Saturday, 25 May 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Miracles

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."

David Hume, however, completely rejected the idea of miracles. He stated that:

"Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happens in the common course of nature."

In his argument against miracles, Hume proposed five main points:

Firstly, he said that 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
Hume also argued that a miracle has never been witnessed by a sufficient number.
  • Peter Vardy questions this point, asking what number Hume considers to be sufficient. He also criticises Hume for dealing with reports of miracles, unfairly judging them since he had never experienced a miracle himself
Thirdly, 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."
  • Richard Swinburne attacks this point, saying that belief doesn't affect sight - if you genuinely see something, it doesn't reflect your faith
    • Freud would criticise this point and agree with Hume, arguing against miracles from human psychology
Furthermore, Hume argued that miracles happen amongst:

"Ignorant and barbarous nations."
  • Swinburne also criticises this point, calling Hume arrogant
Finally, Hume proposes his conflicting claims argument; if two miracle stories conflict, they cancel one another out.
  • But two conflicting claims may still leave one 'correct' claim?

Theologian Richard Swinburne argues that there are three types of historical evidence to support miracles:
  1. Memories
  2. Stories of others
  3. Physical traces
Peter 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's birth and resurrection?
John Polkinghorne also supports Swinburne, arguing for an interventionist God. This is rejected by Peacocke and Wiles.

R. F. Holland argues that:

"A coincidence can be taken religiously."

Maurice Wiles is another important name in this topic; although he was religious, he rejected the idea of miracles. This is because he disputed the idea of an interventionist God (a God who intervenes in the laws of nature). Instead, Wiles called creation:

"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's beliefs are inconsistent with certain Biblical stories such as Joshua 10
  • Peter 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 uses the analogy of God being a parent who sometimes bends the rules (in this case the rules of nature) to benefit his children

John 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 occurrences interpreted religiously. He called the resurrection story, however, a complete myth.

Biblically, Joshua 10 is important to consider when discussing miracles. In the story, miracles occurred as Joshua fought the Gibeonites. It is simply stated that:

"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 occurrence interpreted religiously?
  • Sun standing still - a basic astronomical mistake?
Luther, however, a fundamentalist, argued that:

"Sacred scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still."

Whereas Bultmann holds a more liberal view, interpreting the events of Joshua 10 as symbolic/metaphorical. 

Arguments for miracles
  1. Some things appear to have no natural explanation, supported by reasonable evidence
  2. If we believe God to be the God of Classical Theism, it is reasonable to accept miracles
  3. The Apparent Coincidence argument states that coincidences may explain one-off events, but not repeated reports of miracles
  4. The Falsification Principle states that we should accept miracles to be true until they can be definitively disproven
Arguments against miracles
  1. Lack of empirical evidence
  2. Assumption that God exists
  3. They defy the laws of nature
  4. Interferes with free will (Wiles)
  5. May be a human way of dealing with the unexplained
  6. Placebo argument
  7. A. N. Wilson refers to miracles as natural events interpreted religiously
  8. Gareth Moore, an anti-realist, simply states that "God is nothing."
  9. Bultmann referred to miracles as myths
  10. Miracles lead to the problem of evil - is God random or biased? How can he allow innocent people to suffer if he is an interventionist?

The following bits are just quotes I researched for a project - they're not necessary, but one or two might be useful to throw in to back up a point...

Lemony Snicket said that:

"Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear."

Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky argued that:

"It's not miracles that generate faith, it's faith that generates miracles."

Paul Coelho:

"Miracles only happen if you believe in miracles."

Hypatia of Alexandria once said that:

"Miracles are poetic fantasies."


  1. This is so meaty for miracles, I feel like I can now pass my exam this summer!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. To call this a revision resource would be an upset to Augustine himself.