Before a materialist, naturalistic culture, Christians believe and are
called upon to defend their belief that God created and governs the
universe. One theme of Christian philosophy and apologetics is to
understand and explain why biblical accounts of miracles should be
believed, what miracles are and are not, how they relate to natural
processes, and what they reveal to us about God.
A miracle is a special act of God that
interrupts the natural course of events. The Christian conception of
the miraculous immediately depends on the existence of a theistic God.
If the theistic God exists, miracles are possible. If there is a God
who can act, then there can be acts of God. The only way to show that
miracles are impossible is to disprove the existence of God.
The above statement immediately calls for
clarification: what are "special acts" of God? How are they known when
they occur? There must be specific distinguishing characteristics of
miracles before one can analyze events that possess these
characteristics. Simply to say a miracle is a singularity is
insufficient. Singularities occur in nature without obvious divine
Theists define miracles in either a weak sense or a
strong sense. Following Augustine, the weaker definition describes a
miracle as "a portent [which] is not contrary to nature, but contrary
to our knowledge of nature" (Augustine, 21.8).
Others, following Thomas Aquinas, define a miracle
in the strong sense of an event that is outside natureís power,
something only done through supernatural power. This latter, stronger
sense is important to apologists. A miracle is a divine intervention,
a supernatural exception to the regular course of the natural world,
Atheist Antony Flew put it well: "A miracle is something which would
never have happened had nature, as it were, been left to its own
devices" (Flew, 346). Natural laws describe naturally caused
regularities; a miracle is a supernaturally caused singularity.
To expand on this definition, we need some
understanding of what is meant by natural law. Broadly, a
natural law is a general description of the usual orderly way in which
the world operates. It follows, then, that a miracle is an unusual,
irregular, specific way in which God acts within the world.
Probability of Miracles.
Whether we can know if miracles actually
happened depends on answers to three questions: (1) "are miracles
possible?" (2) "are New Testament documents reliable?" (3) "were the
New Testament witnesses reliable?"
An often overlooked argument is that for the
probability of miracles. It is true that philosophy (i.e., arguments
for Godís existence) shows miracles are possible but only
history reveals whether they are actual. But it is also true
that, granting existence of a theistic God, miracles are
A theistic God has the ability to perform
miracles since he is all-powerful or omnipotent. Second, he has
the desire to perform miracles because he is all-knowing or
omniscient and all-good or omnibenevolent. One who examines
history to see whether God has performed any miracles already can know
that God is the kind of God who would if he could, and he
Why would God perform miracles if he could? By
nature and will he is the kind of God who desires to communicate with
his creatures and do good for them. And a miracle by definition is an
event that does this very thing. Miracles heal, restore, bring back
life, communicate Godís will, vindicate his attributes, and many more
things that are in accord with his nature. Such things befit the
nature of the One performing them (the Creator and Redeemer) and the
need of the one for whom they are performed (the creature). By
analogy, what good earthly father who had the ability to rescue his
drowning child would not do everything in his power to do so? And if
he had all power, then we know in advance that his goodness would lead
him to do so. How much more our heavenly Father? So we know in advance
of looking at the evidence for the actuality of miracles that if God
exists they are not only possible but probable.
Further, if a miracle is an act of God to confirm
the word of God through a messenger of God, then it is
reasonable that God would want to do miracles. Through miracles, God
confirms his prophets (Heb. 2:3-4). This is the way God confirmed
Moses (Exod. 4) and Elijah (1 Kings 18). And this is the way he
confirmed Jesus (John 3:2; Acts 2:22). How better could God confirm to
us who were his spokespersons. And it is a priori probably that an
intelligent, personal, moral Creator would want to communicate in the
most effective way with his creatures.
Reality of Miracles.
While philosophy makes supernatural events
possible and the nature of a theistic God shows they are probable,
only history reveals whether they are actual. But "history" here
includes both the history of the cosmos and the history of the human
Actuality of the Miraculous in Cosmic History.
A fact seldom fully appreciated is that even
before we look at human history we can know that miraculous events are
not only possible but actual. The very cosmological argument,
by which we know God exists, also proves that a supernatural event has
occurred. For if the universe had a beginning and, therefore, a
Beginner, then God brought the universe into existence out of nothing.
But ex nihilo creation out of nothing is the greatest supernatural
event of all. If Jesusí
making much bread out of a
little bread is a miracle, then how much more is making everything out
of nothing? Turning water into wine pales in comparison with creating
the first water molecules. So, the surprising conclusion is that, if
the Creator exists, then the miraculous is not only possible but
actual. The history of the cosmos, then, reveals that the miraculous
has occurred in making something out of nothing; making life out of
nonlife; making the rational (mind) out of the non rational. What
greater miracles could occur in human history than are already known
to have occurred in cosmic history?
The Miraculous in Human History.
Contrary to the widely perceived misconception, if God
exists then we should come to human history with the expectation of
the miraculous, not with a naturalistic bias against it. For, as we
have seen, if the Creator
exists, then miracles are not only possible and probable, but the
miraculous has already occurred in cosmic history. God has already
broken through supernaturally in the history of the cosmos and life
leading up to human history. In view of this, the most reasonable
expectation then, is to ask
not whether but where he has broken through in human
The reality of miracles in human history is based on
the reliability of the New Testament documents and the reliability of
the New Testament witnesses. For given the trustworthiness of their
combined testimony it is beyond reasonable dispute that the New
Testament records numerous miraculous events.
Dimensions of Miracles.
In the Bibleís pattern, a miracle has
First, miracles have an unusual character.
It is an out-of-the-ordinary event in contrast to the regular
pattern of events in the natural world. As a "wonder" it attracts
attention by its uniqueness. A burning bush that is not consumed, fire
from heaven, and a person strolling on water are not normal
occurrences. Hence, they draw the interest of observers.
Second, miracles have a theological dimension.
A miracle is an act of God that presupposes a God who acts. The
view that a God beyond the universe created it, controls it, and can
interfere in it is theism.
Third, miracles have a moral dimension. They
bring glory to God by manifesting his moral character. Miracles are
visible acts that reflect the invisible nature of God. No true
miracle, then, is evil, because God is good. Miracles by nature aim to
produce and/or promote good.
Fourth, miracles have a doctrinal dimension.
Miracles in the Bible are connected directly or indirectly with "truth
claims". They are ways to tell a true prophet from a false
prophet (Deut. 18:22). They confirm the truth of God through the
servant of God (Heb. 2:3-4). Message and miracle go hand-in-hand.
Fifth, miracles have a teleological dimension.
Unlike magic, they are never performed to entertain (see Luke
23:8). Miracles have the distinctive purpose to glorify the Creator
and to provide evidence for people to believe by accrediting the
message of God through the prophet of God.
Theistic Context for a
Miracle. An essential feature of
biblical miracles is their theistic context. Only within a theistic
worldview can a miracle be identified. When Moses came upon the
burning bush (Exod. 3:1-6), he began to investigate it because of its
unusual nature. The accompanying word from God told Moses that this
event was not merely unusual, but a miracle. If Moses reported to
convinced atheists what had happened at the burning bush, they would
have been within their rights to doubt the story. In an atheistic
universe it makes no sense to speak about acts of God. A burning bush
and a voice would seem to the nontheist no more miraculous than the
voice from heaven did to those who took it to be thunder (John 12:29),
But granting that God exists and something about his rational and
moral nature, these defining characteristics give miracles their
We must know what we are looking for before we can
recognize a miracle. First, miracles stand in contrast to nature,
which is Godís regular and naturally predictable way of working in the
world. Miracles are an unusual and humanly unpredictable way in which
God sometimes intervenes in the events of the world. A miracle may
look like any unusual occurrence, but it has a supernatural cause. It
is performed with divine power, according to the divine mind, for a
divine purpose, in order to authenticate a divine message or purpose.
(from Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker
Book House, 1999)
Augustine, City of God
C. Brown, "Miracle, Wonder, Sign," in Dictionary of New
A. Flew, "Miracles," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy
N. L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind
D. Geivett and G. Habermas, In Defense of Miracles
C. S. Lewis, Miracles
R. Swinburne, Miracles
F. R. Tennant, Miracle and Its Philosophical Presuppositions
Dr. Steve Sullivan
Dr. Norm Geisler
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute