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Don’t Stop Believing in Miracles

Derek Caldwell

The past gets hazier the older I get. Retrieving childhood memories feels like walking through a burning room. The smoke obscures my vision as the flames destroy my past. I have this memory where I am very young, so young in fact that I can’t be sure anymore if it is a memory or a dream: I seem to remember remembering it rather than remembering it itself.

It is the late 1980s and my red-to-blonde sun-bleached hair is due for a trim. The humid air is a wet blanket and the world is carefree.

My father and grandfather are renovating a front porch for the house. Old wood litters my playground, also known as the front yard. Never known for being particularly graceful, one day in my little Hot Wheels t-shirt, I took a tumble into the graveyard of discarded wood. My hands broke the fall. Unfortunately, one of them did so on an exposed nail. I remember being both horrified and fascinated by the hole in my hand. But quickly I wanted that hole to vanish and the pain to go away. I didn’t know it yet, but what I was asking for was a miracle.

Miracles, Shmiracles

Miracles are a fine thing for children to believe in, I suppose. But we are adults, not children, of the modern age. We’ve learned that such things are merely fables meant to make sense of the unknowable—which, with enough research, investigation, and empirical testing becomes knowable. In this, we’ve been shaped by many forces, most notably the Enlightenment. We learned that science, not magic, and not miracles, is the real road to truth and progress.

A little history lesson: the Enlightenment was a series of movements across Europe during roughly the eighteenth century that were not always so anti-religious as we might think. Some were downright religious, but the most anti-religious rhetoric was saved for the hegemony of the Catholic Church in France. During that time, a series of debates took place over the nature of miracles. As one can imagine, a miracle could work to affirm a particular person or religious group’s legitimacy. And so, in an era where religious groups were splintering and fighting for survival, the notion of the miracle was harnessed, potentially to bolster one’s standing in the religious landscape. For example, claims of miracles were used in the cause of the populist Catholic sect known as the Jansenists over against the French monarchy-backed Jesuits.[1] Within Protestantism, the miracle question had also been brewing for some time. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was common for Protestants to claim that miracles had become unnecessary and ceased after biblical times as a way of refuting the miracle claims of Catholics.[2] But eventually, the miracle wars came even to Protestantism as smaller, more vulnerable groups like Quakers and Baptists began alleging miracles in their midst.

In other words, miracles became political. It became something of an embarrassment in an “age of reason” that was growing more scientifically-minded, and the constant bickering led many who might have otherwise remained conformist to begin questioning, and rejecting, traditional religious establishments and beliefs.[3] In order to assuage anxieties, some Protestants proposed a “middle way” in line with the times: Miracles can be believed so long as there is reliable evidence that they took place.[4]

This “middle way” is what a group of those increasingly skeptical theists known as Deists had to refute by claiming not just that certain miracles were untrue, but that no miracle could be true.[5] Deists would eventually claim that belief in miracles was not necessary for salvation and, beyond that, not rationally justifiable; they argued a priori that the laws of nature are uniform and unbreakable and, therefore, miracles (considered as something naturally “unusual” that violated those laws[6]) are highly improbable and, dare they say, impossible.[7] Oh, they dare!

The debate became as much about the immutability of nature as it was about the omnipotence of God. A miracle, according to the Scottish Enlightenment’s most famous Deist, David Hume, is a violation of uniform experience, breaking the laws of nature: “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.”[8]

Several issues arise with Hume’s complete rejection of miracles. One is that Hume, according to his contemporary George Campbell, makes a quantitative difference out of a qualitative one. Hume, he seems to say, finds fifty pennies more valuable than one diamond. But not all evidence and not all testimony are created equal, and rarity should never discredit anything a priori.[9] First, uniformity should not be considered absolutely restrictive. Oxford mathematician John Lennox quips that uniform experience would have, at one time, led you to believe that kings of England never lose their heads. So then, when King Charles I lost his, you might have considered the report of the event a fiction. But you would be wrong about that. “Uniformity is one thing,” Lennox tells us, “absolute uniformity is another.”[10] Secondly, the rarity that disrupts uniformity should not be understood as impossible, for nothing would be possible in the natural world without the Big Bang, perhaps the rarest and most unrepeatable of natural events.[11]

There does need to be scrutiny over the claim of a miracle, of course. No one denies that. Francis Collins, a geneticist, former leader of the Human Genome Project, and believer in miracles, states that “it is crucial that a healthy skepticism be applied when interpreting potentially miraculous events, lest the integrity and rationality of the religious perspective be brought into question,”[12] as it was during the Enlightenment. Some events are merely uncanny rather than miraculous, after all. But while it is important to seek explanations, we should also admit that there is a limit to what science can bring to bear on the miraculous. As physicist John Polkinghorne reminded us, “Belief in miracle is properly a theological issue, not a scientific one, since claims of unique historical occurrences lie outside of science’s competence to adjudicate.”[13]

Our second issue is with how Hume treated the laws of nature. Natural laws, Lennox tells us, are not merely descriptive, but explain the cause-and-effect relationships of the universe.[14] Hume, though invoking uniformity of nature, denies the necessity of cause-and-effect relationships. To Hume, a natural law can only be the witness of what has always been, but it is not determinative of what will always be.[15] To the Christian, scientific laws speak of a rational God’s care for the universe, providing us with the assurances of predictability (which allows us to, say, plan when to plant our crops and expect a harvest). The laws of nature are essential for the faithful to understand and uphold because of miracles, Lennox writes, for “the laws of nature alert us to the fact that it is a miracle. … If we did not know [the laws of nature], we should never recognize a miracle if we saw one.”[16]

Besides, miracles do not break natural laws, CS Lewis claims.[17] They have no need to.[18] “The divine art of miracle,” Lewis explains, “is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.”[19] Nature, therefore, can bring forth miracles when impregnated with God’s power just as naturally as a woman can give birth, Lewis writes, for “in calling them miracles we do not mean that they are contradictions or outrages; we mean that, left to her own resources, she could never produce them.”[20] A miracle is an “interference” in nature by Supernature, but not an intrusion; like the “interference” a child brings in her parents’ lives, they were meant to be there.[21] Miracles are not God’s plan B, as if they were God’s jury-rigged response to a shoddily-built world. Using the analogy of an author writing a book (which he borrowed from Dorothy Sayers)[22], Lewis writes that “it is an artistic crime if you simply drag [miracles] in by the heels to get yourself out of a hole,” but “the unusual event is perfectly permissible if it is what you are really writing about.”[23]

A third issue is how Hume explained experience. Campbell points out that Hume starts with personal experience—what one sees and experiences themselves—and then makes a sudden shift to derived experience—what one derives from the testimony of the experience of others. Hume is not saying that I and no one I know have experienced miracles, but that no one at any time or anywhere has truly experienced such things. Campbell asks Hume a simple question: of all that has ever happened in the history of the world, “Pray how can you, Sir, or I, or any man, come to the knowledge of?”[24] Campbell quotes the three words Hume uses to describe the experienced laws of nature—firm, uniform, and unalterable—and suggests that for these three criteria to be met, “there must be no contrary testimony whatever.”[25] However, as a matter of fact, essentially all cultures in all times have claimed to witness the miraculous, even cultures who have lived through and been thoroughly changed by the Enlightenment.[26]

As it turns out, Hume agrees that “uniform” experience is not so entirely uniform, as he recognizes that many people are fervently reporting to have experienced the miraculous.[27] He dismisses this testimony, however, for the simple reason that one cannot trust the testimony of the unwashed (and ethnically other) masses. Hume was famously, though not uniquely among Enlightenment figures, an ethnocentrist. He believed majority world cultures were simply barbaric, and if anyone claimed to experience a miracle (even if experienced by more than one person) then they were merely simple chaps to be most pitied. This view is represented in his thoughts on the Jamaican immigrant Francis Williams, a British citizen and poet whom Hume believed was “admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”[28] Williams is merely one example, says Hume, of the inferiority of Africans and other races, who are, he lambasts, “naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No indigenous manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences.”[29] In the end, Hume’s idea of enlightenment and a miracle-less world appears as a Trojan Horse for the real “dark ages.”

Miracles Among Us

The findings of our investigations on miracles, Lewis tells us, “depend on the philosophical views which we have been holding before we even began to look at the evidence.”[30] Sometimes we don’t even know we have these pre-conditions and prejudices, confusing our confirmation biases for disinterested scrutiny. What I have always appreciated about those who witnessed things like a virgin giving birth to the Son of God who created her—or a dead man rising from the grave—is that they were not expecting it, and, within their system of belief, they should not have accepted it. Indeed, many who did not see such miracles did not accept them. The ancient world understood something of the uniformity of nature as well, after all. Ancients were not ready to believe anything at any time so long as it was fantastical and foolish—like us, they wanted to know what was true, and often had to experience a miracle to believe they were possible.

We need to understand our philosophical presuppositions because our personal experiences, if we are honest, are simply too limiting to grasp all of reality. Our experiences become the boundaries of what we come to expect and allow of reality, which is demonstrably myopic. We must allow the unique and the spectacular to confront our uniform experiences and overturn our presuppositions. Alister McGrath explains,

God is active and present in his world, quite independently of whether we experience him as being so or not. Experience declared that God was absent from Calvary, only to have its verdict humiliatingly overturned on the third day.


Our experience of the world is so limited—to one tiny spot in a brief flash of time—but pride sometimes compels us to speak as if it were not. Yet if we were to take a survey of the vast amount of knowledge we’ve gained in recent centuries, we would admit that each discovery often unveils little, except that we know even less than we think we do. Nonetheless, we sometimes turn the surfaces we’ve scratched into the boundaries that must not be trespassed. We no longer allow great experiences to interrupt the humdrum experiences of everyday life because we have come to confuse mundane reality with totality. And our presuppositions, which both inform and are informed by our experiences, may act as a filter that blocks out the divine light when it shines upon us.

I often think the Apostles had possibly the most difficult job of all: They had to make peace between their powerful, miraculous experiences and what they knew couldn’t possibly be by both experience and religious expectation. And there was extreme social pressure placed upon them to not believe what they had witnessed. Yet they were able to accept the overwhelming evidence placed before them, perhaps considering that everything wonderful that has ever happened, happened for the first time once.

Miracles as Foretastes

Tim Keller said that the miracles of Jesus weren’t just proofs of power but “also wonderful foretastes of what he is going to do with that power. Jesus’ miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming.” Lewis adds, “Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvas of Nature.”[32] I can’t help to think about that nail in my hand from time to time. The hole remained for a couple days with no healing. And then, one day, I woke up and it was gone without a trace. The world I wanted to come had come. I was healed.

William Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow describes how we twist past memories to justify the present. Some weaponize memories and others use them to pacify the present, but “it makes liars out of us every time we try.”[33] The point is that memory is fallible, which is true to an extent. But it can also be corrupted by an imposed fallibility from external pressures. The haziness of this healing miracle in my life is perhaps the accretion of time, but I often wonder if it is more.

We are taught to distrust such memories because clearly, others enjoin us, such things cannot be true. Says who? Maybe the smoke in my mind obscuring the memory was exhaled there by unexamined influences and my own desire to fit in with those influences. Perhaps the smoke in my mind became smoke in my eyes, stinging and forcing me to close them for good.

Walking through life with my eyes closed, what do I not see? By letting others play with matches in my mind, which realities have been sacrificed to conformity and fictionalized? How many times have I ignored God’s call because I didn’t recognize the incoming number? What miracles have I relegated to the realm of myth?

When I feel my way through the smoke, when I open my eyes again, what do I see? I see not just the world I want coming. No, I recall something else. I recall that this hole in my hand vanished on the third day. Lord! How unnecessarily long it took me to realize that the hole nailed into my hand had somehow traveled back in time to Golgotha, to the One who interfered with the natural and reversed death itself. This miracle and every miracle informs me not just that the world I want, that we all want, is coming, but that it—or rather, He—is already here.

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[1] For example, the Parlement of Paris in 1730 made the 1713 bull Unigenitus­—a papal bull from Pope Clement XI denouncing the doctrines of the ultra-Augustinian Cornelius Jansen, the namesake of the Jansenists—into state law, ostensibly quashing the Jansenist movement by wish of the French King, Louis XIV. However, leading up to the 1730 decision, a number of healing miracles began taking place among the Jansenists in Paris in 1725, then in 1727 at a Jansenist’s tomb in Reims, then another Jansenist tomb again in Paris. “These happenings accredited the Jansenist cause,” writes Woodbridge and James, “as if it were blessed of God, and brought throngs of Parisians to the cemetery in search of healing or moved by curiosity.” French authorities closed the cemetery, prompting one prankster to post a sign on the entrance of the cemetery reading, “By order of the king: It is prohibited to God to do miracles in this place.” While Jansenists lost the support of more established Church officials, their ecstatic miracles and underdog pugilism led to a growing following among the lower classes of France. See John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III, Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 439-440.

[2] Jane Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 2-3.

[3] R. M. Burns, The Great Debate on Miracles: From Joseph Glanvill to David Hume (Lewisburg:

Bucknell University Press, 1981), 11.

[4] Shaw, 3-4.

[5] Shaw, 15. Deism is the belief that there was a Creator God who created and initiated the world but does not and will not interfere with it benevolently, providentially, or redemptively beyond that point. This belief began very slowly in the early 17th century. After seventy years of slow growth, it suddenly became very popular for nearly fifty years before dying down quickly after Dodwell’s Christianity Not Founded on Argument in 1742. By 1760 the movement was basically dead in the British Isles, except for a few late contributions by the likes of Thomas Paine and Edward Gibbon, though Herrick considers these late contributions more a sign of life rather than of death. See James A. Herrick, The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680-1750 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 21; and John Orr, English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1934), 171.

[6] The definition of a miracle as something “unusual” was a new position formulated by the Newtonians (Samuel Clarke, Richard Bentley, William Whiston, among others) who defined miracles in such a way as to conform them to their scientific understanding of the world. They had revived the Augustinian notion of a miracle. Philosophically they could understand a miracle as something distinctly unusual, but theologically they understood it as God violating the laws of nature. See Shaw, 172-73.

[7] Arthur E. Walzer, George Campbell: Rhetoric in the Age of Enlightenment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003) 111-112.

[8] David Hume, “Of Miracles” in David Hume An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding: And Other Writings (Stephen Buckle, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 100.

[9] George Campbell, The Works of George Campbell, D.D., F.R.S. Vol. I: Dissertation on Miracles (London: Thomas Tegg, Cheapside, 1840), 24

[10] John Lennox, Gunning for God (Oxford: Lion Books, 2011), 169.

[11] Lennox, 182.

[12] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2007), 51.

[13] John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 136.

[14] Lennox, 169-173.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lennox, 176.

[17] CS Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 94.

[18] Ibid., 92.

[19] Ibid., 95.

[20] Ibid., 98.

[21] Ibid., 5.

[22] See chapter 5, “Free Will and Miracle,” of Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker.

[23] Ibid., 156.

[24] Campbell, 30.

[25] Campbell, 31. Campbell definitely hit a nerve. Hume, in a private letter to Campbell (the only private letter sent to any of his opponents discussing a debate), remarked on the “ingenuity and good composition” of the piece before admitting that “I never felt so violent an inclination to defend myself as at present, when I am thus fairly challenged by you, …” (Reproduced in Campbell, 3.) Interestingly, Hume does not take this time to address the majority of the objections, nor to clear up any of the vagueness of his arguments. Hume explains that his reluctance to respond is in an attempt to not set any sort of precedent. “[A]s I had fixed a resolution, in the beginning of my life, always to leave the public to judge between my adversaries and me, without making any reply, I must adhere inviolably to this resolution, otherwise my silence, on any future occasion, would be construed to be an inability to answer, and would be a matter of triumph against me” (Ibid.). Hume’s response to Campbell and their mutual friend was helpful, but Campbell was still slightly surprised “that I could find nothing in reply to my refutation of his abstract and metaphysical argument on the evidence of testimony.” (Ibid., 5). Hume, in writing to their mutual friend about Campbell’s Dissertation, writes that Campbell, whom he greatly respects and was honored to be in dialogue with, was nonetheless “a little too zealous for a philosopher …” (Reproduced in Campbell, 9).

[26] See Craig S. Keener’s magisterial Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011).

[27] Hume, 97.

[28] David Hume, The Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. Thomas Hill Green and Thomas Hodge Grose (London: Longmans, 1886), 3:252.Quoted in Craig Keener, “A Reassessment of Hume’s Case against Miracles in Light of Testimony from the Majority World Today,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 35, no. 1 (2011):294.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Lewis, 2.

[31] Alister McGrath, The Mystery of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1988), 159.

[32] Lewis, 219.

[33] William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (New York: Vintage International, 1980), back cover.