Miracles June 2004 Rachel Poole

a) Examine what is meant by the concept of a miracle. [7]

A miracle is normally thought of as an extraordinary event, it cannot be repeated and it is completely unpredictable. Some philosophers would describe miracles as defying the laws of nature. The other key point about miracles is that they happen for a reason. Miracles are an act of God- the only one who is able to break nature’s laws- and so miracles take place to in some way show his power or reveal his nature to people.

For a believer, witnessing a miracle may strengthen their faith and because of their beliefs, they are more likely to accept it as a miracle. For a non-believer they may just decide it was a lucky coincidence- as R F Holland says “A coincidence can be taken religiously as a sign and called a miracle.” However, John Hick states, “Miracle is the word we use to describe any beneficial events that we can’t explain.”

In the Bible, two different types of miracle are shown- nature miracles and healing miracles. In the Old Testament, miracles were done with God’s power, in the New Testament, Jesus, the Son of God performed miracles. Nature miracles include the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus in the Old Testament, and Jesus walking on water in the New Testament. Also in the New Testament- the first recorded miracle of Jesus- turning water into wine was a nature miracle. Healing miracles included Jesus healing a man with leprosy, Jesus healing a Roman centurion’s servant and Jesus healing a paralysed man. Jesus even brought people back from the dead- Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus.

Some believe miracles still take place now. The miracle at Lourdes in France is a very famous example, but also there is the story of the Nebraska choir, from Peter Vardy. All the members of the choir were scheduled to meet up at 7:20 at the church hall for practice- each- for small, menial reasons- were ten minutes late. This was fortunate as at 7:25, the boiler had exploded and destroyed the building.

Of course, the ultimate miracle in the eyes of Christians would be the resurrection of Jesus, an act not only showing complete power and authority, but unbelievable love.

b) Describe and consider the impact of Hume’s criticisms of belief in miracles. [13]

The philosopher David Hume has four main objections to miracles. His first reason was that there are never a sufficient number of witnesses to testify that a miracle took place. The second reason states that sometimes witnesses will persevere with telling people about a miracle even if they are unsure it has happened. They do this because they want it to be true, or to try to help others come to faith, or even just because of the pleasure of being the centre of attention, and the pleasure of causing excitement and admiration. Hume’s third reason is that miracles are only claimed by ignorant, savage people or those who love wonder, and this leads to “an end to common sense and human testimony… loses all pretensions to authority.” The fourth reason is that many religions claim miracles to happen, but religions also claim exclusivity- that they are the only true religion- this therefore cancels out. Religions would not support other religion’s claims of miracles, and so they cancel each other out. An example of this would be an Islamic belief in a miracle known as “The Night of Power”, where Mohammed is believed to have been translated from Mecca to Jerusalem. Christians or Jews may not accept this as a miracle or would not believe it, but Muslims would. The same is true for miracles the other way round.

These arguments all have counter arguments. Hume’s first objection does not stand, and is probably the weakest argument, as there are many accounts of miracles having many witnesses- for example in the Bible the feeding of the five thousand, over 5000 people witnessed Jesus sharing five loaves and two fishes between all of them with food to spare. No amount of witnesses is sufficient for Hume to believe.

Hume’s second objection has problems, as people in general will be truthful, unless there is a reason not to be. Swinburne explains this in his Principles of credulity and testimony. He said “We ought to believe things are as they seem unless we have good evidence we are mistaken.” We normally believe what people tell us will be true, there is no reason to change this just because we are discussing a different topic.

Hume’s third objection is weak as many different nations witness miracles, many different people, in many different situations. People living in America, England, France, none of which would be described as particularly uncivilised, claim miracles. In addition, the idea that people should have some kind of proof of intelligence before being believed is incredibly unfair.

Hume’s fourth objection is, in my opinion, the strongest. However, other religions do not necessarily cancel each other out. There is no reason to disbelieve a miracle just because it happens within a context of another religion. If two people from different religions witnessed the same miracle, they would not cancel out. Miracles cannot support the existence of a whole religion, but there’s no reason they can’t occur objectively, unless they are self-contradictory. There is nothing that states that miracles must be mutually exclusive within religions. Moreover, the idea of miracles cancelling out would only work if each religion proclaimed they were the only true religion, and this is sometimes not the case.

Hume cannot prove that miracles do not exist, but at the same time, it is apparent that you cannot prove that miracles do exist, and miracles cannot prove that God exists. Miracles are often very personal events, and so can often only be of help to those the miracles are aimed at.


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