What’s Wrong With Asking For a Miracle?

Miracle WorkerWhenever an inquiring Christian wants to know why I no longer subscribe to his religion, I usually have to spend a significant chunk of my time discounting a number of incorrect assumptions he has about why people leave the faith. People almost always seem to reach for the same non-rational causes:

  • Somebody hurt you once
  • You went to the wrong church
  • You just want to be your own boss
  • You want more sex/money/power/freedom
  • You’re afraid of commitment
  • The devil has blinded you

In the end I always have to explain that, for most of us who left our faith, it boils down to the same basic reason:  We don’t see enough credible evidence to believe that gods are real things at all.  In the end it comes down to a lack of evidence.  We see evidence for the natural world, and the natural explanations we have for what happens in this world keep outperforming the supernatural ones because the latter never seem to withstand serious scrutiny.

To believe in supernatural things, we would have to see credible evidence that something supernatural is happening.  Notice I didn’t say that something supernatural happened once before, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Because stories are not evidence. That’s why most of us reject stories about other things, like alien abductions for example. It doesn’t matter how convinced the storytellers are that their stories are true. Anyone who’s been around long enough knows that we are far too good at deceiving ourselves, which is why we should demand more than stories before we entertain extraordinary claims.

Incidentally, can you imagine how much would change if Christians began reading the stories in the Bible with the same level of skepticism that they use toward alien abduction stories?  Or toward stories put forth by other religions like Islam, or Hinduism, or Mormonism, or Scientology?  If they didn’t privilege their own stories the way they do, their own religion would all but vanish inside of a year.

Skirting the Issue

But a funny thing happens when you ask most Christians for evidence. Once you rule out stories, including the ones you find between the onionskin pages of their favorite leatherbound book, the conversation shifts and instead of presenting evidence, the discussion comes to center around you and your own demands for evidence.

They question your motives. They question how you would interpret any evidence they could present. They question your authority to judge for yourself whether or not credible evidence has been presented.

They will do anything and everything except present any actual evidence for their supernatural claims. For a perfect illustration of this predictable routine, one need look no further than to Chapter 6 of Tim Keller‘s The Reason for God.

In the midst of discussing whether or not science has disproved Christianity (see my treatment of the rest of this chapter here), Keller comes to the matter of miracles. Except he doesn’t tell us where to go to see them for ourselves.  Like everyone else before him (except for maybe the charismatics), he immediately starts arguing about whether or not anyone can legitimately say that miracles don’t happen.  He spends most of his time debating the epistemology of miracle denial without ever stopping to notice that the central challenge got completely sidestepped. We asked for miracles, and instead we got a debate.

It’s at moments like these that I recall a line from the preface of what was once my favorite Christian book years ago. In his Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer writes:

Current evangelicalism has (to change the figure) laid the altar and divided the sacrifice into parts, but now seems satisfied to count the stones and rearrange the pieces with never a care that there is not a sign of fire upon the top of lofty Carmel.

We could of course debate whether or not the supernatural miracle in the story Tozer is referencing ever really occurred, but we aren’t really getting anywhere debating whether or not things happened thousands of years ago. If the claims of the Christian faith were true, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion because there would be evidence now—right in front of us—not just in a book.

If the supernatural claims of the Christian faith were true, there would be no need for apologetics books at all.  We wouldn’t be reading books that attempt to explain why we aren’t seeing miracles, or how they’re actually happening everywhere but we’re somehow just missing them, or why we’re not in the right frame of mind or heart to get to witness them. We would simply be able to go out and see them for ourselves.  As much as people like Keller would like to deny it, that would change everything for us.

Why Are We Even Having This Discussion?

To see what I mean, observe what happens if we take an illustration Keller offers, in this case borrowed from Alvin Plantinga, and let it play out in a more realistic scenario. Plantinga challenges the notion that since scientific inquiry never authenticates any miracles, there cannot be miracles.

[This] argument…is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there. In fact, it would go the drunk one better:  it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light. (p.89)

I love this analogy for how perfectly it sets up the very point I am trying to make:  How easy would it be to show the guy in this analogy that he is wrong?  If the keys are there in the dark, all it would take is a friend who isn’t drunk (or stupid) picking them up and showing him that in fact, they were right there all along.

Let’s reimagine this story by telling it the way this discussion about miracles usually unfolds, this time including a sober friend:

Drunk:  Dude, I can’t find my keys.  I’ve been looking under this light forever and they’re just not there.

Friend:  That’s because they’re over there, in the dark. I found them myself.

Drunk:  You found them?  Awesome!  Can I have them? Or better yet, would you drive me home? Because clearly I’m wasted.

Friend:  I can’t do that. You have to find them yourself.

Drunk:  What are you talking about?  If you found them, why won’t you just show them to me?  You did say you found them, right?

Friend:  Yeah, I did.  I’m just not going to pick them up because reasons.

Drunk:  What reasons?  I need to get home so I can sleep off the Wild Turkey, man.  Are you just jerkin’ my chain or what?

Friend:  No, I found them, I promise.  Take my word for it.  They’re there.  You’re just too drunk to find them.

Drunk:  Which is why I need your help, bro.  Why are you doing this?  If you found them, just go pick them up.

Friend:  Nope.  Not gonna do it. But I promise they’re there.  Trust me.

You see what I mean?  After a while it becomes significant that the person who claims to have found something seems unable or unwilling to demonstrate the validity of his claim. At this point the subject of our story has every good reason to quit believing his friend.  Unless this is some kind of twisted game, it would be super easy to end this discussion. All the guy would have to do is show him the keys, or just drive the guy home. It would have spared the both of them this entire waste of oxygen.

But that scenario parallels every apologetics debate I’ve ever heard.  Instead of presenting observable evidence—proof that the claims of religion are true–most of the time is spent arguing about philosophy, ancient history, and whether or not a person has a right to say what is and isn’t possible.  Always the movement is away from actual evidence and toward an endless word salad meant to be a substitute for the real thing, which doesn’t seem to ever show up.

If you don’t like us saying miracles don’t happen, instead of arguing that they really do, just show us one instead.

Yeah, I know. It’s not that simple, right?  Because reasons.  Let’s turn and talk about those reasons for a second before we leave this subject.

What Are Miracles For?

At the end of Chapter 6, Keller does what most apologists do by intimating that God isn’t in the business of performing party tricks to earn our trust (Translation: “Shame on you for needing that!”).

Jesus’ miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce. You never see him say something like: “See that tree over there? Watch me make it burst into flames!” Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. (p.96)

That’s funny, because in fact according to the fourth gospel, Jesus’ first miracle was quite literally a party trick. He turned water into wine at a wedding even though everyone at the reception had already tied on a few as it was. This wasn’t some life-altering restoration of sight, mobility, or mental health.  It wasn’t feeding hungry people or bringing anyone back from the dead.  According to John’s gospel, the first miraculous thing he did was help a house full of people get plastered. And according to the text:

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11)

It seems natural to conclude from this language that—at least according to the text itself—these miracles were in fact provided for precisely the reason Keller wishes to discount: They were, at least in part, a sign provided to elicit faith from the people he wished to win over to himself.  I see no reason why anyone requesting the same today should be dismissed on the grounds that their motivations don’t qualify for a response.

Incidentally, for a longer list of demonstrations like this, read “The God of the Bible Is Not Above Performing Party Tricks.”

If you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:

(Other Posts in this Series)

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.