XFiles Friday: Defining “Miracle”

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 8 )

It’s time at last for Geisler and Turek to define what, exactly, a miracle is. They’ve been talking about miracles all chapter, and have given us a few pointers as to traits that miracles must possess, but now at last it’s time for a formal definition. To lend their definition a little extra authority, they define a “miracle” in terms of their arguments for the existence of God, telling us that miracles ought to reflect the attributes we “discover” about God via our “scientific” examination of Creation. According to Geisler and Turek, therefore, true miracles ought to meet at least the following criteria:

A. An instantaneous beginning of a powerful act, as evidenced by the Cosmological Argument (the beginning of the universe);

B. Intelligent design and purpose, as evidenced by the Teleological Argument (the precise design of the universe for the purpose of supporting life, and the specified and complex design of life itself);

C. The promotion of good or right behavior, as evidenced by the Moral Argument (the Moral Law pressing on us).

Conspicuously missing from this list is attribute D, which should have been based on God’s inability to give us real proof of His existence (as Geisler and Turek claim on page 200, citing C. S. Lewis for support). But we’ll get to that in a moment. For now, let’s start by looking at the list they do give us.

First, letter A, an instantaneous beginning of a powerful act, as in the creation God allegedly worked as the prototype for all subsequent miracles. I suppose that’s not a bad start; after all, if you are arguing that miracles are supposed to function primarily as God’s “royal seal” on His divine communications, then it makes sense for miracles to produce (pardon the expression) a big bang so that people will notice that God has done something.

Of course, right off the bat this eliminates such alleged miracles as The Virgin Birth and the 1948 rebirth of the nation of Israel. Some of Jesus’s Biblical miracles also fail to pass this test, like the fig tree that took a whole day to die, and the blind man who took two tries to get his vision back. Various Old Testament instances of “divine judgment” are also suspect, such as the Babylonian Captivity and the Exodus.

Not to worry, Geisler and Turek don’t really mean it. As they explain in their discussion of attribute A, what they really mean is that a miracle must be supernatural, i.e. something that cannot be explained naturally. So if that’s what they mean, why didn’t they just say, “A: Miracles must be supernatural”? Apparently they wanted to tie their definition of miracles back to their so-called “proof” of God, and they couldn’t find any straightforward way to link “must be supernatural” with the cosmological argument. (Doesn’t seem that hard to me, but…)

Let’s move on to attribute B, the “intelligent design and purpose” attribute. This one sounds more solid: if God is going to work a miracle on purpose, then we would expect that the miracle itself would be purposeful, even though (as believers often remind us) God’s ways are not our ways, and His purposes may not be readily apparent to us lesser mortals.

But there’s a hidden agenda behind attribute B, and you can see just a little of it in Geisler and Turek’s discussion of what it means.

[A]ny sign done without an obvious purpose—to confirm a truth or a messenger of truth or to bring glory to God—is probably not a sign from God. In other words, God is not likely to do miracles for mere entertainment purposes.

There’s a bit of a contradiction there, because “entertainment purposes” are still purposeful. Plus God works in mysterious ways, and there’s really no practical limit to what far-out, inscrutable “miracles” might satisfy the purpose of bringing glory to God. Attribute B, on the face of it, does very little to distinguish between what might be a genuine (if obscure) miracle, and what would not be.

But notice that little seed in there: the reason for a miracle is that it is supposed “to confirm a truth or a messenger of truth.” There’s nothing about the Teleological Argument that implies the purpose of miracles has to be limited to confirming the Gospel and the prophets, but Geisler and Turek are slipping this in now so as to prepare themselves an “out” for when it comes time to explain why God does not give us the same kind of signs He allegedly gave to the fine folks in the Bronze Age.

On to Attribute C: a miracle has to promote “morality.” Boy there’s the magic loophole for you. We only know what morality is because God tells us in his special book. We know it’s God’s special book because He confirms it by genuine miracles. And we know the miracles are genuine because they promote morality. Whoops, that’s a circle, isn’t it? Are we really receiving signs from God, or are we merely picking and choosing what “revelations” and/or “miracles” are acceptable based on how well they reflect our personal moral preferences?

California recently ruled that gays are entitled to marry one another, a ruling that prompted a number of Christian organizations to try and legislate away this kind of tolerance, and to restore traditional discrimination against homosexuals. Immediately after they launched these unjust and oppressive efforts, God punished them by sending devastating wildfires all across the state, thus miraculously confirming His divine, moral indignation at their bigotry, discrimination, and lack of love for their fellow man. We know this is a valid miracle, because it promotes the moral virtues of tolerance, human dignity, and individual freedom.

But of course, if you promote a different morality, then you have a very different view of what God’s “miracles” are promoting, don’t you? Attribute C is merely the back door by which you get to inject whatever moral principles seem right in your own eyes, claiming them as God’s moral law.

On to Attribute D, the attribute that is so conspicuously absent from Geisler and Turek’s list. Let’s recall their original argument, from the beginning of Chapter 8:

Why couldn’t [God] appear to each one of us? He could, but that might interfere with our free will…

[Quoting C. S. Lewis] [T]he Irresistable and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless.

Thus, attribute D is that a miracle cannot be either Irresistable or Indisputable, but must allude to the existence of a God or gods in only the faintest and most mitigated degree. If a miracle could give us verifiable and indisputable evidence that God existed, then there would be no explanation for why God could work miracles without being able show up in person to participate in that tangible, visible, personal relationship that both He and His faithful supposedly desire so much.

This, of course, creates major problems for the believer in miracles. A miracle profound enough to put a divine seal of authenticity on a genuinely prophetic revelation cannot fail to give us that Irresistable and Indisputable confidence of God’s existence which, according to Lewis, is so unthinkable as to prevent God from enjoying what He desires most (i.e. to be together with each of us). Each miracle that would be adequate to serve as a sign would thereby prove that God does not need to limit Himself to out-of-date and easily-misinterpreted documents. Thus, to be consistent with the whole philosophical context within which miracles make sense, miracles cannot be signs, and cannot serve as “royal seals” on any human-written document.

(By the way, the royal seal was an invention intended to overcome the king’s limitations: he could not be everywhere at once, and therefore he needed some material means of conveying his authority in his absence. If God, however, can give us so much evidence of His existence that it would take more faith to be an atheist, then He can also show up in real life, and since He is (allegedly) omnipresent, He does not have the king’s limitations, and therefore does not need the king’s seal.)

Geisler and Turek close Chapter 8 by glancing briefly at the most telling difficulty believers face in trying to “witness” to the reality of miracles: the complete absence of any such phenomena in our real-world experience.

So why don’t we see biblical miracles today? Because if the Bible is true and complete, God is not confirming any new revelation and thus does not have the main purpose for performing miracles today.

As I said before, this is the reason for having attribute B and its sneakily-insinuated message that the sole purpose of miracles is to validate the Bible and the people who wrote it. Which brings up another missing attribute in their list of things a miracle must have: a miracle must be experienced first-hand in order to have any validity as a sign. If God turns rocks into bread on the back side of Pluto, He does nothing to authenticate anybody’s claim as a prophet. If no one sees it, it’s not a sign.

Likewise, if I see a miracle, then for me it is a sign, and I can justify having faith in God, because I’ve seen the sign. If you did not see it, then the most you can accomplish is to put your faith and trust in me and in my claims. An angel from heaven bringing long-lost golden plates inscribed with the forgotten revelations of an ancient Gospel may be a very impressive, miraculous sign, but if you weren’t there to see it, and if you don’t have any faith in the honesty and reliability of Joseph Smith, who claims to have been given this sign, then the “miracle” has no value as any kind of “divine seal” for the Book of Mormon. A genuine sign, and someone who claims to have seen a genuine sign, are two different things.

For God to actually and reliably confirm the authenticity of the Bible, therefore, He must continue to provide the confirming miracles to at least each new generation that receives the Gospel. Otherwise, people are not believing the signs (since they’ve never experienced any to believe), they are merely taking someone’s word for things that are inconsistent with what we actually find in the real world. In short, if the miracles are not given to us as well, our options are limited to being skeptical and being gullible. Either we choose skepticism, and only accept the things that are consistent with what we find in real life, or we choose gullibility and accept things just because someone says so, even knowing they conflict with reality.

Defining miracles in terms of all of what Geisler and Turek have said in various places, we find that miracles must be both purposeful and pointless, both powerful and faint, both authoritative and unreliable, and ultimately, a pretext for putting one’s own moral preferences on par with divine fiat. And that, my friends, is a pretty accurate definition of what a miracle must be.

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