The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Epistemology of Miracles

We will now turn our attention in the rest of the chapter towards the miracles attributed to Jesus. All four gospels narrated many miracles supposedly performed by the Galilean. To believers these miracles, more than anything else, prove Jesus divine status and mission. It is important before we start analyzing the individual miracles to come to grips with some philosophical concepts regarding this class of phenomena.

Definition of "Miracle"

I have used the word miracle above as though it is a clearly understood concept, but is it? For example, if you were to get an unexpected pay rise from your boss, does that constitute a miracle? Most people would say not. But what if you prayed for it the night before? Whether you agree or disagree that the above example represents a miracle, it is obvious that we can used that word without giving it an unambiguous definition. St. Augustine (354-430) gave the definition of miracle as anything that happens contra quam est nota natura (in defiance of natural laws known to us). [1]

By that definition a miracle is something that occurs in a way that is contrary to what we would expect based on our own experience and on scientific generalizations. Using the above definition, the unexpected pay rise example given above is not a miracle. The reason is that while it is a most unusual occurrence there is nothing in our everyday experience that says it could not happen. There is nothing wrong, per se, with the definition above and I think as a tentative attempt it is acceptable to both believers and skeptics.

I will not adopt the dismissive attitude of most rationalist theologians who tried to be skeptical but went overboard and did away with the need for an analysis of the problems of miracles. One such theologians was David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) who wrote in the Introduction to his Life of Jesus (Tubingen,1837):

We may summarily reject all miracles, prophecies, narratives of angels and demons, and the like, as simply impossible and irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which govern the course of events. [2]

Strauss was writing close to a century before the advent of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity which overthrew the Newtonian world view. Our understanding of Newton's laws today is not that it is wrong (as most people unfamiliar with science think it means) but that it is an approximation of nature and has its range of validity. Newtonian mechanics break down at the domain of the very small and the very large. In the domain of the very small, that of electrons and atoms, Quantum Mechanics takes over. While in the domain of the very large, that of galaxies and the universe, Einstein's General Theory of Relativity reigns supreme. But in our everyday domain, of cars, houses and stones, Newtonian mechanics is still used and with invariable success. Even in calculating the trajectory of rockets and satellites NASA scientists still use Newton's equations as they are accurate enough for their purposes. The Newtonian equations also have the added advantage of being a lot less complicated mathematically than Einstein's. Our understanding of scientific laws today is that they are a collection of human generalizations on the behavior of nature. These generalizations are based on a vast amount of collected data and are certainly trustworthy. But they are nowhere near the ultimate truth, if there ever was such an animal. Modern science has taken away the predictable world of Newton and replaced it with a "grey" probabilistic one of Quantum mechanics.

Hence Strauss' blanket rejection of the extraordinary reminds one of Rudolf Carnap's analogy of the cartographer who pronounce the terrain false because it did not agree with his map! [3]

On the other extreme, an unquestioning acceptance of the reality of these miracle accounts, which is typical of the fundamentalist attitude, is even more absurd. The statement below, from a fundamentalist work, is typical of such an attitude:

...the gospel miracles cannot be discounted because of the extravagant superstitious claims of pagan miracles. Just because some miracles are counterfeit is no proof that all are fraudulent. [4]

Note how "pagan miracles" are easily dismissed as superstitious claims while the demand is that the gospel miracles must be proven false.

Obviously both the extreme positions are irrational. The arch skeptic rejects miracles categorically without any examination. Our understanding of the nature of scientific laws today does not justify such as attitude. The ardent believer accepts these same accounts are true until it is absolutely proven false. Of course, all other non-Christian miracles, to these people are simply "frauds". In short, the Christians are as quick to dismiss the miraculous claims of others as the arch-skeptics are.

Proposed Methodology in the Study of Miracles

What should a rational methodology in the study of miracles in the gospels consists of? I believe it should contain three principle points.

The first principle is that miracles are, if not impossible, extremely improbable events. This is actually in line with what the fundamentalists claim for it. For if miracles are an everyday occurrence, it loses it power to convince them of the might of God.

The second principle is that extraordinary claims must provide extraordinary proof. In other words, if an event is unlikely to happen we would demand more proof before we can be convinced of its occurrence. For an improbable event, by definition, has a very low probability of occuring. And only after we can satisfactorily dismiss of all other more probable explanations can we then begin to consider seriously the less probable ones. Applied to the miraculous accounts in the gospels more probable explanations include:

  • Falsification of data by the authors
    It is certainly more probable that some overzealous believer falsified accounts to enhance his message than for an event that is totally contradictory to all that we know of nature's behavior to have occurred.
  • Falsification by tradition and popular imagination
    This is another obvious possibility. In our discussion of the Romanian folklore and the Xavierian myth earlier, we have seen the actual process of mythologization of real and fictitious events caused by popular imagination.
  • Mistakes of the eye-witnesses
    It is not improbable that an eyewitness may actually thought he saw a miracle occurring when actually nothing of that such was going on. Take the case of Lourdes. The French town where millions of Catholics make a pilgrimage to each year. The claims of miraculous cures are legion. But when a medical doctor actually examined the eleven best attested cases he found that in none of these were there any proof of the occurrence of a miracle. As the doctor himself (Dr. D.J. West) concludes: "in no case was the evidence really satisfactory, and in certain cases the evidence suggested a purely natural alternative explanation." [5]
  • The protagonist uses magic tricks or hypnosis
    This alternative is obviously the most distasteful to Christians, for it implies Jesus consciously set out to deceive. Distasteful though it is, it cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is certainly more probable that a Galilean Jew deceived a few illiterates than that a God-Man performed feats that defy nature.

The possibilities alluded to above are certainly more probable and less incredible than the occurrence of a miracle. As long as these possibilities exist the gospel accounts cannot be taken to prove that the extraordinary actually happened.

The third principle involves the question of the burden of proof. Where does the burden of proof lie? Is it with skeptic as the fundamentalist writer quoted above suggested? Or is it with the believers?

Perhaps an example may serve to tilt the balance a little. Suppose someone claims that three headed flying snakes live on the planet Pluto. How are we to treat such a claim? Is it the skeptic who must devise a way to send a probe to Pluto, drop a planetary probe and search the whole planet for these snakes? [a] The answer in this case is obviously, no. The skeptic can say that based on what we understand of evolution and the biological system of reptiles any kind of snake lifeform is impossible on Pluto. The believer can claim that as the skeptic has not proven his belief false, he is justified in his belief that there are three headed flying snakes in Pluto. The reader can easily see for himself the absurdity of the believer's position. It boils down to this: anyone can make any kind of preposterous claims. Disproving them is neither practicable nor necessary. The burden of proof must fall squarely on the party that makes the positive claim. So if anyone wants to start making claims about three headed flying snakes on Pluto, he'd better have solid proof!

Applied to our present case, it is obviously the believer who makes a positive assertion about miracles (extraordinary events even less probable than three headed flying snakes in Pluto!). It is therefore the obligation of the believer to supply convincing proof to support that claim. As long as skeptics can raise reasonable doubts, the case of miracles is not proven.

In short, miracles are extremely improbable occurences; any claims of the miraculous requires extraordinary proof and the onus in on the believer to supply it.

Miracle Stories as Instances of Historical Testimonies

Before we analyze the miracles individually it is important for us to put into perspective what value the accounts have generally. Firstly, the miracles stories are, at best, historical testimonies at worst, pure fiction. Like all historical testimonies, accounts of the miraculous are subject to the same doubts that normal testimonies are open to. Furthermore, as discussed in earlier, the gospels were not written by first hand eyewitnesses and involve mainly the community tradition of the early Christians. And we all know how basically unreliable community tradition is. The tradition was allowed to flourish and develop for at least four decades before it was put in writing, ample time, as we have shown, for mythologization.

Secondly, even if some of the events did occur, in one way or another, what were the mindset of the eyewitness who saw and, more importantly, interpreted it? They lived in a culture where accepting the miraculous or God's intervention in the affairs of the world was considered normal. Jesus' followers consisted mainly of ill-educated Galilean peasants. In the minds of the ancient Jews, even a phenomenon such as the sprouting of seeds in the fields, seemed to be a miracle. As Marcello Craveri observed:

It is just such ignorance and fear of all events outside the normal course of things-even of atmospheric and seismic phenomena, such as lightning, thunder and volcanic eruptions-that gave birth in antiquity to the conviction that they were the results of divine intervention. [6]

We know from our everyday experience that human powers of observation are fallible. This is especially true when it is in a heightened emotional state, which almost always accompanies the eyewitnesses of the alleged miracles. [7]

Thus it was such a state that 70,000 Catholics in the Portuguese town of Fatima on October 13th 1917 saw the Sun dancing in the sky and fell in a zig zag manner towards the crowd. Apart from Pope Pius XII, who claimed he too saw the miracle from the Vatican, nobody else outside Fatima saw or noticed anything unusual with the sun that day. [8] Whatever happened in Fatima it was clearly more in line with mass hysteria or autosuggestion than the occurrence of any actual miracle. No non-Catholic would claim that this was an actual miracle, especially given the theologically embarrassing connection of the miracle with the appearance of Mary earlier. For skeptics, the fact that no one, save the pope, outside Fatima saw the miracle proved that nothing physically out of the ordinary occurred that day. What happened was due to the psychological state of 70,000 who were in that town expecting something to happen. The lesson to keep in mind from Fatima is that the presence of eyewitnesses does not in any way guarantee the actual occurrence of the event. This is especially more so when they are of an easily suggestible sort, as the first century Jews were.

Miracles Stories as Products of Culture

We can broadly classify the miracles attributed to Jesus into three main classes: the Epiphanies, the healings and the nature miracles. The Epiphanies are miracles which concerned the revelation of Jesus as he really is. The Epiphanies include the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem, the transfiguration and the resurrection. The healings include curing the sick and the deranged, as well as raising the dead. This type of miracles is numerically the most common in the gospels. The nature miracles are the ones where Jesus show his power over nature. These include the calming of the tempest, walking on water, turning water into wine, the feeding of the multitudes and the cursing of the fig tree. [9] The total number of miracles described in any detail by the four gospels amount to about forty. [10]

It should be noted that the miracles attributed to Jesus are not unique. The same types of miracles stories are current around his time. We know this for a fact because a Greek satirist, Lucian of Somasota, who lived around AD120 to 200 wrote a book poking fun at contemporary tales of the miraculous. In his book, aptly called Philopseudes (Lover of Lies), Lucian tells of the gathering of philosophers in Eucrates' house one day when he was ill. There they exchanged the most amazing miracle stories. We hear about the sick man who carries his bed on his back; of the man who walks on water and revives putrefying corpses; and of the sorcerer who can talk to the evil spirit possessing a man, threaten him and finally cast him out. Anyone who has familiarity with the miracle stories of the gospels will notice the similarity between these two groups of accounts. [11]

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a.The reader can easily imagine an unending scenario. After the Plutonian probe had shown no sign of lifeform the believer can claim that the flying snakes can also make themselves invisible at will and thus remain undetected!


1.De Civitate Dei XXI:8 quoted in Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p122
2.Stein, Encyclopedia of Unbelief: p454
3.Stein, Encyclopedia of Unbelief: p455
4.McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: p125
5.Ward, A Dictionary of Common Fallacies: p153
6.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p123
7.Guignebert, Jesus: p192
Howell-Smith: In Search of the Real Bible: p36
Randall & Buchler, Philosophy: An Introduction: p169-170
8.Ward, A Dictionary of Common Fallacies: p93
9.Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p97
10.Guignebert, Jesus: p197
11.Ibid: p194-195

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