“Feel the miracle-working PAW-WERR of JEEE-SUS!” Brother Billy Bob Banger shouted at the crowd. Waving his hands in the air, the televangelist danced a little jig then began “slapping” people in line before him on the forehead. As he touched them, each person fell backward into the arms of a ministerial assistant who moved the seemingly incapacitated person out of the way. Some convulsed on the floor; others lay still, as if entranced.
A man in a wheelchair rolled forward. The televangelist cupped the man’s skull in his right hand and raised his left hand to the sky. “I heal you in JEEE-SUS’ name!” the preacher declared. Nothing happened. The preacher slowly twisted his hand on the man’s head, as if trying to open a jar of pickles. Still nothing happened. But the preacher persisted, commanding the man’s paralyzed legs to move.
The man’s shoulders suddenly started twitching up and down. He shifted from side to side in his chair. His body straightened. Grabbing the evangelist’s hands, the man struggled to his feet. Within seconds he was leaping up and down, praising God. With his right leg he shoved his wheelchair past the line of miracle-seekers and into the off-camera void. The crowd roared. Then came a close-up of the televangelist. “Praise God, praise God, praise God, praise God!” he repeated into the camera.
All in a day’s work in religious-TV land.
A genuine miracle or a hoax? You don’t have to be an unbeliever to contemplate fraud in such a case. The abysmal record of so many televangelists in the honesty department probably has a lot to do with that skepticism. But perhaps so does a kind of knee-jerk anti-miraculism that afflicts many modern minds. A cynic once defined faith as believing in things you know aren’t true. For many of us—including some Christians—miracles might just as well be defined as things we know can’t happen.
But can they? The issue isn’t a purely academic one. After all, Christianity is shot through with miracles. One of the central truths of Christianity, the Incarnation of Christ, is the Grand Miracle (to use C. S. Lewis’s phrase). If miracles aren’t possible then Christianity is false. So considerably more hinges on the question than the reputation of televangelists.
Christian apologists must do at least two things regarding miracles. First, they must show that miracles are possible. Second, they must show it’s reasonable to conclude that certain miracles—such as Jesus’ resurrection—have happened. In this article, we’re concerned mainly with the possibility of miracles.
A Working Definition
Whether miracles are possible depends, in part, on what we mean by a miracle. The liberal Protestant who sees a miracle in every sunset may be a poet, but he isn’t much of a theologian. Whatever else the average person means by a miracle, he usually means considerably more than that.
Drawing on theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas, we can say that a miracle is a discernible, divine act in the world, outside, above, or beyond the natural order of things, that manifests some aspect of God’s power and love. (Granted, there may be some who would admit to the possibility of “miracles” without divine origin, but these would not be miracles by our definition.) We can now begin to tackle the question of whether miracles can happen.
To say that a miracle is “discernible” means that it is in some way accessible to the senses. In other words, we can see it, hear it, taste it, touch it, or smell it—or at least its effects can be seen, heard, tasted, touched, or smelled. The word “miracle” comes from the Latin miraculum, meaning “marvel” or “wonder,” and something we can’t detect is neither marvelous nor wondrous to us.
Yet the requirement of discernability must be qualified. We’re talking here about miracles with respect to apologetics. One could argue that some divine acts “outside, above, or beyond the natural order of things” can’t be recognized at all without a prior commitment of faith. These divine acts wouldn’t be “discernible” in the sense of being “accessible to the senses.” Yet they would still be miraculous so far as the natural order of things goes and would be “discernible” to the believer through the eyes of faith.
It is in this sense that one might speak of transubstantiation as a miracle. Neither the unbeliever nor the believer can discern anything different about the Eucharistic elements after the words of consecration have been spoken. Yet the believer professes that the substance of bread and wine has been changed by the power of God into the Body and Blood of Christ without a change in the “accidents” of bread and wine. There is certainly something “supernatural” to that, insofar as only God can do it. And it is also wonderful or a marvel to the person with faith. But only the eyes of faith allow the believer to “perceive” the wonder of it. In that sense, it is not miraculous.
But back to our definition. A miracle is also a “divine act.” That means God is its principal cause, even if he uses intermediaries such as prophets, apostles, or other saints as instrumental causes. From this we can see why miracles often confirm a revelation from God or the authority of a divine messenger. In fact, this is one of the main reasons God allows certain human beings to work miracles, according to Aquinas (ST III:43:2). Since miracles are acts of God, if something is genuinely miraculous, we know that God is acting for some purpose.
Kinds of Miracles
We should note here the distinction between what are sometimes called “major miracles” and “minor miracles.” God alone does miracles in the strict sense, even if he uses a creaturely instrument. “Minor miracles,” however, are done by angels on their own. An angel can act in such a way as to produce an effect that can’t be accounted for in terms of the visible world. Such an effect would be miraculous to us in the sense that its cause would lie outside the visible world. But it would not be a miracle in the full sense, even if it was done with divine consent.
We also said that a miracle is “outside, above, or beyond the natural order of things.” This means at least three things. First, that it is extraordinary, not part of the ordinary working of the world. No matter how resplendent a sunset is, it remains the result of the ordinary process of nightfall and so is not a miracle. There may well be wonderful.aspects of the ordinary world that we often overlook, but, since these things are part of the usual working of the world, they are not miraculous.
The second point about miracles being “outside, above, or beyond the natural order of things” is that they involve either something beyond the power of any and all created beings—what theologians call substantial miracles—or else something that, while not beyond any and all created power, transcends either the power of a particular created being or its natural or usual mode of operation. Miracles that involve an action within the power of created beings, but not this particular created being, theologians call subjective miracles; they are miracles with regard to a particular subject. Those miracles that involve actions within the power of this particular created being but not in its natural or usual mode of operation are called modal miracles (see ST I:105:8).
The resurrection of Christ is an example of a substantial miracle—a miracle beyond the power of any and all created beings. Only God could raise Christ to the glorified life of the resurrection. A doctor might resuscitate a patient. We can even imagine a race of extraterrestrials, à la 2001: A Space Odyssey, that could transfer a human being to a higher mode of natural life. But only God could perform all that Christians believe the resurrection of Christ entailed: the transformation of a human nature into a supernatural, divine mode of existence.
What about a subjective miracle—a miracle beyond the power of this specific created subject though not all created beings? An example is the speech of Balaam’s ass. Speech isn’t beyond any and all created beings, but it is beyond the power of donkeys. Its presence in a donkey, then, is miraculous.
Finally, an example of a modal miracle—a miracle within the power of a specific created thing but beyond its natural or usual mode of operation—would be the instantaneous cure of a fever. Ordinarily, the body heals itself of fever. An instantaneous cure really amounts to the body undergoing in an extraordinary or miraculous way the kind of thing it ordinarily does on its own.
Nature: Created Versus Visible
There is a third point about “the natural order of things” implicit in the discussion of substantial, subjective, and modal miracles. “The natural order of things” can mean the created order as such. Or it can mean the “natural world” as we commonly use the term: the visible world, the world detectable by the senses. Something “outside, above, or beyond the natural order of things,” if it transcends the created order altogether, is supernatural in the strict sense. Something “outside, above, or beyond the natural order of things,” where “the natural order of things” means only the visible world, isn’t strictly supernatural but preternatural.
We can now better understand the difference between major miracles and minor miracles. Miraculous acts that transcend the power of the created order altogether are, by definition, strictly supernatural and therefore attributable only to God’s power, even if he uses created instruments to effect them. Miraculous acts that transcend only the order of the visible world aren’t attributable only to God. They may be done either by God or by created spirits whose powers also transcend the visible, corporeal order of nature. When done by the latter, they are called minor miracles.
The last part of the definition of a miracle is that it “manifests some.aspect of God’s power and love.” In other words, miracles aren’t merely unusual, naturally inexplicable events—though they are at least that. Nor are they “tricks” God plays with the natural order for his amusement (or ours). They are wondrous divine deeds with spiritual purposes. Miracles may express God’s love to an individual, as in a miraculous response to a personal prayer. Or they may validate a religious message or the divine authority or holiness of a person by showing God’s power operative in that person, as the miracles of Jesus did. In either case, miracles point to the transcendent God as their cause. They declare, “God is working here!”
Are Miracles Possible?
Having clarified what miracles are, let’s consider whether they’re possible. Here we must recall the difference between the possibility of miracles and their actuality. If, on the one hand, miracles aren’t possible, then of course they have never happened and never will. On the other hand, merely showing that miracles are possible doesn’t prove them actual. Nor does it prove that any particular allegedly miraculous event really occurred. Each claim of the miraculous must be rationally scrutinized.
Probably the greatest argument to show that miracles are possible is based on God’s omnipotence. Granted the existence of an all-powerful supreme being, it seems obvious that miracles would be possible. So long as something doesn’t involve God in a logical contradiction—to do and not do something at the same time in the same way—then it seems straightforward enough to say that God can work miracles. At the very least, the burden of proof rests with those who would argue that an all-powerful God couldn’t work miracles. Once an omnipotent God is conceded, the universe is “vulnerable” to miracles.
Of course, to say that God can work miracles doesn’t prove that God would, did, or does work miracles. One objection to miracles is that, even if they are possible, God doesn’t work them. The argument is that having created the world, God has more or less committed himself not to interfere with it. Since miracles are regarded as interference with the world, so the argument goes, God doesn’t work miracles.
We will respond to that argument at length in the second part of our discussion in next month’s issue. For now, we merely note that God’s omnipotence makes miracles possible. If, in fact, miracles do not happen, it is not because of some lack of power for God to work them.
Another way to argue for the possibility of miracles is to refute the worldview that holds the miraculous is impossible because the natural world is all there is. In his book Miracles, C. S. Lewis argues for the possibility of miracles by refuting Naturalism, the idea that the whole of reality is a self-contained, interlocking system, which Lewis calls “Nature.”
Miracles, according to Lewis, are by definition supernatural events—by which he means their cause is outside or above Nature (as defined above). Lewis uses “supernatural” to include what we have called the “strictly supernatural”—that which transcends the created order altogether, i.e., God. But he also labels as “supernatural” that which transcends the visible, corporeal order of nature. According to Lewis, that includes the spiritual dimension of man.
It is clear that if there is no supernatural order then miracles are impossible. You can’t have something the cause of which lies outside the natural order if there is nothing outside the natural order. On the other hand, if we don’t know that Nature is all there is, then we can’t exclude the possibility of something outside of Nature intervening in the natural order. Naturalism claims that there is no supernatural order—that the natural order we see about us is “the whole show.”
Lewis argues that in at least two cases we can’t or don’t reduce everything to naturalistic explanation. The first case is human reason. To reduce all our thinking to part of Nature—to the self-contained, interlocking system of cause and effect—means our all thinking can be wholly explained by that system. Ordinarily, when we can attribute someone’s thinking wholly to non-rational factors, we dismiss it. When, for example, a man claims to have seen a pink elephant in the outer hall and we detect alcohol on his breath, we make the reasonable inference that he thinks as he does because he is drunk. The trouble with Naturalism is that it reduces all thought to non-rational factors—to a mere product of the self-contained system of Nature.
In the Naturalist view, all thought must be the product of non-rational factors and therefore is as dismissible as the drunk’s pink elephant. That includes even the idea of Naturalism itself. Consequently, argues Lewis, Naturalism is self-refuting. If it is true, we have eliminating any rational grounds for thinking it so. On the other hand, only if we admit that at least some of our thinking isn’t the result of non-rational factors or merely part of the process of the whole system of Nature can the validity of human thinking be maintained, including the idea that there is a Nature to begin with. But doing that amounts to holding that human reason operates, at least in part, outside the system of Nature. Nature can’t therefore be all there is, and Naturalism collapses.
The second case in which Naturalism fails, according to Lewis, is our moral reasoning. If Naturalism is true, then moral judgments are wholly explicable in terms of non-rational factors. We would judge certain things as “right” or “wrong” merely because we have been caused to do so by the system of Nature. As we rightly dismiss a person’s moral judgment when we can explain it completely from non-moral and non-rational factors, so we should, if Naturalism is correct, dismiss all moral judgments. For they would rest upon non-moral and non-rational factors—the amoral, mindless system of Nature.
On the other hand, if we find we can’t reject morality altogether, then this necessarily requires rejecting Naturalism. For then our moral judgments would be in touch with a higher reality whose existence would mean that Nature isn’t all there is.
Lewis’s arguments against Naturalism bring miracles in the back door. His arguments don’t prove any particular miracle, only that nature can’t be understood as wholly closed to another order of existence, i.e., that it can’t be “the whole show.” But once we admit the possibility of something (or someone) outside the natural order, we must admit the possibility of miracles. That, in turn, allows us to consider particular miraculous claims.
Does all of this mean that Brother Billy Bob Banger’s “healings” are genuine miracles? Not at all. As we have seen, it’s one thing to show that miracles are possible and another thing to prove a particular miraculous claim. But we can’t reasonably dismiss miraculous claims out of hand. God’s omnipotence means he can work miracles if he wants to. We have yet to consider the main objections to miracles raised by critics. That we shall do next month.