|Owyhee hike and flowers, June 2011 | Thomas Jay Oord|
Does it Make Sense to Believe in Miracles?
by Thomas Jay Oord
December 5, 2014
Fewer people today seem to believe in miracles. This seems especially true of those living in “first-world” countries and especially true of scholars. For various reasons, I can understand their skepticism. But I think we have good grounds to affirm miracles, properly understood.
In the final chapter of my current book on providence, I address the issue of miracles. This book project is funded as part of a larger grant I received to explore what it means to believe God acts providentially in a world of randomness.
Much of my discussion in this last chapter revolves around various reasons many people today reject miracles. A major part of the problem is the definition given miracles.
It has become common in the past few centuries (since David Hume) to define miracles as supernatural violations of the laws of nature or divine interventions. But these definition are laden with problems.
1. The category of “laws of nature” is ill-defined and unnecessary. Besides those who witness miracles – whether the miracles reported in the Bible or witnessed today – rarely if ever say, “Wow! I just observed a law of nature violated!”
2. The idea of “intervention” suggests that God must come to a closed system of nature from the outside. But Christians ought to believe God is omnipresent. And that means God is always already present to the natural world, never needing to “inter–vene.”
3. The idea of “supernatural” leads implicitly to views in which God is thought to coerce, override, interfere, overpower, or in some way totally control a creature or situation. But if God has that kind of coercive power, the problem of evil is insuperable.
I believe in miracles. I don’t think they are simply “in the mind of the religious believer.” I think miracles are objective events that occur in the world.
Of course, I don’t think all claims about miracles are legitimate. Some are hoaxes, wishful thinking, the effects of hysteria, or coincidences. But I do think some miracles actually occur, and those of us who believe in God need to account for them if we are to witness well to hope that we have in God.
In the concluding chapter of my current book on providence, I offer this definition of a miracle:
"A miracle is an unexpected and good event that occurs through God’s special
action in relation to creation. This definition has three essential elements. Miracles
are: (1) unexpected events, (2) good events, (3) involve God’s special action in
relation to creation."
1. The signs and wonders we read about in the Bible, in history, or encounter today are noteworthy, in part, because they are surprising. They are unusual or extraordinary. As Augustine put it, a miracle is an “unusual” event “beyond the expectation or ability of the one who marvels at it.”
Some unexpected events leave us awestruck and impressed by the power they display. But these occurrences may not be positive, loving, or good. They may cause harm, destruction, or evil. Sheer power is not miraculous, and some awe-filled events are awful.
2. We should reserve “miracle” to describe unexpected events (whether powerful or not) that we believe promote well-being in some way. Miracles are beneficial. Miracles are events we deem good.
3. In addition to being unexpected and good, miracles involve special divine action. I believe that the special divine action that makes miracles possible occurs when God provides new possibilities, forms, structures, or ways of being to creatures. These gifts for the miraculous may reflect dramatic or awesome ways of existing should they be embodied or incorporated.
Miracles are possible when God provides good and unexpected forms of existence. God sometimes desires well-being through diverse forms and multifarious dimensions.
Of course, I go into all of these issues in much more detail in my book. I’m sending the completed book manuscript to Intervarsity Academic Press before Christmas. I’ve signed a contract, and I expect the book to be available in the fall of 2015.
If you have some comments on miracles that you think I should consider before submitting the manuscript, I’d love to hear from you. If I really like your comment, I'll include your name in a footnote or in the book's acknowledgement section!