Are Miracles Proof of God? Don’t. Go. There.

Yet more theological incoherence

The religious bureaucrats who hovered around Jesus—and conspired against him—suspected that he performed miracles because he had help from demonic powers (Matthew 12:24): “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” Supposedly they knew a thing or two about the hierarchy in the spiritual realm, and they assumed that anyone who could kick out demons had been deputized by Satan. Of course, Jesus didn’t see it that way at all, and got the better of demons whenever he had the chance. He ordered them about, as we find in the dramatic story in Mark 5: he transferred the demons into a herd of swine.

It would be refreshing if Christians would own up to the rampant superstition in the New Testament. The gospel of Mark could be titled, “Jesus and the Demons,” and Luke opens his gospel with an angel in a speaking role. Long before “The Trinity” emerged as a thing in Christian theology, the Holy Spirit seems to have been an agent who animated pious people—and woe to anyone who hurt its feelings; or so we might infer from Jesus’ blunt warning in Mark 3:28-29: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

In Ephesians 6:12-13 we find this advice: “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Catholics have done their best to boost the benevolent population of the spiritual world, with the addition of hundreds—if not thousands—of saints, who hear prayers and grant favors.

So there are lots of beings—good and evil—busy in the spiritual realm. Unfortunately, this has implications for miracles, which are so commonly understood as part of God’s arsenal for doing good in the world—at the very least for dropping hints about his presence and power. The face of Jesus appeared on toast? God did it! A statue of Mary sheds real tears? God did it! Sick folks are healed at Lourdes? God did it! But maybe it hasn’t been God, after all, behind these deeds.

God doesn’t come off as well in the miracle business as people seem to think. The theology of miracles is distressingly incoherent—as Matt McCormick illustrates in his essay, “God Would Not Perform Miracles,” in the new Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles.

It would seem that, in the teaming world of spiritual beings, miracles were common practice. During the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, we read in Matthew 4:5 that “… the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,” much like a flying superhero these days would do, a gravity-defying miracle.

But McCormick draws our attention to the devil’s malevolent miracles:

“…Satan’s torturing Job at God’s behest was clearly a violation of the ordinary laws of nature. Presumably, if Satan hadn’t engaged in his challenge with God, then Job would not have miraculously lost all of his livestock, had his wife and children die, developed boils all over his body, and so on. Left to the normal course of natural laws, Job’s life would have been much less unpleasant.” (p. 65)

McCormick anticipates the Christian apologetic response about “God’s plan,” unknown to us: “Perhaps the misfortunes that befell Job were God’s actions and an indispensable part of an infinitely good plan in the grand scheme of things.” (p. 85) Of course, that God would allow Job to suffer so much as part of a wager calls God’s perfect goodness into question.

So a perfectly good God—an omnibenevolent one—isn’t required for miracles. Would we even need a competent God? Some of the reported miracles don’t seem to call for that either. McCormick suggests the possibility of a God who tinkers with the world—much in the way that he himself tinkers with his car:

“…this sort of God hypothesis might make much more sense of the examples of miracles that we often hear about: statues bleeding from the eyes, statues drinking milk, and fish sticks bearing the image of Jesus. Omniscience appears to be consistent with miracles, but it is not necessary, and cannot be inferred.” (pp. 64-65)

Christians are used to so much grand theobabble about God—he’s all this, all that: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-compassionate; he’s outside time and space, yet manages to be everywhere. God has to be totally the best, and as our understanding of the Cosmos has stretched, we realize he must supervise billions of far-flung galaxies. Yet he would take the time to make sure that Jesus shows up on toast from time to time, to win somebody to the faith? Maybe some of the good Catholic saints arrange those miracles.

Given the full range of miracles that Christians claim—the clobbering of Job, the raising of Lazarus, helping a team win a football game—there is so much of uneven quality; it’s risky to infer the nature of God with much confidence. A good miracle, McCormick points out, “could be the result of a momentary lapse into goodness by a being who is otherwise indifferent or even malevolent…miracles are consistent with a range of goodness, or even no goodness at all…” (p. 66)

The Real Reason Miracle-Theology Fails

If God is paying close attention—he even knows human thoughts—it’s hard to believe that much escapes his attention. And here Christian theology collides with reality, and does not come out the winner. McCormick identifies the problem, precisely:

“…at any given moment on the planet, now and when these miracles are alleged to have happened, there are millions or even billions of other people who are not being cured, healed, or benefited by a miracle. A miracle that we attribute to an infinitely good God is problematic because of what it omits…

“…millions of people suffer horribly from disease, famine, cruelty, torture, genocide, and death. The occurrence of a finite miracle, in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that the being who is responsible

• doesn’t know about
• doesn’t care about
• or doesn’t have the power to address the others.” (p. 67)

My short video comment on this quote is here.

McCormick correctly highlights the most obvious examples of colossal evil in Western history, namely the Black Plague in the 14th century and Nazi death camps. On so many levels, theism collapses in the face of these realities:

“…there are vast amounts of comparable suffering in the history of sentience that were not or are not being alleviated by miracles. How could we possibly infer infinite goodness, love, or kindness in some supernatural source that has shown the ability and the willingness to fix a select few and knowingly ignore the rest?” (emphasis added, p. 68)

He quotes an observation by Christine Overall, which drives home the point:

“Instead of using miracles to feed a smaller number of people, to transform water into wine, or to convert a few people, God could very well be performing miracles that have much larger effect, especially on the lives of the millions of children whose suffering is particularly incomprehensible to anyone with a sense of justice. The question is why a good God would be concerned with details like the need for wine at a wedding, and yet apparently not be concerned with huge tragedies like the holocaust of six million Jews.” (p. 68, footnote; excerpted from the Canadian Philosophical Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, page 358)

John Loftus has said, “If there was ever an empirical refutation of the Christian belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God, the problem of evil is it. It speaks like a megaphone against the existence of God.” (Why I Became an Atheist) Theologians have resisted this conclusion mightily, devising multitudes of explanations for God’s failure to act. But it’s a critical mistake, at the same time, to brag about God’s occasional miracles. McCormick delivers this knockout punch:

“Ironically, the challenge to God’s existence presented by inexplicable suffering is made worse for the theist who alleges that God performs miracles. Every case where someone claims that their prayers led to their rapid recovery from terminal cancer, or that their piety helped bring back a loved one safe from the fighting in a war zone shines light on all the other cases of suffering that went unabated despite heartfelt prayers, decent lives, and fervent piety

“For the Christian, it would strain credulity less to argue that God is all good and loving without the complications that miracles introduce.” (emphasis added, p. 72)

And Then There’s the Matter of Evidence

Aside from theological incoherence, however, there’s the issue of giving credence to ancient texts as the foundation for miracle belief. McCormick address this issue as well:

“Without exception, the miracles that have been presented in Christianity, as well as the rest of the world’s religions, have been ambiguous, under-documented, obscure, contentious, and divisive. It takes very little imagination to envision events that would have been vastly more appropriate and effective for a divine being.” (pp. 75-76)

One of the key words here is under-documented, which, indeed, is an understatement. In the Bible as a whole, and especially in the New Testament, there is so much fantasy, miracle folklore, and magical thinking, that we can categorize it as religious fantasy literature—despite the frantic efforts of devout scholars to tease out fragments of history.

Why are Christian theologians willing to go to bat for stories that are unevidenced, that are the typical markers of folklore and tall tales? Did the Egyptian priests turn their staffs into snakes, just like Aaron had done with his? (Exodus 7) Did Jesus transfer demons into pigs? (Mark 5) Did he glow on a mountaintop in the presence of Moses and Elijah? (Mark 9) Did many dead people emerge from their tombs on Easter morning to wander around Jerusalem? (Matthew 27) Was Herod Agrippa really struck down by an angel and eaten by worms? (Acts 12)

As McCormick noted, Christianity and all of the other religions of the world trade in such stories, unbothered by the lack of evidence.

Modern Preachers, Holding Out For a Vicious God

Beware of Christians who rank low on the empathy scale, and imagine God accordingly. For them, miracles are a way of getting even: Yes, our God is a vengeful God, who doesn’t seem to care who gets hurt. Is this the kind of miracle-wielding deity you want?

Example: “When Sandy ravaged the Eastern seaboard in 2012, British preacher John McTernan said we had Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage to blame. He also claimed both Obama and opponent Mitt Romney ‘are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda’ and that ‘America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!’”

So why not aim the retribution precisely? Just strike down Obama and Romney. Is God really that sloppy? Unless the reason for the punishment is obvious, what’s the point? In the wake of Sandy there was no great weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth because of gay marriage—“Oh, we know that’s what did it!” Similarly, in 1998 Pat Robertson warned that God would get even for Gay Day at Disney; it “could result in hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorist bombs and ‘possibly a meteor.’”

These guys love a God who smites. There is an ugly parallel that comes to mind: During the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, when resistance snipers assassinated German soldiers on the streets of Paris, the Gestapo, as reprisal, would execute ten or twenty French hostages or prisoners of war, and broadcast the deed—increasing their reputation for savagery. They didn’t hunt down the snipers; their revenge was indiscriminate. Are there gods that act that way too—one in particular?

I recommend giving a close read to Matt McCormick’s essay. On so many levels, bad miracles, even supposedly good miracles, don’t work in favor of God, and they reduce our respect—not that we have much anyway—for theology.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press. The 2018 reissue includes a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.