish in a fishbowl trying to calculate the probability of a wholly new fish being added to the bowl? They would have no data in the fishbowl that could give them any reason for that. Should a new fish be added or not? Is it probable or not? You'd have to know the person who set up the fishbowl to know how likely it would be that he would choose to add a new fish.

Here are two arguments for the possibility of miracles, one from the side of the cause, the God who could work miracles, and one from the side of the effect, the universe that would receive them. And the argument is that there is no sure defense against miracles in either place. For if God exists, there is nothing in the nature of God that assures us that he would never work miracles — or that he would — and there is nothing in the nature of the universe that would exclude miracles. Nature is defenseless against them. And if God created the universe he could certainly perform miracles in it. If he banged out the Big Bang, why couldn't he bang out little bangs? If the author made the play, couldn't he change it, couldn't he even enter it himself as one of his characters?

Those arguments seem to show that if God exists, miracles are possible. But are they actual? Do they happen? That's a quite different question, and I don't see how philosophers can decide that. That's a question for experience and history. The things proved by both science and philosophy are universal statements like equations. They're not singular, unrepeatable events, whether natural or supernatural. It's history that investigates singular events and history cannot prove its conclusions with the certainty of a formula.

So how do you investigate a claim that a miracle happened? In the same way you investigate the claim that a non-miraculous event happened — historically and empirically. The historian should investigate whether Jesus rose from the dead — or not — in the same way he investigates whether Caesar crossed the Rubicon or not or whether the President really had the flu last week. He looks at his data: the claims, the witnesses, the documents, the effects of the event. He doesn't know a priori before he looks at the data, and he shouldn't claim to. That would be prejudice — judging before the evidence is in.


Professor Kreeft