The Apologetic Value of Modern Day Miracles

Why are some very smart people Christian, and some aren’t? This is an important question, because we can’t both be right. In this post, I share my new approach to rationalist Christian apologetics, and why I think there are still important questions that need to be answered here.

Why Should We Agree?

First, why do we expect there to be an answer? Fortunately, I don’t even need to invoke Aumann’s agreement theorem to try to convince you that over sufficiently basic questions about the way the world works, honest investigators of truth should eventually converge on the same answers.

We can just see that happening throughout history. Major disagreements of the past, like the nature of disease or the size of the universe, eventually were decided as people made more and more observations that confirmed one of the possibilities over another.

What do we disagree about?

Let me be clear about the disagreement here. I know plenty of people of other religions, but the two most prominent options that most frequently present themselves as evidence-based seem to be Christianity and naturalism.

Notice that I list Christianity rather than generic theism, or worse, deism. I see deism as simply naturalism with the added complexity of God existing, just to start things off. It would make all the same predictions as naturalism, so it seems like a very easy application of Occam’s razor to prefer naturalism to deism. In other words, if God exists but doesn’t interact with us in any way, how would we ever know he exists? Fortunately, Christianity makes stronger claims that do actually lead to predictions.

Historical Claims

Without a doubt, most of the claims of Christianity are historical in nature. All Christians agree that Jesus was a man who lived and did at least many of the things recorded in the Bible. All but the most liberal agree that this included what we know as “miracles,” which I’ll define in a moment, but which include as a climax his death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection.

How do such historical claims yield predictions? Well, there are a couple ways. First, we should expect to see a rapidly growing group of Jesus’ followers as word spread. We should expect them to record these events for posterity, because something like that doesn’t happen every day. And we should expect them not to fear punishment or even death, as followers of the one who overcame it.

I would argue that this is about what we do see when we look in the historical record, and that any alternative natural explanations make the evidence we see rather unlikely to have occurred. That historical evidence has been the basis of my faith since I first turned a skeptical eye to it back in early high school.

Beyond the First Century

However, I’d like to argue that we need to look beyond the history to the present day. There are a couple reasons to do so.

The first is that our faith is almost as bad as deism if it doesn’t say anything about the present day. Do we believe the Bible contains truth that affects us today? That’s a prediction. Do we believe God answers prayer? That’s a prediction.

Within Christian circles, there tend to be two beliefs about the nature of miracles today. The cessationist camp says that there are no miracles today, only in the past to establish Jesus as the Son of God. While I don’t see any support for this in the Bible, there’s a bigger concern I have. If God no longer interacts with us today in any way, there isn’t much point to being a Christian. And if he does interact, then there’s something we can measure. I therefore consider myself in the continuationist camp, which says that there are still miracles today.

The other reason to be interested in present-day miracles, though, is because of the almost limitless supply of observations they offer to settle the debate between Christianity and naturalism. Christians by no means expect miracles every day, but we can analyze those moments when we have expected them more than a naturalist would, and see whether they actually come true in those cases.

What is a “miracle?”

It’s about time that I define the word “miracle.” This might not be very emotionally satisfying, but I think this is something that we have to treat as a continuous phenomenon rather than a binary outcome. In fact, I’m just going to restate what I’ve said before: A miracle is something that an honest Christian would find far more likely than an honest naturalist.

Why don’t I define it in terms of “violating natural law”? Well, that isn’t well-defined: Which natural laws? It also excludes most healing miracles, since they often don’t violate any “laws” that anyone’s bothered to call as such. No, what people often share is the surprise that the doctors express, and that surprise is exactly what unlikelihood of their expectations expresses.

So that’s my thesis, that we need to take modern-day miracles seriously if we’re going to be the best apologists we can be. And talking with some atheists, I think this is what we’d need to do to convince them. They simply shrug when I mention the historical evidence. “Sure, that might have happened, but that was 2000 years ago, and there’s a lot that’s been lost in the dust of time.” Another friend put it this way: “Sure, your evidence is much stronger than anything else we know from that time. But suppose there was a claim of a resurrection from 10000 years ago, and the best evidence available was a pot depicting a figure raising their hands. For that time, that evidence would be remarkable, but we wouldn’t let it affect our lives today.”

Concerns and Objections

Now I’ll take just as much time to address some of the concerns people have expressed when I’ve shared this thesis with them.

1) “No, I don’t think God would show up if you went looking for him.” I have a couple responses to that. The first is that that would have worked out swell for Elijah at Mount Carmel. There are quite a few parallels to that passage, in fact. But secondly, is that really the God you believe in? See my earlier comments about cessationism.

2) “Okay, but if you went around trying to order God around, he wouldn’t fall for that.” Again, that would have worked well for Gideon laying out his fleeces. But really, that was a very special circumstance where Gideon had already gotten a message from God, and wanted to confirm it. No, I’m not proposing that we tell God to answer us by flipping coins to see what he says.

Instead, what I’m proposing is more like reportage than experimentation. What are the accounts of events that can be best explained from the Christian perspective? In this way, it could be more analogous to the gospels — reports of Jesus’ actions, including the miracles attesting to his divinity.

3) “It sounds like this will be susceptible to confirmation bias — people will remember the times when the miraculous occurs and forget those times when it doesn’t.” Yes, that’s definitely something to take into account. Hey, I never said that this is an easy problem! At the same time, Christians seem to make claims that, if true, would far outweigh that sort of effect.

4) “I’m sure someone has tried to do this before.” Yes! And that’s what gives me courage. One of the books that started me on this road was Miracles (2012) by Tim Stafford. I’d highly recommend it as an introduction to what sorts of miracles seem to happen today. Stafford takes a reporter’s approach and just asks questions of everyone involved. He then takes a bit of the microphone for himself to answer some of the most common questions. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions (including his de-emphasis of miracles themselves, saying everything is God’s work), I think he does an excellent job of compiling fascinating stories that would surprise most naturalists I know.

But I think this is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of what can and, in my opinion, should be, a full-blown investigation. There are so many stories out there, and someone needs to look at a large number of them to see what we can learn.

In fact, I want to turn a usual criticism of Christians by naturalists on its head. For many people, the word “miracle” is curiosity-stopper. Once we attribute the action to God, the case is closed and we stop asking questions. Done poorly, this often leads to a “God of the gaps” model where anything that we haven’t currently explained by other means gets attributed to God, and as we understand more about the world, our understanding of God diminishes.

Yet to call the examples Stafford brings up, at least, a “God of the gaps” framework would be a straw man. In his first and foremost example, a man is instantly healed from intense pain in his legs that had him wheelchair-bound for years when he attends a prayer gathering at a church and specifically asks for prayer over his condition. That’s not just something we can’t explain; it’s exactly the sort of moment Christians expect God would most frequently act. There’s a prediction there, if an uncertain one, and I want to better understand how to make better such predictions.

In other words, we should answer that criticism by not stopping with the word “miracle.” Personally, that attribution leads me not only to praise God for the healing, but also to ask further questions, like these:

  • Does miraculous healing only happen in some locations and not in others?
  • What role does faith play in healing? Whose faith?
  • What types of conditions does God heal, and what doesn’t he?
  • Beyond healing, what other ways do we see miracles?
  • Do these miracles occur for members and around practices of other religions?
  • Can we use this as a gauge for orthodoxy, as the Jerusalem Council did in Acts 15?
  • What can we learn about God’s priorities from his choices of how to act?
It’s a very hard problem, but the last few of these could be known as “empirical theology.” For instance, we could actually verify that God loves Christians if we noticed that the vast majority of the miracles were related towards helping us. (Of course, we’d have to tease this out of a wide variety of competing alternatives, but if we were careful and had enough data, we could.)
5) “Miracles don’t happen today because they were only important in establishing the authority of Jesus and the apostles in the first century.” This is essentially the argument that cessationism gives. Sometimes they’ll add the caveat that miracles might occur out on the mission field, like in Africa, because the gospel might be spreading to those people for the first time. But not in the US, because we already have enough knowledge of God.
The problem with this is that it gravely misunderstands our current situation in the US today. Does anyone doubt God’s existence today, in America? Of course we do; that’s why I’m writing this. Do we have any questions about the boundaries of our faith? All the time, from Mormons to Catholics to nominals to Rob Bell. I don’t mean to sound an alarm so much as remind us that Christianity is still commonly contested here as it was in the 1st Century, albeit mostly by different means.
6) “Where would you get funding?” Ahh, the classic question posed to every academic. Fortunately, the Templeton Foundation sounds like it would be perfect for this sort of endeavor. They’ve already funded a large-scale study in Boston on distant, nearly-anonymous (Christian) prayer, which turned out to have no effect. Honestly, this doesn’t really surprise me, since that sort of prayer (lacking any personal connection, even indirectly) doesn’t occur in the Bible either, to my recollection. But that also seems like just the tip of the iceberg to me. What about other forms of prayer? What about other types of healing? Of course, the problems get tougher when you do that (and this study already cost $2M), but there’s definitely more to know. And if this works, it would save people a lot of time trying to figure out which religion to follow.
7) “Okay, but how would you do it cheaply?” One idea I have is to get things going would be to sample from American Christians (using something like SurveyMonkey’s Audience feature) and ask them detailed questions about any experiences they’d characterize as miraculous, similar to Tim Stafford’s reportage approach. As a difference, though, I’d particularly emphasize words of knowledge and prophecy over healing, since the alternative naturalistic theories are more well-understood, and therefore, the surprise much stronger.
In a brief conversation on his blog, I asked Stafford why he hadn’t included many instances of either of these, and he responded that atheists didn’t tend to find them compelling, since they could be more easily fabricated after the fact. To be fair, this is the same argument used against biblical predictions. But with careful reportage, at least in some cases, we should be able to distinguish facts from lies, or at least find the alternative very unlikely. Did they write their predictions down, or tell anyone else? How unlikely was that piece of information they received in the first place?
This topic has been on my mind for at least a year now, but this is the first time I’ve written it out fully like this, so I might come back later and add in more. Thanks to everyone who’s read it all the way through! Please contribute your own thoughts and comments. 🙂

14 responses to “The Apologetic Value of Modern Day Miracles

  1. Luke June 16, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    I highly suggest UCSD law prof Steven D. Smith's The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, which I found via NYT op ed Are There Secular Reasons?

    > No one expects that anything called “reason” will dispel such pluralism by leading people to converge on a unified truth—certainly not about ultimate or cosmic matters such as “the nature of the universe” or “the end and the object of life.” Indeed, unity on such matters could be achieved only by state coercion: Rawls calls this the “fact of oppression.”[36] So a central function of “public reason” today is precisely to keep such matters out of public deliberation (subject to various qualifications and exceptions that Rawls conceded as his thinking developed). And citizens practice Rawlsian public reason when they refrain from invoking or acting on their “comprehensive doctrines”—that is, their deepest convictions about what is really true—and consent to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim the support of an ostensible “overlapping consensus.”[Political Liberalism, 37, 133-172, 223-227] (14-15)

    Aumann's agreement theorem contains a very iffy premise: “if two people are genuine Bayesian rationalists with common priors” (emphasis added)—who says everyone has “common priors”, or that everyone ought to have “common priors”? The article talks about getting these priors from “genetic and environmental influences”, but what about other sources? And why must these influences be e.g. neutralized, so everyone thinks the same way? That seems to me to be a kind of metaphysical tyranny. Indeed, it seems possibly better for various people to see things differently, in order to conduct a more efficient search for good ideas!

    I would point you to physicists at the end of the nineteenth century to show that massive agreement really needs proper skepticism. Max Planck's statement bears repeating: “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Why? Because of universal prior probabilities which people refused to adjust. But how do they get adjusted? This cannot happen based on new evidence, by definition. Then how does this happen? I think this is a question that needs adjusting; Quine's Neurathian bootstrap might help, but I'd like to see a lot more thinking on this issue.

    As to miracles, I suggest Philosophy PhD Kenny Pearce's Leibniz's theistic case against Humean miracles. Since the Enlightenment discarding of Aristotelianism (and in particular, Teleology), science has been restricted to non-teleological thinking. This is fine as far as it goes, but it runs aground when we consider that humans can reason teleologically. This, I think, comes to a head when miracles are discussed, among other things. 🙂

    P.S. “Your HTML cannot be accepted: Tag is not allowed: BLOCKQUOTE” — Boo!


  2. Sam Elder June 16, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    I think the concern about priors is not that important an issue. For any theories that actually make different predictions, we should have an unbounded amount of evidence that will far outweigh any differences in the priors. We won't have exactly the same beliefs, but whether you assign a 10^-20 or 10^-21 probability to some alternative explanation doesn't make much of a difference.

    As to the moral question of why people should think the same way, witness the effect that smartphones, Wikipedia, and Snopes have had on random, occasional debates about facts. In my experience, those debates are basically gone, because of the increased access to evidence. It isn't tyranny, it's education.

    Yes, I would probably agree that a proper Christian theory of miracles will probably be phrased in teleological terms. Leibniz makes those standard arguments why miracles should be rare, but I'm not sure that God's benevolence really applies that far. In other words, I suspect that there are situations where God could heal someone and it wouldn't really make us more confused about how the world works.

    PS Not sure what to do to allow blockquote, but yeah, it's unfortunate.


  3. Sam Elder June 16, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Nice! He generally has good points to make, and we align roughly on the definition of miracle. For instance, I can translate his emphasis on teleology as pointing to the numerator in my measure of miraculousness, the ratio of the chance that Christians would predict it to happen over the chance that a naturalist would predict it.

    Anyways, though, I don't see much evidence that Rauser agrees with me that there is still a lot of work in this area to do, to develop better theology that can more thoroughly explain the miracles we do see. Do you?


  4. Luke June 16, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    > For any theories that actually make different predictions, we should have an unbounded amount of evidence that will far outweigh any differences in the priors.

    Ahh, but that assumes the theory has already been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which is not where we should start, IMHO. Instead, look at e.g. Hubble's original data, and how he didn't just do a standard linear regression, but instead jerry-rigged the fit. He had a prior that caused him to interpret very scant, very noisy data in a way that ended up working. His prior seeded his research in an important way. We did end up finding standard candles and verifying his work, but his work gave us a very rigid idea of what to look for, which only then provided “an unbounded amount of evidence”. The pattern has to be identified first.

    > It isn't tyranny, it's education.

    I highly suggest reading the first chapter of a seminal work in moral philosophy: Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. He suggests that maybe our understanding of moral philosophy is akin to the understanding of science in A Canticle for Leibowitz: fragmented and extremely poor. Only if we properly 'rip up' some foundational assumptions can we restore understanding in this area. See also Mortimer Adler's Ten Philosophical Mistakes.

    Remember that the Trinity is unity and diversity: one ousia and three hypostases. Whence comes proper diversity, under your view of convergent reasoning? If you cannot provide proper support for the three hypostases, you're closer to Islam's Allah than Christianity's Trinity. You're closer to undistinguishable bosons than distinguishable fermions. Unity is good; uniformity is not—at least, not when it comes to humans.

    > Leibniz makes those standard arguments why miracles should be rare

    Where are you getting this, and what is the technical definition of 'rare'? If you aren't careful, you munge 'miracle' and '[finite] natural law'.

    P.S. You might consider Disqus as a comment plugin. 🙂


  5. Luke June 16, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    Oh, I think there is an infinite amount of better research and better theology to do, given that God is infinite (I'd say in 'description', like non-RE axioms, instead of some naïve numerical infinity). You might like Roger Olson's What’s New in Theology? and So What’s Left for Theology to Do? Somewhere I pressed Olson on his conclusions, arguing that the theoretical branch of theology is so disconnected from the practical branch (e.g. pastoring) that stunted progress in theology ought to be expected. Furthermore, just like you only advance in physics by actually doing the problems and getting them right, progress in theology ought not be expected unless you actually obey and get that [sufficiently] right.


  6. Sam Elder June 16, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Yes, we definitely need good theories before we can actually compare them. Or at least in tandem with developing good data. But the point is that after enough time, we'll have collected enough data to compare any two given theories.

    Unity and diversity are so much bigger than agreement and disagreement. Encouraging diversity is not the same as encouraging pluralism or contradicting claims. For instance, we can each have different abilities and that diversity can help keep the body of Christ healthy and at the same time not indicate an underlying disagreement over facts.

    And by “rare” I just generally mean “less common than most Christians seem to expect.” In other words, as we try to understand the mind of God, those are some of the factors we expect that He takes into account when deciding whether to act. People seem to have the impression that God is reluctant to act, and Leibniz gives some of the reasons why we should in fact expect that. But he certainly doesn't give any arguments why God should never act.


  7. Luke June 16, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Upon what are you expecting agreement, and upon what do you think disagreement is just fine? Can you give some examples in each category?

    P.S. With regard to divine action, I suggest Evan Fales' recent Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Puzzles.


  8. Sam Elder June 16, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    I think agreement is more or less to be expected in the limit on any matters that make predictions, just as a natural consequence of the accumulation of evidence. I would expect disagreement before we collect enough evidence, as well as some kind of technical disagreement in the sense that “My name is Sam.” is not a statement you would agree with.


  9. Ray July 23, 2014 at 2:06 am

    Sam, I am excited that you are looking into this. Sam Storms wrote a good into book on the spiritual gifts, which is tangentially related. Also you can look up Pastor Tope (Desiring God 2013).


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