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How Bias Can Impact the Way You Consider Miracles

How Bias Can Impact the Way You Consider Miracles
Image Credit: Anthony Tori from Unsplash.com

Christian scripture makes numerous miraculous claims, including, but certainly not limited to, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. However, there is considerable scholarly confusion when it comes to investigating such claims. In his 1748 work “On Miracles,” philosopher David Hume said the following considering the miraculous: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.” [1]

More recently, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman asserted a related view, stating, “Miracles are not impossible. I won’t say they’re impossible… I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance.” [2] However, these approaches struggle for several reasons when it comes to effectively investigating the truth of a miracle claim.

First, both Hume and Ehrman hold presuppositions which bias them against the miraculous from the outset. While not ruling out the possibility of the miraculous altogether, under each of their approaches even if a miraculous event did occur it would be impossible for Hume or Ehrman to identify it as such. If the goal is to determine if a miracle actually occurred, one must have a philosophy which allows one to consider the evidence for or against a claim. But both Hume and Ehrman have constructed views which restrict them to a predetermined conclusion: that the miraculous did not occur.

When looking at each scholar’s approach individually, several problems appear. Hume’s approach expects all evidence for a miracle claim to come in the form of human testimony. However, other circumstantial evidence could exist for the miracle, such as healed people (if the claim was a miraculous healing) or changed lives of those who claimed to have experienced a miracle. [3] Apologists Gary Habermas and Michael Licona use just such evidence to support their belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts approach” does not rely on simply testimony, but points to facts such as the willingness of the disciples to experience persecution for their claims, the changed lives of the Apostle Paul and James, brother of Jesus, and the empty tomb, to make their case. [4] Hume’s approach does not consider this type of evidence, despite its evidentiary power.

Ehrman’s approach also suffers by relying too heavily on probability. First, it assumes from the outset that a miracle is always “the least possible occurrence.” [5] However, Ehrman does not attempt to support this claim. Further, highly improbable events occur with some regularity. To use an example given by Norman Geisler, if probability alone is considered, “A dice player should not believe the dice show three sixes on the first roll [even when that is what they see on the dice], since the odds against it are 216 to 1.” [6] One cannot simply consider what is more or less probable (or more or less “possible” to use Ehrman’s parlance) to determine if an event has actually occurred or not.

While other weaknesses exist in the approaches of Hume and Ehrman, it is clear that their strong biases against conclusions of the miraculous prevent them from fairly assessing the evidence. T. Edward Damer, Professor of Philosophy at Emory & Henry College, suggests a different approach for assessing evidence, saying, “An issue should be considered resolved if the argument for one of the alternative positions is a structurally sound one that uses relevant and acceptable reasons that together provide sufficient grounds to justify the conclusion.” [7]

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Unlike the approaches of Hume or Ehrman, one does not start off with a bias against the miraculous, but simply follows the evidence 'wherever it may lead.' Click To Tweet

Under this approach, to determine if an event, such as a miracle, actually occurred in history (even very recent history), one should consider the totality of the available evidence, and then rest on the most reasonable conclusion. Unlike the approaches of Hume or Ehrman, one does not start off with a bias against the miraculous, but simply follows the evidence “wherever it may lead.” [8]

[1] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” in In Defense of Miracles, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1997), 33.

[2] William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman, “William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman Debate the Question ‘Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?’” Southern Methodist University, accessed November 14, 2021. http://www.physics.smu.edu/~pseudo/ScienceReligion/Ehrman-v-Craig.html.

[3] Maranatha Baptist Seminary, “A Critique of David Hume’s On Miracles,” Volume 31, last modified June 24, 2013, https://www.mbu.edu/seminary/a-critique-of-david-humes-on-miracles/.

[4] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 47.

[5] Ehrman, “William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman Debate the Question ‘Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?’”

[6] Norman L. Geisler, “Miracles and the Modern Mind,” in In Defense of Miracles, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1997), 97.

[7] T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning (Boston: Wadsworth, 2005), 9.

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[8] Plato, Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 14.

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Written By

Jimmy Wallace (J. Warner's son) holds a BA in Psychology (from UCLA) and is currently completing his MA in Theology - Applied Apologetics (from Colorado Christian University).

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Randy

    January 3, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    Funny, I was just thinking about miracles, and the miraculous.

    I saw a Christian friend post an supportive post on another’s FB page, calling again for a “Miraclulas healing” for her husband who has been in critical condition from Covid..

    For almost 60 days Christians have been calling out to God, demanding demons to leave, and commanding healing to appear….

    But, praise God, slowly, everyday, a change has taken place. He finally was removed from ventilator machine… Again, Christian call out for Miraculous intervention!

    My question becomes what Christians think the miraculous is? What they want, is immediate results. That’s what we see in the OT, and NT. But they can’t seem to understand why that result is not here today… But, they continue to confuse themselves and others, rather than accepting that God moves as He choses, not as we command.

    Idk.. I’m just thinking out loud.. what with all the false teachers teaching falsely..

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