Miracles are impossible or just plain unnecessary

I’m continuing my series on defeater beliefs for Christianity. This week I want to consider the claim that miracles are problematic—that is, they are impossible or (if not impossible) just plain unnecessary. Of course, if miracles can’t (or don’t) happen, then it is fairly easy to see how this is problematic for Christianity. For example, if the resurrection didn’t happen, then (as the Apostle Paul says), “our faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

Let’s start with the strongest claim against miracles (which is the least defensible).  Why think miracles impossible? Recall the oft-quoted statement of the German biblical historian and theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976)

“It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”[1]

Imagine what Bultmann would say today, in the age of smart phones, the Internet and drone warships! The underlying idea is that miracles belong to a prescientific age where it was assumed that the gods were behind every physical phenomenon. Now that we know—in this age of science—that the universe is a closed system of cause and effect, miracles (we are told) are not possible. But, of course, this kind of thinking begs the question—that is, it assumes naturalism true in order to show that miracles are not possible. This hardly amounts to an argument. The reality is that if there is a God and he created all things, then there is nothing illogical or impossible about God rearranging part of his creation when he wishes.

Next, the weaker claim: Miracles are just plain unnecessary—the godly hypothesis is unnecessary. Here is a recent expression of this idea by the chair of the philosophy department at Duke University, Alex Rosenberg in his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions:[2]

“If we’re going to be scientistic, then we have to attain our view of reality from what physics tells us about it. Actually, we’ll have to do more than that: we’ll have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality. Why buy the picture of reality that physics paints? Well, it’s simple, really. We trust science as the only way to acquire knowledge. That is why we are so confident about atheism.”

There are a number of problems with Rosenberg’s claim. For starters, physics is NOT the whole truth about reality for the simple reason that this very statement is not a deliverance of physics, but a philosophical claim about the nature of science. Secondly, the deliverances of science actually give reasons for us to be insecure about atheism—the fact that the universe began and the fine-tuning of the universe (all deliverances of science) figure in as key pieces of evidence in theistic arguments for God’s existence. Finally, it is simply false that all beliefs come from science. Alas, we have many beliefs that fall outside the scope of science, and they happen to be on some of the most important areas of our lives: convictions on moral beliefs to judgments about love and the meaning of life.

Sum: The claim that miracles are impossible or unnecessary either begs the question against God’s existence (assuming that there is no God and thus all phenomenon must have a naturalistic explanation—a kind of naturalism of the gaps) or is plainly false—for theism provides a better explanation than naturalism on a host of things, and thus the godly hypothesis ought to still be on the table.

A final thought: The Jesus of the New Testament performed many miracles—which reveal his power and point to his divinity. But, His miracles are also a wonderful foretaste of what Jesus will one day do—one day this fallen world WILL be restored because He is able.

 

 



[1] Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1961), 5.

[2] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide To Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (New York: Norton, 2011), 20.

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