Sunday Sermon from an Atheist 1: Matthew’s Miracles

Imagine a miracle occurring in the modern world that seizes the attention of millions of people all over the globe. One such event occurred in the mid-90s when it seemed as if the Hindu god Ganesha began drinking milk from the spoons of devotees. BBC recently ran an article and short video recounting the incident, and while scientists offered an explanation (one such explanation can be read here on Wikipedia), that did not satiate followers who believed they had witnessed a miracle. My guess would be that Hindus would find ways to doubt the science while Christians and followers of other faiths would readily accept such explanations. Devotees of religions adopt unguarded postures towards events that correspond to their strongly held beliefs and skeptical comportments towards events that run afoul their particular religious inclinations. This even happens within sects of religions as well. Take, for instance, the fact that Catholics accept the doctrine of transubstantiation while most protestant denominations view the eucharist in a symbolic manner. For one, it is a miraculous moment, and for the other, it is a metaphor urging reflection. It seems people remain dubious of scientific explanations for the magic to which they are already psychologically committed.

Recently, I traveled to India with a good friend of mine and his wife. While I obviously cannot speak for the country as a whole, one aspect of the culture that I noticed was the close relationship that many Indians I met had with their faith. While this experience may, in part, be because we visited a number of historical and contemporary religious places, specifically the mesmerizing and spectacular Akshardham in Delhi (pictured above), that tight bond also seemed to persist when I met individuals outside of those locales. Visiting what is billed as the largest Hindu temple in the world revealed something strikingly plain, which I had read about often in books concerning religion: a culture’s general acceptance of a “miraculous” claim eases the acceptance of that claim for individuals within said culture. Talking with members of my friend’s family, and experiencing what can best be described as propaganda at the aforementioned temple, solidified for me the notion that normalized magic is often viewed and accepted uncritically. For me, it seems blindingly obvious that when people claimed that Swaminarayan performed miracles, I should remain suspicious about those eyewitness accounts. When I was a Christian, I easily accepted similar eyewitness accounts from my culture’s sacred book. When I was young, nothing seemed odd to me about Jesus spitting into the dirt, rubbing mud on a blind man’s eyes, and healing him of his blindness. Of course, he did that, he’s Jesus. Upon re-reading the Gospel of Matthew, I was struck by the frequency of miracles reported in the book. When reading through the text, I found 38 examples of miracles which I separated into three categories: healing, mystical/spiritual, and natural. (One might count 41 if one thinks that the removal of demons occurring simultaneously with healing count as two separate miracles. It’s difficult to parse this because certainly, people used to attest that demon possession was occasionally manifested through a physical ailment.) I hope to speak generally about the Biblical miracles, to present some arguments against the phenomenon of miracles, and to argue that the Bible gives us no reason to accept that miracles occur.

Before going into the topic of the miraculous, it may be helpful to discuss what is meant by miracles. When defining miracles, people generally fall into one of two camps. Some assert that a miracle might be best defined as an event that occurs contrary to the physical laws of the universe. Others attest that miracles do not defy nature. For the first camp, consider a commonly attested miracle of the appearance of a holy visage in unusual places, like Mary appearing in a piece of toast. (One such rendering earned 28k on eBay.) If a toaster or grill was created with the intention of producing renderings of the Virgin Mary, the bread would not generate a fuss. What is miraculous, is the fact that the bread seems to have generated such an image absent of a physical cause. (Of course, when such events occur we’re never given reasons as to how we know the image is an actual depiction of Mary.) While reasons for seeing such faces have been explained scientifically, the appeal to view these events as miraculous by believers is potent. It may be important to note that the Gospel of Matthew does not extol the appearance of toast visages, and I also think that even many current-day believers would willingly discount such events as being miraculous. Nevertheless, I think such phenomena serve as an example of an event that defies the laws of nature. The second camp asserts that miracles aren’t necessarily law-defying; they believe that miracles are, as R. F. Holland notes, “extraordinary coincidences of beneficial nature.”[i] An example of this might be something like workers who survived the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. While they didn’t have to be literally lifted away on angel’s wings from the dangerous situation, the fact that they survived is viewed, in their mind, as an extraordinary coincidence benefiting them. So, after I break down the types of miracles present in Matthew, I’ll attempt to deal with both possible varieties of miracles: the natural law-defying kind and the “extraordinary coincidence” kind.

Miraculous healings are perhaps the most accepted by common believers, and the Gospel of Matthew mentions 15 occurrences. The book details the healing of 11 specific individuals, and in other instances, simply says that Jesus healed “the many” or that he cured “every” disease in various towns. This number doesn’t include the healings supposedly conducted by Jesus’ disciples after he bestowed upon them this magically panacea (10:7-8). Healed afflictions range from leprosy (8:3), paralysis (9:2,6), hemorrhaging (9:20), blindness (9:27; 20:24; 21:14), muteness (21:14), epilepsy (17:18), and a “shriveled hand” (12:13). Contemporary society handles the case of miraculous healings interestingly because often life-saving medicine and surgeries are deemed miracles. Those kinds of miraculous healings would likely fall into the beneficial coincidence camp. Notably, healings don’t generally involve radical respawning of missing limbs; although, there are places on the internet where one can find such a claim. Another notable element in the text is that the majority of people are healed, according to Jesus, because of their strong faith. Current “miraculous” healings are not limited to believers or those who have strong faith. Although, it should be mentioned that even some Christians today will tell survivors of lost loved ones that more faith was needed for a particular healing.

Matthew also recounts many mystical/spiritual miracles. Miracles deemed mystical/spiritual are ones in which demons are cast out (8:16; 8:32; 9:33; 12:22; 15:28; 17:18), the dead appear (17:3), voices or lights come from the sky (3:16; 17:5), angels appear in dreams (1:20; 2:12; 2:13; 2:19; 2:22), or powers are bestowed (10:7-8). It’s unclear what type of proof would be required for these miracles. It’s also vague as to what methods are used to discriminate between someone who is demon possessed and someone suffering from a mental ailment. Such is a fundamental problem with the invisible nature of demons I suspect, but nonetheless, it remains an insurmountable one for proving that demons have been exorcized. Voices and lights supposedly coming down from the sky (3:16; 17:5) are also interesting miracles to consider because one wonders the physics of such miracles, specifically in the cases of voices. One has to imagine that the voice of God coming from the sky would be rather loud and could be heard around the world, yet as far as I can tell, no other cultures recount those specific voices from the heavens. I guess it is possible that He focused his voice to specific spots where only the worthy could hear Him. He is God, after all. Also, one wonders why God has stopped giving such clear audible confirmations of his existence? As Christopher Hitchens once mentioned, it would seem that God ought to have had the foresight to come at a time when civilization was developed enough to test his claims. Surely, even while those who believe without seeing are blessed, those of us skeptics, including doubting Thomas, can’t be faulted for wanting more scientific reassurances. Even still, I think it is the nature of mystical/spiritual miracles to remain out of the grasp of testability.

Moreso than healing and mystical/spiritual miracles, the category of natural miracles encompasses a wider array of claims. It includes a virgin birth (1:18), power over the weather (8:26), resurrections (9:24; 27:52-53; 28), food multiplication (14:20-21; 15:37), water walking (14:25, 29), and the killing of a barren fruit tree (21:19). Perhaps the most potent note to make in light of some of these miracles is that the problem of natural evil arguments brushes up against God’s ease at placing his hand on the scale of nature. If He can “calm the storm”, one might ask why He fails to do so when the lives of numerous people are at stake. But that is a conversation for another post. Stranger than controlling the weather, resurrections persist in being more interesting miracles because generally, zombification is the stuff of fiction. The resurrection of Jesus is supposed to be particularly meaningful, and sometimes the one miracle that contemporary Christians won’t deny. On the other hand, the blasé retelling of the resurrection of other people is particularly striking. (There is a girl in 9:24 who comes back to life, and apparently numerous dead individuals that begin wandering about after Jesus died in 27:52-53.)

The common element to all of these miracles lies in the fact that they are delivered to us by eyewitness testimony. This fact will be significant when discussing the rationale for accepting these miracles as retold. It might be easy to dispense here with the miracles of Matthew on two simple facts: first, we only know of them because of eyewitness testimony and second, eyewitness testimony is scientifically unreliable; therefore, we should not accept such testimony as fact. However, I think that such a claim may be too easy a way out for me and likely easily discounted by Christian readers on the basis that they believe that testimonies from the Bible are God inspired and/or penned. It also may be helpful to note that most of these miracles can also be justified, albeit roughly, equally by the two camps mentioned earlier. Some might find natural causes for the events and still consider them miraculous. Others think that the events defy nature. It’s hard not to expect that most of the mystical/spiritual and a great deal of the nature miracles fall into the category of defying natural laws, particularly the virgin birth and resurrection parts, but I will grant either interpretation as valid and attempt to deal with them in turn.

First, perhaps we should deal with the easier case: the natural law-defying. This is similar to the manner in which Hume defined miracles. He wrote:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined…Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happened in the common course of nature. [i

Hume goes on to provide reasoning as to why we should not believe in miracles of that sort. In short, he argues that miracles, whether they happen to ourselves or to others, conflict with what we have generally experienced in nature. He argues that our belief should be proportioned with the evidence of our experience. Since our experience suggests that law-defying events don’t occur often (since if they did, they would by definition likely not be law-defying), we should not believe in such events. He further notes that if such extraordinary claims are made, we must align our beliefs towards them only after such cases in which we are presented with a preponderance of evidence, a situation that he claims has yet to occur. He gives several reasons for this. (Check out paragraph 2 of Part 2 of Hume’s “Against Miracles” for a particular potent reason.) I think the real potency of this is fleshed out when one attempts to argue against Hume’s claim. Any generalized counter to his argument would open the door to accept nearly all historically testified miracles. By countering Hume, a proponent of a religion would essentially prove too much and negate the claims of his/her own faith by necessarily having to simultaneously accept the contrary accounts miraculous accounts of others. If testimony is sufficient for believing the miraculous claims of one faith, it is equally sufficient for believing the miraculous claims of another faith. This becomes particularly forceful when one considers that the world’s three major religions have competing miraculous claims about supposedly identical individuals. In order to combat this problem, a purveyor of religion would need reasoning that would only suffice to justify the claims of their specific faith. For a Christian to escape this quandary, (s)he must provide a specific mechanism for measuring the veracity of Biblical claims that would not also serve to justify competing non-Biblical miracles. They could not simply discount the Indian milk miracle on the basis of provided scientific explanations without necessarily requiring that the miraculous claims of their faith be scientifically verified. While perhaps it should go without saying, it may be important to emphasize that the claim that the Bible provides its own rationale would be circular logic. Perhaps this paragraph can be best summarized by the words of Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Next, I want to deal with the “extraordinary coincidence” kind of miracle. The Twin Tower story I mentioned earlier is one that I heard recounted on Morgan Freeman’s National Geographic show The Story of God during an episode called “Proof of God.” (The Christian Post details it here.) What astounds people the most in these cases is that whatever event deemed extraordinary, is, in part, extraordinary, because it happened to them. To these people, there is little use in trying to convince them that what they experienced wasn’t a miracle. What is possibly clear, however, is that had this man been a devoted follower of Hinduism and believed he was saved by Ganesha, some Christians might view his claims with more skeptical eyes. Nonetheless, what we must understand is that extraordinary coincidences happen all the time. A great article in the Atlantic helps elaborate upon this idea. Essentially, it points out that humans are quite unaware of how likely certain events are to happen in the world, and therefore, they bestow heightened significance to such events. The article also links to Beitman’s Coincidence Study which reveals what some kinds of people, religious people among them, are more apt to locate coincidences in their own lives. A story may help here. My grandmother once regaled myself and my sisters with a tale of how a miraculous stop for McDonald’s coffee quite possibly saved her life. Unbeknownst to her, a bad storm causing numerous accidents and fatalities, a storm she would have encountered had she not stopped for coffee, roared by the interstate several miles ahead of the McDonald’s where she stopped. Certainly, she felt as if this magical hankering for coffee occurred as a divine intervention. One must ask, how many people daily stop for coffee, snacks, or food on a long drive? How often is no significance given to normal thirst and hunger cravings? Certainly, while it stands to reason that even if one considered such an event “rare”, it would still occur to some people some of the time, and we would have no real reason to call such an event miraculous. The fact that it happened is not surprising; it just seemed surprising because it happened to her. Rare events happen all of the time in our large universe. As has been noted by many people, and the author of the Atlantic article, it’s not meaningful or significant that someone wins the lottery; it’s just meaningful and significant to you when you win it.

I doubt that I have convinced any of you who feel as if you have experienced a personal miracle that you should no longer believe it, so I’ll attempt to draw this out by recounting a miracle of my own. When I was quite young, maybe three, I stumbled out of our trailer looking for my grandmother who had promised me a walk. Incidentally, this is the same grandmother who was spared the aforementioned inclement weather. Unbeknownst to me, she had not left our home, so, as a three-year-old, I was wandering about alone. After walking along some railroad tracks near our home, I met a strange woman who subsequently, helped me find my way back home. For my family, that woman was an angel, and my return home was miraculous. However, what should be astoundingly obvious to anyone reading this is that I was simply lucky to be returned home. The world is full of missing children, and often these children never return home. We quickly deem serendipitous cases miraculous without accepting that statistically, fortuitous events do occasionally occur. I am, by no means, trying to rip the term miracle from our lexicon. If by miracle one simply means a lucky instance, then no harm results from such a semantic rendering. But, if by miracle, one means the hand of a divine being reaching into the world, we should take pause if only because, in light of that possibility, the divine would seem to care little about the state of the world. Once we ascribe one particularly happy unexpected instance as evidence of a divine miracle, we invalidate the experiences of so many others hoping for miracles. We also place an undue burden on the loved ones of failed miracle recipients, making them feel as if they were either not worthy or not faithful enough. This is the price we pay for accepting miracles. They either equally confirm all faith-based testimony, or they validate our inclinations towards supplanting meaning in chance. Either way, they provide a weak reasoning for accepting the existence of the divine.

Pojman, L., & Rea, M. (2003). Miracles. In Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (6th ed., pp. 402-459). Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

[i] (Pojman 2003, 402)
[ii] (Pojman 2003, 408)

P.S. – There is a fairly interesting essay by Richard Swinburne concerning the resurrection of Jesus, but I didn’t have time to delve into it in this post. I hope to return to it at some point in the near future. Also, if there is any specific compelling argument that you feel I ought to read, feel free to leave it as a comment below or send it to my email: hereticalsoutherner@gmail.com. Remember that I hope that these are conversations, so feel free to comment down below and share this article on your social media accounts.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Sermon from an Atheist 1: Matthew’s Miracles

  1. Interesting on miracles. I have a pretty high bar that it has to jump in order for it to be miraculous to me. The real miraculous is the technology we use every day, less than 60 years ago it was a laboratory curiosity – now it’s a part of our lives.

    Take the simple LED – it’s essentially a quantum device. And the military has a term for things like that, it’s called Foxtrot Mike aka FM aka Fucking Magic. I love that one.

    Like

  2. Hey Jonathan, it’s Malia! I hope you and your family are doing good. Your article is very well written and thank you for your thoughts. I’m still a Christian and I do believe in miracles and I’m not very good at debating issues but I do love reading so I enjoyed reading your article. I would recommend you to read, “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel.

    I think it’s great that you counted all the said miracles in Matthew and essentially studied the book. Great job with your research.

    Have a good day!! Your little girl is precious. Congratulations on being parents.

    Malia

    Like

    1. Greetings Malia,
      Thanks for reading my post and responding. Even though I’m a debate coach by trade, I’m not convinced that debate is the best way to explore ideas (even though I still think students, especially in high school, should engage in the activity). It’s too combative and is generally concerned with scoring points than finding answers. I don’t seek to win arguments or come out on top, but just to explore ideas. Any thoughts you have here are welcome here as is your belief in miracles. I’m always curious as to why people believe what they believe. Feel free to read and comment anytime.
      As for the Case of Christ, I have never read that text, but I did read his work The Case for the Creator years ago. I used one of my audible credits on it, so I’ll give it a listen.
      Also, thanks for the comments on my little one. She is favorite. 🙂
      Best,
      Jonathan

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s