Miracles notes Feb 05


What is a miracle?

  • Beneficial event
  • Caused by God
  • Break the laws of nature – apparently
  • BUT
  • The laws of nature are constant and operated by God
  • Would or even can God break the laws of nature?
  • Are God’s powers absolute or ordained?
  • God is self-limiting we believe
  • Hume’s ideas of cause and effect not being linked could be useful here.

Common elements:

  • Unexpected
  • Inexplicable
  • Good/beneficial
  • From God
  • Demonstrate God’s power
  • Bring to God
  • In need of interpreting – not necessarily to be taken literally.

Religious Responses

John Hick: natural laws are retrospective – based on past events to predict future ones.

Miracles don’t break natural laws but point out our limited understanding.

  • A miracle is a beneficial event which we did not understand or expect.
  • Not a violation of nature
  • If it would have been a violation it could not have happened
  • Can give greater perception of the presence of God

Miracles can be categorised into two types

  1. ones which might be a violation
  2. those which could be lucky coincidences

Hume: objected to the first category

    He said the witnesses were much more likely to have been mistaken

Miracles in the New Testament

Jesus miracles were:

  • either nature or
  • healing miracle


  • the gospel writers had an agenda
  • to prove Jesus was the Messiah
  • O.T. predicted miracles accompanying the appearance of the Messiah
  • John in his gospel says: “These things are written that you may believe.”
  • Healing miracles always benefited the sufferers and others
  • They were proof that Jesus was the Son of God.

Examples from the New Testament

Mt 8 v 5-13

The Centurion’s Servant

‘don’t tell anyone’

Mt 8 v 1-4

The Man with Leprosy

faith tho not Jewish

Mt 9 v 1-8

The Paralysed Man

forgiven sins

Mt 12 v 1-14

The Man with the Withered Arm

J breaks Sabbath rules

Mt 12 v 22-32

The Possessed Man

J accused of having devil’s power

Jn 2 v 1-11

The Wedding at Cana

1st sign of who he was

What miracles were not:

  • Designed to impress or be a spectacle
  • Used for selfish ends
  • Not about Jesus but about God
  • Done out of mere compassion – done for teaching purposes

The Resurrection


  • if it didn’t occur then Christianity was pointless
  • but if it did it makes Christianity unique.

Unusual features

  • disciples were not expecting it
  • they were in despair
  • after seeing Jesus they were full of hope, purpose and courage




All gospels concur

Could have been a conspiracy

500 witnesses

Could be mass delusion or wish fulfilment

appeared to all the disciples at various times

Disciples stole the body

(but this is weak because it would have been in their best interests to find it)

body never found

They were deluded

transformation of disciples

Wish fulfilment, self-delusion

personal relationship with God today for all who believe


Modern miracles:

  1. depends on your viewpoint in the first place – believers are more likely to call an even miraculous than non-believers.
  2. Sceptics would say we just don’t yet understand the causes
  3. If God created the universe and nature and put into effect the laws of nature then He could use aspects of them which we don’t yet understand but they would serve his purpose (similar to 2 above but caused by God)


Defined them as: “Transgressions of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”

  • But since nature is consistent and reliable it cannot be violated
  • Since a miracle would be a violation then it cannot happen
  • We just don’t understand it
  • If God did break the laws of nature it would mean God was inconsistent and therefore not the God of classical theism
  • There can never be enough evidence to prove them
  • Never enough reliable witnesses
  • Miracles are features of barbaric and uncivilised societies
  • If all religions claim miracles they must cancel each other out they cannot all be true!

Countering Hume

Hume’s criticisms were:

  1. Not enough reliable witnesses BUT how many did he want?
  2. Miracles claimed by ignorant peoples BUT actually most peoples do
  3. Miracles exclusive to each group BUT no logical reason why they could not occur in different faiths
  4. Illusions BUT even if some are, not necessarily all are!

He said:

  • a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence
  • balances the pros and cons
  • miracles violate the laws of nature
  • therefore it is more likely the witnesses are wrong than that the miracle happened.
  • Testimony is not proof
  • Humans like surprise and wonder
  • Miracles do not normally happen therefore they never do.

(Note that no-one would be sufficient authority for Hume to believe!)


  • Scientific laws are ones which have not yet been disproved e.g. gravity
  • Importance of our senses in understanding of natural laws but senses can also appreciate miracles
  • 100% proof not possible therefor it is the balance of proof that is important
  • it is the effect on the people that matters believers need to accept on faith

Coincidence or an interventionist God?

See case on page 68

RF Holland: “A coincidence can be taken religiously as a sign and called a miracle.”

September 11th so few killed compared to the possible scenario.

Surely it’s a matter of interpretation? See the story of the child, the toy and the train.

Feuerbach – miracles are wish-fulfilment – God is not an external reality but a mere projection of our nature and desires.

His objections were:

  • pointlessness of some (the cursing of the fig tree.)
  • coincidence (the Nebraska choir)
  • erratic and arbitrary nature of some (not all are healed or saved from dying Swinburne and the loving parent idea; Wiles and Auschwitz – is God all loving?)
  • lack of evidence (plenty of evidence but what would he count?)
  • ‘sorcery of the imagination which satisfies the heart.’ (He never examined any actual miracles just the claimants – this would mean his conclusions are 2nd hand, e.g. the police arrive at an accident but only interview the victim no attempt to check the scene or the other party.)

Can we dismiss all miracles?

No – just like not all UFO sightings have been explained.

God as creator and sustainer

Deism – deists believe:

  1. God is not only the creator but innately involved in every single event right down to the microscopic level – nothing can happen without him
  2. Therefore God is dynamic – much more so than a clockmaker
  3. Gives a different view of miracle – here God is not whimsical or arbitrary but simply acting in ways different from normal
  4. They take place within the orderly framework of the nature of the world

Raising Lazarus from the dead

  • Hume would object – it couldn’t have happened that way – Lazarus couldn’t actually have died – must have been another explanation
  • No law of nature had been violated – we simply don’t understand yet the mechanisms by which it took place.


Aquinas – 3 categories of miracle

  1. God doing what nature couldn’t
  2. God doing what nature could but not in the same order
  3. God doing what nature could but without the forces of nature


Peter Vardy

A miracle includes an event with religious significance e.g. an answer to prayer, a handbag found.

Therefore the definition of miracle and interpretation of them are closely linked.



  • Because miracles are claimed by ignorant people or those who love wonder or religious people, here lies, “an end to common sense and human testimony …loses all pretensions to authority.”
  • Since accounts of miracles occur in all religious traditions they cannot all be true and therefore they must cancel each other out.



  • Principles of credulity and testimony.”
  • We ought to believe things are as they seem unless we have good evidence we are mistaken.”
  • We normally believe what people tell us to be the case.


Ockham’s Razor

The simplest explanation for phenomena is usually the most philosophically reliable one.


How can we tell when a miracle is genuine or not to the believer?

  • Any lucky event which a believer seizes on as ‘miraculous’ will not stand up to close scrutiny therefore it will actually weaken the faith and move them towards gullibility – they may hold blindly to ‘it’.
  • Blind faith is not a virtue – the believer should be able to question or be questioned – should build their faith ‘on rock not sand’!
  • What is the primary purpose of any miracle?
    to reveal something about the nature of God
  • Is the historical context important?
    yes otherwise it becomes just a myth
  • Does man have free-will?
  • What would happen if God broke through with miracles all the time?
    it would undermine man’s autonomy
  • The strange ness and rarity of such events reflects the ‘otherness’ and ‘transcendence’ of God.
  • Are miracles proof of God’s existence?
    Not if you don’t already believe and not on an abstract level but deep inside
  • What do miracles teach us about God?
    pointer to the future and full knowledge.

More points to counter Hume

  • The uniformity of science is based on the assumption that what has happened in the past will happen again tomorrow. We cannot search out every tiger in existence to make the assertion that all tigers have stripes and four legs! So scientific ‘laws’ are just those which have not yet been disproved!
  • Either all events are caused or we regard miracles as uncaused and therefore a random event. Believers do not deny that miracles are caused but it is what the miracle says about God’s character that counts; how it helps us to learn about his nature.
  • Question – how can we have any knowledge of that which is transcendant? God being transcendant is unobservable but there may be some kind of awareness of God.
  • All miracles are inexplicable to us but not all inexplicable events are miracles.
  • If the historical does not matter then the Gospel narratives become just myths and the incarnation is meaningless.
  • The primary context of a miracle is supposed to be God’s self-disclosure.
  • If man is autonomous and the governing of the universe independent then it does not directly show God – indeed it mostly hides God. So if God were to show himself occasionally he must break through the veil through natural processes. But to do so all the time would be to mislead and destroy man’s autonomy.
  • Supposing such an event does happen it is not sufficient reason to abandon the natural laws that the miracle has violated. For what we mean by a genuine negative instance – the kind which can destroy the law – is an experimentally repeatable exception; however miracles cannot be experimentally repeated therefore they don’t break the laws of nature!!!


Miracles by themselves are not conclusive evidence of the divine revelation; one needs a prior acceptance and understanding of the idea of God not just an abstract belief in him, but a knowledge of his character to some extent.

Although some miracles may be explained away as a result of the objections not all can be dismissed.

Religious people accept miracles as matter of faith and consider the effects on people.

If God is creator and sustainer and nothing happens without his involvement then in this scenario God is not merely a watchmaker who set the world in motion and then withdrew. If he is ceaselessly involved in the running of the universe then his intervention through miracles is not impossible simply not his usual methods of acting.


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