What is a miracle?

Augustine called a miracle - "the operation of a higher law overriding the natural law"

Aquinas referred to them as "a violation of natural law"

C.S Lewis defined them as "an interference with nature by supernatural power"

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David Hume, however, completely rejected the idea of miracles - he stated that "nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happens in the common cause of nature."

In his argued against miracles, Hume proposed 5 main pointsL

1. Miracles are impossible to prove. One miracle, he argued, is not enough to logically disprove the laws of nature - there is always another explanation

  • Brian Davies criticises this point. He says that when man walked on the moon, that too was one instance of what was previously impossible - but that doesn't necessarily make it untrue

2. Miracles have never been witnessed by a sufficient number

  • Vardy questions this point, asking what number Hume considers to be sufficnet. He also criticises Hume for dealing with reports of miracles, unfairly judging them since he had never experienced a miracle for himself
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3. Hume argued that religious people have a psychological need to believe in miracles; they are biased and suspend reason in favour of belief "a religionist may imagine he sees what has no reality."

  • Swinburne attacks this point, saying that belief doesn't affect sight - if you are genuinely seeing something, it doesn't reflect your faith
  • Freud would criticise this and agree with Hume, arguing against miracles from human psychology

4. Hume argued that miracles are amongst "ignorant and barbarous nations"

  • Arrogance (Swinburne)

5. There are conflicting claims - if two miracle stories conflict, they cancel one another out

  • But two conflicting claims may still leave "one" correct?
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Swinburne argues that there are three types of historical evidence to support miracles: 1) memories 2) stories of others and 3) physical traces

Vardy supports Swinburne's argument, criticising Hume by arguing that people don't just believe in a faith because of a miracle

  • But surely the whole Christian faith is based on miracles such as Jesus' birth and resurrection?

John Polkinghore also supports Swinburne, arguing for an interventionist God, rejected by both Peacocke and Wiles

R.F Holland argues that "A coincidence can be taken religiously"

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Maurice Wiles

Maurice Wiles is another important name - although he was religious, he rejected the idea of miracles. This is because the idea of an interventionist God (a God who intervenes in the laws of nature). Instead, Wiles called creation and sustaining of creation the "One single act of God."

Wiles argued that God is transcendent, and that an interventionist God conflicts with the notion of free will. If God intervenes, Wiles argued, why does he only intervene in rare, bizarre cases? Why didn't he intervene in Auschwitz or Hiroshima? He simply calls an interventionist God: "implausible and full of difficulty"

  • However, Wiles beliefs are inconsistent with certain Biblical stories such as Joshua 10
  • Vardy says it is arrogant for us to judge God on what we don't understand
  • Wiles may have missed the point of miracles - they may just be signs of God's existence
  • Swinburne's analogy of God being a parent who sometimes bends the rules (in this case the rules of nature) to benefit his children
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John Hick

Hick stated that we cannot have miracles by definition. He argued that if we change the laws of nature to suit a miracle, the miracle no longer breaks the laws of nature, so it is no longer a miracle. He responded to the apparent miracles in the Old Testament by referring to them as natural occurences interpreted religiously. He called the resurrection story, however, a complete myth (Bultmann)

Biblically, Joshua 10 is important to consider when discussing miracles. In the sotry, miracles occured as Joshua fought the Gibeonites, simply stated "the Lord listened to a man." The story includes such miracles as giant hailstones falling from the sky and the sun standing still. But are these necessarily miracles? Hailstones - a natural occurence interpreted religiously? Sun standing still - a basic astronomincal mistake?

Luther (fundamentalist) argued that "sacred scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still." Whereas Bultmann holds a more liberal view, interperting the events of Joshua 10 as symbolic/metaphorical

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Arguments for Miracles

Some things appear to have no natural explanation, supported by reasonable evidence

If we believe God to be the God of Classical Theism, it is reasonable to accept miracles

The Apparent Coincidence argument states that coincidences may explain one-off events, but not repeated reports of miracles

The Falsification Principle states that we should accept miracles to be true until they can be definitively disproven

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Arguments against Miracles

Lack of empirical evidence                                        assumptions that God exists

They defy the laws of nature.                                     Bultmann - they are myths

Interferes with free will (Wiles)

May be a human way of dealing with the unexplained  


A.N WIlson - miracles are natural events interpreted religiously

Gareth Moore (anti-realist) "God is nothing

Miracles lead to the problem of evil - is God random or biased? How can he allow inncoent people to suffer if he is an interventionist?

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