Do miracles occur? Have they occurred? Will they occur?
I must admit to not being sure. Certainly, many individuals believe, deeply, in the reality of past, present and future miracles. They hold in my view respectable and conscientious beliefs. But as for my part, many plausible considerations exist which weaken, in cases seriously, the credibility of miracles.
So I remain unsure. But what about the opposite? How would I answer the opposite question, i.e. did miracles not occur? Have there not been, are there not now, and will there not be, miracles?
On that question, I am firmly convinced we can not rule out the possibility of miracles. Despite the credible considerations which cast doubt on miracles, those considerations do not cast sufficient doubt. We must remain open to the possible existence of miracles.
Any why is that? For a number of reasons, and they do not necessarily follow conventional thinking.
Miracles do not need to violate the natural laws
Miracles can be, and often are, defined as occurrences where a spiritual or transcendental power (mainly a God) supersedes, suspends or violates a natural law. That would represent a common characterization, and one that reflects a long and rich record of scriptural accounts, theological reflection and common belief.
And that is fine.
I would argue, however, that this traditional characterization excludes phenomena which can properly qualify as miracles.
Consider just about any modern technology. That technology, be it electricity, automobiles, computers, antibiotics, mobile phones, jet planes, even something as mundane as a refrigerator, all would appear miracle-like to individuals living at the time of Abraham, or Christ, or Buddha, or Mohammed.
Looking forward, can we not envision future capabilities that would appear miracle-like today, even against our current technology? I would say certainly. Consider mind-to-mind linkage; consider direct activation of cellular repair; consider harnessing capabilities of extra-spatial dimensions, consider even circular information loops in time. We certainly should be able to envision them; they arise often in science fiction. And we can conceive that such capabilities could fall within the laws of nature, and even at some point the capabilities of our technology.
Given that, if today a conscious, intelligent God-like entity appeared (God-like, i.e. not simply an alien from another world) and exercised those capabilities, could we not reasonably label the acts miraculous? I would posit yes. They would be miraculous, despite not violating the laws of nature, because they lie beyond, well beyond, current and even near-future human capability and because they epitomize and are consistent with the motivations of a God-like entity.
Note the distinction. The technology involved, however advanced, does not quality the action as a miracle. After all, I have stipulated that the technology lies within natural law, and maybe even some far future human capability. The action rises to a miraculous level on the timing of the action. This God-like entity, not with a magical trick, but with a supernatural capacity, has used a technology well before mankind’s ability to do so and before mankind’s understanding of how it works.
Thus, in my view, no presumption must exist that, say Christ, violated the laws of nature. This line of thought does take us outside convention. Many would respond no need exists to “dumb down” miracles – scripture, revelation and theology support a belief that God can, did and does violate the laws of nature.
That is fine. However, my judgment remains – reported miracles could represent application by a God-like entity of advanced technology, and further, that such an application, being beyond, well beyond, the human capabilities at the time, fits the concept of a miracle. This wider – but in my mind still valid – conception of miracles significantly, even severely, impedes my maintaining, with certainty, the non-existence of miracles.
The apparent lack of current miracles provides no evidence against miracles
In current times, we seem not to experience large-scale or undisputed miracles. No sea has opened, no crowd of thousands has been fed, no army has crumbled at the name of God. Admittedly, the Catholic Church does maintain a list of unexplainable healings, which they have classified (after fairly exhaustive consideration) as miracles. But to many non-believers, the lack of a discernable explanation more properly indicates the limitation of scientific knowledge and investigatory tools, not the power of a God.
So let’s posit that no miracles have, or have been, occurring in modern times.
I would argue that such a fact bears no significance to the existence of miracles. None.
The Isaac Asimov Foundation series provides an analogy. In that series, the great mathematician Hari Seldon, based on his fictional theory of psychohistory, sets in motion a scheme to shorten an impeding collapse of the Galactic Empire into chaos. His strategy extends for centuries. Across those centuries, the Galactic population will sequence through a series of phases, with each dominated by a controlling paradigm, for example trading, or wizardry, or science.
The Foundation Series extends through ten books, and those ten books contain an underlying theme of the “salvation” of humanity, engineered and lead by an intelligent, moral leader (i.e. Hari Seldon), plus a band of dedicated followers/disciplines.
Religions offer a salvation theme. The underlying current of the Foundation Series parallels, reasonably directly, the proffered salvation themes of religion. And if the Seldon plan (and its supporting and guiding Foundations) steps through differing eras, so could religious salvation.
If mankind currently operates under a spiritual salvation plan, such a plan could contain phases, analogous to the Seldon plan. And those phases could contain variations in the appearance and capability for miracles. Not every phase would involve miracles, and no requirement would exist that a current phase of a spiritual salvation plan involve miracles.
Am I arguing such a salvation plan exists? No. I am arguing that the lack of miracles provides no logical basis for maintaining such a plan doesn’t exist, or that miracles don’t exist.
Though a controversial view, Christ did not need to be “really” dead
Did Christ “really” die? Could he have not been in a suspended state? Did he “really” rise, or did he just appear as an apparition, or as an illusion he generated in the minds of his followers?
I would maintain Christ did not need to “really” die, nor did he need to “really” rise in a human physical form, for his Resurrection to represent the cornerstone miracle and act of Christianity.
As before, a preface is needed. Many believe, without reservation, Christ completely died on the cross, undergoing an absolute, utter, total ceasing of any body functioning. They further believe he rose from the dead, bodily, in the flesh, in complete physical form. Theology, tradition, scripture, revelation, and the personal conviction of many, support such a belief.
But others do not believe that either Christ died, or that he physically and bodily rose from the dead.
Just as I maintain a miracle does not need to violate the laws of nature to truly and completely be a miracle of a God-like entity, I would maintain that Christ did not need to completely die and bodily rise for the Death and Resurrection to be truly miraculous.
Let’s assume Christ used some advanced medical techniques, or drugs, or special biochemical phenomena, to maintain a state near death. Would such an act be miraculous?
Consider Christ’s crucifixion. That act inflicted upon Christ extensive, debilitating, blood-letting wounds beyond, well beyond, the ability of any current or near-future medical techniques to maintain life. And certainly beyond the ability of any medical techniques of that time.
Thus, if Christ managed, in some manner, to not “really” die, but rather maintain a near-death status, that would represent an astounding, dare say miraculous, achievement. The crucifixion punctured Christ, draining blood and bodily fluids, after which he received no medical attention, food, liquids or other life sustaining treatment.
In a similar manner, in the Resurrection, Christ did not need to bodily rise. In any manner, Christ’s being present to the apostles represents an astounding, miraculous act.
Let’s assume Christ appeared via some mental telepathy or similar. Today, can any person or device or process externally instill a mental image, across a group of people, simultaneously, via telepathy or mind-to-mind melding? And back two millennia ago, could anyone do so? No in both counts. If Christ’s post-crucifixion appearances occurred via externally-imposed mental imaging, such an act still represents a miraculous accomplishment, equivalent to his appearing physically.
Note here, I am not referring to theories of group hallucination, or peer suggestion, or hysteria, or similar, where appearances of the resurrected Christ stem from, or can be attributed to, mundane human mental phenomena. The assumption here is that we have an external agent causing the phenomena the apostles and disciplines experienced. Given that, the witnessing of Christ does not need to be of a physical body. Any number of other, equally miraculous, mechanisms would suffice for his appearances to rise to the level of the “Resurrection.”
Maybe Christ’s appearances results from holographic projections, or simple, mundane movie projections. Possible, maybe. But such equipment didn’t exist at the time, so the use of visual projections would still represent a reasonably miraculous act. And even today, no mechanism exists to beam such equipment into a locked room, one of the locations the apostles reportedly saw Christ after the Resurrection. And of course wouldn’t such equipment attract attention, and be sufficiently noteworthy to have been reported in some passage?
Again, remember our task, to conclude, somewhat definitively, that miracles, in particular the highest miracle of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, did not occur. I maintain, though we can go back and forth, we can not conclusively prove the non-existence of that act as a miracle.
Attestation to the Miracles
Let’s examine the evidence for, and against, a specific miracle. We will pick the wedding feast at Cana.
At that feast, did Christ convert water to wine? Based on the gospel of John, Christ, with apparent reluctance, acquiesces to the request of his mother, Mary, and “rescues” the marriage celebration by converting six jugs of water into a fine wine.
Did Christ actually perform this miracle?
We can not, I would argue, know the answer. We have insufficient evidence, either way.
Compare this to evidence of the sun rising in the morning. We can know that. We saw the night sky last night, and saw the sun this morning, concluding the sun rose, even if we didn’t see it directly. We have seen the sun rise on other mornings. Essentially every other person reports seeing and having seen sun rises. Weather reports gave us the sun rise time for this morning, and previous mornings. We can explain the events that produce a sun rise. We see pictures, and movies, and videos of sunrises. Historic records across centuries and millennium record, consistently, the cycle of sun rises and sun sets.
What about the miracle at Cana? We have none of this. No currently living person witnessed the event. We have only one written source and no physical evidence. We do not possess pictures, videos or movies. The event is unique and inconsistent, i.e. no pattern of similar events occurred or is occurring, and the event is not consistent with our understanding of nature.
So can we argue that the miracle at Cana didn’t occur? With such scant evidence, we could.
However, our lack of any confirmatory evidence exists both ways. Thus while little indication exists the miracle did occur, little indication exists that it did not. We have no physical evidence the miracle did not occur, no written documents claiming the story a falsehood and of course no living witnesses who actually attended the event. And the lack of pictures, movies or videos prevents our reviewing the event to determine that the miracle did not occur.
We thus have no verifiable information on the miracle at Cana, either way. Lacking such information, we can not know, either way. We can believe one way or another, or develop arguments one way or another, or have a spiritual or intellectual sense one way or another, but we can not know.
We can believe, or discuss, or develop logic. We can conscientiously weigh the considerations: are scriptures accurate; does Christ’s impact speak to the truth of this miracle and his miracles in general; is the description of the miracle at Cana really an allegory or exaggeration; does the inconsistency of the conversion with natural laws make it highly improbable?
We can speculate, but we can not know.
Worldviews represent inductive conclusions
Okay, but be reasonable, you might say. While we might lack definitive, iron clad proof of the non-existence of miracles, can we not assess their likelihood? In many situations other than miracles we lack perfect proof something can not occur, but logic and reason point to a very low likelihood.
Is that not the case with miracles? While we may not be able to prove they didn’t occur, can we not offer logic of a low, if not insignificant, likelihood? We could.
To start, nothing in science and little in our experience fits with miracles. Further, we can explain belief in miracles based on psychology, i.e. the human mind can hold on to beliefs and ideas despite indications to the contrary. We also know that errors and self-supporting biases readily enter into historic accounts, especially those like the New Testament that represent decades of oral transmission. Finally, lacking any scientific laws, ancient cultures often cast unexplainable phenomena as spiritual actions.
Thus, we can provide logic that miracles have a low likelihood.
But we must review this logic with a critical eye. This logic, like most reasoning, rests on a set of postulates. That this logic does so, does not undermine the logic by itself. Rather, that the logic extends from postulates requires that we scrutinize the postulates.
And bluntly, the postulates behind the above logic arise from a particular world view. For discussion, and with a bit of fracturing, I will label that world view as a secular, naturalistic construct/paradigm. In that world view, science provides the superior path to knowledge, the mind explains mankind’s thoughts and consciousness, and appeals to the unobservable (e.g. supernatural) should be viewed with caution.
And that is fine. Such a world view holds great credibility, and can and does provide accurate guidance for our actions and thoughts. But it is still a world view. What is the issue? Again, bluntly, world views – any or all world views – do not represent truth; rather they represent inductive conclusions from our experience. They begin with mankind’s accumulated thought and knowledge, and, based on inductive generalization, extrapolate out to overarching postulates.
Such inductive generalizations are reasonable, useful and natural. However, inductive conclusions, both in principle and in practice, can not be shown to be true.
On the level of principle, and without belaboring the point, philosophers have not yet created reasoning definitively demonstrating inductive logic generates conclusions that are certain. Some say such logic exists, but many say no.
And in practice, world views have fallen and been superceded through history. The gods of Olympus, in one world view, ruled over mankind. Earth once stood, in a world view, as the center of the universe. Newtonian mechanics once provided, in a world view, an explanation underlying time and space.
We no longer hold these once compelling world views.
Am I arguing that the postulates underlying modern, secular world views will crumble? Absolutely not. Rather, I simply argue to take a properly skeptical stance. Very simply, world views provide only tentative or assumed bases for conclusions. “If” the world view stands correct, then conclusions from that world view contain validity.
But by its logical nature, and based on the historic record, the “IF” underlying world views lurks in the background, and must be heeded. And as long as this “IF” exists, I can not definitively conclude miracles don’t occur, if the conclusion rests on a world view.
What do we have then, from my perspective?
- Miracles do not need to violate the laws of nature
- The lack of current miracles provides no evidence against miracles
- The Death and Resurrection stands as truly miraculous even if recast
- No attestation exists that Christ’s miracles did not occur
- Logic based on world views can not provide definitive conclusions
From that perspective, I can not judge, with certainly, that miracles have not, or can not, or will not, occur. I do not claim miracles occur; but rather claim we can not prove they do not. And being unable to so prove, I must remain open to the implications implicit in the possibility of miracles.