How Do We Know It’s A Miracle?

How Do We Know It’s A Miracle?

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Anon asks:

How is Antony Flew’s problem of identifying miracles resolved? Namely the problem of determining that an act or event is (caused strictly or exclusively from) above and beyond nature (is divine) in the sense that no future or complete human knowledge or understanding of nature (or order of nature) can disprove it being so?

I would much appreciate your input on this.

An event occurs. It is witnessed to occur, and there is no ambiguity in the observation. All agree the event has happened.

What caused the event? Could it have been God?

In one sense, yes, it must have been. Every event is caused, at base, by God. God is the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover. Briefly (as this can be looked up elsewhere), every simultaneous causal chain leading to an event must have a base, a starting primary cause.

The hoary standby: You push a rock with a stick, your muscles push your arm, the cells in your muscles squeeze, the proteins in the cell maneuver, and so on and on down, but not forever, the string of causes bottoming out at some initial cause. Which, from Aristotle on up, is said to be God.

That’s not going to convince Flew (though it should). So let’s take a more wondrous miracle (a tautology), like raising a man from the dead. Not just “brain dead”, which medically means alive, or “heart-stopped dead”, which medically means alive. But dead-dead, like Lazarus rotting away in his tomb, long enough to start stinking.

Lazarus dead, and for a while, and, lo, after a command by Jesus, he is alive again. No ambiguity here. It is the Lord, he commanded it, it happened, belief is the only choice. A miracle.

Unless you employ what I call the Alternate Explanation Fallacy. This says that any alternate explanation for the event is sufficient to disprove the miracle.

It’s easier for us today to think up Alternate Explanations for Lazarus. Say, the author of the story lied. Or the witnesses were mistaken: Lazarus was merely ill. And on and on. There is no proof for any of these, and none is ever offered. All that is required is that at least one AE can be thought of.

Recall (this is from my Uncertainty) that uncertainty is not belief or disbelief. Belief is an act, a decision: you move from uncertainty into a prediction. Uncertainty is a deduction based on whatever evidence you accept.

For instance, you suspect, but obviously cannot prove, Lazarus’s witnesses were lying, because people lie all time about the wonderful (you believe). This is enough to move the miracle from certain to uncertain, but it’s not even close to moving disbelief into certainty, or even into likely. Yet you still jump, act, decide, predict that it was mundane if you want to believe it was mundane, even though there is uncertainty.

The AE Fallacy is obviously a fallacy if you conclude no miracle with certainty. So that if the only evidence against a miracle is that an alternate explanation can be thought of, with no proof for the AE except desire, then there is no good reason to doubt the miracle.

Getting to Flew’s point, we think Lazarus rising is a miracle because we know such things cannot be done. That is, there is no known cause, and plenty of reasons to think such a cause is impossible, of raising a man from the long-dead. Especially then. If it happened, there are no alternate explanations; the only cause is a miracle. It is therefore rational to believe.

Same with turning water into wine by command. It should be impossible. It wasn’t: it happened: it’s a miracle.

There are plenty of other cases where ambiguity is present, as Flew suggests. We see this in medical cures that happen spontaneously, where the doctors involved profess ignorance of the cause. Well, we know enough about doctors by now to know that this is not definitive. Plus we sometimes see causes of supposed medical miracles discovered later.

This is why the Church takes (or used to take) great care with claims of miracles, to weight and sort all the evidence, in an attempt to remove ambiguity. It isn’t always possible. Uncertainty remains, but decisions must still be made.

And then there are all kinds of events that aren’t witnessed that are miracles, or could be. A car swerves to avoid a new rut in the road, and turns down a different road, whereas if the rut was not there it would have gone down this road, the one you happened to be crossing, and you would be the new entombed Lazarus.

This scenario is entirely counterfactual. Who can say how the rut got there? Was it your guardian angel? Or was it natural, guided only by secondary causes? Yet if there are secondary causes, there must be that Primary Cause, as above.

Realizing we can’t say everything about miracles in 800 words, we can say that no matter what, whether you decide miracle or mundane, faith is involved. We all have faith.

Soon it will be Christmas, where we celebrate the miracle of miracles. In this I have faith.

See also all these articles on miracles.

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  1. JohnM

    All the events in the New Testament are, in fact, hearsay, thus cannot be presented as evidence.

    Many years ago I suffered with sciatica, it was so bad that I could hardly walk. One evening the Pastor, my family and friends prayed for me. The next morning the pain was gone and I could walk without difficulty. That evening I had an appointment with my Doctor. He was amazed and said such rapid healing was impossible.

    Was that a miracle?

  2. Ye Olde Statistician

    All the events in the New Testament are, in fact, hearsay, thus cannot be presented as evidence.
    Recte: Cannot be presented in English-derived criminal law cases. All the events in Herodotus are hearsay, too. All those in Thucydides and Tacitus, likewise. Not to mention Plutarch, Seutonius, Sallust, and the rest of the gang. Come to think of it, unless you have a supercollider in your basement, any testimony from the LHC is hearsay to you or me.

  3. There is more documentary evidence to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than there is to the existence of Gaius Julius Caesar. Much of it by his sworn enemies.

    I have seen too many miracles in my life to even begin to contemplate the non-existence of God. Far too many to doubt the existence of a higher power. I have even been to the second tomb of Lazarus on Cyprus, in the oldest extant church. (Stupid French stole and then lost his bones a thousand years ago.)

  4. Vermont Crank

    What Jesus did was hearsay, what Jesus taught was hearsay, His death on the Cross was hearsay, and His Resurrection was hearsay?

    That is your conclusion from reading Scripture.

    That isn’t a miracle. That is a moronic and mundane heresy

    Is that too churlish?

  5. DAA

    Ye Olde Statistician has precisely nailed it: almost everything “we know” is based on trust. We are not that systematic, let alone rational and in possession of all the knowledge we believe we have. Most of our lives are based on belief, not on demonstration and verification. The old adage “trust the gods, but verify” is actually quite removed from the truth: most of our time we trust the gods, and do not verify. The best thing we have left is, at least, to verify which god we are trusting at the moment. Choose the best god and rest. Or should I say

    “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.” Ps. 46 ?

  6. Briggs


    Somebody has written to say there is “ALWAYS” ambiguity in observations. Accept that. Then it applies to everything, science, miracles, everything.

    And we are then in the precise same position. We have observational evidence for a proposition, from which we deduce a non-certain probability. Then if we act on that probability, and decide the proposition is really true or false, we are still left with faith.

  7. Gerorge Braincephalos

    “There is more documentary evidence to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than there is to the existence of Gaius Julius Caesar. Much of it by his sworn enemies.”

    Literally false. What of it is by his sworn enemies? The Talmud is written in 500 AD. They are blaspheming astory character by that point not eyewitnesses. And there will always be more evidence for an emperor than a peasant, like coins and memorials made in his time not just centuries later.

    But the falseness of this claim has no bearing on the historiciry of Jesus since it doesn’t require such stupid, obviously false, retarded, and counterproductive arguments.

  8. C-Marie

    JohnM … Definitely a healing by Jesus!! Thank you Dear Saviour!
    God bless, C-Marie

  9. JohnM

    Thank You, C-Marie for an answer to my question that none of the others addressed.

    They seem to want “Pie in the sky when they die”, rather “Steak on the plate whilst they wait”.

    I do not have to wonder if Gaius Julius Caesar existed, he has no bearing on my life in 2022 or 2023, but the existence of Jesus does. It is only by faith and experience that we know that Jesus lives, not hearsay.

  10. Ann Cherry

    Enjoyed this column, and the comments, Prof. Briggs. I happen to be listening to “St. Francis of Assisi” by G.K. Chesterton, and Chapter 9 is an excellent, and I think very on-point, discussion of miracles, beginning with the awesome angelic vision St. Francis had before receiving the Stigmata. That is really something.

    “There is only one intelligible reason why a man does not believe in miracles, and that is that he does believe in materialism.”

    (Journalist and Catholic convert) G.K. Chesterton’s book is not too long, and I recommend it for everyone including dedicated materialists, heretics, separated brothers and sisters, and even your atheist/communist relative.

    Everyone loves St. Francis, and as G.K. notes, this is because he reflects Christ, like the “brother moon” reflects the sun, less brilliant, but closer and more tangible. He bridges the gap, so to speak, from the material to the non-material.

    Regarding miracles, there’s that story where the teacher asks her students to list the 7 natural wonders of the world. One little girl lists, “To think, to see, to hear, to touch, to taste, to smell, to love…”. That’s seven, but we can add, “to hope”. Theological hope is a miracle and a gift. Merry Christmas, Briggs and friends. God bless us, everyone.

  11. C-Marie

    An unquestionable miracle was Jesus’ healing of the withered hand … unless …. one refuses scripture as being true.
    God bless, C-Marie

  12. gareth

    Yes, Merry Christmas. God Bless ! and keep up the good work 🙂

  13. Uncle Mike

    Dirt poor. Born in a stable! Laid in a hay pitch. Swaddled in rags. His parents owned a donkey and a hut and that’s about it. This was 2,000 years ago when being poor meant facing starvation much of the time, in a desert country overrun by the Romans, the first fascists, exceeding in brutality in a brutal age.

    Poor doesn’t qualify; unimaginably poor. And yet this almost utterly deprived baby survived, grew up, and founded a religion which persists to this very day, based on love, of all things. And some believe He saved the world!

    Now that’s a miracle for you.

  14. C-Marie

    My understanding is that St. Joseph was a carpenter and his work was doing carpentering, so he was able to provide for the family. My expectation is that St. Joseph taught the art of carpentering to Jesus so that He would be able to provide for Himself. I rather think that in His teen and early twenties, that St. Joseph and Jesus worked on projects together.

    St. Joseph and Mother Mary, when she was pregnant with Jesus, traveled to Bethlehem as that was where St. Joseph had to register due to the Roman Census, and naturally his wife went with him.

    God our Father knew that there would be no room in the Inns there, but He had them go through the rejections anyway, and their faith in Him was tested and was found not wanting. I think that the stable was clean and the straw was clean, and Mother Mary gave birth to Jesus there.

    One of the Gospels tells us that God sent the three of them to Egypt until Herod died, and then they went back home. God did warn them in a dream that Herod wanted to kill the baby, and in obedience to Him, they started on the journey to Egypt. My personal idea is that since St. Joseph and Mother Mary had the gold and frankincense and myhrr from the three wisemen, , that they had funds so as to obtain housing and more in Egypt, and probably lived in a Jewish community there for the duration.

    St. Joseph and Mother Mary exercised their Faith in God constantly, and God honored this Love for Him.

    Merry Christmas Everyone!! God bless, C-Marie

  15. DAA

    Far from me to pretend to have real answers to this question. There is reason to be used in everything, but we must acknowledge that we do not know anything completely and precisely. Even to accept that some line of thought proves something depends upon faith. There is no faith in saying “I am holding an apple”, but then you could argue that “You could be deceived by your senses”. We see the world and say there is an is. There something out there than can be seen and we can know it. The first principles of being are also an act of faith, not in the sense of feeling or blind trust, but in the sense that we have to start with them in order to understand. Credo ut intelligam.

    A child was born to us. In Him I trust.

  16. One of the real miracles of Christmas, and it would take a statistician to the stars (literally), to figure the odds of the fulfillment of the prophetic when Messiah arrived.
    The greatest being the 70 weeks of Daniel portending the year of His arrival, tipping off the Wise Men that it was time, that the star was His.
    Psalm 22 depicting His crucifixion in great detail, another.
    Micah describing His birthplace, Isaiah, His mother.
    Merry Christmas

  17. C-Marie

    Oh, yes!! Prophecies fulfilled!!
    God bless, C-Marie

  18. Barry Malcolm

    How about a miracle or two for babies who are aborted, abused, die in tragic fires/ accidents? Don’t go the “free will” argument, babies don’t possess free will. Oops, they are sinners at birth, frick them, they don’t count!

  19. Barry Malcolm

    If God could only save the “innocent” babies and children that are killed/abused it would truly be a miracle. Unfortunately we are all “sinners” at birth so who Frikkin cares? All part of “God’s Plan!” No “Free Will” for SINNERS!

  20. C-Marie

    No cuss words needed here.
    God bless, C-Marie


    I can see the same reprobates are in the comment section even years later; proving the already over-proved adage by Venerable Fulton Sheen that “Virtue makes vice uncomfortable.”

    Now, Free Will means this:
    Good Is What Is Rightly Ordered, As God Created Everything To Be.

    freedom is Responsibility.

    will is the capability to do Good, and does not exist WHATSOEVER unless you understand Good as Good.

    free will is therefore the Responsibility to do Good.

    I have zero idea what that has to do with the guilty conscience over “abortion” that is on display above, but maybe he is rapidly coming to the realization that presenting “abortion” as atrocity in some absurdist “self-own” attack against God And His Church proves that people who support it know the evil they are doing.

    Merry Christmas though! demons and their servants take their defeat quite poorly each year!

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