EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD FROM EXPERIENCE: MIRACLES, PART 1
Over the course of humanity’s time on Earth, men and women have experienced, either as the beneficiaries of or witnesses to, extraordinary events that couldn’t otherwise be explained by the ordinary workings of the natural world. These are miracles. Miracles are events that are extraordinary. They are supernatural. So, as much as many like to say, the birth of a child, for instance, isn’t a miracle. Neither is sweet Aunt Bessie finally finding a man to marry, or the survival of one’s business in the midst of a poor economy. All of these, as wonderful or implausible as they may be, can nevertheless be explained by the ordinary workings of the natural world. By definition, miracles can’t be explained by such. They’re beyond any explanation that can be provided by what we know about the physical world and the laws that govern it. They are inexplicable, except as the intervention of the divine in our lives.
Are miracles real? Does God truly suspend or manipulate the physical laws of the universe in order to act in this world in some special way? Many atheists, taking their lead from the 18th century atheist philosopher David Hume, argue that miracles are impossible because it’s impossible, even for God, to suspend the laws of nature. The laws of nature are fixed, Hume claimed, and can’t be altered, even by God. Never mind that contemporary theories of quantum mechanics call into question the notion of fixed laws of nature in the first place, Hume’s argument assumes that God is a Being confined to the limits of Creation. Quite obviously, however, if God is Creator, He is not Himself confined to the limits of Creation. Hume’s argument fails.
Vincent Bugliosi, the famous prosecutor and an agnostic, takes a rather long time in his book, Divinity of Doubt: God and Atheism on Trail (Vanguard Press, 2011, pp. 285-288), to argue that miracles don’t happen because miracles don’t happen. No, he doesn’t exactly put it that way, but that’s pretty much what his argument comes down to. Miracles in the Bible didn’t happen because the same miracles don’t happen today. The miracles of Jesus didn’t happen because no historical record of them exists (never mind the canonical Gospels and the fact that not much about Jesus is recorded at all in secular records) and, besides, they’re all knock-offs of ancient mythology. Miracles of healing today aren’t miracles because they may simply be caused by natural phenomenon of which we aren’t aware and, besides, what rational person today believes in miracles? Finally, even if something spectacular does happen, who can say that God is behind it? Bugliosi takes atheists to task for arguing that miracles are impossible because the laws of nature are immutable, insisting that, if God does exist, He wouldn’t be bound by such laws. But, Bugliosi’s argument is just as anemic. The only reason, ultimately, that miracles don’t happen is because, well, … miracles just don’t happen!
Leaving the above obviously wanting arguments aside, there are two popular arguments against miracles. The first is that there simply isn’t any or, at any rate, enough, evidence to warrant a belief in miracles, including a belief in the miracles of the Bible. The second is that God fails to perform the right kinds of miracles. If God exists, we ought to expect certain miracles of Him. Since we don’t see those miracles, God must not exist. A lack of the right kinds of miracles means there’s no God. No God means no miracles.
The Miracles of the Old Testament
It’s reasonable to begin any discussion of miracles with the miracles of the Bible. Are the miracles of the Bible true? Did God really part the Red Sea, tear down the walls of Jericho with a trumpet blast and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in a heavenly bath of fire and brimstone? I certainly have no grounds on which to de-bunk these miracles. Indeed, Creation itself is the first miracle, in that it can’t be explained by the ordinary workings of the natural world, since the natural world didn’t exist before it was created.
Interestingly, the Old Testament never describes an act of God as a miracle. It never says, “This is a miracle!” It simply describes God’s actions and leaves it to the community to understand that God has worked His mighty ways in order to protect or deliver them. As miracles go, the plagues suffered by Egypt because of the stubbornness of the pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to go into the desert to worship certainly rank among the most spectacular, as does the parting of the Red Sea to allow the Hebrews to escape Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Many of the plagues suffered by Egypt are consistent with natural phenomena that occur in Egypt periodically, or with natural disasters not unfamiliar with the ecosystem of the lower Nile. In an interesting article, “Three Ways to Talk About the Ten Plagues,” first published in Bible Review (June, 1990, 16-23, 42), Dr. Ziony Zevit, professor of biblical literature and Northwest Semitic languages at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, discusses the plagues in terms of natural phenomena consistent with the Egyptian ecosystem. The Nile appearing like blood, the frogs, lice, flies, locusts, boils, darkness, even the death of the first-born, can be understood as a sequence of events linked to natural disasters not uncommon in Egypt. In this sense, the miracle of the plagues could be examples of God manipulating natural phenomena. Since God is Creator, such would surely be within His power.
As for the crossing of the Red Sea, the account in Exodus speaks of an east wind blowing when Moses raised his hands over the waters. The wind pushed back the sea, so the Hebrews could cross. Most biblical scholars today now understand the identification of the Red Sea as a misinterpretation of “Sea of Reeds”. The Sea of Reeds is a smaller, marshy tributary to the north of the Red Sea, which periodically runs dry when strong winds push the waters apart. Researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado in Boulder developed computer models to reconstruct the movement of wind and wave that might explain the pushing back of the waters at the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Hebrews to cross. Researchers at the Institute of Oceanography in St. Petersburg, Russia have developed computer models, as well, and arrived at similar conclusions. Is this what happened at the crossing? Who can say? Again, like the ten plagues, the miracle would be God’s manipulation of what is a natural phenomenon. I’m loath to turn to Hollywood as a source for God’s truth, but I can’t resist bringing up from a movie on the life of Christ a conversation between the characters of Pontius Pilate and the Jewish High Priest. Pilate asked the High Priest, “Do you really believe the sea parted, allowing you to escape to the other side?” “Well, procurator,” the High Priest replies, “we did escape.” Indeed.
Where is the evidence for such miracles? Surely, there would be a written record in the annals of ancient Egyptian history. But, would we expect a record from the Egyptians of such a humiliating catastrophe? The historical records of ancient peoples are somewhat less objective than those of contemporary historians. They tend to emphasize triumphs and minimize defeats, if they mention them at all. The Egyptians were no exception to this. There is, of course, the Bible. But, skeptics refuse to consider the Bible as an unbiased source, for good reason, I acknowledge. For some reason, however, they regard the annals of ancient Egyptian history as more reliable.
Most of the miracles of the Old Testament are private miracles, such as healings or visions, for which little recorded evidence would be available from so long ago. There is the occasional public miracle, such as Elijah calling down God’s fire on his sacrifice. This miracle was in the context of an internal conflict in the Jewish kingdom, however, so there’s no reason to expect a record of such a thing outside of the history of the Jews, which is what is recorded in the Old Testament. The miraculous collapse of the walls of Jericho, as well, is in the context of the Jewish conquest of Canaan. According to the biblical account, none of Israel’s enemies survived the conquest of Jericho, so there would be no one left to write a contrasting history. The only record we would expect to find for such an event is the one we already have, from the biblical Book of Joshua.
The point is, when skeptics demand evidence for Old Testament miracles, whether public or private, it begs the question of what sort of evidence would we expect to find from three millennia or more ago, and what sort of evidence would be acceptable? There’s simply not much in the way of written records from ancient times. What we do have is quite limited, and even in the case of those records of ancient history that are considered the most reliable, such as the account of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the earliest extant manuscripts are often hundreds of years removed from the events themselves.
Archeological evidence is helpful, when it’s available. In an article, “Biblical Archeology: Sodom and Gomorrah” on the aish.com website, Rabbi Leibel Reznick, author and lecturer on Talmudic studies, writes of how, in the early 20th century, most scholars relegated even the existence of Sodom and Gomorrah to legend, never mind the story of its destruction by God. By middle-century, however, archeological excavations had convinced many of the existence of the cities. The entire area, as well, is covered with what Reznick calls a “spongy ash” and other burnt material, with indications that the cities suffered a great destruction. The cities lie on a fault line, where earthquakes occur that force up magma and bitumen, along with hydrocarbons that fill the air and, if ignited by lightening, fall back to earth in balls of fire!
Some of the cases above are examples of how natural phenomena are consistent with what is recorded in the Old Testament as the acts of God to protect His people or punish their enemies. But, if these are natural, and not super-natural, phenomena, do they still count as miracles? The miracle would be God’s control in bringing on these natural phenomena in a particular time and place, and for His purposes. Catholic tradition has no trouble with the idea of God using what is available in nature to affect His divine will. Cases of healings, visions, or of God responding directly to the prayers of His prophets in amazing and extraordinary ways, are what we would call miracles in the classic sense. But, since these cases are mostly private matters with few witnesses, they would have little in the way of hard evidence, outside the record of them in the Bible itself.
More on miracles over the next three weeks.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.