Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion

How Convincing Are Miracles?


I like the above image, because it’s so absurd. Not that the miracle itself is absurd, but that someone could see such a thing and still dismiss it.

A while back, we had a discussion on this blog about the effectiveness of miracles. Not the “oh, my aunt has a friend that knows someone who had back pain until it was prayed over and now it’s gone” variety, but amazing, in-your-face miracles that simply can’t be explained. Like seeing a man walk on the sea. Or seeing someone whose legs are atrophied because he was lame from birth suddenly begin running and jumping on legs that have been fully restored. Or seeing an ocean separate before you so that you could walk on dry land between two walls of water. In other words, the kinds of miracles talked about in the Bible.

What would it be like to witness something like that?

Before we tackle that question, let’s consider the actual purpose of miracles in more detail. Take, for example, the account of Peter and John healing the lame man in Acts 3. Here, Peter and John encounter a man at the gate of the temple who had been lame from birth. He asked for alms, but Peter replied that he had no silver or gold; instead, he commanded the lame man to walk in the name of Jesus. Of course, the lame man was then able to leap up and run around. This was a marvelous thing to do for a lame person — and obviously, one of the main reasons Peter and John healed him was because they had compassion on him.

But it’s also apparent that the miracle served another purpose:

And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s. And when Peter saw it he addressed the people…
— vs 9-12

Peter suddenly had the attention of everyone who saw the miracle or recognized the lame man. And that’s no surprise. Just imagine how you’d feel if you had witnessed such a thing — if you had seen the atrophied legs grow and take shape. Wouldn’t you be inclined to listen to whatever Peter and John might have to say? You’d already be inclined to believe something fantastic, because there’s no natural explanation for what you would have witnessed with the lame man. And as we see in verse 4 of the next chapter, many of the witnesses believed what Peter and John said and became Christians.

The Bible is actually fairly consistent in its use of miracles. For instance, John 20:30-31 says this:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

In Genesis 41, when Joseph has an opportunity to decipher the meaning behind Pharaoh’s dreams, he first recounts the dreams back to Pharaoh (something he couldn’t have known on his own) as a sign that God is speaking to him. Centuries later, when God tells Moses to go to Egypt and deliver the Children of Israel, God performs miracles so Moses will have faith in his power. During Moses’ discussions with Pharaoh and the subsequent Exodus, miracles are used many times to show people God’s will. Gideon was shown miracles so he would trust in God’s instructions. In the New Testament, Jesus performed many miracles to show people that he had been sent from God, and his apostles later followed suit. Thomas was allowed to touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side, since he was having trouble believing what he was seeing. Paul was given a miracle on his way to Damascus to show him that his persecution of Christians was wrong.

Throughout the Bible, miracles are used as evidence. They are used to convince people who were not convinced by other means.

So if that’s how God operated in the Bible, why don’t we see miracles today? Again, I’m not talking about the anecdotes you hear about someone’s back pain going away. I’m talking about real, immediate miracles that can be witnessed. There’s a book and website called Why Won’t God Heal Amputees? It’s a great question. Just imagine what a game-changer it would be if you turned on the major news networks one day and saw a person’s limb grow back through the power of prayer. And not just that person’s, but many others as well. How could such an event be explained away?

So why doesn’t God do that? If he performed miracles in the past so that people would believe, why doesn’t he do it now?

Some believers will say God doesn’t do those kinds of miracles today, because they don’t convince many people. To illustrate this, they point to the episodes in the gospels where Jesus performed a miracle, but it failed to convince the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day. But really, how likely is this? If you were to witness an amputee’s leg grow back, would you really deny it? What would you have to gain by doing so? If someone demonstrated that kind of power, wouldn’t you want to know whatever message they had to give?

And if that were true about the Pharisees and chief priests, etc, why did Jesus bother doing the miracles? And why does the Gospel of John say that the miracles were performed so that people could believe? Obviously, the miracles must have been at least somewhat effective — and if God wants everyone to be saved, wouldn’t even one additional person’s belief be worth doing those kinds of miracles today?

In fact, if you really think about it, when the gospels repeatedly say that Jesus’ miracles failed to convince the religious leaders of the day, it probably says much more about the quality of the “miracles” being performed than it does the mindset of those who weren’t convinced.

When it comes down to it, most people are not obstinate enough to deny reality when it’s staring them in the face. Think of every movie you’ve ever seen where one character is trying to convince another of something fantastic. Let’s take Back to the Future as an example, since most people should be familiar with it. When Marty was trying to convince Doc Brown that he was from the future, Doc was very skeptical. Even when Marty tried to prove it by saying who was President in 1985, etc. Those were all details that could have been made up. But once Marty could explain how Doc Brown got the bump on his head, Doc realized Marty could not have known that through sheer intuition. And finally, the most logical explanation for everything was that Marty was telling the truth and had actually come from the future. But if Doc had held out and refused to believe even if Marty showed him the DeLorean and took him on a trip through time, the story would have lost its believability — and not because of the time travel premise.

In the same way, if it became a known fact that prayer could visibly heal people of egregious injuries, there would be no rational reason to dis-believe it. In other words, to answer our original question, miracles would be very convincing. And there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why God would refuse to use them. So the fact that they don’t happen is very good evidence to me that the Christian god is simply imaginary.

137 thoughts on “How Convincing Are Miracles?”

  1. I came from a Southern Baptist background. The Southern Baptists believe that miracles ceased at the “end of the age”. They died with the disciples along with prophecy and speaking in tongues and a host of other supernatural acts. They use scripture to prove this, though I don’t remember right off hand which ones. As with anything else scripture can be twisted and manipulated to prove anything you want. They want. We don’t see these miracles anymore, so that must be the explanation.

    My former pastor preached a sermon on this. I remember wondering why God would stop doing miracles just because twelve men died. Made no sense to me. But just like the rest of it I lapped it right up because it supported why we don’t see miracles and I could keep believing.

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  2. Hey Nate, hope you have been well.

    Great post you have here. I think you will run into a problem with the theists who happen to frequently visit your site and have read a little philosophy. The conclusion that the god of christianity is imaginary doesn’t follow from the premise that miracles no longer happen.

    The problem I have with miracles is twofold; why would god need miracles? And what does it benefit god to alter the laws of nature, laws he must have felt confident were good? If this god has any omni-capabilities, why would it need to resort to tricks to convince mere mortals when he could achieve this end through other subtle means?

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  3. Why I love your posts is because you have been on the front line , so to speak.
    Your voice is so much more convincing than someone like me.
    Whenever I get bombarded by the type of fanatic you claim you once were I think of you.
    It makes me think that perhaps there still is hope for some of these nitwits.

    I wrote a piece a long time ago about belief in god and miracles (re the Holocaust) and it concluded :
    ”However, if the Jewish people have understandably struggled to forgive the
    perpetrators of these crimes they have, unconditionally forgiven God, which is
    quite amazing, all things considered.”

    That was one miracle god chose not to perform.
    Excellent post, as always, Nate.

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  4. I think I disagree with you on the tendency for people to believe part. I do think people would give up their stubborness quickly enough if they experienced whatever event first-hand, but its quite possible that a large number of individuals be convinced of something fantastic and the modern joe still find it hogwash. Heck, we do it all the time. So I think the bible taking a jab at its time’s unbelieving religious rulers can still be logically consistent. We are (or at least we westerners) quite stubbornly bound to hold to a current overall paradigm for a bit unless overwhelming evidence or direct experience pushes otherwise.

    Now on the other hand if miracles are happening today, I dont think it would be comfortable to think theyre done for evidence. This may sound contradictory to what I just said but I do think miracles with free reign to be done for evidencd would indeed give us that overwhelming evidence (by now). Id expect to see more and more consistently.

    But i cant put out that miracles dont happen because they dont happen for proof. That would be a narrow Christian-only focus thing to do. Still if they do… well Ill scratch my head either way.

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  5. Oh and I might could think of a couple anti-miracle postures for god, but I feel like theyd be only in reply to the Christian dogma here. And to me, i think once we’ve jumped off into those scary truth waters, Christianity is just some booey way off in the distance next to a bunch of other strange things at sea.

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  6. Perhaps not you or I, but for many? Oh yea, no affect.

    The first thought would be a squint of the eyes and a “how did you do that?!” statement, followed by an investigation for mirrors, light, wires, or some sort of magician’s trickery. For others, it would be a breaking out of the proverbial slide-rules in an attempt to quantify and qualify said miracle. And for the theists (for there would be many itching to discredit the new upstart in their midst), it would be the “power of the devil!” or some other such nonsense.

    The rational reason? Pfft! As if most people act primarily out of rational motive! No, most act out of what they love most: power, ideology, religion, or just the safety from the fear that comes when one’s worldview is suddenly and violently shifted (which is also why hallucinogenic drugs are so dangerous for many).

    In the end, the reactions would differ, but the answer would be the same: “I don’t know how you did that, but it ain’t no God!”

    Cue Ark, to tell me how stupid I am (as if I was listening to him). 😀

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  7. Hey Nate ! Glad to see your new Post. As a Deist I don’t beleive in Miracles nor do I need to . I am however continually amazed at God’s Creation and am happy to be a part of it. I remember watching an HBO documentary in 2001 called, “A Quest for Miracles” It was a very sad movie showing the scams of Benny Hinn and Reinhard Bunnke. Why don’t we ever see actual Doctor’s reports (preferrably 2) detailing these miracles ? They promise to provide them but never seem to get around to it.

    I too have watched youtube videos from whywontgodhealamputees. He certainly makes some valid points. profmyth is also a youtuber to watch.

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  8. Thanks to you all for the great comments!

    D’Ma — sounds like your background was very similar to mine. The church of Christ also teaches that miracles are a thing of the past, and like you, I always felt like the verses they pointed to in support of that could have been read many different ways. Thanks for weighing in!

    Ark — thanks for the kind words!

    Don — I actually have to disagree with you. I do think there are plenty of people who would remain skeptical if they did not witness the miracle first hand. And even if they did witness it, I know there are people who would be looking for tricks, illusions, etc — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Put them in the “Doubting Thomas” category, if you will. But once we’ve ruled out deception, I think it would be difficult for anyone to dismiss watching a man’s amputated limb regrow right before their eyes. How could something like that be faked? Maybe you could find a very few individuals who are as stubborn as you’re describing, but I really don’t think the problem would be as widespread as you seem to. But maybe God will take us up on the challenge and regrow a limb or two so we can test it out, eh? 😉

    Thanks for the comment!

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  9. Hi kcchief1, I wouldn’t want to base my conclusions on Benny Hinn! But there are quite a few “actual Doctor’s reports” around if you search for them. Here are a few:

    1. Of all the thousands of claimed healings at Lourdes, an International Medical Commission found that about 60 had sufficient medical evidence to say they were miracles.

    2. An experienced medical researcher investigated a bunch of apparent healings in the US, obtained the medical documentation, talked to the doctors involved and submitted the cases to recognised specialists for second (or third) opinions, and found many that couldn’t be explained by natural means.

    3. An experienced emergency team in a well equipped US hospital worked for 40 minutes to revive a heart attack victim, unsuccessfully. After the man was officially pronounced dead, the leader of the team, a specialist heart surgeon, prayed for the man, applied the paddles one more time, and he recovered without brain damage.

    4. A New Testament scholar, married to an African woman, saw and heard of healings in her native Congo, so he decided to investigate how common such reports were, and how plausible they were. Some reports have been verified by doctors, many have not, but what the reports lack in full verification, they make up for in sheer numbers. His book, Miracles, is referenced in great detail.

    5. Philosopher Phillip Wiebe investigated reports of people seeing visions of Jesus, some of which included healing. Bart Ehrman says of his book: “I should stress that Wiebe is not a religious fanatic on a mission. He is chair of the Philosophy Department at Trinity Western University, which is to be sure, a Christian school, but it is not a place for wackos. And Wiebe is a serious scholar. His book is published by Oxford University Press.”

    These are just examples I have found time to trace, and they required me to do a lot of internet searching, find the books, purchase them and read them. To paraphrase someone better than me, you have to be willing to seek if you want to find.

    I am a member of the Why Won’t God Heal Amputees forum Nate refers to, though I’m not active now. But some time back, when I first came across the story of the heart surgeon mentioned in #3 above, I invited other members to join me in researching this matter, in an attempt to have people on both sides of the question attempt to prove or debunk the claim. Not one person was interested enough to join me in doing the research.

    I disagree quite strongly with Nate’s conclusion. I agree with those who say that miracles, whether in the NT or now, are not primarily intended as proof for the sceptical (any more than the existence of the universe is primarily intended to furnish grounds for the Cosmological argument), but I think the occurrence of miracles with good eye-witness and medical support is one of the strongest evidences of God’s existence and interest in us. I have even applied probability (Bayes Theorem) to the matter to show that they make God’s existence overwhelmingly probable.

    I don’t think we can expect God to beat us over the head with these things, but I have read enough to be convinced that an honest enquirer can find enough to make them think again.

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  10. This is my take on miracles: They are real to those who believe God exists. They are less than real to those who don’t believe God exists.

    In my personal research, I have found the cited “proofs” of healing miracles generally come from individuals who tend to believe in God to start with. (They may not be “christians” per se, but the underlying belief in God is part of their psyche.)

    I do concede that in many cases, as unkleE puts it on his blog, “something very unusual happened.” But I am more of the opinion the human mind has powers and abilities that have yet to be discovered. However if, as a result of prayers, a missing limb was restored, or severe burn scars instantly became normal skin, well, I guess I would have to concede a miracle had taken place.

    As for the parting of the Red Sea, the sun standing still, a man walking on water, and other Bible miracles, I refer readers back to the beginning of this post.

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  11. Nate!
    Glad to see you posting again.

    I agree with you in that I think scripture is pretty consistent in its presentation of miracles, and in its insistence that some people did not believe even though they saw them. Interesting that I come down on the opposite side from you on this – I think it actually lends credibility to the writers that they recorded that some didn’t believe. If I were making things up, as some claim was done regarding miracles performed by Jesus, why would I write that some people didn’t believe it? To me, that makes absolutely no sense unless it were true. If I were making up a religion, I would not make up one in which my divine representative couldn’t convince people he was divine. Even the disciples didn’t believe all the time – after nearly every miracle that’s recorded it’s said that “and they believed”, or something like it. That probably means they stopped believing sometime between the last miracle and the present one. This is a downright terrible way to represent devoted followers of your religion’s founder. Now we not only have a divine being who can’t convince people he’s divine, but we also have loyal disciples who nearly always fall back into not believing him after he “performs” a miracle. If I wanted people to follow my religion, this is the absolute last direction in which I’d take my primary protagonists. So, for me, that’s one cue that it probably is not made up.

    Just my two cents 🙂

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  12. unkleE, I did look at all of the links you provided in your previous post and only found more reports of reports. I couldn’t find 1 medical document . As I clicked on more links of links many of the sources were “no longer available” Maybe I am missing something here. A report means very little to most people. We have numerous reports of UFO sightings and of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster too. If these medical reports were true, I would think there would be reams of documents to go along with reports. The Medical Field is big on paperwork if you have ever been to a hospital and looked at your medical record.

    Speaking of the Medical Field, the Cardiologist ( Dr. Chauncey W. Crandall IV ) you mentioned who prayed for and revived a heart attack victim was also a proponent and practitioner of a very lucrative treatment, Chelation Therapy and called the treatment a “Medical Miracle”. The National Institutes of Health called Chelation “One of the Top 10 Health Frauds” in 2008. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2438277/ You might want to cite another Doctor who doesn’t use the term “Miracle” so loosely.

    Speaking of Medicine and Doctors, many people receive “Medical Miracles” simply through taking a Placebo. Placebo is a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient. Sometimes patients given a placebo treatment will have a perceived or actual improvement in a medical condition, a phenomenon commonly called the placebo effect. I attribute these “Miracles” to the will of the mind. Are Placebos from God ?

    Last but not least, The Healing at Lourdes. Articles I have read describe many of the recipients as belonging to the Catholic Faith and attibuting their healing to Mother Mary rather than Jesus. Where is this found in Scripture ? I have read many articles about how the Catholic Religion attributes healings to many of their sacred relics including pieces of the cross. If all Churches actually had a piece of the original cross as they claim, there would be enough wood to build Noah’s Ark. 🙂

    In closing, I think if God really does perform miracles He causes greater harm to His Name than good. For every 1 person who receives a miracle there are surely hundreds who say, “Why not me ?” If you could perform 1 miracle and 100 people needed it, who would you choose ?

    As always , I appreciate your comments unkleE though I agree with few of them.

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  13. Hi kcchief1, Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you appreciate my comments, sad you rarely agree, but I guess 1 out of 2 is a start!

    My references didn’t have the medical documentation, but if you read the books or websites I quoted, you’ll find them discussed there. I have only seen a small amount of the documentation myself, but the references report it.

    I’m sorry some links were not working – the internet is never permanent – but I will check them. I’ll also check what you say about Chauncey Crandall, because when I checked his credentials a few years back they were very good.

    Finally Lourdes. I am not a Catholic, and I recognise there are many things believed by some Catholics that many other christians, as well as non-christians, would think of as superstitions. But the Medical Commission rejected several thousand reports and accepted only 68, so we can have some confidence they eliminated the sort of cases you refer to.

    Thanks.

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  14. Hey kcchief1,

    I did a check of Chauncey Crandall, the heart doctor who reports a healing miracles, and you have made a mistake.

    Chelation is a procedure patented by Howard Crandall, and is “not recommended” by Chauncey Crandall. Your reference on chelation doesn’t mention him.

    So that objection to the miracles doesn’t stand. I must say I’m somewhat relieved about that!

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  15. unkleE, we do agree on one very important thing. We both believe there is a God. As a Deist, I just eliminate all of the religious dogma . He made me, I’m here to make the best of it, and if He provides an afterlife with better living conditions , all the better !

    I wouldn’t think it would be necessary to do a lot of searching or buying of books just to find Medical Documentation for Miracles. They should be available all over the Internet.

    I clicked on a link of a link you listed for Lourdes Miracles and found a little more detailed explanation about how this process works concerning the “International Medical Committee”
    In a word, the cure must be unexplainable, that is, there is no human or natural factor which could have effected the cure. (The doctors at Lourdes speak only of inexplicable cures, not “miracles.”) If, in the opinion of the International Medical Committee, there is no natural explanation for the cure, the case is then referred to the bishop of the diocese in which the individual resides.”

    So now we know the rest of the story. The International Medical Committee does not refer to the inexplicable cures as “Miracles” They turn their findings over to the Bishop of the Diocese who in turn calls them “Miracles” . http://www.doxa.ws/other/Miracles2.html

    Again there is no natural explanation for a Placebo either. It is referred to as a Phenomenon .

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  16. unkleE, I never mind being corrected with the facts. I was scanning the Link I sent to you and the Last Name matched and they were both Cardiologists. What are the chances of that ? I will try and remember to read not scan next time I send you a link. Thank you for correcting me. I never like to make mistakes like this.

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  17. kcchief1,

    I should make one thing clear. I am not trying to make you or anyone else believe healing miracles occur, and if you check my comments you’ll see this is so. The most I said was: “there are quite a few “actual Doctor’s reports” around if you search for them” and “an honest enquirer can find enough to make them think again”. Those are pretty modest claims.

    Of course I personally believe that they occur, and I said that too. But those quotes above are all I was attempting – to show that plausible and documented claims are available for anyone who wishes to check them out. Your conclusions are for you to decide, not for me to argue.

    Best wishes.

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  18. PS. No worries about the mistaken identity, it is easy enough to do when presented with a lot of info. I just wanted to set the record straight. Thanks.

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  19. At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I have found new links to replace a couple of those that were busted, including this Fox News account of the emergency room miracle recounted by Dr Crandall.

    Do you suggest this is a Placebo effect? What other explanation would you give? What more evidence would you (or anyone else here) want before you might give the account some credence?

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  20. Since the beginning of time there have been thousands of reports of people dying and coming back to life. It’s no longer “Front Page News” . Before the concept of embalming became more accepted in the Modern World, it was more easily explainable. A few short centuries ago, people requested a bell be placed on their tombstone with a string going down to the casket just in case this actually happened they could signal for help. Through Science we have developed instruments over the years which can detect when “Most” people are truly dead. A mirror to the nose and mouth was state of the art in the 1800’s. The instuments we used just 50 years ago weren’t as accurate as the ones we use today. My question is are the instuments we use today accurate enough to determine when ALL humans are truly dead ? Are you certain we have reached this point ? Through the advancement of instumentation we are discovering sub-atomic particles we didn’t know existed just 30 years ago. I think knowledge is an evolutionary function of living. I embrace knowledge. I think it also enhances my already deep belief in a Creator. I also think knowledge diminishes the things we once believed.

    When I was a member of a Church, my Pastor told a visiting Missionary that he had a very educated congregation. He warned him to make his stories from the Mission Field believable or he wouldn’t be invited back. He couldn’t help himself and he never was asked back. Don’t know why but thought I would throw that in for free. A very true story.

    Flog that Horse unkleE. It’s OK 🙂

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  21. I’d like to hear comments from others in the group as well. I apologize for making it appear to be a kcchief1 / unkleE Blog.

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