Does a Religious Context Increase the Odds of a Miracle?

[Written by John W. Loftus] Christian apologists point out that the probability of a miracle is increased when it occurs in a “religious context” as opposed to one that is a merely an “anomaly.” William Lane Craig states that: “A miracle without a context is inherently ambiguous. But if a purported miracle occurs in a significant religio-historical context, then the chances of its being a genuine miracle are increased. For example, if the miracles occur at a momentous time and do not recur regularly in history, and if the miracles are numerous and various, then the chances of their being the result of some unknown natural cause are reduced.” Then he proceeds to argue that in the case of Jesus his resurrection took place in such a religious context.1

In a like manner Michael Licona argues: “We may recognize that an event is a miracle when the event…occurs in an environment or context with religious significance, In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act. The stronger the context is charged in this direction, the stronger the evidence becomes that we have a miracle on our hands.”2 Comparing David Hume’s hypothetical example where Queen Elizabeth comes to life after dying with the resurrection of Jesus, Licona says, “a significant difference exists” because “the historical matrix in which the data for Jesus’ resurrection appears is charged with religious significance…whereas the life of the queen enjoys no such context.”3

What are they talking about? Licona offers two analogies. If a fifty year old blind atheist from birth recovers his sight on a Saturday for no apparent reason, this is merely an anomaly, an unexplained fact. It might be a miracle, but who can say for sure. There just wasn’t anything other than the fact of his recovery itself that offers us a clue as to why this happened. But if instead, this same atheist had a Baptist preacher visit him out of the blue, who prayed and recited the words to the song, Amazing Grace, where at the moment he says, “I was once blind but now I see” the atheist recovered his sight, that is a religious context. And in such a context a physician as a physician is justified in thinking a miracle has indeed occurred, Licona argues.4

So apparently if an anomalous unexplained event takes place and its timing is also improbable because of a religious context, then it has a better chance to be a miracle. The timing of the event adds to the improbability because of the religious context. If a blind atheist from birth recovered his sight at a specific moment when someone said, “Be healed,” or prayed, that gives his recovery more probability that it is a miracle. But notice that Licona didn’t suggest an analogy where the atheist bathed in the Ganges River in India and was subsequently healed of his blindness; nor one involving a witchdoctor’s spells healing him, nor one in which he recovered his eyesight because a Catholic nun prayed for him in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, in France. All of these analogies involve a religious context too. And even though these are just analogies, from what I can tell, sick blind and paraplegic people in charismatic and Pentecostal churches are prayed for every worship service, sometimes under the same circumstances of this hypothetical story, to no avail. So even if such an event might actually happen someday I might want to ask why so many others are not healed under the same circumstances.

Nonetheless, I can't grant his point about the religious context. For a miracle like the one Licona described would be considered as some testimonial evidence that a miracle had taken place despite the religious context. After all, a miracle by his definition is one where “there could be no natural cause.” That alone, if it happened, is at least some good evidence I would think. What does the improbability of the timing add to such an impossible event when the event is ipso facto impossible from all we know about natural causes? If unexpectedly someone levitated in front of a group of people for no apparent reason, with no explanation for why it happened, what does it add to such a naturally impossible event if someone were to have commanded him to levitate by the power of his god just before it happened? It’s already an impossible enough of an event that the command to levitate by this believer doesn’t add much of anything to the improbability of the event itself. All it seems to add is which particular god might have caused it. Although, in my case, I might actually think such setup decreases the probability that it was a miracle, since it would look like a magician’s trick rather than an actual miracle of a man levitating after being commanded to do so.

In any case I could cite an endless number of claims of healings and miracles coming from many other religious traditions beginning with the dawn of human history. Do any of these other miracle claims have any more probability to them because they took place in a religious context? If a religious context increases the probability that a miracle occurred then how does that help Christian apologists, since most all miracle claims come from specific religious contexts. Neither William Lane Craig nor Michael Licona are claiming anything special with regard to their faith here. And so I have no reason to accept their miracles have any better attestation to them then others simply by virtue of their own religious contexts.


1. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 569.
2. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 163.
3. Ibid., p. 164.
4. Ibid., pp. 165-66.