What is the definition of a miracle? Theologians and philosophers have offered numerous definitions. For example, Peter Kreeft says, a miracle is “a striking and religiously significant intervention of God in the system of natural causes.” (1) So we might say that a miracle is a special act of God in the natural world, something nature would not have done on its own. In the Bible, miracles have a distinctive purpose: they are used for three reasons:
1. To glorify the nature of God (John 2:11; 11:40) 2. To accredit certain persons as the spokesmen for God (Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:3–4) 3. To provide evidence for belief in God (John 6:2, 14; 20:30–31). (2)
Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, told Jesus, “‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him’ ” (Jn. 3:1–2).
In Acts, Peter told the crowd that Jesus had been “accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (Acts 2:22). Miracles also confirmed the apostolic claim. In 2 Corinthians 12:12: Paul says, “The things that mark an apostle signs, wonders, and miracles were done among you with great perseverance.” (3) For the record, Jesus’ miracles are not the same thing as magic. But that topic can be dealt with at another time.
There is no kingdom without a king. In observing the ministry of Jesus, He demonstrated one of the visible signs of His inauguration of the kingdom of God would not only be the dispensing of the Holy Spirit (John 7: 39), but also the ability to perform miracles. In Matthew 12:38-39, Jesus says, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.” In this Scripture, God confirmed the Messianic claim when Jesus said the sign that would confirm his Messiahship was to be the resurrection.
And in Matthew 11:13, John the Baptist, who was languishing in prison after challenging Herod, sent messengers to ask Jesus the question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” In response to John, Jesus provided evidence that His miracles serve as an evidential feature of his messianic identity. Jesus responded to John’s question by saying, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matt. 11:4–6; see also Lk. 7:22).
Even in the Messiah Apocalypse, which is dated between 100 and 80 B.C.E mentions a similar theme as seen in Matt.11: 4-6:
“He [God] frees the captives, makes the blind see, and makes the bent over stand straight…for he will heal the sick, revive the dead, and give good news to the humble and the poor he will satisfy, the abandoned he will lead, and the hungry he will make rich.”
The prophet Isaiah also spoke of a time where miraculous deeds would be the sign of both the spiritual and physical deliverance of Israel (Is.26: 19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1).
It is important to note that not all witnesses to a miracle believe. In this event the miracle is a witness against those who reject this evidence. John grieved: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him” (John 12:37). Jesus himself said of some, “They will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). One result, though not the purpose, of miracles is condemnation of the unbeliever (cf. John 12:31, 37). (4) So the Biblical pattern of miracles is the following:
Sign/Miracle—–Knowledge is Imparted—–Should Result in Obedience/Active Participation
As Ben Witherington III says,
“The miracles themselves raise the question but do not fully provide the answer of who Jesus was; what is important from an historical point of view is not the miracle themselves, which were not unprecedented, but Jesus’ unique interpretation of the miracles as signs of the dominion’s inbreaking, and also the signs of who he was: the fulfiller of the Old Testament promises about the blind seeing, the lame walking and the like.” (5)
“Do Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?”
Sure, I have heard it before. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Skeptics tend to view the claim of miracles as something that was part of the pre-modern worldview. After all, can we as moderns really believe in miracles? This complaint is part of the naturalistic worldview which came to be more prominent during the Enlightenment period. Philosophical or metaphysical naturalism refers to the view that nature is the “whole show.” Therefore, any attempt by the theist to claim that there is God who acts in the affairs of mankind (especially through Jesus) is an extraordinary claim. I do agree that there is the need for a healthy skepticism regarding revelatory truth claims. After all, several faiths claim to be founded on divine revelation.
However, phrases like “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” need clarification. I tend to see this as one way to look at it:
(1) Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
(2) The claim that God exists/any miracle is extraordinary….
(3) Therefore, any evidence supporting it ought to be extraordinary as well.
(4) I’m not sure what I mean by “extraordinary.”
(5) But whatever you come up with, it’s not going to work.
(6) Therefore, God does not exist.
If “extraordinary evidence” means that one must provide miraculous evidence for any miracle or so called extraordinary claim, it would lead to an infinite regress. In other words, if the theist kept providing miraculous evidence the objector would most likely keep asking for more evidence. It would go on and on. So in the end, it is ends up being a trap for the apologist.
Natural Causes Only?
If an “extraordinary claim” means something that is non-natural, than it must be shown that natural laws are immutable. However, natural laws are not immutable because they are descriptions of what happens, not prescriptions of what must happen. Natural laws don’t cause anything, they only describe what happens in nature.
In asking whether “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” it is also important to understand the difference between deductive reasoning which is called a priori (prior to looking at the facts) and inductive reasoning is called a posteriori (after seeing the evidence). If one has decided that many of the events in the New Testament are not possible (because of an a priori commitment to naturalism), it will impact how they interpret the evidence (after examining it). But whether a miracle has occurred is not determined by a priori probabilities but by a posteriori facts.
Who was David Hume?
Quite frankly, the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” is a phrase that has a Humean aroma to it. David Hume ( 1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher and historian. Although many of his arguments have been found to be problematic in contemporary philosophy, his legacy and writings live on in the academic arena. Almost all the skeptical arguments against miracles (such as the resurrection of Jesus) in the Bible can be traced back to Hume. As James F. Sennett and Douglas Groothuis say in their book In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment, “It is no exaggeration to say that, from his days to ours, the vast majority of philosophical attacks against the rationality of theism have borne an unmistakable Humean aroma.” Hume left us with his argument against miracles:
1. Natural law is by definition a description of a regular occurrence. 2. A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence. 3. The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare. 4. A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence. 5. Therefore, a wise man should never believe in miracles.
A response to Hume’s argument:
1. Even if people saw Jesus rise from the dead, according to Hume, you as a wise person, should not believe it. It seems a bit odd to something wrong to disbelieve what you verified to be true. 2. Hume confuses probability with evidence. He does not weigh the evidence for each rare event; rather he adds the evidence for all regular events unworthy of belief. This is flawed reasoning. The issue is not rather we have an event is that is regular or rare, the issue is whether we have good evidence for the event. We must weigh the evidence for the event in question, not add the evidence for all previous events. 3. Hume’s Weltanschauung (the German word for worldview) is cleary seen here. He rules out miracles in advance and hides behind his presuppositions. 4. Hume’s “uniform” experience either begs the question or is special pleading. It begs the question if Hume presumes to know the experience is uniform in advance of the evidence. (6)
There have been more responses to Hume’s arguments than I can count on my hand. Even people were writing counterarguments to Hume in his own day. To read one of the more current responses to Hume, see John Earman. Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles.
I have been told that the resurrection of Jesus requires extraordinary evidence. And I do agree that the resurrection of Jesus in not an ordinary claim. But the statement, “extraordinary claims require evidence” can cut both ways. One can’t dismiss the historical data for the resurrection simply because it is a so- called “miracle claim.” We need to remember that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical claim.
Therefore, historians can and do apply historical tests to the very documents that discuss the resurrection. After all, it is certain aspects of the historical method that makes it possible to attempt to demonstrate that the resurrection of Jesus didn’t happened. Hence, it is falsifiable. For exampple, I remember watching documentary film by Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron called The Lost Tomb of Jesus. The documentary was an attempt to demonstrate that archeological evidence warranted that Jesus’ tomb was found. So we need to be consistent in our use of the historical method to show what can and can’t happen.
So in my opinion, we must at least be willing to look at the five well-evidenced facts granted by virtually all scholars who study the historical Jesus: (see See Habermas. G.R. and Licona, M. L. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus). These five facts are:
1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion 2. Jesus’ followers sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead 3. Early eyewitness testimony to belief in Jesus’ resurrection 4. The conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother, James 5. Paul, once an enemy of the early faith, became a commited follower of Jesus the Messiah
And one must explain how naturalistic theories that have been presented throughout the centuries have better explanatory power for: 1. Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimatha 2. The discovery of Jesus’ tomb 3. The postmortem appearances 4. The origin of the disciple’s belief in Jesus resurrection 5. A high Christology in a very short time period/The birth of the Messianic Movement-pre 70 A.D.
What about the other religious claims such as Mormonism, Islam, etc., who make extraordinary claims? For starters, in evaluating any extraordinary claim, here are a few guidelines:
1. What does it claim to know? 2. How does it claim to know it? 3. What is the evidence for it? 4. What is the historical and religious context for the claim?
No thinking Christian that I know has a problem with giving reasons or evidence for their beliefs such as the resurrection of Jesus. I also remember hearing a debate between William Lane Craig and a skeptic. When Dr. Craig asked the skeptic what kind of evidence would convince him that Jesus rose from the dead, the skeptic said a 20 foot Jesus would have to appear to him. Dr. Craig responded by saying that the skeptic would probably just say it was a hallucination. This is the way it is with many people. C.S. Lewis addressed this issue when he wrote in Miracles:
Those who assume that miracles cannot happen are merely wasting their time by looking into the [evidence]: we know in advance what results they will find for they have begun by begging the question, pg 304
Also, we want to avoid false analogies. This type of analogy is said to be false when it compares two objects that are actually relevantly dissimilar or if the points of comparison are used to draw a conclusion that simply does not follow. For example, skeptics like to compare the resurrection of Jesus with belief in Big Foot, UFO’s, etc. This gets really old. I don’t have any historical or religious context for Big Foot or UFO’s. And the last time I looked, there is quite a bit of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and very little if any for Big Foot, or UFO’s. So it would be nice if skeptics would stop with the poor analogies.
I don’t expect the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” to go away. It is so engrained in skeptics minds that it comes up with almost any conversation with them. There is no need for the apologist to keep providing evidence for the one who keeps bringing this objection to the table. I doubt much will ever satisfy them. To see more on this, see the post “What evidence will satisfy hard-core unbelief?”
Sources: 1. Kreeft, P. Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1994, 101-120. 2. Geisler, N. L., BECA, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book. 1999, 481. 3. Ibid, pgs 470-481. 4. Ibid. 5. Ben Witherington III. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001, 12. 6. See Geisler, N.L., and Frank Turek. I Do Not Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 2004, 197-217.