An Excerpt From My Introduction to "The Case Against Miracles"

A miracle must be an event caused by a supernatural force or being, a god. Such an event could not take place on its own in the natural world without the action of a god. It must be an event which involves the interfering, or suspension, or transgressing, or breaching, or contravening, or violating of natural law. Such an event could not be explainable by science because it would be an event impossible to occur by natural processes alone. A miracle is therefore an extraordinary event of the highest kind.

Consequently a miracle is not merely an extremely rare event within natural world, or something that just happened “at the right time.” We know from statistics that extremely rare events take place regularly in our lives. How many times have you heard believers say their god did a miracle, or answered a prayer, based on a very unlikely set of circumstances? You hear this from Mennonites, Methodists, Moonies, Mormons, and Muslims, and every other believer who possesses a prayer-answering god. [If there aren’t a plethora of different gods answering these prayers then one god answers them all, thus creating conflict and wars between believers over who possesses the right god.] Believers will quote their believing doctors who say the odds of being healed were “one in a million,” as evidence of a miracle healing. Listen, a one in a million healing is not equivalent to a miracle. The reason is because of the statistics of large numbers.

Statistician David Hand shows us this in his book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. He convincingly shows that “extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.” He is not a believer in supernatural miracles though. “No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive. All we need is a firm grounding in a powerful set of laws: the laws of inevitability, of truly large numbers, of selection, of the probability lever, and of near enough.”7 There are a growing list of books making this same point.8 Extremely rare events within the natural world are not miracles. Period. We should expect extremely rare events in our lives many times over. No gods made these events happen.

A miracle doesn’t need to be limited to just a temporary suspension of natural laws by a god either. Richard L. Purtill’s definition for an anthology on miracles edited by leading evangelical apologists R. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas, is that a miracle “is an event in which God temporarily makes an exception to the natural order of things, to show God is acting.”9 But why must a miracle be limited to temporary exceptions? As far as the Christian theist knows, the whole world operates by perpetual or permanent miracles. An omnipotent god who created the universe, and the laws of nature with it, should be able to do perpetual miracles to alleviate the most horrendous instances of suffering in the world. Such a god could have stopped the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by a snap of his omnipotent fingers. He could have stopped the underwater earthquake before it happened, thus saving a quarter of a million lives. Then he could make sure the earthquake would never take place in the future either, with a perpetual or permanent miracle. The divine hiddenness advantage here is that none of us would ever know he did it, because it never would have happened. So, he could have done it and remained hidden if he wanted to, for some hidden reason. In fact, he could stop all horrendous naturally caused suffering in this manner, and none of us would be the wiser. We would just conclude this is how the natural world works, with much less suffering.

Since there are clear instances where a perfectly good, omnipotent god should have intervened with a perpetual miracle but didn’t, like stopping the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, we can reasonably conclude he doesn’t do them at all. But the possibility of perpetual miracles supports philosopher David Kyle Johnson’s contention that “a miracle is simply an event caused by God.”10 This holds true whether we can attribute a perpetual miracle to god or not. It also holds true whether a miracle violates nature’s laws or not. Johnson says, “if we knew a god caused an event in the world we would (and should) call that event a miracle—regardless of whether it involved the violation of natural law.” Johnson makes the point that David Hume “simply equated the definition of miracle with the conditions under which one is justified in believing in a miracle.”11 Okay, got it. However, the crucial question for Hume—and this present anthology—is whether we can know that any miracles have taken place. Hume’s case against miracles depends on an accurate description of the conditions under which people are justified in believing in a miracle. And on this point Johnson agrees with Hume, that the criterion for knowing a miracle occurred is whether an event “violates natural law.” On this crucial point Johnson goes on to argue that, “if an event does not violate natural law, then it will have a natural explanation—and available natural explanations will always be more adequate than supernatural ones.”12

Given the above considerations here’s my definition: A miracle is a supernaturally caused extraordinary event of the highest kind, one that’s unexplainable and even impossible by means of natural processes alone. I use the word “extraordinary” here thoughtfully, and I defend its use in chapter 3. No lower standard than this is worthy of being recognized as a miracle. Even if it’s remotely possible there’s a god who does miracles s/he should know that reasonable people should not accept anything less. Otherwise, credulous people with lower standards for recognizing miracles as mere coincidental events could be swindled by any two-bit nefarious street preaching huckster, or famous TV personality, or faith healer, or priest, who desires their money, their kids or their lives.

Apologists, philosophers, theologians, bishops and pastors who lower these standards in order to allow for timing coincidences as miracles, as does Craig Keener,13 J.P. Moreland,14 and Lee Strobel15 to name just three of thousands, are doing their parishioners and students a disservice. Most all the miracle cases described by their apologetical books are based on rare coincidences that can be explained by chance. The others are probably exaggerations, undocumented tales, wishful thinking and even lies, akin to hucksters who claim to have discovered Noah’s nonexistent ark. The reason believers see evidence of miracles in rare coincidences is simply because they’re ignorant about statistics and the probabilities built on them. There can be no reasonable doubt about this.

5 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X “Of Miracles,” footnote 21, online at: Italics are his, presumably for emphasis.

6 Ibid Section X “Of Miracles” Part 1 #90.

7 David J. Hand is an emeritus professor of mathematics, a senior research investigator at Imperial College London, and former president of the Royal Statistical Society. His book is published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

8 Other important books are as follows: Jeffrey S. Rosenthal, Knock on Wood: Luck, Chance, and the Meaning of Everything (HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), and his earlier book, Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities (Joseph Henry Press, 2006). Rosenthal is a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto, having received his PhD in mathematics from Harvard. Joseph Mazur, Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence, (Basic Books, 2016). Mazur is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Marlboro College in Vermont. Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (Vintage; Reprint, 2019). Mlodinow co-wrote with Stephen Hawking The Grand Design, and previously earned his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California at Berkeley. John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences (Holt-McDougal, 2001). Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University.

9 Richard L. Purtill, “Defining Miracles,” In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 64. Italics mine.

10 David Kyle Johnson, “Justified Belief in Miracles is Impossible,” in Science Religion and Culture, (May 2015), Vol. 2, Issue 2, p. 62. In an email he said it’s “roughly a worldly event caused by God.”

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid, p. 63.

13 Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 2 volumes.

14 J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).

15 Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural (Grand Rapids,
MI: Zondervan, 2018).

From the Introduction to The Case Against Miracles.