Richard Purtill “Defining Miracles”

In confronting miracle claims skeptics and naturalists look for flaws and weakness in the evidence put forward for specific miracles, and ask critical questions like, “Do we have eyewitness testimony for the event?”, “Are the eyewitnesses credible and reliable?”, “Are the accounts of the eyewitnesses consistent with each other?”, and “Is there physical evidence that confirms or disconfirms the testimony of the eyewitnesses?” Such questions are of obvious relevance to rational evaluation of miracle claims.

But there are also more general and philosophical questions that need to be addressed, the most obvious ones being, “What is a miracle?” and “What kind of evidence and what strength of evidence is required to establish the occurrence of a miracle?”

The book In Defense of Miracles (IVP, 1997) includes several essays on miracles edited by Geivett and Habermas, mostly by Christian philosophers (e.g. Geivett, Habermas, Craig, Davis, Nash, Geisler), and one of the essays is called “Defining Miracles.” In this essay, Richard Purtill proposes a definition of the word “miracle”:

A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (p. 72)

This seems like a reasonable attempt at clarifying the word “miracle”, and so not a bad place to start in thinking about the question “What is a miracle?” I am going to try to find weaknesses and problems with this definition, and where I am able, to suggest improvements to it.

The point is not to show that Purtill has done a bad job of defining the term “miracle”, but to develop a clear and defensible analysis of this concept by reflecting on Purtill’s proposed definition. Ideally, I will be starting with an OK definition of “miracles” and ending with a good solid definition. If it turns out that Purtill’s definition is hopelessly flawed, or that I am unable to figure out how to improve upon it, the exercise will at least bring out some questions that need further investigation.

What grabs my attention most immediately is condition (5). Purtill asserts that something counts as a miracle only if God does it “for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.” That condition is completely wrong, in my view. I believe this condition is based on a conception of God that is unappealing and difficult to defend. The conception of God that lies beneath condition (5) derives from the Bible. For example, consider the opening verses of Exodus, Chapter 20 (NRSV):

Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

God is often portrayed in the Bible as being very concerned about what humans think about him. But for me, and probably for many intellectually sophisticated believers, such a God is too petty and egotistical and insecure to be worthy of worship.

It is kind of like friendship; if someone is desperate to be your friend, that person is probably the last person you want to have as a friend. People who don’t have a desperate need for attention and affection from other people are more attractive and appealing than people who beg for or demand attention. If some being begs or demands my attention or affection or obedience, that is the last being that I would be inclined to worship.

In my view, if there is a God (i.e. an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person), he or she is not going to beg or demand to be worshipped by puny ignorant human beings. Such a being is not going to be deeply concerned about the theological beliefs held by humans. Such a being will not torment some human beings for having incorrect theological beliefs, or for practicing the wrong religion.

Now, I understand that my beliefs about what God would be like, if there were such a being, are controversial. But that is the point, condition (5) is based on a controversial view about the character and purposes of God. The controversy is not just between atheists like me and theists like Purtill. Many intellectually sophisticated theists would also have a problem with characterizing God as being deeply concerned about the theological beliefs and practices of human beings.

I have in mind a counterexample that illustrates my point. Suppose an orphaned child is wandering the streets in some grimy third-world city looking for food. The child believes in God and prays to find some scraps of food while digging through a bin of trash. God hears the prayers of this child and knows that the child will die of starvation unless it gets some nutritious food soon. God briefly considers exerting his omnipotence to create a hot meal ex nihilo for this starving waif. But God decides not to do this because, “The child has no parents or friends to tell the story of this event, and no stranger will believe this dirty orphan child’s story about a hot meal appearing out of thin air. So, creating a meal for this child will not show anyone, other than this one child, that I have acted in history.” God turns down the prayer of the hungry orphan, and the cold lifeless body of the child is discovered in the trash bin the next morning.

Is such a self-centered being worthy of worship? I don’t think so. In fact, such a being would not be a “perfectly good person” in my view, and so would not count as being God at all, even if he were all-powerful and all-knowing. In short, if God exists, and if God cared about the needs of a starving orphan, and if God created a hot meal out of nothing for that starving child, that would be a miracle, even if God had no intention of getting some good publicity as a result of this action.