Why does someone believe or not believe in miracles? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Recently, my father-in-law Mike Licona debated Bart Ehrman on Gospel reliability right here in Atlanta. I went to it with my wife and when the Q&A started, I rushed to the microphone to be the first to ask Ehrman a question. I had been thinking about what to ask and nothing in the debate changed my mind.
I asked Ehrman about a claim he made in Misquoting Jesus where he said that by definition, a miracle is the least probable explanation of an event. I wanted to know if this was something one would say before examining the evidence, which I could understand, or after. If it was after, isn’t one then saying that no amount of evidence will change one’s mind on a miracle? After all, you could show all the evidence in the world and it wouldn’t change the likelihood of a miracle being the true explanation of what happened, or if a miracle is the true explanation, one has a historical methodology that rules them out from knowing the truth.
One aspect I definitely remember of Ehrman’s answer is that believing in miracles is based on faith. If you’re a believer, you believe in them. If you’re a non-believer, you don’t. Seems simple enough. Right?
First off, I don’t think this answers the question. When is a miracle thought to be the least probable explanation by definition? Who made this definition and how could it be changed? if it has to be that, then it would seem that no amount of evidence can ever change the situation to make a miracle more likely. (Although interestingly, I suspect it can somehow be made less likely!)
Second, this isn’t just a case of faith. This implies that believers themselves aren’t interested in evidence. If I want to judge if a miracle happened, I look at the evidence. Some claims have better evidence than others. Last night my wife and I were at a Bible study and someone told us privately about how they know someone who became a Christian and is convinced that God told them that Jesus would return before their mother passed away.
Now do I believe in the return of Christ in the future? Absolutely. Do I believe that God can speak to people today? Yes, though I think it’s extremely rare. Do I think this happened in this case? Not a bit. I have seen enough people make crazy claims about when Jesus is returning and I have no reason to think God told this one guy.
On the other hand, consider a New Testament scholar like Pinchas Lapides. He was a Jew who never believed Jesus was the Messiah and never became a Christian and his Ph.D. is in the New Testament. What does he conclude about Jesus? Jesus rose from the dead. What’s that based on? The evidence.
Some of you might think I am only open to miracles in my own religion. Not at all. My basis is always the same. Whatever the miracle claim is, just present the evidence. If it’s sufficient evidence in my opinion, I should believe it. My Christianity is not threatened by a miracle on the outside.
The problem with saying faith is that one is ultimately saying it’s not a matter of evidence. If that is one’s position, then we have to ask who is really living by faith? If your methodology has already ruled out miracles a priori, then if a miracle has happened, you will never know what did happen. If you assert one has never happened, then you have to show that, and if your methodology again won’t allow that, then we are arguing in a circle.
I conclude with a summarization of the thought of Chesterton.
The Christian believes in the miracle, rightly or wrongly, because of the evidence. The skeptic disbelieves in the miracle, rightly or wrongly, because he has a dogma against them.