February 23, 2016

Dear Christians:Answers to Questions for Atheists, Part VII

Welcome back, readers. We're continuing our answers to questions for atheists today with a section probing my beliefs about miracles.

To start my answers for this section, I think I should state up front that I agree with Hume's definition of miracles, although this definition has been criticized by several prominent Christian apologists.

A miracle, in my thinking, as an event that violates the natural order of the world. Hume explains it like this:

Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.

Basically, if something can happen naturally, it is by definition not miraculous. I think that if we're all honest in our thinking, it's a pretty good definition. Consider these biblical miracles:


  • the sun standing still in the sky
  • the bear killing people for Elisha
  • the Deluge (Noah's flood)
  • the creation story
  • Christ's resurrection

These are all miracles because they break the natural laws of the universe, presumably at divine command. The sun stands still in the sky to allow a battle to rage on; the sun never does this, and all natural laws indicate that it never would, so if it does, it is miraculous.


Bears kill people. This happens with some regularity. However, a bear killing so many children at precisely the moment a prophet asked to be avenged is a little bit more than coincidental. The Flood is miraculous in its scale--a flood that covers the entire earth would take some doing, and that is, in and of itself, miraculous.

I think the rest are pretty self-explanatory. I'd like to note upfront, though, that I am not sure what definition the authors of this list of questions were working with.


MIRACLES

1.    Can bona fide miracles happen?  If not, why not?

No. A miracle, as I've stated, is a break in the laws of nature. It's a moment when the laws of nature bend to allow something to happen that shouldn't according to those same laws.

There are some that say that this is circular reasoning, but I disagree. Here's a summation of that criticism from Wikipedia:

That is, he rests his case against belief in miracles upon the claim that laws of nature are supported by exceptionless testimony, but testimony can only be accounted exceptionless if we discount the occurrence of miracles.

I think Hume deals with this well, honestly. He states that, up to the date of his writing, the only evidence for miracles was human testimony, which was notoriously unreliable. By his time, however, we'd already begun to stack up considerable evidence for the laws of nature and basics of physics. Newton had published in 1687, a half a century before Hume's writing.

A miracle can't occur because the bending necessary for it to occur has never been observed. This is a significant example of the absence of evidence providing evidence of absence. We've observed deep into the recesses of our universe, peering back into time itself, and yet we've not come across any instance where natural law was inexplicably broken. The cases that we've found incomprehensible at first have lent themselves readily to natural explanations and hypotheses.

It's also interesting to note that in the years since we've had more reliable means of testing miracles, they've become remarkably rare, and those that do occur have been easily explained using scientific methods. For instance, a communion wafer that appeared to turn into flesh and blood, which would have been miraculous indeed, was simply proven to have a natural explanation.


2.    If a Supernatural Transcendent Causal Agent does exist, with or without our acknowledgment, and if He (let's say) was so powerful that He could think all Universal matter, space, time and energy into existence from nothing, wouldn't creating life, parting the Red Sea, turning water into wine, healing the sick, revealing His nature through Divinely inspired Biblical authors and raising a Loved One from the dead be child's play? (Yes or No)


Yes.

But I'm going to break the rules here, because a question like this begs explanation and refutation. If such an agent existed, it's just as likely that it wouldn't care in the slightest about the beings on a little speck of dust in a do-nothing corner of the universe. There is the stated assumption here of a causal agent, but there's also the unstated assumption that it is aware and sympathetic, or active, in the affairs of our planet--which is a bit far to stretch a question without allowing a proper response. Yes or no does not encourage dialogue.

*****

My thoughts on miracles are pretty simple. The time for miracles was not at the supposed dawn of our species, thousands of years ago, when we were superstitious and barely literate.

The time is now. The world is more educated than we have ever been. We have the means to record for posterity via video and audio, the means to investigate and understand. We have the ability to empirically and objectively test the validity of phenomena, to look for alternative explanations.

So what about this time, the time when miracles could do the most good, is God afraid of?

That's the question I'd like an answer to.

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