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I've been engaged in a thought-provoking chat discussion with an atheist on the philosophy site. In our conversation, I've been advocating for the idea that there is evidence supporting the existence of miracles as a separate piece of data pointing toward the existence of God. This conversation has sparked my contemplation on the Christian perspective concerning the rationality behind interpreting an anomalous event as a miracle, rather than dismissing it as a peculiar anomaly of nature destined for future scientific understanding and explanation, which would be the typical response of someone who is committed to methodological naturalism.

According to Christians, when is it rationally justified to consider an anomalous event as a miracle, as opposed to an anomaly of nature that science will eventually explain? Are there specific criteria or perspectives within Christian theology or philosophy that guide believers in determining when an occurrence transcends the boundaries of natural explanation and aligns with divine intervention?

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    'Rational'. Christians are moved by the Holy Spirit. Discernment is by the Spirit. True Christianity consists of being full of the Holy Spirit (who, Himself, is the 'Spirit of Truth') of being led of the Spirit and walking in the Spirit. 'Rational' just doesn't come into such things. I suggest that the OP should focus on what is central to the Christian religion in such questions.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 3 at 19:04
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    @NigelJ Sounds like you are a fideist.
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 3 at 19:10
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    No, I am not. I am a Christian. I identify as such and I prefer to be addressed as such. Thank you. My profile and my writings all declare openly what I believe.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 3 at 19:20
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    You shot your question in the foot with the title. Commented Feb 3 at 22:34
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    @KorvinStarmast I still fail to see the problem.
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 3 at 22:59

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Scientific explanation of a miracle need not, in any way, remove an item from the category of miracle.

I highly recommend a read of C.S. Lewis' "Miracles". Below are a few excerpts which I have tried to order in a fashion that presents, in broad brush strokes, one of the main thought threads in the book:

“That is, I believe that the primary moral principles on which all others depend are rationally perceived…If we cannot prove either axiom, that is not because they are irrational but because they are self-evident and all proofs depend on them. Their intrinsic reasonableness shines by its own light. It is because all morality is based on such self-evidence principles that we say to a man, when we would recall him to right conduct, ‘Be reasonable.’” (CS Lewis in Miracles, p. 54)

“Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldone: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” (Possible Worlds, p.209) (Quoted by CS Lewis in Miracles on p. 22)

“But mere experience, even if prolonged for a million years, cannot tell us whether the thing is possible. Experiments find out what regularly happens in Nature: the norm or rule to which she works. Those who believe in miracles are not denying that there is such a norm or rule: they are only saying that it can be suspended. A miracle is by definition an exception.” (CS Lewis in Miracles, p. 72)

“Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known. We have already seen that if you begin ruling out the supernatural you will perceive no miracles. We must now add that you will equally perceive no miracles until you believe that nature works according to regular laws. If you have not yet noticed that the sun always rises in the East you will see nothing miraculous about his rising one morning in the West.” (CS Lewis in Miracles, p. 75).

“Thus in one sense the laws of Nature cover the whole field of space and time; in another, what they leave out is precisely the whole real universe–the incessant torrent of actual events which makes up true history. That must come from somewhere else. To think the law can produce it is like thinking that you can create real money by simply doing sums” (CS Lewis in Miracles, p. 93 – 94)

“In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn around, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current.” (CS Lewis in Miracles, p. 104).

“It is therefore inaccurate to define a miracle as something that breaks the laws of Nature. It doesn’t…If God annihilates or creates or deflects a unit of matter He has created a new situation at that point. Immediately all Nature domiciles this new situation, makes it at home in her realm, adapts all other events to it.” (CS Lewis in Miracles, p. 94)

Any fish could have attempted to swallow any coin and then have been caught by any man and the coin discovered. However, when a particular man is instructed by another particular individual to go to the sea, cast out a hook, bring up the first fish caught, open its mouth and pull out the exact amount of money needed for the issue at hand this, then, is something more than merely in keeping with the laws of nature and explainable by science.

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Atheist Science of the Gaps The postponement, with a expectation of a secular Answer, with the hope of a future scientific discovery is the imposition of a Science of the Gaps on the discussion of Miracles. It is also a Statement of Faith, which thing most atheists denegrade with vigor. It seems that Atheists engage in faith as much as theists after all.

In fact, an atheist can't engage in communication without admitting the existence of order and intelligence in the Universe. Chance produces nothing. "Chance" has no creative power; it is just an abstract mathematical statement.

Just to form a sentence, with the right sequence and order of syntax, requires intelligence...a thought process beyond the chance formation of purely physical reality. And in addition, the mathematicians, John Lewis and Albert Einstein acknowledged the orderly mathematical nature of the universe that required the existence of a Super Mathematician over all.

Requirements So how can one discern beyond a reasonable doubt that Christian miracles happen?

(1) The alleged Miracle must be done in conjunction with the Name of Jesus specifically. Without this foundation any supernatural action is left floating in the air of uncertainty, and is open to being credited to happenstance.

(2) The "time context" must be sufficient. In other words, if a person commanded someone to be healed, and waited for years to have his happen, there is no rational reason to explain it as a miracle.

However, as Jesus was known to do, when someone is approached with commands of healing and immediately the person is made whole, it is very reasonable to conclude that it is a Miracle! "Time and chance" played no part in the event. Many times the Holy Bible recorded the fact that eye-witnesses saw this occurring (especially parents), and they confirmed the miracle. Some were encouraged to "show themselves to the priest (doctor)" for confirmation.

[This does not rule out "progressive miracles" in history (past or present), but for sake of this Question, we limit ourselves.]

(3)There must be empirical verification. If a person born blind, claims healing in Jesus name, it would be logical to test his eye-sight. This could not be faked, especially if he was known around town, and the people saw him in that condition. A paralized or lame man could confirm his healing by walking. In fact, a dead man (known to be dead for three days, and not in a coma) could exhibit the miracle of Resurrection by not just showing himself alive, but by "eating and drinking" with the observers...as well as talking, etc. (His death would have to be beyond doubt. For example: He stinketh! Or he was executed by a trained executioner, and certified dead.)

Presuppositions The problem with accepting the fact of the miraculous is not so much lack of evidence, but rather the Presuppositions one has before miracles are discussed. If one's presupposition of existence (or worldview) is a secular philosophy, or naturalistic, or atheistic (agnostic), then no matter the evidence he is locked in a walled cell by the key of a closed mind. Logically speaking, he is committing the Fallacy of Logic called, begging the question.

It is so important, therefore, to examine one's Presuppositions. Or at the very least, hold them in abeyance momentarily, and do research to see if another worldview better fits the facts of reality (answers the Existential Questions of life adequately.).

A miracle just might be in the offing! A new eye-sight! A new insight!

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When is it rationally justified to say that something is a miracle? When he knows or believes it to be the case, which is all the time if said Christian is indeed a believer in God.

I would issue a frame challenge to broaden our understanding the question though: All things are anomalous to atheists. The very existence of life, water, air, food, shelter, planets, light, and everything proves there is a God. There is nothing at all that is not miraculous, if by miraculous we mean "lacking a purely naturalistic or mechanistic explanation or cause" (See Collins dictionary entry for "miracle").

To the Christian (and to all fair-minded, honest people), everything is a miracle.

And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments. (Doctrine and Covenants 59:21)

Since God's hand is in all things, all things are of necessity miraculous. Nothing can be brought about by reason or nature alone. The atheist cannot so much as explain how the oxygen he breathes came to be, or the fact that there is dirt beneath his feet. He cannot account for any of it by reason alone.

And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. (2 Nephi 2:13)

Is anything justified by reason alone?

No, there is no such thing as a closed epistemological system based on "sola ratio". Reason is merely plumbing. It's like saying everything in the universe can be proven using multiplication and addition without the use of any factors or operands that are not also products of such operations. Such a definition is circular: if only reason may supply the arguments, then such reasoning lacks grounding in objective reality. Try to find one atheist philosopher with the honesty to admit this! One might exist somewhere, but if so he might jettison his atheism in a hurry.

I will prove that in fact the atheist is not rational, because if he were rational he would admit that sola ratio is helpless to prove anything.

Simply ask: Where are the prime arguments or premises ? What is reason founded upon?

If he responds, "reason", then he admits that his reasoning is circular. If he says that he knows anything with certainty then he admits that he has a conscience, which cannot be explained away nor does it bear contradiction by supposed "reason".

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)

Those who deny the revelations of God, Scripture and Conscience, are building for themselves a mental palace in the air. It lacks any foundation or grounding, and will come crashing down because pride is not sustainable.

Reason requires operands upon which to operate. If a man knows nothing to begin with, he can never know anything by reason. Only if a man knows something to begin with can he learn something "new" by the application of reason on the basis of what he knows.

There is no such thing as a logical proof that can validate its own premises. Logic may only say that a set of axioms and premises are mutually exclusive, or that they are not immediately known to be mutually exclusive.

The atheist cannot account for so much as a grain of sand. According to the superstitious creeds ("theories") of atheism, nothing can exist.

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If you are referring to this "but now" age, never. However, in "times past" and in the post-church "ages to come", often!

A miracle of God, compared to that of chance, would be visible evidence of what we are to have faith in, thus paradoxically removing the requirement of faith.

2 Corinthians 5:7

"(For we walk by faith, not by sight:)"

Romans 8:24

"For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?"

Hebrews 11:6

"But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

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  • Are you a cessasionist? Commented Feb 5 at 14:04
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    @MikeBorden I share the same suspicion. I personally am not. Here is an insightful critique of the cessationist position, and here is an insightful debate.
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 5 at 15:15
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This is a late answer, but I see that nobody else has mentioned the Reverend Thomas Bayes. Bayes's Theorem, and the whole topic of Bayesian Statistics come from his attempt to provide a criterion for differentiating miracles from other events.

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