No, the argument from miracles has not been debunked (Pt. 1)

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By Erik Manning

Is the argument from miracles full of fallacies? Popular atheist YouTuber ‘Rationality Rules’ argues that’s the case. Rather than examining miracles on a report-by-report basis, he opts to say that the case for miracles is doomed from the start. This reasoning follows the tradition of the famous 18th-century philosopher David Hume.

No, the argument from miracles has not been debunked

For those of you who aren’t into YouTube, Rationality Rules has had his channel since March of 2017. In that short time, he’s gained over 200k subscribers and has had nearly 15 million views.

There’s a cottage industry of channels similar to his and we shouldn’t underestimate their influence. These are sharp skeptics making entertaining and digestible videos packed with thought-provoking content. As believers, we’d be lazy not to respond to their arguments.

Here’s his video on miracles in full. Here I’ll focus on his main points:

Does the argument from miracles fail to support Theism?

Here’s Rationality Rules first objection to the argument from miracles:

“The vast majority of miracles wouldn’t prove the existence of a god, even if they were indeed true. Or in other words, they don’t support theism. For example, even if it were unimpeachably true that a man called Jesus resurrected, this would not, in the slightest, prove that the universe had a creator! Nor would prove that Jesus turned water into wine; that he healed the blind; that he walked on water; or that he was born of a virgin… all it would prove is that a man called Jesus respawned and that he had terrible lag because it took him three days!…”

While I appreciate the video game reference, this argument against miracles is hardly a “game over” for the Christian. Jesus’ resurrection absolutely supports theism and fits poorly in a naturalistic worldview. For starters, the gospels report that Jesus said that the resurrection would prove his message:

“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:38-40)

Secondly, the resurrection didn’t happen in a vacuum. Jesus’ preached the kingdom of God and called himself the Son of Man. The Jewish expectation at that time was the Messiah was coming and bringing his kingdom. That’s a historical fact.

The Roman historian Suetonius says this regarding the Jewish revolt against Rome “There had spread over the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.” 

Tacitus also picks up on this prophetic expectation: “…in most, there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rules, coming from Judea, were to acquire universal empire…”

The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus also mentions this hope: “But now, what did most elevate them in undertaking this war was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how “about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” 

All three of these ancient historians applied these Jewish predictions to the Roman Emperor Vespasian, including even Josephus, oddly enough. He was, after all, a turncoat from the Jewish side to Rome.

So where did this expectation come from? If you read the prophecies from Daniel 2, 7, and 9, there was an understanding that there would be four great kingdoms before the kingdom of God would come.

Those kingdoms were believed to be Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. During the time of the Roman kingdom, the Son of Man would bring his kingdom and reign over the whole earth. (Daniel 7:13-14) The Messiah would come some 490 years after the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonian Empire.

You can also see this expectation in the New Testament writings. Even John the Baptist had to deny that he was the Christ. (John 1:20) Luke 3:15 says “Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and eager to know whether or not John was he.” (TLB)

This is also why Paul said things like: “At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly, or “…when the time had fully come, God sent his Son….” (Romans 5:6, Galatians 4:4) And the gospel writers have Jesus repeatedly referring to his appointed hour. (John 2:4, 7:30, 8:20, 12:23-24, Mark 14:41)

These prophecies are extremely fascinating and it would take another blog post to fully unpack their importance, but here’s the point: Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t some anomalous event devoid of spiritual significance. While it wasn’t the way many Jews expected the Messiah to come, the resurrection reportedly happened in an atmosphere charged historical and religious meaning.

Furthermore, his closest followers boldly proclaimed that God raised him. And they didn’t say the resurrection was the work of some generic god, but the God of Israel who performed this amazing sign. (Acts 2:22-24) Jesus’ disciples had the best vantage point to interpret the significance of this event. The one that was raised must have said that it was God who raised him. This is hardly some random miracle.

Let’s turn to Rationality Rule’s second objection:

Is the argument from miracles an argument from personal incredulity?

“The second and perhaps most obvious flaw with miracles is that they almost always commit either an Argument from Ignorance or a Personal Incredulity Fallacy.

To illustrate this, consider the following: Throughout history, there have been numerous accounts of flightless animals raining from the sky – and needless to say, on just about every occasion, someone somewhere has asserted that a miracle has occurred, because, “there’s no other explanation”. 

Now, of course, it’s fair to say that flightless animals don’t just fall from the sky, but one can’t simply assert that a miracle has occurred simply because there’s “no other explanation”… that would be, and is an outrageous Argument from Ignorance! 

It is, in essence, “we don’t know, therefore god”. Anyhow, as it turns out, we now actually do have an adequate explanation (which, by the way, perfectly demonstrates why Arguments from Ignorance are flawed). 

This explanation is, quite simply, a tornado that’s formed over a body of water (otherwise known as a waterspout), that’s then hurled water and aquatic animals over land… it’s is a bizarre phenomenon, incredible even, but it’s not a miracle, because it doesn’t violate the laws of nature. 

Yet, despite the fact that we now know exactly how flightless animals can rain from the sky, many people still assert that the only explanation is divine intervention, because they either don’t personally know about waterspouts, or they don’t understand them, which…is a Personal Incredulity Fallacy.”

Rationality Rules is right about one thing: Nature does some weird things sometimes and we’re not justified in attributing miracles to every gap in our understanding. That would be an argument from ignorance.

But let’s think about it for a moment: When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, will there ever be a time when scientists discover a law shows that dead people do not stay dead after three days?

Given everything we know, that seems just as likely as discovering new laws that overturn the law of gravity. While there is some personal incredulity that’s unwarranted  — like why flightless animals can at times rain from the sky — some things stubbornly resist our current framework of science. This has caused us to revise our framework when needed, but why can’t there be a case that’s so obstinate that it would resist scientific explanation altogether?

If atheists want to say that that can never possibly happen, that would be an extreme example of begging the question.

This is why many skeptical New Testament scholars (like Gerd Lüdemann and Michael Goulder, for instance) opt to naturalistically explain the specific evidence we have for the resurrection.

In fact, many of Rationality Rules’ fellow skeptical YouTube colleagues would seem to rather put forward arguments against the existence of the historical Jesus altogether. They clearly understand the theistic implications of the resurrection!

The argument from miracles: Not Debunked

Jesus’ resurrection was either natural or supernatural. Based on what we scientifically know today, natural causes isn’t a live option.Therefore, given that Jesus claimed to be divine and those who saw him after his resurrection claimed God raised him, the supernatural explanation is the most plausible one. This is especially true when we consider how poorly naturalistic explanations fare in comparison.

This isn’t an argument from ignorance, it’s just abductive logic — inference to the best explanation. We use this type of reasoning all the time, especially in science, history and in cases of law.

So unless we beg the question against the existence of God, we can’t just rule out miracles from the get-go. Now, Rationality Rules could try and debunk the evidence for the resurrection, but if he does that, he repudiates his second argument against miracles.

But Rationality Rules has two more objections to the argument from miracles. In my next post, we’ll look at them and see if those arguments stick better than his first couple. So far, he’s not off to a promising start.

 


Erik Manning is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. He’s a freelance baseball writer and digital marketing specialist who is passionate about the intersection of evangelism and apologetics.

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