Doctrine of Creation (Part 13): The Collapse of the Belief in Miracles

September 05, 2018

The Collapse of the Belief in Miracles


In our study of the doctrine of creation we have been looking at God's governance of the world. We first examined what is classically called God's providentia ordinaria – or God's ordinary providence – which is the way in which he governs the world, and I defended a Molinist model of divine providence. But there's another aspect of the doctrine of divine providence which is classically known as providentia extraordinaria –  or God's extraordinary providence. Typically God's extraordinary providence is understood as miracles – his special supernatural acts in the world. But I like to distinguish between what I call a special providence and a miracle. On a Molinist view, God can, via his middle knowledge, arrange for extraordinary acts which would otherwise be highly improbable coincidences to occur by knowing what free agents would do in any circumstance he might put them in. An ordinary special providence. For example, when the nation of Israel wants to cross the Jordan River, just as they come to the Jordan a landslide occurs upstream blocking the river so that they're able to cross through on the dry riverbed. This was not a miraculous action of God. He didn't push back the waters in a miraculous way. It was purely natural. But the timing of that landslide – just as they are ready to cross the river – suggests that this is a special providence. A special providence would be an extraordinary event that comes about because of God's governance of the world but it doesn't involve any supernatural intervention on God's part. Rather, a special providence has entirely natural causes, whereas a miraculous event by contrast would involve the intervention of God in the sequence of secondary effects in the world.

I think it's very helpful to distinguish between a special providence and a miracle. This can be of importance practically as well because in many cases we don't have the faith to pray for a miracle to happen. We want to pray for a situation but it's hard to believe that God's going to do a miracle in this situation. So, for example, you want to apply for a job and you're praying that God would provide work for you. It's hard to believe that God is going to miraculously cause neural firings in the brain of some businessman to make him hire you which would involve God's miraculous intervention. But what God could do is have a special providence whereby he arranges for a person to be in those circumstances where he freely would hire you. And that you can have the faith to pray for. So I think that this doctrine of special providence has real practical implications for our prayer life. Many times it's difficult to pray for a genuine miracle as a supernatural intervention of God in the series of secondary causes. But we could pray that God would specially and providentially arrange for something to happen in answer to a prayer.

Let's then go on to look at the problem about miracles. First let's look at the scriptural data concerning miracles. Clearly the Bible is a book of miracles. Over and over again in both the Old and the New Testaments you have stories of God's miraculous acts in history. For example, in the Old Testament these miracles tend to center around the Exodus when God brings his people out of bondage in Egypt and delivers them. And then also they cluster around the two prophets Elijah and Elisha. These tend to be the two foci, as it were, of Old Testament miracles – the Exodus and the ministries of Elijah and Elisha.

In the story of the Exodus, the ten plagues that God sends upon Egypt and the deliverance of the people from Pharaoh's army are clearly miraculous acts, not just natural events. The story of Elijah's battle with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 is a classic example of where God uses miraculous acts to authenticate the truth of his prophets’ message and his existence. In the story of the contest with the prophets of Baal, Elijah challenges them to do a miraculous act, and they are unable to perform that act. Then Elijah calls upon the Lord to reveal himself, and in a miraculous act fire falls from heaven and consumes the sacrifice which Elijah has laid upon the altar before the Lord. When God does this, the response of the people is, The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God! God has vindicated himself and shown the existence of Yahweh as the true God through this miraculous intervention.

In the New Testament you have a sequence of extraordinary miracles associated with Jesus of Nazareth. God's self-revelation in his Son, Jesus Christ, is attended with miraculous acts on Jesus’ part which are signs to the people of the in-breaking of God's kingdom in Jesus’ ministry. The culminating miracle of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead whereby God vindicates his Son and shows that the condemnation of him by the Sanhedrin was wrong, that Jesus was in fact who he claimed to be.

Sometimes I have heard it said that people in the ancient world did not distinguish between natural and supernatural events – this is a distinction only drawn by modern people, but in the ancient world there was no such distinction between natural and supernatural events. I think that this claim is shown to be clearly false not only by the story of Elijah and his contest with the prophets of Baal whereby God by a miraculous act demonstrated that he was the true deity, but also by the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9. In this story, Jesus heals a man who was born blind. The Jewish authorities repeatedly interrogate this man and his parents to see if Jesus really in fact had healed a man who was blind from birth. In John 9:30-33 we read,

The man answered, “Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

Here I think you see a perfect illustration of how miracles served to warrant the message and the proclamation of Jesus and his being a special revelation from God. So clearly I think people in the ancient world were able to distinguish between the standard events that would happen in the ordinary course of nature and some miraculous act of God like healing a man blind since birth.

So in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and in the New Testament, we find stories of God's miraculous acts in human history.


Student: Has there been any thought or analysis given to why there are such gaps in the Bible and miracles? Like you were saying, there are certain instances and then nothing happens for hundreds of years.

Dr. Craig: That's right.

Student: So has anybody ever thought about why that might be?

Dr. Craig: Oh, yes. There is much discussion of that. As you rightly point out, we shouldn’t think that people in the ancient times experienced miracles on a regular sort of basis – that these were ongoing events. Rather, as I indicated, they tend to cluster around the Exodus and around Elijah and Elisha, and then around Jesus. I think it's evident that the miraculous acts of God are accompaniments of moments of tremendous divine revelation whereby the miraculous acts are given as an attestation or confirmation of the truth of the message that the prophet proclaimed. So Moses in delivering the people from Israel is ratified by these tremendous miraculous acts that God performs for Israel to deliver them. Similarly with Elijah and Elisha. And then of course Jesus as God's Son is attended with a host of miracles that serve to vindicate his claim that in his person the kingdom of God is breaking into human history. The miracles were intended to be signs that this was happening. So I think that for most of human history – even most of Israel's history, as you say – there would be no miracles. It was just life as ordinary, but then there would be these special moments of divine revelation or action that would be attended by miracles.

Student: What scholars of antiquity would claim that people in the ancient world never made this distinction?

Dr. Craig: Oddly enough, this is a claim that's made by modern scholars. For example, John Walton. I was just reading his book this week – Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology – where he makes this assertion. It just seems to me to be patently false that these ancient peoples couldn't discern an extraordinary miraculous act of God from what ordinarily happens. I think, for example, of Jesus saying when he says, Are figs gathered from grapes or thorns from thistles? They knew that one type of vegetation gives rise to the same type. They had an understanding of the course of nature – the regular way in which the world worked. I haven't seen anything from the ancient world that would suggest this.

Student: Along the lines of what you're saying, when Moses was first called he said, How will I verify who I’m sent from? And God gave him specific miracles to do. There wouldn't have been any reason to say this is going to give you credibility before Pharaoh if those things were not considered miraculous.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. And when the snake that Moses’ rod turns into eats up the snake of the sorcerers’ in Pharaoh's court, that's obviously meant to show that Moses is the one doing genuine miracles wrought by God. So, yes, good example.

Student: It seems like there are some cases where you can't tell if God is intervening to break the laws of nature, so to say, or he's taking advantage of natural events. Like in Genesis 22 when Abraham is told to sacrifice his son Isaac and they're going up on the mountain and Isaac says, Where's the sacrifice?, and Abraham says, God will provide. They get up there, and Abraham's hand is stopped, and they turn around and there's a ram caught in the thicket. Anybody passing by would say a ram is caught in a thicket – there's no miracle there. But is that special intervention or is that just an ordinary event?

Dr. Craig: I see that as a special providence that I was talking about. God knew that if he set up these circumstances a ram would get caught in the thicket on the top of Mount Moriah where Abraham was commanded to go to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. I gave the example, as well, from the Old Testament of the people crossing the Jordan River and a landslide occurs which blocks the river – a purely natural event, not a sort of miraculous intervention. So you're right – in cases of special providence we probably won't know if there was miraculous intervention or not because this would be hidden from us but it would seem that in many cases there just doesn't need to be a sort of divine supernatural intervention. Another example would be when Paul and Silas are in prison in the book of Acts and an earthquake occurs which springs open the doors so that they're able to just walk out. Did God miraculously cause the earthquake, or did the earthquake just occur at that time through a special providence of God? God did not just spring the doors miraculously. It was through this earthquake that the prison doors were sprung and Paul and Silas were able to leave.

Student: It occurs to me that the book of Daniel is probably the biggest example of out-and-outright miracles. A fiery furnace, and they're all walking around in it. It apparently killed the guards it was so hot when they opened the door.

Dr. Craig: I don't mean to imply that there are not miracles outside of the ones that I mentioned, but I think the supreme miracle in the Old Testament is the Exodus. That's the central event of the Old Testament, and the resurrection of Jesus in the New. But obviously there are other miraculous acts of God.


Let's turn now to a systematic summary of this material. We want to talk first about the 19th century collapse of the belief in miracles. The traditional belief in miracles held by the church collapsed during the 19th century. I want to say a word about what led to the collapse of belief in miracles in the modern age.

In his book On the Truth of the Christian Religion (or Wahrheit der christlichen Religion), the Göttingen theologian Gottfried Less argued that there are two steps in establishing that a miracle has occurred. The first step is to show that the event did occur – that some event actually took place in history. Then the second step would be to show the miraculous character of that event – that it cannot be plausibly given a natural explanation. Less wrote his book in 1758, but during the ensuing century (the 19th century) the belief in both of the steps laid out by Gottfried Less came to be regarded with skepticism and that led in turn to a general collapse in the belief of the reliability of the Gospel stories of miracles in German theology.

The first step to be abandoned was actually the second step, that is to say the miraculous character of the events. German rationalists during the late 17th and early 18th century were willing, indeed sometimes they were actually eager, to affirm the historicity of the events recorded in the Gospels. They agreed that these events actually took place. But they went to great lengths to explain these events naturally without any appeal to God's miraculous intervention. Given that events with supernatural causes do not occur, they felt that there just had to be some natural explanation of these events. So, for example, the feeding of the 5,000 was explained by saying that Jesus and the disciples had a secret stash of bread which was concealed in a cave and someone inside would hand the bread out to Jesus as he would then distribute it to the crowds. In this way they were able to feed 5,000 people. Jesus’ walking on the water was explained by a floating wooden platform just beneath the surface of the lake so that Jesus appeared to walk on the water.

By the end of the 18th century the old conspiracy hypothesis of the English and German deists (namely that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body and lied about the resurrection appearances) had fallen out of favor and was regarded as implausible. But that didn't mean that Jesus’ resurrection lacked a natural explanation. Rather, German rationalists turned to the so-called apparent death theory to explain Jesus’ resurrection. According to this theory Jesus was actually taken down from the cross alive and laid comatose in the tomb where he then either revived on his own or else there were other conspirators hiding within the tomb who could apply medical remedies to help revive Jesus and bring him back to health. Thereafter he then showed himself to the disciples. On this view Jesus’ death was either incomplete or his death was hoaxed by the disciples in order to convince people that he was the Messiah.

In 1835 a work appeared which spelled the death knell of the rationalists’ natural explanation hermeneutic. This is the book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined by David Strauss. Strauss explained the life of Jesus and the miraculous elements in it as being the product of mythology. Strauss denied not only the miraculous nature of the events but he also denied that the events even occurred. So now the first step in Gottfried Less’ procedure for establishing a miracle was going by the board as well. The old rationalists had been willing to grant that the events themselves took place, but they sought to explain them naturally. Strauss, by contrast, said that the events never even occurred. Rather, the Gospel accounts of miracles are the result of the accumulation of myth, legend, and editorial activity on the part of the evangelists. Strauss rejected both the conspiracy theory of the deists as well as the natural explanation school (or apparent death theory) of the rationalists. But he wasn't willing to accept the traditional view of the supernaturalists – that Jesus actually performed miracles and was raised from the dead. Instead, Strauss contended that the Gospel accounts are simply historically unreliable.

It is interesting to note, I think, that Strauss claimed at least to operate without any religious or dogmatic presuppositions. He thought that he was a perfectly neutral investigator of the Gospels. He ascribed his neutrality to his philosophical studies. When you read Strauss, you discover that he was indebted to David Hume (the Scottish skeptic) and Hume’s critique of the identification of miracles. It becomes very apparent in reading Strauss that the man obviously did have certain philosophical assumptions which determine the outcome of his work. For example, Strauss simply presupposed that miracles are impossible. Strauss was an acknowledged pantheist, that is to say he thought that God and the world are identical – that there is no transcendent being, there is no Creator and Designer beyond the world. Rather, the world is God. In later life he actually embraced materialism, that is to say the material world is all there is. So of course he thought that miracles are impossible. This is hardly assumption-free reasoning on Strauss' part. He was really proceeding on the same assumption that the rationalists had, namely that miracles are impossible. He said this is not a presupposition that requires proof – you just start with this presupposition and you don't need to give any proof of the impossibility of miracles.

When it comes to Jesus’ resurrection in particular, Strauss says that the idea that God intervened in the regular course of nature to raise Jesus from the dead is “irreconcilable with enlightened ideas about the relation of God to the world.”[1] If you're an enlightened person then you'll recognize that this is simply impossible. Any supposedly historical account of miraculous events can just be dismissed out of hand on the basis of this assumption. He says, “Indeed no just notion of the true nature of history is possible without a perception of the inviolability of the chain of finite clauses and of the impossibility of miracles.”[2] The chain of natural causes cannot be interrupted by divine activity, and therefore miracles are simply impossible.

This work – The Life of Jesus, by Strauss – was a turning point in the critical study of the New Testament. The importance of this work cannot be exaggerated. Albert Schweitzer, who wrote a history of the Life of Jesus movement during the 19th century, says that Strauss' book was a watershed in the history of the Life of Jesus movement. He says that prior to Strauss the main question that occupied scholars of the Life of Jesus was the problem of miracles. How do you reconcile a historical approach to the Gospels with their evidently miraculous character? But he says, “With the advent of Strauss, this problem found a solution, viz., that these events have no rightful place in history, but are simply mythical elements in the sources.”[3] By the mid-1860s, Schweitzer says, the problem of miracles had lost all importance. In his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus , Schweitzer says this:

That does not mean that the problem of miracle is solved. From the historical point of view it is really impossible to solve it, since we are not able to reconstruct the process by which a series of miracle stories arose, or a series of historical occurrences were transformed into miracle stories, and these narratives must simply be left with a question mark standing against them. What has been gained is only that the exclusion of miracle from our view of history has been universally recognized as a principle of criticism, so that miracle no longer concerns the historian either positively or negatively.[4]

As a result of Strauss' influence, the problem of miracles simply disappeared. For Strauss the miraculous events narrated in the Gospels never really took place. They are just unhistorical myths. The narratives of the Gospels are therefore unreliable and unhistorical in character.

So both of the steps that Gottfried Less identified in establishing the occurrence of a miracle have now vanished. You could neither show that the events occurred nor could you show that if they occurred they were miraculous.

I would be remiss at this point if I would just leave it at that and not also mention that Strauss’ mythological approach to the Gospel remained the dominant viewpoint in New Testament scholarship right up until the mid 20th century. But now there has occurred what New Testament scholar Craig Evans has called the eclipse of mythology in New Testament studies. Evans explains that over the last 50 or 60 years New Testament scholars have come to understand that in fact mythology is just the wrong category for interpreting the historical Jesus. This has led to an abandonment of Strauss' mythological approach to the Gospels. Mythology is no longer thought to be a relevant category for interpreting Jesus and the Gospels. This mythological approach still lingers on in left-wing radical circles like the so-called Jesus Seminar, but the mainstream of New Testament scholarship, and Life of Jesus scholarship in particular, recognizes that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact a healer and an exorcist. That's not to say that the majority of scholars agree that he performed genuine miracles. The miraculous character of the events would still need to be established, but the first step that Less argued needed to be established has been reclaimed, I think, against Strauss. It is widely recognized today that Jesus of Nazareth did carry out a ministry of miracle-working however you might want to go on to explain these. Jesus was a healer and an exorcist who cast demons out of people, however you might want to explain these sorts of events. I think we can be thankful that we have seen in some measure a significant reversal of the 19th century collapse of the belief in miracles in New Testament criticism. The events themselves at least are back on the table once again as a result of the eclipse of mythology in 20th century New Testament studies of the life of Jesus.


Student: What do you do when a miracle happens to you? That question appears in the book of Acts in the story of Paul who was a firm believer that the new church was absolutely wrong, and he went out after Jesus with both feet. And then something happened, and he changed. That's why I say: what do you do when it happens to you? All of these explanations don't mean anything to the blind man who was healed. They don't do anything at all. He just says I was blind, now I see.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and Paul would be a good example of someone who came to faith in Christ through a miraculous event in his life. I think Thomas would be another when he sees Jesus appear in the upper room and falls to his feet and says, My Lord and My God! I think you're quite right that miracles can be a source of faith in Christ, but they're not coercive interestingly enough. Many people saw the miracles Jesus did and did not believe. Their hearts were hardened and they didn't respond. So miracles are no guarantee of faith in Christ, but we do have examples of where people have come to a knowledge of Christ through miraculous acts.

Student: I have a question about what seems like it's been, I don't know if it started later, but Leslie Weatherhead for an example. It seems like you find a lot of writings that they will take these miracles and they will find ways to explain them that influence a lot of people. Such as the old practice of the priest wanting to bring about the Messiah and they would have these young girls that they found spotless and they would come in to the priest. It basically stopped before . . . or stopped the practice. But many people have (like Leslie Weatherhead) have written about when Mary visited Zacharias and Elizabeth was pregnant and she comes back three months later and she's pregnant, or that the leaves along the Nile . . . scientists are . . . it falls in the water and the water turns a reddish color so that explains it. It seems like there's so much writing on those kind of things that as a regular person I have . . . I mean, I know I'm not to be true because of faith, but I don't know how to research it . . .

Dr. Craig: I am not familiar with the author that you mentioned, but it would seem that with the waning of skepticism concerning the miracles of Jesus in particular that the old natural explanation school would also seem to then require revivification because if you're going to admit that Jesus did these things then you need to explain them away somehow. But I suspect that the explanations offered by people like the man you mentioned are just as brittle and unconvincing as the German rationalists of the 18th century who came up with the most bizarre and wild explanations for the miracles of Jesus. So I doubt it presents a serious alternative.

Student: Don’t you think society is coming up with a lot of writings to explain away Jesus? It seems to be going up.

Dr. Craig: Let me say this. I think that what the lesson this morning illustrates is the huge chasm that exists between scholarship and popular culture. I think probably most of us have never even heard of the men that I mentioned this morning, and yet they are absolute keys in the history of New Testament scholarship about the life of Jesus and the Gospels. You are quite right that on the Internet and in popular culture and popular level books which aim to sell copies and make money you got people like a Dan Brown and others who can make millions by concocting these bizarre sorts of theories. But they're not taken seriously by scholarship. You won't find these theories being discussed seriously at, say, the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual convention or you won’t find these people reading papers there.

Student: It seems like so many people like The Shack. People talk about it all the time. They talk about universalism. The ordinary people seem to be greatly influenced.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. I think that's because the ordinary person in popular culture is unfamiliar with where critical scholarship is with regard to the historical Jesus, and so you have these debates being rehearsed on the popular level that have really been laid to rest in the 18th century like these natural explanations and so forth. As I say, it could well be that these will have a resurgence of interest, but I am very, very skeptical that they will be any more plausible today than they were in the 18th century.

Student: As you said, there's a waning of the denial of miracles – correct? – as such, is that what you said earlier? That miracles being supernatural are now considered factual among scholars?

Dr. Craig: What I said was that it is thought that Jesus did carry out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms; that this is not the influence of mythology on the traditions or on the evangelists that had nothing to do with Greco-Roman mythology. These were rather historical reminiscences of the man Jesus of Nazareth and the kind of ministry he had. He had a reputation as a faith healer and exorcist.

Student: So there was no myth to that effect. I understand. But the scholars today – are they still perpetuating the concept there was, in fact, a natural explanation still? Or are the scholars (both those that are liberal and however you want to describe them) accepting that these are, in fact, supernatural events?

Dr. Craig: No. As I say, they wouldn't accept them as supernatural events. I think that most of them will remain agnostic. They will say as historians it is not within our purview to judge the miraculous character of an event. We have no way of knowing. So all we can say is the event occurred, but we're not in a position to judge as to it's supernatural cause. So, with respect to the resurrection of Jesus, as we saw when we discussed that, the wide majority of New Testament scholars including Jewish scholars admit the fundamental facts regarding what happened to Jesus – that he was crucified, that his body was then laid in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, that that tomb was discovered empty by a group of his women followers on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion, that thereafter different individuals and groups experienced appearances of Jesus alive, and that the earliest disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite every predisposition to the contrary. Those facts are widely acknowledged. Unlike Strauss, contemporary scholars do not say those are the result of the influence of Greco-Roman mythology on the writers and the tradition. These are facts that characterize the fate of Jesus of Nazareth. This is what happened. But if you ask them, How do you explain those facts?, they will typically back off and say, I don't know. Something happened. Sometimes these scholars will say something enormously impactful, enormously significant, must have happened to explain this, but I don't know what it was.

Student: But there are some, like Bart Ehrman, that would say what happened is it was a vision when Christ . . . even though he may hesitate – I wasn't there – but I can't explain what is logical or rational to explain what happened. So he would volunteer that it was a vision and that's how the whole Christian response began – was through that.

Dr. Craig: Ehrman tends to be more agnostic about these things. He says as a historian you can't investigate supernatural activity. So he tends to be one of those who will back off and say I'm just agnostic. An example of someone who would defend the hallucination explanation is Gerd Lüdemann, the German scholar who says that Peter and Paul both suffered guilt complexes – one for having denied Jesus, and the other for persecuting the church and being unable to fulfill the demands of the Jewish law – and that they psychologically projected visions of Jesus as a result of these guilt complexes. So Lüdemann would be an example of the old natural explanation school. He does offer a natural explanation.

Student: And Bart Ehrman, I think, does, too.

Dr. Craig: No, Ehrman is really agnostic. He says this is outside the province of the historian to talk about the cause of the event. But in any case, this school of thinking – the hallucination hypothesis – hasn't generated much of a following. Lüdemann holds to it, some others no doubt, but it's not one that has attracted many followers. I think the majority who don't believe in the resurrection would just say, I'm agnostic about it; I don't know what happened.


All right, with that we come to the end of our lesson for today.[5]


[1]                      David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. George Eliot, ed. with an Introduction by Peter C. Hodgson (London: SCM, 1973) p. 736.

[2]                      Ibid., 75.

[3]                      Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 3rd ed., trans. W. Montgomery (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1954) p. 10.

[4]                      Ibid., 11 0-11.

[5]                      Total Running Time: 43:40 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)