does god intervene?, ..we're talking miracles here!
  • I've had a little tour around this Christian website, and some of you may be aware, i've posted a few comments over the past week or so. Following on, I'd be quite interested to get some feedback on the subject of miracles.

    One of the reasons that I lost my faith was coming to terms with the fact ( from what i'd observed),  that god does not seem to intervene with the natural forces that govern us in any way shape or form, at least in a way that we can observe with any degree of certainty.

    The term miracle I'm well aware has a very broad span in general use, .. "it was a miracle", says some person who survived a nasty car accident,.. yes, these incidents happen all the time.  I dont regard these strictly as miracles in the true sense of the word, ..to me, that person had a lucky escape.

    I'm talking more about the dictionary definition of "a supernatural occurance that defies the laws of nature".   Do these "true miracles happen"?

    For example, Could god heal an amputee?. To the best of my knowledge there are no former amputees in the world.  Would we be pushing our luck to ask god to re grow lost limbs?

    The New Testament is full of Jesus's miracles, .. As a child, learning about these wonderous events, I accepted them as fact unquestionably, it's only later in life I actually stopped and questioned myself as to the veracity of these wonders. With a skeptical head on, you begin to see a completely different story, though just as compelling.

    So, in a nutshell, .. do miracles in their supernatural sense, happen, .. if so, what evidence is there?

  • SimonSimon May 2012
    Read the following article today that explains the supernatural very well:

  • Hi Simon, Thanks for that article.

    You said it explains the supernatural very well. I found it rather confusing, regarding the subject of miracles, it contained very little. I was hoping to hear more from you're personal perspective on miracles rather than you directing me to a link. It spoke of the miracle of "Abraham and Sarah", when reading the bible, this isn't one of the great miracles that people talk about in biblical discussions. What evidence is there that these people actually existed? Do you then believe implicitly in the story of Abrahams nephew Lot and the whole Sodom and Gomorah story. ( the story of Lot is one that beggars belief). Do you believe the stories in the New Testament that Jesus turned water into wine? ( classic conjuring trick), or that he forced demons from demented humans, and drove them into pigs and over cliffs.? The bible is chock full of amazing stories like these, culminating in the best one of all, that he died and went to heavan.  .. but who witnessed it, and how reliable is their testimony? Would their stories hold up in a court?. Is there any possibility that these supernatural events were written decades after the supposed event, and that maybe, .. just maybe, .. they are the work of fiction.. written by men with motives. If I wanted someone to believe my story in these superstitious times, yes, i might just add a supernatural element to grab the attention. It's funny how the Gospels, written in cronological order, starting with Mark, seem to increase in miraculous events as they go, culminating with John's gospel.. written long after Mark.

    The link also mentioned the miracle of how birds are able to navigate their way over long distances to find their nests. I wouldn't put this in the miracle bracket, .. yes, it's an amazing feat, .. but it's not miraculous, .. I'm sure it has a lot to do with the magnetic force of the planet.

    What about modern day miracles?, do they happen?, if so what evidence is there? I never see any supernatural events on news bulletins etc.

    I noticed the link you gave was from Biologos, the website set up by Francis Collins, ..Although I do admire his contribution to the genome project, .. I do question his faith in Christ.  How can you marry up billions of years of evolution with Christianity.?

    At what point in mans long long evolutionary process did God embue us with his morals? .. we've been around in some form for millions of years

    Confused of Swindon.

  • Hi bonnie43uk. You can always find reasons to doubt any claim of a miracle. You just need to ask yourself: if one of those biblical miracles had really happened, what would convince you of that? If the answer is "nothing" - that you could never be convinced that a miracle had happened 2000 years ago - then that's fine. It just means that your beliefs about the biblical miracles are not based on evaluating the evidence, but on your philosophical beliefs about what we can know about the past. Nothing "wrong" with that as such.

    Different Christians have different views about whether you can marry evolution with Christianity, and those that think you can have lots of conflicting views about how to reconcile evolution and Christianity.
  • SimonSimon May 2012
    Bonnie, I think you might need to put in some time reading many of the excellent books that are out there. Your questions are relevant, but are answered far more adequately in the books found on the following link than we can ever manage on an internet discussion. Denis Alexander is a good place to start:

    If you think a book is too much of a commitment the Faraday papers are interesting on many related topics:

  • exchemist May 2012
    Thanks for the link to the Faraday Papers, Simon. I was not aware of this: they seem to have some serious contributors. 

    Anthony, your remark about the variety of Christian views on evolution does seem to me to call for some clarification. I would have thought one could say that very few scientifically literate Christians would challenge evolution, or any other well-attested scientific theory for that matter, for reasons to do with religious belief. Would you consider that fair? 

    (Obviously Christianity is for anyone, not just the learned, so many views of varying degrees of rigour and consistency may be found in the Christian community, but what is important, surely, in a dialogue with someone like Bonnie, is positions that have been thought through. I'd have thought one should be careful not to risk inadvertently "teaching the controversy", as fomented by the ID people, on this topic.)    
  • Thanks for the response.

    Regarding Anthony's point "What would convince me"?. It's something I've pondered for many many years. Due to my skeptical nature, I have to say I'd take a lot of convincing. But I'm not beyond convincing, if I truly saw a supernatural event I would be happy to change my mind. Whats not to like about eternal life, it's an extremely comforting thought. But in the cold light of day, I'm not seeing, or being presented with much credible evidence. From my catholic background ,growing up, there were 2 miraculous events I was surrounded with , regarding literature and iconic paraphanalia, At the time, I took these as actual events that really happened.. such was my indoctrination ( i know you Christians hate that word). First, in my parents bedroom were several pictures of Lourdes, .. the scene of a miraculous appearance of Our Lady Mary, witnessed by some children in a grotto. As a child myself, i lost count of the number of times I saw things in shadows, our brains are conditioned to do exactly that, it's some form of warning mechanism. But Lourdes is now a massive money making franchise, seemingly on the say so of a few children with imaginative minds. Also, it's a place, dispite what the catholic church tell you, where miracles, do not happen. The 2nd looming image in our council house that seemed to take pride of place on the wall, was a large picture with a prayer under it, .. from Our Lady of Fatima. Again, I'm sure you're well aware of this amazing miraculous event which took place in the early 1900's in Portugal, .. it runs along the same line as the previous miracle, .. some children witness Our Lady etc. The local population got wind of this, and turned up en masse to see what was going on, .. The reports are that 30,000 people witnessed very strange activity in the sky, looking up, they all noticed the sun dancing and changing colour. This was proof again for the church that something very supernatural had happened. Now, again, in the cold light of day, you try looking at the sun for more than a few seconds ( not really recommended).. I can tell you, it will do 2 things, .. change colour, and move around erratically. Can 30,000 people be wrong?. Hmmmm.   Ah, you're not catholics, so obviously you can see how easily we were duped. How silly to be fooled like that. But you're strong belief in biblical miracles are unshakable, .. there is no way these events didn't happen. It seems to me, you're not using the same critical eye that you use to dismiss all other gods and their supernatural claims.

    I remain to be given convinced, it's highly improbable in my view. If your Christian God exists, he gave me the capacity to think skeptically, and I've used it accordingly. He gave me a brain to think and reason, and I've used it to the best of my ability regarding all claims of supernatural gods, including his own existence.

    What would convince me?.. this would probably do it. .. If a group of commited born again Christians gathered around the bedside of a soldier just back from Afghanistan with his limbs blown off. They then prayed for him in a group, then, come morning, .. his limbs were restored to their former glory, there is absolutely no doubt, .. I would join them in prayer and praise the Lord and his glory. How wonderful and miraculous would such an event be.  Praise be to Christ.

  • SimonSimon May 2012
    Bonnie wrote:

    ...But I'm not beyond convincing, if I truly saw a supernatural event I would be happy to change my mind. Whats not to like about eternal life...

    That's a fascinating conflation of two issues. 
  • exchemist - "I would have thought one could say that very few scientifically literate Christians would challenge evolution, or any other well-attested scientific theory for that matter, for reasons to do with religious belief. Would you consider that fair?" I think it would be fair to say that very few Christians who are practising scientists would openly challenge evolution. Plenty of Christians with degrees in scientific subjects would. And there are probably a fair few of those practising scientists who would harbour doubts about evolution, but wouldn't express that openly.

    Bonnie - I suspect God won't indulge you by performing such an indisputable miracle. And even if he did, there would be plenty of people claiming it is a hoax. But, just supposing you did witness such a miracle, would you then believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead some 2000 years ago?
  • Anthony, .. Hmmm, would such a miracle then lead me to believe in the resurrection claim? .. I honestly can't say, first I would need to experience the miraculous event, and see where that took me, emotionally, spiritually and rationally, equally I could throw the same question at you, .. what if you found conclusively that the resurrection was a complete myth, how would you take it?,.. the truth is, we just don't know how we will react, there are so many variables thrown into the mix, you could react in numberous ways. You say you suspect God won't indulge me, .. I agree 100%. This is pretty much how life is. It appears to follow the laws of nature. You say ( regarding my amputee miracle).. And even if he did, there would be plenty of people claiming it would be a hoax. Absolutely true. Is'nt this Gods problem .. what could he possibly do that would make the entire global population believe in him?. There are many Christians who truly believe that Christ will make a return to earth in the second coming, .. I can envisage a few problems if that scenario ever happened.

    I don't doubt for one second that believers in Christ are sincere. I'm just holding back. It's like that trust game you play, where you fall backwards, and your partner catches you before you hit the floor. You all have complete confidence that Jesus will catch you, .. I'm looking behind me, and I don't see anything there. Maybe you've all got that comforting faith, and I'm just to scared to let go. My senses are telling me not to close my eyes and fall backwards. I guess I just lack that faith.

    ps, .. it's my birthday today, ..and the sun is shining!!!!  Off to a good start!!

  • Bonnie - happy birthday!

    You can never be 100% confident about anything. But simply not trusting isn't an option. You have to trust someone or something, and you have to choose who or what to trust, whether Jesus, yourself, the economy, friends, family, health, some other religion, atheism, humanism. All I can say is to examine what you are trusting at the moment, and ask critical questions about that: am I 100% certain that what I'm trusting in is reliable? And then look at the claimed evidence for Christianity, and see where that takes you.

    If someone showed conclusively that Jesus hadn't risen from the dead, I hope that would completely mess up my Christian faith. I don't think it's likely to happen though, because the evidence for the resurrection seems very strong.

    Here's a video you could start with: Historical Resurrection of Christ? NT Wright responds.
  • Thanks for the NT Wright clip, .. I have seen his work, .. yes, he's a very eloquent speaker, listening to him, it's easy to get convinced by his arguments. It seems to me, dispite his certainty, I still find his answers lacking in actual substance and true critical objectiveness, .. obviously, he's got a heavily vested interest in his view being correct. I'm much more convinced by the work of Bart Ehrman, along with his books, there are some very stimulating debates on youtube with highly rated Christian apologists ( type in Bart Ehrman debates). Bart started out as a totally commited Christian, who was keen to study the bible in it's original form so he could defend it's authenticity, he soon realised all was not as it seemed. Anyhoo, he does have a knack of asking those awkward questions, .. and coming up with seemingly very good rational answers. Yes, he's also got a heavily vested interest in HIS view being correct aswell, but it seems to me, he started out with a completely honest blank slate, and very quickly he saw problems that he could not solve using rationale and logic.

    I've never sat easy with the resurrection story, .. a blood sacrifice to take away our sins? it all seems to simplistic to me, like God is using his son as a scapegoat,( the very idea that God would even have a son???) .. pile your sins on my son, he will take them away. What exactly was his sacrifice?.. he gets to spend eternity in heavan?.. If somebody told me he was burning in hell for our sins as a sacrifice, that would make more sense. ( albeit a sick sacrifice). I wonder how many mothers would go through similar torture to spend time with loved children that had been killed via a car accident, .. to have that child back, I'm sure plenty of mothers would endure torture, ..again, albeit a sick sacrifice. My own mother lost her son aged 13, I wouldn't ask her, but I've no doubt she would do anything to spend real time with him again. Within the 4 Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection stories there are quite a few glaring anomolies for which I've yet to hear convincing answers, .. I will let Bart ask them should you wish to hear/watch the debates, .. well worth a watch.

    You say not trusting is not an option, i disagree Anthony, ..  I'm keeping my options open like a good skeptic.

    Thanks for the birthday shout out. My mum made me a wonderful oat cake. 

  • exchemist May 2012
    Bonnie, in my customary role as borderline agnostic, I have to come to the defence of Christian thought over your remarks on the issue of Christ's sacrifice. During its 2000 years of existence, most of the objections that an individual might raise have (surprise, surprise) come up before, and redemption via Christ's crucifixion is obviously one that that has exercised many thinkers over history. So ridiculing a cheap Hollywood caricature (in the style of Dawkins?) won't really do here. 

    If for example you read the Wiki entry on Atonement, here:

    it will be clear that there are several interpretations. I've always found the first, "moral influence", the only persuasive one. (I was pleased to see that this one happens also to be one of the most ancient.) The scapegoat idea - which you can't stomach and neither can I - would have had huge cultural resonance for the Jews at the time. One can plausibly see Christ's sacrifice as a deliberate choice to enact this particular piece of symbolism for them. However, perhaps like you, I personally struggle with the idea of God somehow being bound, by a barbaric law of his own (or the Devil's) devising, that requires a painful death to let humanity off the hook of its collective sins. 

    The point, it seems to me, is that there have been several interpretations and you do not have to buy the most preposterous of them to call yourself a Christian. 

    Secondly, people obviously have noted discrepancies between the gospels since the dawn of Christianity: any historian is quite used to accounts of events that conflict in some degree, so this in itself is hardly a shock. (Though I suppose if, like some fundamentalist Protestants, you reject all authority and interpretation and make up your own homespun version based on taking the bible literally, then you do have to reinvent the wheel for yourself when you inevitably stumble across the various inconsistencies.). Ehrman describes himself now as agnostic, doesn't he? A bit like McCullough, perhaps. Neither of these is a Dawkins, please note. I submit this is because they know what they're talking about.

    P.S. I'm not sure where Anthony's contentions about trust are leading, so I'd better not comment on that.          

  • Just to pick up on the issue of trust. There's a perception that atheists are somehow neutral, not exercising faith, and approaching things with a "completely honest blank slate", in Bonnie's words. That's obviously not the case. Whoever we are, we are exercising some trust in the way we live. That is never objective, and never based on something we can rationally place 100% confidence in. So if someone believes (for seemingly good reason) that Jesus rose from the dead, and chooses to live their life on that basis, they are living by faith, and if someone believes (for seemingly good reason) that Jesus did not rise from the dead (or even exist), and chooses to live their life on that basis, they are also living by faith. So the "I'll just stand here and be neutral until you prove that I can trust something" way of thinking just doesn't stand up - anyone who says that is already trusting something. Sacrificing your children to Molech is an act of faith: faith that Molech will let you live if you do that. But not sacrificing your children to Molech is also an act of faith: faith that Molech won't kill you for not doing so. One act of faith may be more reasonable than the other, but they are both acts of faith. You can't prove that Molech isn't about to kill you, but you have to decide whether you think he is, then trust that you are right, and live accordingly.

    Hope that's beginning to make sense...
  • SimonSimon May 2012
    At risk of being accused of being a self publicist, I had the following two letters published in the very secular "Philosophy Now" a few months back that are relevant to Anthony's points (and perhaps proves that we are not closeted Christians who are not dealing with the outside "thinking" world!!):

    Issue 85:

    Dear Editor: As a mere biochemist, I am often amazed, enlightened and humbled by the clear thinking and ruthless logic demonstrated by many authors in your excellent magazine. However despite this excellence, I’ve noticed a curious blind spot that seems to occur time and again whenever the word ‘faith’ is mentioned. In the last issue Tim Wilkinson became the latest in a long line of offenders when he defined ‘faith’ as “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence”. I find such a definition really rather curious, because I cannot imagine how such a belief could possibly exist. Even the wackiest conspiracy theory or most bizarre superstition is still based on at least a small amount of evidence and logical connections. Granted, you or I might think that such beliefs are based upon bad evidence and logic. However this does not mean there is no evidence or logic (however weak). Too often, rather than using the word ‘faith’ to actually mean something useful, it seems that many authors use it to mean ‘a belief that I do not agree with’. To me such a pejorative and rhetorical use of the word shows a far better example of people “temporarily misplacing their dictionaries whilst simultaneously taking leave of their senses” – to quote Tim again.
    Like your columnist Massimo Pigliucci, I also “tend not to believe in anything that isn’t made of either matter or energy”. However, I am also comfortable with the word ‘faith’ even in a scientific context. When putting together a scientific argument, it is essential to pull together as many different types of experimental observations to form the basis of the argument. However it is fascinating how many other scientists, trying to be equally rational, can look at the same experimental evidence and draw very different conclusions. So faith, in this context, is having enough confidence to turn your results into a published conclusion that you are happy for others to try and challenge. It is taking the leap from tentatively believing a theory, to using that theory as a working principle. It is not belief in the absence of logic or evidence; it is a belief based upon ‘good enough’ evidence. Such a definition seems far more useful than the impossible definition of ‘ a belief without evidence’, or the rhetorical use as ‘a belief I do not agree with’.

    Issue 87:

    Dear Editor: I particularly enjoyed Carl Murray’s ‘The Dead German Philosopher’s Club’ in your last issue, especially as it reminded me of Wittgenstein’s claim that the “philosophical problems that exercise us are examples of language going on holiday.” On reading it I realised exactly what had been worrying me about the second half of an earlier piece in the same issue by John Holroyd, where he was discussing the question ‘Is religious faith a matter of blind faith?’ Thanks to my online subscription, I copied the text of this article into a word processor and used the search and replace function to change all the occurrences of the word ‘faith’ into the word ‘belief’. As I had suspected, the meaning of the argument did not seem to change, confirming my suspicion that the author is guilty of an equivocation. As I argued in Issue 85 Letters, the word ‘faith’ is notoriously misused. Although I am sympathetic to the general thrust of John Holroyd’s argument – and acknowledge that he does discuss Terry Eagleton’s more sophisticated definition of faith – the article does a poor job of distinguishing between faith proper and the rhetorical characterisation of faith as ‘a belief I do not agree with’. In fact, rather than being a type of belief, faith is the jump from argument to conviction based upon ‘good enough’ evidence. Faith is therefore not the belief in itself, but rather the process of settling on – or becoming convinced by – a certain belief. As such, ‘blind faith’ is an example of an epistemological error, not a metaphysical one. For this reason although I remain sympathetic to John Holroyd’s overall contention that many people’s religious faith is an example of ‘blind faith’, at the same time I maintain that no matter how common this may be, any argument that uses this observation to dispute the existence of God is merely an ad hominem attack on believers. John Holroyd is not the first to get himself tied in a knot over this issue.

  • Thanks for your comments, I can assure you, I wasn't deliberatly making a cheapshot at the resurrection/crucifixion, if thats how it came across It was not my intent. I was merely making a few pointers and thoughts that have whizzed through my mind on countless occasions. Thanks for the atonement wiki link, for me, this just highlights the complex maze of thoughts from a diverse Christian community that accompany the crucifixion story. I very much doubt the average Christian gives much serious theological or philosophical thought to the ramifications of the atonement, ..Christ died for their sins is the story thats been handed down to them, but when you take a step back and think critically, there are definate cracks that appear. Who were the eyewitnesses to this event that supposedy had such a cataclysmic effect on mankind? Why did this take place in such a tiny provincial state in the Roman empire? What physical evidence is left behind?.. and many many more questions, .. It seems to me ( no doubt you will strongly disagree), that critical thinking and religion dont go hand in hand. We come back once again to that old word "Faith".

    Yes, I have faith in lots and lots of things, .. I know the sun will rise , the stars will shine at night, .. i have faith that when I switch my kettle on, it will give me boiling water, etc etc. But as regards faith or belief in a supernatural entity, I am highly skeptical. Dare I say we've come full circle, .. back to miracles.. is there any credible evidence anywhere in the world, past or present, that any miracle has ever occured?

    Do any of you ever watch "The Big Questions" on BBC1 on sunday mornings, they have quite lively debates about religious matters each week. The two opposing sides strenuously put their cases, it can get quite heated at times, I dont think I've ever seen one person concede a point, but it's quite interesting to see how the differing opinions are defended to the hilt. Nicky Campbell does quite a good job as man in the middle.

    It's never been my intention to change people's opinions in here..I know there is little chance of that, but I do like to try and see things from your perspective whilst expressing some of my own thoughts and getting feedback. So thanks very much for all the replies, much appriciated.