Our world’s skepticism over miracles is nothing new. Ever since David Hume, philosophers and scholars have been making the case against the possibility of miracles.
But, now things have shifted. Hume has been roundly (and decisively) rebutted and philosophers now realize that one cannot prove miracles are impossible. But, not to worry, now there’s a new argument. Now the argument is that miracles are simply improbable.
So improbable, in fact, that we should never prefer a miraculous explanation over a naturalistic one. Given how unlikely miracles are, it is always more likely that a miracle did not occur. Thus, it is argued, historians would have no reason to ever affirm that a miracle actually took place.
New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, has made exactly this argument. Give the improbability of the resurrection, he insists that we must always choose another explanation: “Any other scenario [besides a miracle]—no matter how unlikely—is more likely than the one in which a great miracle occurred, since the miracle defies all probability (or else we wouldn’t call it a miracle)” (How Jesus Became God, 173).
Now, this sort of argument sounds persuasive at first glance. But, it runs into some serious problems. For one, the probability of any event cannot be determined only by considering the event itself. The probability of that event depends on the broader context that surrounds that event.
For example, imagine I was headed to a track meet and wanted to know the probability of seeing someone break a 4-minute mile. I might think the chances of that are quite remote. But, there’s no way to answer that question without considering the larger context. If the track meet was just for local high school teams, then yes, the odds would be very, very low.
But, what if the track meet was for the Olympic trials? Then the odds would not be low at all. Indeed, given that context, it is quite likely I would see someone break a 4-minute mile.
The same is true when we consider the probability of a miraculous event. If a person believed God did not exist (or at least did not intervene in the world), then they would view the probability of a miracle as very, very low. And they’d be right. In a Godless universe, we would have to assume that Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead naturally. The odds of that would be astronomically small, especially after three days.
But, what if the broader context included the existence of the Christian God—a God that has, and continues to, intervene in the world? Then, a miracle would not be an unlikely occurrence at all. Indeed, Craig Keener even goes as far to say that, on a theistic worldview, “miracles might even be expected” (Miracles, 139).
Here’s the big point: the probability of a miraculous event is contingent on a person’s overall worldview and the assumptions they make about reality. And this puts the skeptic in a rather difficult place. In order to claim that a miracle is improbable, he would first have to show that the Christian God does not exist. And if he cannot do that (and he cannot), then he has no basis to claim that miracles are improbable.
But, there’s a second (and even bigger) problem with this probability argument against miracles. Even if an event is highly improbable, sometimes it is still reasonable to believe that an event has occurred if there’s good evidence for doing so.
As an example, imagine a scenario where you are playing poker with friends. After the cards are dealt, your friend proclaims, “I have a royal flush!” Admittedly, you might be skeptical. After all, the odds of being dealt a royal flush (without drawing additional cards) is about 1 in 650,000. Indeed, it is so unlikely, that it would not be unreasonable for you to explore other possible explanations: the dealer stacked the deck in his favor, he misread the cards, he’s lying, he cheated, etc.
But a little investigative work would quickly rule out these other options. You could take a look at the cards yourself (ruling out that your friend misread them or lied). And you could consider whether your friend was a reliable witness—ruling out that he cheated. And this would lead you, in the end, to conclude that the event indeed had occurred, even if it is extremely rare.
Imagine how absurd it would be if you said to your friend, “Well, I still don’t believe you got a royal flush. After all, we must always reject highly improbable explanations in favor of more probable explanations. So I conclude that you must have cheated.” No! The mere improbability of an event is not enough, in and of itself, to reject its occurrence. We have to consider other factors such as the empirical evidence, reliability of eyewitnesses, etc.
In the end, it all comes down to one’s worldview. If one is not closed off to the possibility of the miraculous, they are willing to consider the evidence. Either way, there is no reason why we should feel compelled to always pick a non-miraculous explanation. With credible eyewitnesses and solid evidence, we should be quite willing to think that a miracle might just have occurred.
Van Rhodes says
Thanks, Dr. Kruger. Can you (or any of my fellow readers of your blog) point me to a good essay showing home Hume has been refuted? I’d google it but prefer if someone can refer me to one that is credentialed and comes from a Christian source.
Michael Kruger says
You can begin with Craig Keener’s massive two-volume work on Miracles. In the first volume he deals extensively with Hume’s argument and interacts with others who have also pushed back against Hume.
Van Rhodes says
Thanks very much!
James Anderson is going to contribute a book to the “great thinkers” series about Hume.
Van Rhodes check out Hume’s Abject Failure by John Earman
Conversely or in addition, this presentation is a must watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSEobV4cHnc
Van Rhodes says
Thanks very much.
You might also try the following by William Lane Craig:
A secular book that changed the whole philosophical understanding is by Earman – Hume’s Abject Failure. This book is not long, but describes the failure of the probability argument, and so can be deep.
Thanks for the well reasoned argument. Here is a slightly different angle on miracles as improbable using creation. What do you think?
Seth Stiles says
“Here’s the big point: the probability of a miraculous event [or any absolute truth] is contingent on a person’s overall worldview and the assumptions they make about reality. ” This is huge. I’ve been in dialog with my ex-sociology professor who seems to have a eastern like but still humanistic world view and a very “find truth from within” standard. Everything I send him (my own comments and others from cultural analysts like Tim Keller) he just cannot accept and usually rips 80-90% of the comments apart. But, this is because he is coming from a totally different worldview and set of assumptions. He is, as you say, really quite “closed off” to the possibilities of absolute truth, especially Christian based ones. He can’t fathom it at all. It therefore comes down to this then “But, what if the broader context included the existence of the Christian God—a God that has, and continues to, intervene in the world?”. We all hold out hope that 1 Cor. 15:12-20 is true!
Thanks Dr. Kruger for all the great help you give us on early church thought/life and applying it today! May God continue to give you passion and strength for it.
Probability is not certainty, it is a testimony of uncertainty, the rounding off of data and at times nothing more than an undeveloped babies babble.It is shaped to fit the no God narrative of nature is all there is (somehow) as if God has not made truth known in history.
I know the laws of our present nature requires that death seems to have the final say statistically speaking but I also know God is the author of nature & therefore not governed by it. Nature is nothing without God & chance is another hollow philosophy opposed to providence and purpose. It would be fair to say the miraculous is everywhere and the depth and power of the miraculous knows no bounds when God reveals Himself all the more.
Dr Stanley Winter Theron says
Thanks for this and your many other articles that I read with appreciation.
Part of “odds” arguments could be a world view that believes in chance, or the god of luck (fates) or the lucky stars.
On a more Christian world view we have a loving Covenant LORD’s revealed WILL (in Christ and His authorised WORD) and His undisclosed Omnipotence as Providentia, two parallel tracks that will never meet in space and time (cf Isa 55). On a humble non-philosophical approach I have addressed some of these aspects on my page for non-theologians in less sophisticated parts of the world (www.docshaphan.wordpress.com )
David Madison says
So how probable is an apparently convincing false resurrection? It is extremely hard to see how any series of natural events could be the explanation for what happened 2000 years ago, but let us suppose that some alternative to a miracle is possible, however unlikely. Let’s say that whatever happened may have been an incredible fluke. That is the position of the atheist. But the atheist faces a very big problem. Essentially, those who deny that a miracle occurred have used up all their luck in explaining the resurrection. Their position becomes untenable if there was anything else out of the ordinary going on at the time.
But there were indeed other extraordinary things going on at time. Jesus was a truly remarkable moral teacher who has made us think about human relationships in a way that no one else has ever done. Furthermore, soon after the resurrection, pagans started to turn away from idols and live very different lives. From the perspective of the atheist, all this was just coincidence. But in appealing to coincidence, the atheist is now massively overdrawn at the probability bank.
On the other hand, everything fits into place for the theist. From his or her point of view, it is no coincidence that the person who was raised from the dead also happens to be the most inspired moral teacher in history, or that history unfolded in a remarkable way after the resurrection.
Tom Moore says
The point is not to intellectualize; the point is to experience. I experience miracles hourly. Father is ccontinually onfirming my election and crucifixion with Christ.
But as a recovering intellectual I do appreciate your journey!
Dale Ridder says
Greetings Dr. Kruger. Amoung other things, I am an historian, primarily military, but interested in all of history. To me, as an historian, are argument about an event not occurring because it is “improbable” carries very little weight. In 2016, it was viewed as highly improbable that Donald Trump would be elected president, however, it occurred. In 1963, it was inconceivable that John F. Kennedy would be shot in Dallas, but it occurred. In December of 1941, it was viewed as highly improbable that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, but it occurred. In 1950 and 1941, the senior American military staff was telling President Roosevelt that it was highly likely that German would either successful invade England or that England would collapse and that no aid should be given to the British, however, the aid was given and the British did not collapse. What was the probability of Lincoln being assassinated at the end of the Civil War? In history, the mere fact that something is deemed improbable or unlikely to happen is pretty much a meaningless argument. All to often, the improbable or unlikely occurs, Conversely, many times the probable does not occur. When Hitler attacked the USSR in 1941, many assumed that the USSR would collapse in a few weeks, but that did not happen. Even when the probable happens, people are stunned by it occurring, such as a major hurricane hitting the Southeast or Gulf Coast of the U.S. From the historical record, that is an highly probable event, but it always appears as a shock when it happens. Eventually, Vesuvius will erupt again, but the actions of people in settling so densely in the area around it make that seems to be an improbable event. Eventually, the San Adreas Fault in California or the New Madrid Fault in Missouri will produce a massive earthquake, but people are acting as if that is highly improbable. If in the natural world, the improbable happens on a regular basis, how much more would the improbable, such as a miracle happen, when allowance is made for a supernatural God? Aside from being a Christian and a firm believer in miracles, one of them being that I am walking when by all medical knowledge I should not be, the view that miracles are impossible because highly improbable cannot be supported by any historical arguments at all.
David Madison says
The problem for sceptics is that they would like to say miracles are impossible but they simply have no grounds for such an absolute assertion. So instead they say that miracles are highly improbable. But, as you have pointed out, plenty of natural events may be considered highly improbable. So what, if anything, distinguishes miracles from highly unlikely natural events? Is it that miracles are far more unlikely than even the most unlikely natural event? But who says?
Consider the “possibility” that after the Resurrection all the disciples started having vivid hallucinations which convinced them that Jesus had risen from the dead. How likely is that? Well, we know that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. In fact, if it did happen 2000 years ago, it would be the only time in history that it has happened. But that isn’t very comforting for the person who doesn’t want to believe in the Resurrection. He can’t say that his “explanation” for the Resurrection is based on our understanding of similar cases. Essentially, it would be an act of faith to say that a miracle did not occur 2000 years ago. The sceptic has another problem. This unique outbreak of hallucinations supposedly occurred in very unusual circumstances. It didn’t happen after the death of just anyone; it happened after the death of someone who stands out for other reasons.
I thought the point of miracles is that by definition they are extremely rare in the first place? That’s part of what makes them a miracle…this probability argument doesn’t make sense…
Ive never quite understood the use of probability to determine whether a miracle has happened or not. I would have thought any probability theorem is only concerned with events that could happen within the natural world without divine intervention. As such, it is irrelevant.
Yes, it is good to keep in mind the proper place of probability and the supernatural.
A natural explanation for any change to an event or state of affairs demonstrates God’s providential justice, love, wisdom, and healing in various natural cases, but God’s miraculous workings are of a completely different kind. Miracles are iron axes floating, which is entirely impossible in the natural world, but for a Supernatural intervention such an event is certain (2 Kings 6:6). Another miracle is dead bodies do not naturally rise from the dead. After a cold frozen winter, flowers probably and naturally will bloom in the spring by a seed of the same natural kind germinating out of the soil. Dead bodies rising, that on the other hand, is just not a part of the natural cycle of events; yet, a Dead Body rose not due to the natural order of things, but due to a Supernatural intervention into the natural world, i.e. a miracle.
Linda Kimball says
We should not allow naturalists to claim the high ground and put us on the defensive. After all, if asked whether they (naturalists) dream, in most cases they’ll answer in the affirmative. This is when they must be confronted by their own blindsided thinking by being asked to empirically prove that they dream since no one else can see, hear, smell. taste, or touch dreams. Then of course there is their own ‘superior’ reasoning. When a brain is dissected or otherwise studied under a microscope, there can be seen no words (thoughts) only movement of chemicals and firing of synapses. So whence arise thoughts? From chemicals, firing synapses or both? Are naturalists just soulless walking bio-machines whose mouths speak thoughts produced by chemicals and firing synapses? And then there is Darwinism. Here we see that naturalists are in fact believers in miracles, for what is evolution but an unseen creative energy that caused life to emerge from chemicals billions of years before empiricists emerged out of monkeys. No one witnessed this miraculous event but religiously believe it happened. Likewise, no naturalist can see or has ever seen evolution but again, religiously, zealously believe it exists and is responsible for all that exists.