The Logic of Miracles
Most people who want to criticize or attack an argument, will attack a PREMISE of the argument as being FALSE or questionable. When it comes to criticizing the arguments of Christian apologists, skeptics and atheists also tend to attack premises of such arguments as being false or questionable. This is especially true when it comes to apologetic arguments concerning MIRACLES. Because the evidence for biblical miracles is so weak and dubious, this is a perfectly good and reasonable approach to criticism of Christian apologetic arguments concerning MIRACLES.
However, as one learns in studying philosophy, there are often also problems of LOGIC or REASONING in arguments, especially in the arguments of Christian apologists. So, although it is perfectly reasonable to challenge the truth of premises in apologetic arguments, one should also keep an eye out for problems in the LOGIC or REASONING of these arguments.
MIRACLES play a different role in different kinds of Christian apologetics. In this post I will be pointing out some problems with the LOGIC involved in Classical Christian Apologetics. A popular alternative to Classical apologetics is Evidentialist apologetics. The main difference between these two approaches is that Evidentialists use MIRACLES as evidence for the existence of God, but Classical apologists do NOT do this. Instead, Classical apologists begin by trying to prove the existence of God (without pointing to alleged miracles), and after they have made this attempt, they go on to use MIRACLES as evidence in support of other basic Christian beliefs, such as that Jesus was the Son of God, or that the Bible was inspired by God.
Here is a statement by Dr. Norman Geisler of the Classical Apologetics view of MIRACLES:
First, facts and events have ultimate meaning only within and by virtue of the context of the world view in which they are conceived. Hence, it is a vicious circle to argue that a given fact (say, the resuscitation of Christ’s body) is evidence of a certain truth claim (say, Christ’s claim to be God), unless it can be established that the event comes in the context of a theistic universe. For it makes no sense to claim to be the Son of God and to evidence it by an act of God (miracle) unless there is a God who can have a Son and who can act in a special way in the natural world. But in this case the mere fact of the resurrection cannot be used to establish the truth that there is a God. For the resurrection cannot even be a miracle unless there already is a God. (Christian Apologetics, p.95)
For a classical apologist, one must FIRST show that God exists, and then and only then, can one make use of alleged MIRACLES as evidence for some (other) Christian belief. Classical apologetics has three main phases:
These phases represent a logical order in the classical apologetic case for the truth of Christianity. Arguments involving miracles cannot come first, because the concept of a MIRACLE implies or presupposes the existence of God. Miracles are understood to be events that are brought about directly by God, and are thus events that have a SUPERNATURAL cause and that do NOT have a NATURAL cause. On this understanding of “miracle”, if there is no God, then there cannot ever be any miracles.
Because there is no good case for the existence of God, classical apologists FAIL in the very first phase of their attempt to show the truth of Christianity. However, it can be difficult to persuade a Christian believer that there is no good case for the existence of God, so it is reasonable to have at hand a back-up strategy for responding to this form of apologetics. One can grant, for the sake of argument that “God exists”, and still raise some significant objections to the use of MIRACLES by classical Christian apologists.
I have already mentioned the most obvious objection: the biblical evidence is too weak and dubious to be used to establish that any miracle, including the alleged resurrection of Jesus, has actually occurred. Other objections, however, can be raised if one understands the LOGIC of MIRACLES in the thinking of classical apologetics, and if one keeps clearly in mind the analogy with detective work used to solve a murder and to identify the murderer:
A murderer needs a MEANS of killing, like a gun or a knife. If a murderer kills the victim with just his/her bare hands, those hands are still tools or means. The imprint of fingers in bruises around the victim’s neck could provide evidence of the size of the murderer’s hands, and perhaps indicate whether the murderer was right or left handed. But God needs no tools or means to do anything. God is omnipotent, and God can simply will that something happen, and it will happen just as God wills. If God raised Jesus from the dead, then God did not need any MEANS or tools to do so, so a detective investigating the alleged resurrection of Jesus could not expect to find any tools or means that were used by God to accomplish this goal.
A murderer needs to have the OPPORTUNITY to kill the victim. That usually requires being in the same room or same general area as the victim at a particular time (with a high powered rifle, the killer can commit murder from a distance, but there are limits to the distance from which one can successfully shoot a specific person). God is all-knowing and all-powerful (if God exists), so God ALWAYS has the OPPORTUNITY to do anything God wants to do to any person or animal or thing. God does not have to be in a particular place at a particular time in order to cause a specific event. So, a detective investigating the alleged resurrection of Jesus cannot make use of the idea of “opportunity” in order to identify God as the cause of the resurrection. God has no need or requirement of “opportunity”; God can do whatever God wants to do whenever God wants to do it, so OPPORTUNITY is irrelevant to determining whether God caused a particular event to occur.
The only way to connect God to a particular event is by MOTIVE. If we know the PLANS and PURPOSES of God, then we can determine whether it is likely or unlikely that God would CHOOSE to cause a particular event to occur. This is a very big problem for the LOGIC of MIRACLES in the classical apologetic framework. The assumption that God exists does NOT provide any significant insight or knowledge about the PLANS and PURPOSES of God.
Knowledge of the PLANS and PURPOSES of God comes only after showing that the Bible was inspired by God (or that the teachings of Jesus were inspired by God). Apart from divine revelation, we have no significant knowledge about the PLANS and PURPOSES of God. But apart from knowledge of the PLANS and PURPOSES of God, we have no way to determine whether it is likely or unlikely that God would choose to cause a particular event to occur. If we cannot determine whether it is likely or unlikely that God would choose to cause a particular event, then we cannot determine whether an alleged MIRACLE is an actual MIRACLE, because we cannot determine whether any event was actually caused by God.
Suppose that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Suppose that we grant the inference that this event is SUPERNATURAL and that it had a SUPERNATURAL cause. It does NOT follow that this was a miracle, because it does NOT follow that GOD was the cause of this unusual event. There are two other kinds of SUPERNATURAL causes:
- Some other SUPERNATURAL being caused Jesus to rise from the dead (e.g. an angel or demon caused this event).
- Some NATURAL being used SUPERNATURAL powers or forces to cause Jesus to rise from the dead (e.g. a witch or sorcerer caused this event).
- What are the PLANS and PURPOSES of God?
- Given those PLANS and PURPOSES, would God have a MOTIVE to raise Jesus from the dead?
- Are there other SUPERNATURAL beings besides God?
- If so, do any of these other SUPERNATURAL beings have the power to raise a person from the dead?
- What are the PLANS and PURPOSES of these other SUPERNATURAL beings?
- Given those PLANS and PURPOSES, would any of them have a MOTIVE for causing Jesus to come back from the dead?
- Are there any humans who have SUPERNATURAL powers, such as the power to raise a person from the dead?
- Are there any SUPERNATURAL forces in the universe that a human could use in order to raise a person from the dead?
- Were there any humans alive at the time of Jesus who had such SUPERNATURAL powers or access to such SUPERNATURAL forces, and who had a MOTIVE to cause Jesus to rise from the dead?
We need to have these questions answered BEFORE we can determine whether GOD caused Jesus to rise from the dead, even if we assume that God exists, and even if we assume that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. For Christian believers, these questions can only be answered by the Bible. I’m not sure that even the Bible provides clear answers to all these questions, but suppose that it did. The problem for classical apologetics is that establishing the occurrence of MIRACLES comes BEFORE one can establish the inspiration of the Bible.
The Bible teaches that there are other SUPERNATURAL beings besides God (e.g. angels and demons). And the Bible teaches some things about the POWERS and PURPOSES of these other SUPERNATURAL beings. So, one might be tempted to use the Bible to show either that these other SUPERNATURAL beings lack the power to raise a person from the dead, or that they all lack a MOTIVE for raising Jesus from the dead. But even if the Bible clearly taught that angels and demons lack the relevant power and lack any relevant MOTIVE, we still could not rule out the various alternative explanations of the resurrection of Jesus, because, in classical apologetics, one must FIRST prove that a MIRACLE occurred (such as the resurrection), and THEN show that the Bible was inspired by God, on the basis of the MIRACLE.
So, if you use the Bible to answer the above relevant questions, you will be reasoning in a circle. You will be ASSUMING the inspiration of the Bible in order to “prove” the inspiration of the Bible. That is completely ILLOGICAL.
On the other hand, if you don’t use the Bible to answer the above relevant questions, then there is little hope of actually answering those questions, and if you cannot answer those questions, then classical apologetics FAILS at the second phase, because it FAILS to be able to show that a MIRACLE actually occurred.
Classical apologetics FAILS at the first stage, because there is no good case for the existence of God, but even if we very generously grant the assumptions, for the sake of argument, that God exists, and that Jesus rose from the dead, classical apologetics then FAILS at the second stage, because it cannot establish that God caused a particular event, apart from making a circular argument based on the assumption that the Bible (or the teachings of Jesus) was inspired by God.