Saturday, August 13, 2005

What do Miracles Prove?

Various religions rely on miracles as a justification for their validity. In Christianity perhaps the key miracle is Jesus' resurection from the dead, although many other miracles were and are used to confirm teachings and make converts. Here I am not questioning the validity of the miracles -- I'm assuming they are true miracles. My question is: Given someone does a miracle, does that prove that what that person teaches is true? That happens a lot in the Bible; someone does a miracle and then everyone believes what that person teaches. Is that a reasonable response of the people?

If someone can do miracles at will, like healing people, then surely that demonstrates that the person has power (or at least access to a power) that the rest of us don't. But does having power imply that someone speaks the truth and is not deluded in his beliefs? Surely not; plenty of people have extraordinary powers and at the same time lie or are deluded. Well, one might reply that supernatural powers like healing people at a command only come from God, and God only gives them to people who are truthfully representing him. But where do all those qualifiers come from? First how do we know it is only God who bestows miracle-working powers? If one assumes God gives these powers, then it does not take much to assume other supernatural beings might give those powers as well. Second, even if the miracle power can be shown to be from God, how do we know on what basis God gives that power? The Bible says all earthly authority is from God, and if so then God bestows it on plenty of unpleasant and untruthful characters. He could equally well bestow miracle-working powers on charlatans.

Miracle workers tend to conflate power and truth as a way to gain credibility for their teachings. However power and truth are very different things, and power does not imply truth. If one seeks truth one is not going to be convinced by dogmas or doctrines that are justified by miracles.


  1. I think this is one problem Calvinists have with the likes of Smith, Wigglesworth, Lake, Finney, etc. who the Calvinists say are messed up theologically, but yet these men had huge healing/revival/etc ministries, and if God was not supporting them, it is strange that so much good was done through them.

    Certainly demons can do powerful things, like the demon that Paul and Silas rebuked in Acts 16.

    I once heard someone say the way to tell if something is a true miracle of God is to look at the effect/usefulness of the miracle, they were saying this in response to some claim about someone walking around holding his head after it was cut off or something.

    However, I don't think this argument holds up very well against some of the miracles that Jesus performed, I am thinking specifically about turning the water to wine, it seems that pretty much the only point of that was to show Jesus' power.

  2. That's true one can also judge miracles by their goodness, usefulness, power etc. But then one starts playing tricky games as you point out -- who is to say God only does "good" or "useful" miracles, or that those are only done by him? I think I would agree with the Calvinists that one can be good and powerful (including a worker of miracles) and yet be mistaken about the truth. The Calvinists' inconsistency is that they fail to apply this same reasoning to the actors in the Bible and to the Bible itself.

  3. I believe that Satan has power to perform miracles as well, but he is incapable of expressing love through his actions; his purpose is always evil.

    And I don't think that Jesus performed miracles to prove his power but to manifest with visible signs the invisible realities that were conveyed through his teachings (his love, his mercy, his forgiveness).

  4. And this is the verdict, that The Light came into the world, but people preferred Darkness to Light, because their works were evil.

    For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.
    But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

  5. DM: Miracles are certainly not proof, as your post argues, but I think that in some cases miracles could be evidence of a connection to and thus knowledge of the supernatural. If a person did have such a connection how else would that person exhibit this connection?

    Given an aleged miracel worker, there seems to me to be three questions that one should ask:
    1. Was the miracle "real" or not real. The meaning of a "real" miracle is difficult to define exactly, so I'll assume that such a thing exists, and can be recognized as such.
    2. If it was real, what sort of connection to the supernatural might the miracle indicate?
    3. Given the nature of the connection, is the miracle worker speaking truthfully what she/he knows of the supernatural?

    We generally answer questions like 3 by evaluating the character of the person. This is why we have juries (so my lawyer sister-in-law tells me). Juries are there to evaluate the truthfulness of both the person providing the facts and the facts themselves. It is certainly difficult to evaluate character, thus making juries less than perfectly reliable, but we have not yet chosen to eliminate juries, or take them out of the court room, specifically because we (at least in the United States) think that ordinary humans have some ability to evaluate the character of other humans.

    With regard to question 2, it is certainly possible that a miracle worker could have great supernatural power, but no supernatural knowledge. But then, if I assume that the supernatural exists (as in the original post) I would rather consider the teaching of one who has some experience with the supernatural, rather than one who claims no knowledge of it. Certainly, I should not just swallow the teaching whole, but the miracles might indicate that the teaching is worth "trying on for size." I think this argument is not all that dis-similar to the criteria that we use to evaluate theories for which proof is not yet existent (such as in cosmology). Theories that are elegant and have some explanatory power and come from a source with a history of rigor, we choose to spend some time with and make some use of in testing. Others we spend less time with. I think the miracle is that which gives one the intellectual permission to "try out" a given supernatural tesching without sacrificing one's intelectual credibility. Unless of course miracles do not actually exist in a rational universe. In this case it is always irrational to weight a teaching by a suposed miracle.

  6. PH:

    I guess the key issue you bring up is a "supernatural connection". I wonder what exactly that is? The two concepts you bring together are:
    (1) Someone acts and supernatural things happen, and
    (2) Someone knows various facts about the supernatural realm.

    Now a person, being flesh and bones, presumeably cannot do something supernatural. But one may admit that there is a connection if when he does things they are regularly followed by supernatural events.

    But what does it mean to gain knowledge of the supernatural? We know what it means to get knowledge from our senses, to test it and to reason about it. But our senses can't detect supernatural things. So how do we get supernatural knowledge? Perhaps one gets it from a dream or a vision. But how does one know that it isn't just that, a dream; something that one imagined oneself? I don't think there is any way we can tell the difference between imagination and dreams. Or maybe one just feels the supernatural facts. But again, why should one trust one's feelings? With our regular senses we can test them and see if other people see the same thing, but there is no way to test feelings of the supernatural.

    So the main problem I think is how can one get direct knowledge of the supernatural, and how can one know that it is true? I don't see how supernatural events related to one's life or even one's character help with this problem. Thus I am skeptical when people say they have special revelation about the supernatural world, even if they do miracles.


  7. PH:

    Also I wonder what one hopes to achieve by "trying out" a given supernatural teaching? A teaching may be good or bad irrespective of it having supernatural origin. That is, teaching good things isn't evidence of a supernatural source. It is not hard to imagine good teachings being claimed to have a supernatural source even though they don't have one. And I'm not sure how else one could determine that they have a supernatural source.


  8. Great thought-provoking point here. The implied connection is clearly not falsifiable. I think the best approach is to contextualize the claims and cross reference them with other factors. No matter what you're not going to get proof, only evidences for or against a claim.

  9. greetings
    I don't know if you are answering posts here anymore or not. I found the site this morning (May 2014) after googling "losing my faith" and am gratified to read many posts from people who have been or are in the same place I am ( grieving and wondering how to believe in God)

    This post is just to tell about one incident in my life, one of two miracles that keep me believing that God exists, though I no longer consider the bible to be a trustworthy account of who God is.

    Short version: a friend stepped on an earring in barefeet. The earring post went all the way into her foot, which bled when I pulled the earring out. I had asked God to help me wash her foot as a disciple, as I had been frustrated with her and was ticked that she'd been running around barefoot. I did not pray, such as it is. Just asked god to change my attitude towards my friend.

    As I removed the earring, and the blood oozed out, and she was flinching in pain, I was wiping the wound with a washcloth. Then, to "get the germs out" I told her to hang on, because I was going to squeeze it and make it bleed.

    I went to do just that, and found no wound. No blood. She did not feel any pain, either.
    IOW, the little bitty puncture wound was gone. It had been there. There had been blood. There had been pain. And now it was gone.

    God did not whisper to me. THere was no wafting of the Holy Spirit or any other thing. Just a minor injury was there, and then it was not there.

    Nothing similar has happened in my life since, though I have experienced another inexplicable occurence not to be shared here. I am not a "miracle worker" and have never sought such. This little miracle happened not as an answer to any prayer; it just happened. It also isn't attached to any teaching or preaching or evangelistic efforts of my own. Only two people witnessed it, and I haven't bragged about it. Goodness knows, *I* did not do anything.

    But when doubts come, and I wonder if God exists, this little incident, and one other, come to mind. If God doesn't exist, where did that little injury go? And how?

    Atheists that I know say just because you can't explain something, doesn't prove that God exists. I guess that's true.
    and if God can heal a little earring puncture on a foot, why won't he step in and rid the world of leprosy or flesh eating disease, or for that matter, famine?

    I don't know. I don't know why that little injury went away, either. I guess I just wanted to point out that stuff happens that there is no explanation for. Not "coincidence," not flashy, not expected.