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Can we believe the Bible's miracles?

Have you ever been embarrassed by the miracles in the Bible? Have you winced at the thought of defending them? How about the account of creation,[1] the ten plagues of the Exodus,[2] the day the sun stood still,[3] or perhaps some of the healing miracles of Jesus? The theologian Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) tried to ‘demythologise’ the teaching of Jesus by stripping away the miraculous. He went so far as to say:

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.[4]

This belief is really what is in the minds of most modern western people when they discount the possibility of miracles. As far as they are concerned, the Bible was written in a prescientific age when many natural phenomena (eg thunder, lightning, earthquakes) were attributed to direct divine action. We now know that there are perfectly natural explanations for these and many other phenomena. People in Bible times may have been more willing to believe miracle stories, but that is indefensible today. So the story goes…

For Christian medical students and doctors the issue is a live one. How do we treat the miraculous healings and events of the Bible? Do we believe in miraculous healing today? These are very pertinent questions to which we need a clear answer, not least because to deny the miraculous is to deny God himself. If miracles did not happen, then the resurrection did not happen and our faith is therefore in vain.[5] Before going any further, we should define our terms. A miracle is any event that cannot be explained by natural processes or phenomena and which requires a supernatural agent to perform it.

Historical background [6]

For many centuries, most Europeans believed in the intervention of supernatural forces, whether God or lesser beings, such as angels and demons. However, with the rise of the Enlightenment in Europe during the 17th century, this thinking changed dramatically. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) formed his laws of motion and promoted the idea that what goes on in the world is simply a matter of cause and effect, with everything following very strict rules. This was part of the background for the rise of deism, a philosophical worldview that involved belief in a personal God who created the universe, but later withdrew, leaving it to run automatically like a great clockwork contraption, without him ever interfering again. This meant that miracles were impossible because God was thought never to intervene.


One of the main proponents of deism was Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632-1677) and he was a passionate opponent of the miraculous. He based this on two main lines of attack:

i) The unchangeable order of nature Spinoza held that God’s understanding and his will were one and the same, that both were unchanging and eternal and that the laws of nature flowed out from these. Thus for a miracle to occur that defied the laws of nature, this would indicate some essential change in the nature of God, which was impossible.

ii) The need for certainty He also maintained that a proof of God’s existence must be absolutely certain. For him, the constancy of the natural world and its processes was proof of God’s existence, and therefore if miracles disturbed this order they cast doubt on God’s existence and led us towards atheism!


David Hume (1711-1776) took a different approach but was just as vehement in his opposition to miracles. He again had two main arguments:

i) Miracles are impossible to prove in principle

Belief should be proportionate to evidence. For Hume, the evidence of the unchangeability of the natural order was absolute, so that even if, for the sake of argument, absolute proof could be given for the occurrence of a certain miracle, this would at best equal the opposing evidence and mean that a miracle could not be asserted with any certainty.

ii) The evidence for miracles is actually weak

Despite his concessions above, Hume maintained that the evidence for miracles was not even enough to make them probable, let alone certain. He cited four reasons for this: a lack of sufficient credible witnesses, the tendency of people to believe extraordinary stories, miracles occurring only amongst uncivilised peoples, and miracles occurring in all religions and therefore not supporting one religion’s truth claims over another. He held that Christianity required faith, but could not be believed by anyone on the basis of reason.

Answering the deists

Although history generally assumes that these propositions were unanswerable, this betrays an ignorance of the sophisticated and cogent replies that were given by Christians at the time.

In answer to Spinoza, Jacob Vernet wrote that only experience leads us to believe that nature is unchangeable, but that this does not give us any reason to think it cannot change. Natural events depend on the will of God, who can make exceptions to the general order of things if and when he chooses. The course of nature ‘is not the effect of a blind necessity but of a free Cause who interrupts and suspends it when He pleases.’[7]

Claude Francois Houtteville rejoined that natural law is not a necessary extension of God’s nature, but that he is free to establish it in whatever way he chooses. Furthermore, he could change his laws if he wanted to.

Hume had the misfortune of being comprehensively rebutted by William Paley, whose A View of the Evidences of Christianity was so influential that it was compulsory reading for Cambridge University applicants until the 20th century! Against Hume’s first argument, Paley responded that the unchangeability of the natural order was far from proven. Even if our own limited experience leads us to believe that nature operates uniformly, this is a far cry from saying that universal experience absolutely denies the miraculous. To claim as much is begging the question (ie assuming the answer to a question without making any attempt to prove it), for which finite being can legitimately appeal to ‘universal experience’? It stands to reason that if God exists he would want to reveal himself, and use the miraculous to do it. If he used certain miracles to authenticate his revelation (eg at the inauguration of Christianity), this would be quite consistent with us not seeing the same miracles today, as they were for a particular purpose at a particular time.

In response to Hume’s supposed lack of evidence for miracles, Paley agreed that much care is needed in treating claims of the miraculous. However, he stressed the need to see such claims in their theological and historical context. When seen this way, he said, the miracles of the gospels are without parallel and the evidence is excellent. We will return to this later.

The above summary is useful to see something of how western society began to turn away from belief in the miraculous. Of course, many of our peers in medicine today are not deists but naturalists; they no longer believe in a remote God who set the universe running and watches from afar, but rather deny the existence of God altogether.

Contemporary Questions

Very few of our friends will quote Spinoza or Hume, although their thinking has had a profound influence. The alternative explanations for miracles we get today are phrased differently.

'Miracles have natural explanations' Some events in the Bible are now known to have natural causes, or at least natural causes can be suggested. The rainbow after the flood was said to be a sign from God, yet we know that rainbows are caused by the refraction of light through water drops in the atmosphere. Other suggestions include Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by a volcano, the Red Sea parting because of a strong wind or the Jordan river drying up because of a landslide.

But natural explanations in no way discount God’s activity. The Bible presents God as the sustainer of the universe[12] who covers the sky with clouds, supplies the earth with rain, makes the grass grow and sends the snow, frost, hail and breezes.[13] God works in and through natural events and they are part of his providence, his general rather than specific activity.

Where there may be a natural explanation for miraculous events, often the timing points to God’s activity and oversight. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea and the drying up of the Jordan river came at exactly the right time to demonstrate God’s power in judging evil or guiding and protecting his people. Another example is that of the coin found in the fish’s mouth.[14] There is a fish in the Sea of Galilee to this day known as St Peter’s fish. Eaten locally, they are often caught with objects such as bottle caps or coins in their mouths. This in itself was not miraculous; the striking part was that the very first fish pulled out by Peter after Jesus’ instruction should be the right kind with the right coin in its mouth.

Despite possible ‘natural’ causes for some events, there are many biblical miracles where there can be no natural explanation. A stick turning into a snake,[15] an iron axe-head floating[16] and of course the resurrection of Jesus’ body after a grisly execution and around 36 hours in a tomb. These cannot be explained away as coincidences and if true are clearly supernatural events. 'Miracles break the laws of nature' Th