Over the last couple years I have been asked by multiple apologists and skeptics alike to take a look at Craig Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Keener published his 1200+ pages, 2 volume set in 2011, and since then several apologists in evangelical circles have argued that Keener has provided strong evidence of miracles occurring in modern times across multiple regions of the world. On the other hand, I am not aware of any particularly remarkable reception that Keener has received in medicine, parapsychology, or science, which are the fields of expertise most relevant to his research (as will be discussed below).
I have ILL’d Keener’s two volumes to my university library multiple times over the last couple years, both to study Keener’s evidence, to discuss the volumes with online commenters, and to include footnotes about the volumes in various essays. I have not had a chance up until now, however, to write an extended review on Κέλσος. (This review will likely be several parts long, and I may publish new parts somewhat sporadically, depending on my schedule and other blogs that I publish alongside writing this review.) For this first part of this review, I will be discussing, prior to my discussion of the volumes’ contents, the methodology and types of evidence that I think could be used to make a persuasive case for the existence of miracles in modern times. In the subsequent sections of this review, I will then be discussing how Keener’s evidence holds up to these criteria, and/or whether he can provide better arguments for other evidential criteria.
I am fully open to believing in the existence of miracles, provided that empirical evidence of miraculous events can be provided. It is not enough to merely provide rumors and reports of miracles, since such claims can easily circulate without the occurrence of an actual miraculous event–due to misinterpretations of one’s senses, misdiagnosed medical conditions, remarkable coincidences, constructed memories, hearsay, and plain old lies–similar to how rumors and reports of UFO abductions and sightings of the Loch Ness monster can likewise circulate without any veridical event being behind such claims. I am also not impressed by a multitude of miracle claims, but am interested in quality rather than quantity. We live in a world of over 7 billion people, most of whom hold some version of belief in the supernatural. A large number of miracle claims is therefore not surprising, and atheistic naturalism only predicts that none of these claims will be veridical or backed up by empirical evidence.
It’s the strength of the evidence that matters, therefore, and not the multitude of the miraculous reports. With these considerations in mind, I will now lay out some criteria below of what kinds of evidence I am searching for.
Defining a “Miracle” Event:
First things first, we need to define what a miraculous event would be and look like. Sometimes miracles are described as “impossible events,” but I think that this definition begs the question, since the possibility of miracles occurring is the very thing that we are searching for. Other times, miracles are defined as “the most improbable event possible,” but I also think that this definition is not very good. Hypothetically, we could be living in a fantasy universe in which miracles were occurring all the time, as part of everyday life, and such events would hardly be improbable if they were part of ordinary experience.
Instead, I am looking for a definition that ontologically distinguishes miraculous events from non-miraculous events. The Cambridge Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (pg. 208) defines a “miracle” as follows:
“An event (ultimately) caused by God that cannot be accounted for by the natural powers of natural substances alone. Conceived of this way, miracles don’t violate the laws of nature but rather involve the occurrence of events which cannot be explained by the powers of nature alone. When dead bodies come back to life it is a miracle because the molecules that make up the corpse lack the powers necessary to generate life.”
I would add that miracles could hypothetically be caused by other supernatural agencies besides God, but I think that this definition works well as a starting point. Miracles involve agencies, wills, or intentions, causally working from outside of the physical order, intervening in the physical order to cause events that cannot be explained by physical causes alone. There are also occurrences that result from causes solely within the physical order (in fact, they are the normal state of affairs, and thus non-miraculous); hence why the ocean can cause events like tidal waves, and I can catch an apple from a tree. But these causes within the physical order are incapable of producing the effect of a miracle. Hence why the molecules of Jesus’ corpse cannot cause him to immortally rise from death. Hence why the water molecules in a jar cannot explain sudden transformation into wine. Instead, an agency, will, or intention working from outside of the physical order is intervening to cause an occurrence that would otherwise not be possible within the physical order.
In order to identify a miraculous event, therefore, I am looking for two primary criteria:
- The event defies ordinary physical causality
- The event was caused by an agency acting from outside of physical causality
I will also add a couple of clarifications about these criteria. First, when I say that an agency is acting “from outside of physical causality,” I do not mean that a miraculous agent cannot be located within the physical universe. Orthodox Christians, for example, argue that Jesus was a flesh and blood human being who performed miracles. Even though Jesus was within the physical universe, however, his miracles such as transforming water into wine cannot be explained through solely physical causes. Likewise, when I use the term “agency,” I am referring to any volitional, intentional force causing the miracles. Miracles are not generally understood as unconscious accidents, but happen for intentional reasons. Answers to prayers, healing bodies in very specific ways, and producing very specific effects, such as parting the Red Sea specifically in front of the Judeans, all imply intelligent design.
In order to identify agency-driven behavior, I think that a definition provided by philosopher André Ariew (“Platonic and Aristotelian Roots of Teleological Arguments”), distinguishing between Aristotelian and Platonic teleology, will be useful. Ariew (pg. 8) explains:
“Insofar as Aristotle’s teleology pertains to explanations of natural items, it is misleading to cast off Aristotle’s teleology as reading purposive behavior into natural events. This perception of Aristotle’s teleology is the result of conflating Aristotle’s naturalistic teleology with Plato’s … Plato’s natural teleology is and Aristotle’s is not creationist, anthropomorphic, and externally evaluative … Aristotle’s natural teleology is and Plato’s is not naturalistic, immanent, and functional.”
Ariew (pp. 8-9) goes on to identify two distinct types of teleology in Aristotle’s writings:
“Teleological explanation in Aristotle pertains broadly to goal-directed actions or behavior. Aristotle invokes teleology when an event or action pertains to goals … [W]e can distinguish two distinct conceptions of teleology in Aristotle’s writings and at least two sub-categories:
- Agency-centered teleology:
i. Behavioral. Activities undertaken for the sake of something, which may be either a state or further action.
ii. Artifactual. Activities undertaken for the sake of producing an object of a certain sort (artificial).
- Teleology pertaining to natural organisms:
i. Formal. Biological developmental processes that occur for the sake of self-preservation or preservation of the species (form).
ii. Functional. Parts of organisms that are present for the sake of the organism possessing them.
1 and 2 are distinct notions of teleology … Agent-specific teleology (1) is purposive, rational, and intentional, and represents external evaluation. The goal is the object of an agent’s desire or choice … Teleology pertaining to natural organisms is distinct: non-purposive (though seemingly so), non-rational, non-intentional, and immanent–that is, an inner principle of change. The goal is not an object of any agent’s desire.”
When it comes to seeking out the intelligence behind miracles, I am looking for agent-specific (1) teleology. The evidence of miracles that I am searching for will thus demonstrate an apparent violation or departure from ordinary physical causality that appears to be the result of purposive, rational, and intentional external evaluation.
Types of Miracles:
I have defined what I consider to be a miraculous event above, but now I will also need to elaborate on the types of miracles that can fit this definition. Perhaps surprisingly, this definition is actually very broad, and can describe a very wide range of hypothetical miracles. Here are five kinds of miracles that I think can fit this definition:
A. Miracles of Probability:
Many events that people describe as “miracles” simply involve extraordinarily improbable events occurring. For example, when I debated Christian apologist Don Johnson a couple years ago, Don brought up (part 2, 40:40) a girl that lost her pet parakeet, prayed for a new parakeet, and then had another parakeet fly into her yard the next day. Don also brought up a couple that had prayed for a very specific amount of money, and then received that exact sum of money. Don argued that these events were so improbable, some sort of miraculous intervention must have been at work.
While a girl and her pet parakeet may have been enough to convince Don Johnson of miracles, however, I am fairly skeptical of miracles of this kind. The reason why is that these events can still be plausibly explained as coincidences. We live in a world of more than 7 billion people, where extraordinarily rare events are happening everyday. Say that there is a one in a million chance of winning a lottery, for example, and ten million people were to enter this lottery. If nobody won, this would actually be more a more improbable event than a winning lottery ticket itself.
As Richard Carrier recently explained in “Everything You Need to Know about Coincidences”:
“This is the Law of Large Numbers that Christian apologist David Marshall once tried to claim didn’t exist. In order to ignore the fact that: the universe is so big and old, the extreme improbability of random biogenesis on a per-reaction basis actually becomes virtually 100% on cosmic sum. It is more formally referred to as the Infinite Monkey Theorem, as the Law of Large Numbers is also used to refer to what causes the Infinite Monkey Theorem to be true … The point is the same: the more occasions for a coincidence to occur, the more such coincidences will occur. And without a mathematical check, we cannot know from our isolated POV whether we are one of those coincidences or not.”
Carrier’s last point is highly relevant to verifying miracles of probability. We need a “mathematical check” to know whether these events are anything more than coincidences. There is a natural probability, after all, that I girl will lose a pet parakeet and then have another one fly into her yard the next day, or a couple will receive the exact sum of money that they have prayed for. In order to demonstrate that these events are true miracles, therefore, there needs to be a mathematical check to demonstrate that these events are occurring at a greater frequency than would naturally occur. A greater frequency than the natural probability could then suggest that some sort of agency is intervening to cause the elevated occurrences. But without such a mathematical check, miracles of probability are essentially unprovable.
B. Miracles of Prophecy:
Another common type of miracle, similar to miracles of probability, is prophecy. Like the miracles described above, true prophecies are hard to determine, due to the fact that people can coincidentally predict the future. For example, there were several Judeans in antiquity who predicted that the Jewish Temple would be destroyed, which eventually took place during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. But since such apocalyptic predictions were commonly made, some people were eventually bound to get such a prediction right, especially since this prediction was not really a true guess, but more of an educated guess influenced by surrounding circumstances, such as political tensions with Rome.
Recently, philosopher Evan Fales sent me a useful handout that he uses in his philosophy of religion courses, which provides a set of criteria for identifying a true prophecy:
- It must be possible to establish that the prophecy was in fact made prior to the time of the fulfilling event.
- The event must be one that is not likely relative to (ordinary) background information.
- The event must be one whose occurrence could not have been humanly known, or reasonably guessed at, by the prophet.
- The event must be one that is beyond the powers of the prophet or the prophet’s followers or others with an interest in the matter to bring about; and it must not be “self-fulfilling.”
- The prophetic description of the event must be specific and unambiguous.
- The fulfilling event must be a public event, widely attested by independent sources – i.e., there must be good certainty that it did occur.
- The prophecy must not be one of a large number of prophecies offered by the prophet or by a tradition, only a very select few of which prove successful.
I agree that, if these conditions can be met, then there would be good evidence of a genuine prophecy occurring, which could then be used as evidence of a miracle.
C. Miracles Involving Ordinary Restoration of Human Health:
Many miracles that are reported involve restoration to ordinary human health, but not necessarily super-human abilities or conditions. For example, a person dies at age 50, and is then resuscitated from the dead, only to die again at age 70. Such *resuscitations* are not the same things as *resurrections*. Someone who resuscitates in this way is only being restored to ordinary human health, and only prolonging death. In discussing the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, however, theologian William Craig (Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection, pg. 15) explains:
“Resurrection is not resuscitation. The mere restoration of life to a corpse is not a resurrection. A person who has resuscitated returns only to this earthly life and will die again.”
And (pg. 127):
“Jesus rose to eternal life in a radically transformed body that can be described as immortal, glorious, powerful, and supernatural. In this new mode of existence, he was not bound by the physical limitations of the universe, but possessed superhuman powers.”
Simply showing examples of humans resuscitating, therefore, does not necessarily prove that someone could *resurrect* from the dead. Bayesian expert Robert Cavin likewise discusses many other metaphysically remarkable aspects of Jesus’ resurrection in “Is There Sufficient Historical Evidence to Establish the Resurrection of Jesus,” which is chapter 1 of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.
Someone does not need to be immortally resurrected from the dead, however, for a genuine miracle to occur. A person’s head being cut off at age 5o, who then has it regrow, is restored to life, and then dies at age 70, has certainly experienced a miracle, even if this miracle is not the same as Jesus’ resurrection. I only raise this point to distinguish the nature of Jesus’ resurrection from resuscitations, since the resurrection of Jesus is one of the miracles in the New Testament that Christian apologists are most interested in proving. Even if miracles of resuscitation could be proven, therefore, that does not mean that miracles like Jesus’ resurrection have been demonstrated in modern times.
Nevertheless, I am still interested in miracles of this kind. An amputated limb that regrows, or a person with leprosy who suddenly gains perfectly healthy skin, or a person who is confirmed dead with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or electroencephalogram (EEG) scans, who later resuscitates back to life, could all provide evidence of miracles. The main evidence that I am looking for, therefore, is sufficient documentation of the medical condition, medical research about what kinds of cures are physically possible, and sufficient documentation of a medical cure that defies anything known in medical research, particularly if there is suggestion of an outside agency intervening, such as the cure taking place right after a prayer. What kind of medical documentation is “sufficient” is a matter that I will discuss below.
D. Miracles Involving Super-Human Abilities:
Turning water into wine, walking on water, or resurrecting from brain death into an immortal and imperishable body do not just involve healing miracles that restore people to ordinary human health. They involve super-human abilities that supersede ordinary physical laws. If Keener wants to argue for “the credibility of the New Testament accounts,” he really needs to provide modern examples of these kinds of miracles.
Furthermore, I also think that these kinds of miracles are among the easiest to provide prima facie evidence of their occurrence. Miracles that involve restoration to ordinary human health are tricky, since people are restored to health all the time. In order to demonstrate that such a restoration is miraculous, therefore, evidence must be provided that the restoration is outside of what is otherwise medically possible. But the extraordinary nature of super-human miracles are more obvious. Flying in the air, teleportation, spontaneous creation of heat and cold, and many other hypothetical miracles could all provide excellent proof.
Of course, checks would need to be in place to establish that none of these alleged miracles are magical parlor tricks, or even the use of super advanced technology. But I also don’t want to be a stickler. All I need is prima facie evidence of such a miracle. If a man can walk on water, therefore, sure, there might be some super advanced technology at work that I don’t know about. But, I would still describe this event as prima facie evidence of a miracle. That kind of evidence alone would be enough for me to start seriously considering the real world occurrence of miracles, and I think that strong enough evidence of this kind could be enough to establish reasonable belief in miracles, even if complete certainty is not possible.
E. Miracles Involving Direct Miracle Workers:
Note that Jesus performs many of his miracles in the New Testament in person. He is a clear miracle worker who is present performing the miraculous event, such as when he walks on water, or uses his fingers and saliva to cure a man of deafness and muteness. Contrast this with miracles that do not have direct miracle workers acting on the scene. Say that someone is declared dead, for example, shows no signs of a beating pulse for a prolonged period, and then resuscitates back to life. We might call this a miracle, but did any miracles worker perform it? Could we connect the alleged miracle with a specific agent performing the miracle, such as we could with Jesus?
What is also worth noting is that miracles caused by agents could be repeatable and demonstrable with scientific instruments. Jesus’ miracles in the New Testament are likewise depicted as repeatable events, which is why crowds gather after him and people bring more sick to be healed, after learning of his previous miracles. If a miracle worker could perform miracles on demand in modern times, then he could do it when doctors and scientists are present. This would provide perhaps the strongest evidence there is of a miracle.
Note also, however, that many miracle workers are charlatans. For example, in modern times there are individuals like Sathya Sai Baba, and in ancient times individuals like Alexander of Abonoteichus, who are and have been reputed to be miracle workers, even though their “miracles” can be shown to be the result of parlor tricks and fraud. Nevertheless, a genuine miracle worker, who could repeat miracles, could provide empirical evidence of miracles to scientists and doctors in a controlled setting. Examples of such tests and criteria include the “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation, which, after decades of testing thousands of supernatural and psychic claims, still never had a single successful applicant.
Can Science Investigate Miracles?
When asked to give empirical evidence of miracles, many apologists try to get around this challenge by claiming that miracles are purely a “philosophical” or “metaphysical” question that science cannot answer. But nothing could be further from the truth. Science is an epistemology that is empirical. Miracles such as raising the dead, walking on water, or turning water into wine likewise would involve demonstrable, empirical change. If such miracles existed, science could find them.
Furthermore, science also establishes the background conditions of what is ordinarily physically possible. As theologian William Craig (The Case for Faith, pg. 63) explains:
“Natural laws have implicit ceteris paribus conditions … In other words, natural laws assume that no other natural or supernatural factors are interfering with the operation that the law describes.”
Ceteris paribus is a Latin term meaning “all other things being equal.” Science can tell us, for example, that a human being’s weight placed on the surface of liquid water will be too great for the surface friction on top of the water to support, causing the person to sink. This pattern can be demonstrated again and again through empirical testing. We know from science, therefore, that a human being walking on water would defy ordinary physical causality. If such an action were performed, therefore, especially by someone reputed to be a miracle worker, this would provide prima facie evidence of a miraculous event.
As I have stated above, I have two criteria for identifying a miracle:
- The event defies ordinary physical causality
- The event was caused by an agency acting from outside of physical causality
Science can answer both of these questions. Science is the epistemology that we use to study the physical world and the ordinary patterns of cause and effect that take place within it. Furthermore, science can also distinguish intelligently-driven behavior from natural occurrences, due to the goal orientation, design, and intentionality reflected in intelligent behavior. Empirical science, therefore, provides us with all of the tools that we need to study the existence of miracles.
The only qualification I that might add is what constitutes a genuine “miracle” may involve philosophical and theological definitions. That’s fine. I am not concerned with what we theologically declare a “miracle,” but rather the prima facie evidence of the empirical phenomena that is associated with miracle claims. Whether we define the Red Sea spontaneously parting as a “miracle” performed by God is beyond the fact that, if the Red Sea were to spontaneously part, we could empirically observe this phenomenon. All science needs to study therefore, is the empirical evidence of events that appear to defy ordinary physical causality–such as walking on water, raising the dead, or turning water into wine.
You also cannot get around this empirical evidence. Whether or not we choose to call these kinds of events “miracles” does not change the fact that they are tied to claims about empirical, physical reality. Science must always come first, therefore, in demonstrating the phenomena in question, even if how we define “miracles” might be a secondary concern that involves philosophy or theology.
Is Skepticism towards Miracles Due to A Priori Commitments?
Another common claim that apologists will make is that skeptics only doubt the existence of miracles due to the “a priori” assumption of naturalism. This, however, is nothing more than a straw man. I have already discussed in my essay “Defining the ‘Natural’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” how naturalism does not need to be taken as an a priori view, assumed before investigation, but can also be an a posteriori view reached after empirically observing a world in which there are only natural forces, entities, and causes. But, likewise, the existence of miracles and the supernatural also does not have to be assumed a priori, but could also be reached a posteriori, if empirical evidence were provided of such phenomena.
If we lived in a world like Harry Potter, where magical events were taking place all the time, in plain view, as part of ordinary physical reality, it would indeed be not be an a priori assumption, but an a posteriori conclusion that magical powers are real. The question hangs solely on the empirical evidence that we gather.
I should also qualify, however, that miracles do not need to take place everyday to be part of our empirical reality. Miracles may be very, very rare events, indeed. What naturalists maintain, however, is that, no miracle events will be able to be supported by verifiable empirical evidence. Only a single example of such verifiable evidence, even if no others occurred for all of history, would be enough to disprove this view. I will discuss such evidence further below.
Another point that needs to be raised, however, is that prior probability is a relevant factor in assessing reports of miracles. As I explain in my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles,” both scientists and historians take into consideration previous data and experience as background knowledge when assessing individual claims. If we live in a world where miracle claims are being falsified all the time, and no evidence of a verifiable miracle event has ever been discovered, then the prior probability of a miracle will gradually decrease, until only extraordinary evidence can rule out the possibility of a false miracle. In a world such as Harry Potter, where magical events are more common, however, less extraordinary evidence is needed.
Something should also be said at this point about what is meant by the term “extraordinary.” As forensic expert Richard Packham (“The Man with No Heart: Miracles and Evidence”) explains, the term “extraordinary” does not mean that the type of evidence itself has to be remarkable. Video tapes, x-rays, medical records, and so on are all part of ordinary life experience. What is meant by “extraordinary” in this case is that the evidence in question cannot be equally explained by a wide range of causes, but is only rendered probable under a very specific hypothesis. The problem with miracle reports is that they can be explained by a wide range of non-miraculous causes–such as misinterpretations of one’s senses, misdiagnosed medical conditions, remarkable coincidences, constructed memories, hearsay, and plain old lies. Extraordinary evidence is the kind that can eliminate these other possible explanations, in order to narrow down the range of causes. I will discuss this process further below.
Does the Existence of God Increase the Probability of Miracles?
Another argument that apologists will frequently raise is that miracles are not so improbable, if we start from the assumption that God exists. If God exists and wants to perform a miracle, such as raising Jesus from the dead, then the prior probability of such a miracle is not low at all. But, once more, this mischaracterizes the nature of the prior probability. As Bayesian expert Robert Cavin explains (slides 80-83):
“If God wills that I turn into a gigantic green cucumber, then I’ll turn into a gigantic green cucumber. But it’s hardly probable that God would will this! The fact that God can supernaturally intervene doesn’t make it in the least likely that He does.”
Whether God (or any other agents operating from outside the physical order) perform miracles in the physical world is once more a question of ordinary physical reality. We can assess the likelihood of such events based on empirical evidence and simple statistics. As Cavin explains, a low prior probability for miracles can be shown by a simple statistical syllogism (slide 110):
99%+ of Xs are Ys
A is an X
Therefore, A is probably a Y
In the case of a miracle such as Jesus rising from the dead, the question is not whether God wants to raise Jesus from the dead, but simply the question of how often these kinds of events empirically take place in the world. Cavin argues, therefore, that even assuming the existence of God, does not change the fact that Jesus rising from the dead is initially improbable with the following statistical syllogism (slide 108):
- 99.999…999% of the dead are not supernaturally interfered with by God, and, thus, not raised by Him.
- Jesus was dead.
- Jesus was [probably] not supernaturally interfered with by God, and, thus, not raised by Him.
So simply assuming that God exists does not increase the probability of miracles. Instead, empirical evidence needs to be shown that God does, indeed, cause these kinds of events in the world. This brings us straight back to what kind of empirical evidence can be provided.
Naturalism and Belief in Miracles:
Does metaphysical naturalism predict that no reports of miracles will take place in the world? Not at all. In fact, naturalism predicts quite the opposite. A multitude of miracle reports is, in fact, very likely even if we live in a purely natural world. This is true for a variety of reasons.
First, miracles are events that people look and hope for. People pray everyday for miracles to occur, and they look for their prayers to be answered. This will not only cause people to see miracles in places where they may very well have not occurred, but it will also cause people to believe in miracles when they are told about them by others. Second, as discussed above, we also live in a world where, by sheer large numbers, extraordinarily improbable events will frequently take place. Some of these events are so rare that people will deem them to be miracles, even when they are purely coincidences.
Human psychology is likewise wired to often see agencies in places where there are none. Early humans lived on a planet teeming with life, much of which was hostile and dangerous. Accordingly, early humans had to compete with other animals (and sometimes other humans) to survive, which selected our minds to detect agency and to seek out intelligence that threatened us. An accidental side effect of this, however, was that our minds became programmed for agency over-detection (discussed further by Stewart Guthrie in Faces in the Clouds). Humans personified many things that are actually purely mechanical–harvest cycles, lighting, natural disasters, etc.–and we connected such phenomena with divine beings and other supernatural concepts.
Because of our tendency towards agency over-detection, when improbable or hoped for events occur, humans have a tendency to impute agencies and wills behind them. But unless mathematical or physical checks can be established to rule out mere coincidences and rare events, then we cannot call them either intentional or miraculous. Learning to be skeptical and gather evidence for miracles is part of ruling out our false intuitions. But many, if not most, people who believe in and spread reports about miracles simply do not engage in such skepticism, which is why reports of miracles can easily flourish, even in a world where no miracles actually take place.
Finally, medical conditions can often be misdiagnosed. A resuscitation from apparent death, or the sudden disappearance of diagnosed cancer, for example, does not necessarily mean that a miraculous event has occurred. Unless we have reliable medical documentation of the conditions and the nature of the cure, we cannot rule out misdiagnosis. I will now turn to the types of evidence and documentation that would be compelling in the subsequent section.
Miracle Reports vs. Evidence of Miracles:
We have established that miracle reports will be common occurrences even in a world where none actually exist. Simply documenting a multitude of such reports, therefore, does not mean that one has provided a compelling case for their actual occurrence. Instead, whether or not one can show that miracles take place in the world hinges on the kinds of empirical evidence that can be provided. I will now discuss two primary kinds of compelling evidence that could be provided.
1) Evidence from Scale:
I think it is a fair to say that the larger and more remarkable a miracle is, the easier that it is to prove, or to at least provide prima facie evidence of a miraculous occurrence. If the Red Sea were to part tomorrow, for example, this would be much easier to show as miracle, than a person who has been declared dead, shows no sign of a beating pulse, and then resuscitates from the dead, or a couple praying for a sum of money and then receiving it. The reason why is that there is a wider range of causes that can explain the latter two examples–such as medical misdiagnosis and coincidences–than there is that could explain an event as remarkable as the Red Sea parting.
Let me also clarify, however, that simply because large-scale miracles would be the easiest to confirm does not mean either that we should expect such miracles or that large-scale miracles alone are the only types of miracles that I would believe in. This is how Christian apologist Don Johnson once misinterpreted my views in my recorded debate with him, as well as another blogger in a post titled “Yellow Dog Naturalism.” We don’t know what kind of miracles God would perform in the world, if any, or when, where, and how they would occur. All we can go off of is the empirical evidence. But since reports of miracles can easily circulate without an actual miraculous cause, we need empirical evidence that can rule out false reports.
The reason why miracles of large-scale or highly remarkable change are easier to prove is because far few causes could explain such phenomena, besides a genuine intervention in ordinary physical causality. We need less mathematical and physical checks to know that a person who has had their head decapitated, and then suddenly regrows it, has more likely experienced a miracle, than a person who appears to have no pulse, but then resuscitates. I am not saying that we should expect such extraordinary miracles, or that these are the only types of miracles that I would believe in; I am simply laying out a certain type of evidence that would more easily persuade me of a miracle.
2) Evidence from Precision:
In the absence of large-scale or remarkable change, however, the next best thing is precision. Even a paper cut healing unnaturally fast, for example, (possibly even connected with a sign of agency, such as a miracle worker healing the paper cut), would technically be a miracle, but how can we show that such an event defies ordinary physical causality, without very precise evidence and documentation? The best place to go for this evidence is medical records, as well as the tests used by psychologists and forensic scientists. Since I think that this kind of evidence can involve a broad range of methods, instruments, and data, however, I will focus on a single example: resuscitation from the dead.
What would it take for me to believe that a person had died and then resuscitated from the dead? As discussed above, an extraordinarily remarkable miracle, such as a person being decapitated and then regrowing their head could more easily do it, but let’s say that we are working with less obvious examples. What if a person has simply been diagnosed as dead, or shown signs of being dead, such as having no pulse and not breathing. What could convince me that they had died and resusciated from the dead?
Here, precision is the key, since it is often quite easy to misdiagnose death. First, I will lay out some tests that would probably not be precise enough in the absence of remarkable scale:
[I should also note that I am not a doctor, so I am simply relying on authorities and my own limited research for this section, and welcome any corrections, suggestions, or feedback in the comments below. My interest in this section, however, is to identify certain kinds of tests that are susceptible to misdiagnosis, and what evidence can overcome such misdiagnoses, in order to provide a prima facie example of someone genuinely resuscitating from the dead. This section may be revised, if I have erred in my description of existing medical research, but that still does not change the fact that these kinds of evidential criteria can be applied, in principle, when investigating apparent miracles.]
- Blood Pulse: While it is true that dead people will have their hearts stop beating and lose their blood pulse, this is not sure proof that a person who appears to have these symptoms is actually dead. It is not unprecedented that death can be misdiagnosed from a lack of palpable pulse, no observable respiratory activity, and even low oxygen in the blood. These kinds of misdiagnoses were also more common in the 1800’s and in antiquity when instruments were less available. Even skilled doctors can make misdiagnoses using such tests. That said, the longer a person goes without a palpable pulse, the more likely it is that they are dead. If a person has shown these symptoms for considerably longer than all known examples of recovery, then this could provide evidence of a miracle. But we need both precise instruments and a remarkable length of time to show this. So, this is a relevant test, but not always a reliable one.
- Change in Pallor: In about 15-25 minutes after death pallor mortis occurs, which is a kind of post-mortem paleness caused by a lack of capillary circulation throughout the body. The living can change pallor too, however, from shock, low blood pressure, various illnesses, and healing bruises (relevant to someone like Jesus who has been scourged). Green pallor takes longer to develop, and is less common in living persons. This test is thus not terribly reliable.
- Rigor Mortis: In about 3-4 hours after death rigor mortis occurs, which causes the limbs of a corpse to stiffen, due to chemical changes in the muscles after death. These symptoms also come and go, so you have to constantly monitor the body, and the symptoms also don’t take place until after the most deaths are diagnosed anyway. Furthermore, the same symptoms have also been shown to occur in living persons (see here and here). So this test, again, is not terribly reliable.
- Stinking Corpse: After 2-3 days at room temperature, a body will start to smell of decay (though, animals such as dogs, for example, can recognize these symptoms sooner). Unwashed bodies and untreated wounds, however, can also cause similar symptoms (untreated wounds can even notoriously smell like death). Such a test cannot be applied until after the time in which a person is diagnosed dead, anyway. So, generally not an applicable test.
Lacking a very precise measure of no palpable pulse and decreasing oxygen in the blood for a very remarkable length of time, none of the tests above can likely provide certain enough evidence of death for a remarkable recovery to be truly miraculous. We live in a world of more than 7 billion people, and extraordinary recoveries will thus not only be possible, but even likely. The only tests beyond these that would likely be foolproof would be a skillfully conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or electroencephalogram (EEG).
Take note also that, if people are declared dead in places where these tests cannot be adequately performed, that does not mean that we get a free pass for declaring their recovery a miracle. Excluding examples of remarkable scale, therefore, such miracles are not likely to be discovered outside of hospitals. But, we live in an age where we have hospitals and instruments in place to perform these tests all over the planet. All we need is one good example to provide persuasive evidence of a miracle.
Persuasive Research and Publishing:
Any researcher who seeks to make a persuasive case for the existence of miracles in modern times will need to research and publish their work in a responsible way. Finding and verifying persuasive evidence of miraculous phenomena could likely require traveling with a team of experts and rigorously documenting the evidence with tests and instruments. If you can’t get a funding grant, then that simply means that you can’t perform adequate research. Merely documenting anecdotal evidence and miraculous reports is not enough.
Furthermore, any researcher who seeks to make a persuasive case for the existence of miracles will need to publish their evidence through a reputable publisher in a relevant field. In particular, such evidence should be published in a peer reviewed medical, scientific, or parapsychological source. Publishers who have a bias towards belief in miracles, such as a Christian publishing house, are not adequate for this kind of study.
Finally, any researcher who seeks to make a persuasive case for the existence of miracles will need to research miracles in every possible context that they can. This means looking for evidence of miracles occurring in a Hindu context, a Muslim context, a Catholic context, a Native American context, a Pagan context, and others, besides a solely a Protestant and Pentecostal context, for example. Only investigating contexts specific to one particular religious group or tradition is a sign of bias from the start.
Modern Miracles’ Implications for the Christian Faith:
Would demonstrating a modern miracle, such as a man showing no cardio/respiratory activity under precise instruments for three days, and/or being declared dead after an MRI or EEG, then resuscitating from the dead at age 50, only to die again at age 70, provide evidence that events such as Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament actually occur? Not really. As discussed above, the miracles of Jesus described in the New Testament involve super-human abilities and conditions, and not just restoration to ordinary human health. If all we have is evidence of miracles involving restoration to ordinary human health, that does not entail that super-human abilities and conditions ever actually occur. It is important not to conflate this evidence. Then again, if empirical evidence of such super-human abilities and conditions can be demonstrated, then perhaps that may, indeed, increase the plausibility of Jesus’ miracles.
Another measure that I think could be relevant, however, is if modern miracles, even those only involving restoration to ordinary human health, were occurring solely in a Christian context. To show this, a researcher would need to investigate miracle reports across cultures and religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Paganism, etc., to show that genuine miracles were only occurring in one religious context (or perhaps more frequently in one religious context). It should also be noted that miracle reports will be more numerous in cultures and religions where belief in miracles is more common. This is why showing a multitude of miraculous reports, without verifiable evidence, is not enough to provide persuasive evidence for the existence of miracles. Furthermore, if such reports are less numerous in cultures and religions where such beliefs are not common, then I think that such trends should fairly be regarded as evidence against miracles, since such trends would demonstrate that miraculous reports are demonstrably increased by prior expectations.
Modern Miracles’ Implications for Naturalism:
Even if modern miracles, which involve only restoration to ordinary human health but no super-human abilities or conditions, and occur outside of no unique religious context, may not lend support to the specific claims of any particular religion, that still does not mean that they provide no evidence of a minimally supernatural world. Perhaps such miracles will occur, but never support the truth of any particular religion more than another. But, even evidence for such kinds of ambiguous miraculous occurrences would still lead me away from belief in metaphysical naturalism. What I need, though, are not mere reports of miracles, but strong empirical evidence of miraculous phenomena, researched and published in a responsible way. Naturalism predicts that tons of miraculous reports will occur in the world, but that none will be backed up by strong empirical evidence. Just one example with strong empirical evidence, therefore, would be enough to disprove this prediction, rather than a multitude of unverified claims.
With these considerations in mind, I will turn to reviewing Keener’s evidence in the subsequent parts of this review. Perhaps Keener can provide the evidence that I have outlined above, or perhaps he will make a stronger case for another set of evidential criteria. I will be evaluating what kinds of evidence and arguments he has to offer, in the posts ahead.