What criteria do Cessationists use to inspect a modern miracle claim and decide whether it is believable or not?
Cessationists would use the same criteria that a general critical thinking Christian uses: a supernatural event that is not explainable by natural or scientific laws. (see Wikipedia article on Miracle). Although different than atheists who may a priori eliminate even the possibility of a miracle (i.e., they exclude any kind of supernatural causes), Cessationists (who because they are Christians allow the possibility of God performing miracles) ask for roughly the same rigor of evidence an atheist would ask.
For example, if the claim is resurrection from the dead, Cessationists would ask for the following medical evidence:
- Doctor's report on the cause of death
- A period of time when the patient is confirmed to be dead
- A period of time when the patient is confirmed to be alive
To be more precise, let's use Aquinas's scheme of 3 degrees of miracles described in Summa Contra Gentiles (quoted here). I believe Cessationists / general Christian would allow the first two degrees as miracles, and possibly the third one as well (case by case):
Highest rank: nature can never do. Examples: an amputated leg was restored, sea open up and offer a way through which people may pass.
Nature can do, but not in this order. Examples: a patient who has been brain-dead longer than 10 minutes came back to life without permanent brain damage, a blind person from birth can see (and his vision stays for the rest of his life). Jesus's resurrection would most likely be in this category.
God does what is usually done by the working of nature (thus beats statistical probability). Examples: a person may be cured by divine power from a fever which could be cured naturally, rain suddenly poured down when all weather scientists say it's extremely unlikely, etc. About the sudden reversal of Joy's bone cancer in Nov 1957 C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter: "the cancerous bones have rebuilt themselves in a way quite unusual and Joy can now walk" and regarded it as a miracle, even though the cancer came back about 2 years later.
In all 3 degrees above, there is an empirical evidence, which can enlist an instrument to aid regular human perception, such as a microscope, genetic analysis, multi-spectral video to allow infrared / radio signal, etc. Obviously, the first two degrees are easier to prove, and help exclude the usual objections: lack of proper verification, psychosomatic, temporary healing, etc.
Addressing connected issues
The criteria has nothing to do with Cessationists's not believing that some people today are still invested with the gifts of healing others. A miracle happens or not happens. A person occasionally being used by God to heal in missionary context does not count as possessing "gift of healing"; if someone is medically verified as dead and if the person comes back to life after the missionary prays over the person, it is STILL a miracle. So Cessationists allow that genuine miracles CAN still happen. See an excellent 2014 article Why I Am a Cessationist by an NT scholar Thomas Schreiner who later wrote a 2018 book Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter.
The criteria also has nothing to do with the debate over whether a historical miracle (recorded in the Bible) should be regarded as a miracle or not. You brought up the April 2021 debate Is belief in the Resurrection reasonable? between Catholic Trent Horn and Atheist Matt Dillahunty. What's being debated is the reasonableness to believe the historicity of the Resurrection given the lack of direct medical evidence. Mr. Dillahunty asked Trent a question point blank: "Do you believe the resurrection simply based on testimony without medical evidence?" Mr. D said (min 50:00)
I am here to find out what's reasonable. Here's the crux of it ... You are willing to accept that an extraordinary miraculous event occurred based only on testimony and I AM NOT. That's it! That is the foundational difference between our epistemologies. I will not accept that the physical understanding of the universe was suspended for an individual based only on testimonial accounts. It is unreasonable. That's how you get conned!"
The epistemology that Mr. D. was talking about is about the nature of believable testimony, not the standard for calling something a miracle or not. Both Mr. D and Mr. Horn agree that for a miracle to even be possible, a uniformity of the laws of nature is a prerequisite (around min 51:26). It's just for Mr. D., non-medical & non-scientific testimonial evidence alone is not enough regardless of how credible the eyewitnesses were, primarily because the claim is so extraordinary that the level of testimony needs to be much higher than for something mundane such as "I got a new puppy last night" (min 53:50).
But I wager that if Mr. Dillahunty:
- were present with Jesus throughout the 3 days between crucifixion and resurrection,
- had with him the medical equipment he needed to certify the death, and
- had never left Jesus's side (i.e. stays inside the burial cave) until Jesus came back alive again
he would have agreed with Christians calling the resurrection a miracle.
Therefore, the main difference between Mr. D. and Christians is that we believe that the apostles' and the 500+ people's common sense testimony that Jesus's bodily resurrection happened was sufficient evidence for a miracle, since for us apostolic credibility matters (!) and the miracle is rational enough to be believed (considering we also believed God's other resurrection miracles in the OT).
There are some "miracles" attributed to God that can not be empirically verified such as the miracle of the Catholic notion of the Eucharist (transubstantiation), the sudden conversion of a very stubborn atheist, etc. For these, even a general Christian (not necessarily a Cessationist) will have a difference of opinion whether to call it a miracle or not.
Some events that seemed wondrous to people 4,000 years ago may not be wondrous to us anymore because we now know the cause, such as the eclipse of the sun. Again, this has nothing to do whether one is a Cessationist or not. And fortunately most important miracles needed by Christian theology are STILL considered miracles by 21st century standard: the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the calling down of fire by Elijah, the virgin Birth, the raising of Lazarus, turning water into wine, the resurrection of Jesus, etc.