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.

3 Responses to Miracles are impossible or just plain unnecessary

  1. What would you say is “better explained” by theism? Or, is not explainable by naturalism.

    In the fine-tuning argument I don’t think is any longer a good one to use… as we are only here to make it because the universe (and our position in it) allows us to make it. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be. But there is no sound reason not to think that there aren’t billions and billions of universes that don’t suit our sort of life. We happen to be in a Universe that allows us to speculate on the Universe.

    Additionally, if you’re using physics… then the argument from “it began” I don’t think works either, as there is theoretical as well as observational evidence that “nothing” is an uncomfortable state, so to speak, for the Universe.

    I will grant that it is difficult for the human mind (especially mine) to grasp where even that initial “nothing” came from… but that speculation doesn’t get us even in the ballpark of Christianity. And this at least explains why we really want there to be some entity which has “no” beginning (God), but that entity may as well be the Universe itself (if we’re going to postulate that such a thing can exist as that which has no beginning).

    I’m not sure it’s true that we simply assume miracles can’t have happened… we just no have no contemporary evidence for it to use by way of analogy. In all analogous cases where someone claims to heal miraculously, they turn out to be frauds or else the disease they cure already has a short “lifespan”. That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t in fact heal lepers, the blind, the deaf, epilectic, hemorraging or even the dead. But at best we can be agnostic about it, because we have no experience of even a single person (in the age of science) of having done it and not having turned out to be outright lying about it. Additionally, there are numerous reports of other healers at the time of Jesus… but I am assuming that most would consider them to be “false”.

    (sorry, that reply got much longer than intended… your post brought up a lot of thought-provoking ideas!)

    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Hey Joshua–thanks for your comment! Here are a few thoughts:

      -In terms of various phenomena that are explained better on theism than naturalism, I’d cite things like consciousness, free will, objective morality, the fine tuning of the universe, why there is a universe at all and more (Al Plantinga wrote an article a few years ago where he showed how abut 26 various things (from colors, flavors, abstracta, desires, and more) which can be serviced into a premise for an argument for God. I’d start with those I listed above however.

      -Fine-tuning argument. I think that your claim that there is no sound reason (I take it you mean by ‘sound’, ‘good’) that there are billions and billions of life-supporting universes is a bit of an over statement. But assume (for the sake of argument) that there were–that the multiple world hypothesis (MWH) is correct and we are just lucky to be in this universe that is conducive for life. Even if that were the case, there is still the problem of “why the multi-verse”?–what best explains it? And again, the options seem to be “brute fact”–no explanation (that is, atheism) or theism.

      -Regarding physics and the comment on “nothing”–not sure what you are getting at hear. The “nothing” that was “before” the universe is literally nothing (not some quantum vacuum fluctuation, ala Hawking). According to the standard Big Bang model, the universe literally sprang into existence out of nothing–which provides good reason to think that there must be an agent cause (that is immaterial, powerful, etc) behind it. I don’t think you want to say that the self-existent thing is the universe–thus the universe is eternal (contradicts science) or sprang into existence out of nothing for no reason (contradicts scientific methodology and common sense). So, the cosmological argument isn’t postulating a God because we don’t know how to account for the universe, rather it is arguing that the best explanation for why there is a universe, is the godly explanation.

      miracles and evidence–this is a good observation Josh–I agree that a lot of contemporary claims to the miraculous are fraudulent, and embarrassing even. Still, I don’t think this warrants that we need to be agnostic about all miraculous claims. Take the resurrection of Jesus (since this is sort of a linchpin miracle for Christianity). Granted, the evidence for this won’t be “scientific” if by that we mean, repeatable—for it is a one time event. Still there are other kinds of evidence. There is testimony–and we see that in the gospels. Still, Hume would discount direct testimonial evidence. So, we add “indirect evidence”–such as the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, the origin of the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead, and the circumstantial evidence surrounding the event. Once that is added, (as I came to conclude while an undergraduate), the evidence points to the fact that Jesus did in fact raise from the dead. I’d check out NT Wrights book on the evidence for the Resurrection if interested. Thanks for the thoughts Josh!

  2. Jim Eaker says:

    Nice blogpost Paul. You’ve got an awesome site. Thanks for your work.

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