What Is a Miracle, Anyway?
By Craig S. Keener
Beliefs are not only a matter of evidence but also a matter of the interpretive grids through which we read the evidence. If a preacher gets struck by lightning, does this mean that God is judging a hypocrite? That the Devil hates preachers? Or maybe just that preachers, like other people, shouldn’t run around too much outside during thunderstorms?
The same issue arises with miracle claims. Everyone acknowledges the occurrence of some anomalies—experiences that do not easily fit current understandings of nature. But do we think of it differently if a striking anomaly happens just when some people pray for it to happen? Or if it happens on multiple occasions, just when some people pray for it to happen? Or if a particularly improbable anomaly happens after someone predicts it?
Because of different assumptions, different people require different standards of evidence. Someone particularly gullible may accept as a miracle anything that anyone claims to be such. Someone particularly skeptical may reject an event as a miracle regardless of the attestation and natural improbability. Someone who believes in a God active in the universe allows for the potential of miracles occurring; someone adamantly opposed to God’s existence cannot allow for that possibility. As we shall see, skepticism is no less a historically conditioned assumption than the reverse.
But speaking of miracles occurring, what is a miracle? Good question.
What Is a Miracle, Anyway?
One problem for anyone writing a book about miracles is that there is no universally agreed-upon definition. In popular usage, miracles might include the New York Mets winning the World Series in 1969 or the Anaheim Angels winning it in 2002. While it might indeed take a miracle at least for a team including any Craig Keeners to win a baseball game, this book is using the term in a more precise way. Still, not too precise.
Extraordinary Divine Action
Probably the most common definition of a miracle throughout history, from Augustine to Aquinas, has been a divine action that transcends the ordinary course of nature and so generates awe. By “transcending the ordinary course of nature,” these thinkers don’t just mean an unusually awesome sunset. They mean something you would never expect to happen on its own.
Now, that is a somewhat subjective definition, because some things are more unexpected than others. Likewise, not everybody responds to even the most dramatic “miracles” with awe. In the Bible, when God parted the sea so his people could escape their pursuers, his people were impressed. Their pursuers, by contrast, had a different theology. They didn’t doubt that the God of their former slaves had some power (he was, after all, a god), but they were sure that their own gods (including their king) were stronger, so they continued their pursuit.
David Hume, whom you’ll meet more officially in chapter 3, defined a miracle as a violation of natural law. One problem with this definition is that barely any of the biblical miracles, which Hume has at least partly in view, ever claimed to violate natural law. Even the particularly dramatic miracle of God’s parting of the sea did not work against natural law: the Bible says that God used a strong east wind to part the sea (Exod. 14:21). A strong-enough wind can move water; what meteorologists call “wind setdown” sometimes does. But moving water in such a way as to part the sea, letting all the Israelites cross precisely when their lives depended on it, does not look very much like an accident. The odds of such a coincidence are so low that ordinarily, for practical purposes, we would not seriously consider them. Even in dramatic acts of God in the Bible, God typically uses what he has already created rather than starting over by creating something new.
There are other problems with Hume’s definition of miracle (not least his definitions of violation and natural law), but suffice it to note for now that his definition is unhelpful for the present subject. Apart from creation, the virgin birth, and the new creation introduced with Jesus’s bodily resurrection, the Bible itself does not claim many miracles in the law-violating sense. A book giving examples of such miracles today might prove rather concise.
Theologians today thus often echo the more traditional historic approach to miracles, referring to them as “special divine action.” This label is meant to differentiate miracles from divine action more generally, since Christians affirm that God works in all sorts of ways around us all the time. But what is the cutoff where “general” divine action becomes “special” divine action? How do we classify, for example, an extraordinarily fast recovery from surgery?
The boundaries are fuzzy, but we can at least provide paradigmatic examples of each. By analogy, the boundary between “long hair” and “short hair” may be unclear, but most of us would at least recognize Samson’s proverbial hair as long and the hair on a mostly bald head (mine, for example) as short. In the same way, those of us who believe in God regard life as God’s gift to everyone who is alive, but if someone comes back to life who has been clinically dead for an hour, and suffers no brain damage, most of us regard that as a miracle. Between examples that would convince nearly everyone and those that would convince scarcely anyone exists a broad middle range that will probably include some inauthentic cases and exclude some genuine ones; but enough genuine and convincing ones should remain to make the point. Miracles don’t always happen—but sometimes they do.