The Problem of Miracles
By John W. Loftus at 2/14/2011
I can think of at least seven problems with believing in the biblical claims of miracles.1) We live in a scientific era whereas the claims of biblical miracles come from a prescientific era. New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann just calls them “myths” and says:
“The cosmology of the N.T. is essentially mythical in character.
The world is viewed as a three-storied structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings—angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. Man is not in control of his life. Evil spirits may take possession of him. Satan may inspire him with evil thoughts.
It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age. To modern man . . . the mythical view of the world is obsolete. It is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the N.T. view of the world. We no longer believe in the three-storied universe.
No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven. There is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense. The same applies to hell in the sense of a mythical underworld beneath our feet. And if this is so . . . we can no longer look for the return of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven.
It is impossible to use the electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the N.T. world of spirits and miracles. The same objections apply to the doctrine of the atonement. How can the guilt of one man be expiated by the death of another who is sinless?” [R. Bultmann, in Kerygma & Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 1–7.]
My claim is that in our world miracles like a virgin birth, resurrection, and an ascension into the sky do not happen. What world are YOU living in? If miracles do not happen in our day then they never happened in first century Palestine either. And that's the end of it.
Jason Pratt made fun of me by saying this is a "category error":
Remember folks, if televisions and electric light switches didn't happen in first century Palestine, they couldn't happen in our day either. And that's the end of it.
But it's a category mistake to equate ordinary events with extraordinary ones. It's a category mistake to equate ontology (i.e., what actually happened) with epistemology (i.e., what we have reason to believe). And it's a category mistake to equate the results of science with the results of god-explanations which, to date so far, have always been wrong so the theist must continually move the goals posts as science solves the gaps of the past and uncovers new ones. 2) To believe that a miraculous event took place demands a near impossible double burden of proof.
What believers must show is that an event is not possible without a supernatural explanation (or at the very least very very very improbable). However, once they do that they must turn right around and claim such an impossible event probably took place anyway. On the one hand they must show said event is improbable, and on the other hand argue said event probably happened!!! Whatever they place in one hand they take away with the other hand. 3) Time itself is a problem. We are separated by 2000-3000 years from the biblical claims of miracles.
We cannot go back in time and interview eyewitnesses. To see this read about Lessing's Broad Ugly Ditch. I admit miracles might have happened in the past. But my claim is that even if they did there is no reason to think they did from a historian's perspective, which is the only one we have to know what happened in the past. In that sense if the historian does not see miracles in today's world then he cannot interpret the raw uninterrupted data of the past any other way but from his present perspective. 4) If believers provide a natural explanation for an event it is no longer miraculous, whereas if they don’t do this it’s very difficult to accept such an extraordinary claim. Once someone describes how it's naturally possible for there to be a virgin birth (if that could be done) at that point there is no longer a miracle. And if they cannot explain how it might have taken place it's simply unbelievable.5) Even if we agree with the Jews of Jesus' day that Yahweh exists and he does miracles this still does very little if anything to lead us in today's world to think Yahweh raised Jesus from the dead. Because a completely overwhelming number of Jews in Jesus' day did not think Yahweh did this particular miracle in this particular case. If they were there, and if they knew their Scriptures, and if they believed in Yahweh, and if they believed in miracles, but they didn't believe God raised Jesus from the dead THEN WHY SHOULD I believe? WHY SHOULD WE? 6) There is the intractable problem of how a God that is an immaterial spirit can actually interact with matter, unless they share something that allows him to act in the material world. If not, he can't act in our world. If so, then God must be at least partially a material being.7) Biblical miraculous claims can almost never be proof of the existence of God, for in order to accept such claim by a writer in the pre-scientific past, and having the double burden of proof mentioned above, a person must already believe in a miracle working God who works these kinds of miracles.
But where do we get those particular god beliefs--or Bayesian "priors"--from in the first place? We get those "priors" from our respective cultures. But that's not how we should justify why we believe. For each different culture provides its own different god "priors." We must defend our "priors" apart from how we we raised in our respective cultures. This is the adult way to examine our religion once we grow up and want to see whether we were taught correctly by our parents and significant others. My claim is that this cannot be done. And taking the Outsider Test for Faith is the best and only way to see this.
The Problem of Miracles